I’VE BEEN TRYING to explain the 1980s to my son for quite some time now. I don’t know if he gets hung up on the concept of a phone that’s always plugged into the wall, or the devastating absence of red M&M’s, or yet another photo album full of relatives in Unabomber glasses, but whenever I attempt to describe what life was like for me from age eight to 18, his face always pulls a David Lee Roth.
“Our microwave was made out of wood,” I say in my best ghost story voice. “I had to carry a radio on my back.”
To which my son frowns in disgust without looking up from his Nintendo 3DS and says, “What’s a radio?”
It’s like one big failed location joke, and I’m guessing it’s exactly how my great grandmother felt when she tried to tell us all about cave paintings and the first wheel.
So, I’ve found it most effective—if you’re trying to describe this era to those who weren’t there (like younger generations) or those who were there but don’t recall it (like Charlie Sheen)—to use a musical approach. Here are the three songs I feel best encapsulate the decade that brought us both the War on Drugs and the many reasons to do them, most notably: Teddy Ruxpin.
Way back in 1985, before Sting got a yoga mat and still had some Billy Idol edge to him, he crooned this eerie song on his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. It’s a haunting anti-war song that addresses the Cold War policy of “mutually assured destruction” between the United States and Soviet Union, and it artistically exemplifies the political drama of the time.
I used to play “Russians” on my bubble-gum-pink boombox, alone in the dark, while staring up at my canopy bed and mouthing the lyrics: “We share the same biology/Regardless of ideology/Believe me when I say to you/I hope the Russians love their children too.” I remember silent tears streaming down my cheeks, accompanied by a gnawing uncertainty.
I’d like to say this emotion was tied to the very real possibility of nuclear fallout, but let’s be honest: I was in seventh grade at the time, and for me this song was all about that Russian Rocky IV villain, Ivan Drago. Every time the song started up with its ticking clock and synthesized violins and Sting’s elegiac echo, I’d think: Does Dolph Lundgren have children to love? Does he want some? Because I sure as hell know someone who might be interested in providing them.
More than a U.S.S.R. showdown, the 80s were notorious for their poor taste. It wasn’t enough to be known for jelly sandals and unruly eyebrows and parachute pants. No, the decade had to slam it into overdrive by adding mullets and A.L.F. and this masterpiece — the most tasteless song ever made.
Here’s a sampling of its lyrics:
Don’t wanna wait ’til you know me better
Let’s just be glad for the time together
Life’s such a treat and it’s time you taste it
There ain’t a reason on earth to waste it
It ain’t a crime to be good to yourself
Lick it up, lick it up, it’s only right now
Lick it up, lick it up, ooh yeah
Lick it up, lick it up, come on, come on
Lick it up, lick it up
By the song’s conclusion, Paul Stanley and the guys have urged listeners to “lick it up” 32 times, just in case you didn’t hear it the first 31. Yet, shocker, the lyrics aren’t the most tasteless part of this opus. It’s the video.
The cinematic interpretation of this piece de resistance takes place on a post-apocalyptic city street, where scantily-clad women climb out of manholes and then proceed to do laundry among flames and skulls by rubbing soapy lingerie on manhole covers-turned-washboards.
The climax occurs when K.I.S.S. enters, horrifically makeup-free for the first time on film, looking like a ragtag bunch of Sicilian grandmothers in Candie’s boots. Grandmothers who then proceed to have women squirt suggestive arcs of alcohol into their mouths with squeeze bottles.
That’s it. Moving right along before we all go curl up on some train tracks.
You’d think with the looming possibility of mass destruction, everybody’d be running around 1980’s America scared shitless. But instead, the decade was marked by a naive rosiness — an irrepressible enthusiasm and optimism, that was fueled, in my opinion, by unchecked capitalism, cocaine, and what I like to call the “Credit Roll Song.”
The “Credit Roll Song” is one of those upbeat, toe-tapping tunes, chosen by movie execs to play when a film has tied everything up with a nice happy ending. It’s a song heavy on sax and trumpets that fills an audience with the belief that they can leave their popcorn bucket behind, step out into the blinding sunshine, and take on the world. Just one listen to “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” and you’ll be convinced that you, too, can yell out your car window to a stranger and convince them to “get in the backseat” because you want to “be their nonstop lover.” Better known these days as “attempted kidnapping.”
“Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” — along with its siblings “Walkin’ On Sunshine” (Katrina & The Waves) and “Who’s Johnny” (El DeBarge) — always puts me in a deliriously jocular mood. It’s music like this that convinced an entire generation that stirrup pants looked just fine and that that pesky ozone layer just had to go.