Stranger Things & Why 80s Nostalgia Is Peaking

Stranger Things is another in a pretty long line by now of tv shows and films playing on the tropes of that decade, and an even longer line of creative outlets manifesting a general nostalgia for the 80s and 90s. Let me count the ways… or try!

A few years ago, my brother in-law Jonas and I were having one of our umpteen creative powwows, the topics of which range anywhere from gaming and VR to camera gear, indie filmmaking and admiration for the works of David Lynch. But music, up until that point at least, hadn’t come up all that much. So now we discussed that too.

That particular week, four of us sat in a cafe enjoying coffee and strawberry cheesecake. Someone said “That’s a damn fine cup of coffee,” and everyone laughed as usual at the reference. Jonas showed off some of the latest Android apps he’d grabbed from the Google Play store for quick melody composition. I mentioned that I work on 8-bit chiptunes when the mood strikes me, and how that sort of app might come in handy for those. Besides NES soundtracks, I added that I’d been listening to a lot of Kraftwerk and 80s film scores like Escape From New York.  How pretentious of me. Anyway, that’s when he brought up NewRetroWave.

NewRetroWave is a YouTube channel showcasing what are basically modern music artists playing synth pop, 80’s action-film score type material, and “outrun” music, collectively falling under the umbrella of synthwave or retrowave. I’ve found many new favorites at least partly in thanks to them: Bourgeoisie, Dance With The Dead, Waveshaper, Carpenter Brut, and Lucy in Disguise, to name a few. All of which are on Spotify and/or iTunes, by the way.

And then there’s the Stranger Things soundtrack, which could fit snugly into that scene without anyone batting an eye. Though apparently the pair who did the score are a bit too “cult” for it, to the point where their releases don’t even have album titles… how pretentious.

Stranger Things is another in a pretty long line by now of tv shows and films playing on the tropes of that decade, and an even longer line of creative outlets manifesting a general nostalgia for the 80s and 90s in a number of ways. Let me count the ways… or try. There are the remake films of course, which began God-knows-when already – Transformers, TMNT, Gi Joe, rumblings of a He-Man reboot, Ghost(shudder)Busters, Dragonball Z, and on and on and on if we continue down that path. Mad Max enjoyed a more legit (if inconsistent, but inconsistent is what Mad Max does) sequel, Fury Road

Then there are a slew of smart looking indie style films, made to really capture the vibe of that era in some way, whether or not they take place then: Cold in July, Blue Ruin, Cop Car, The Guest, The Return, Mud, and Midnight Special (more on that last one in a minute). This is a genre which I especially enjoyed and it turned me on for the arrival of Stranger Things on Netflix this year. Months before the show premiered (if that word applies here), I saw a single ad for it somewhere and already knew right away somehow that I’d be watching it – and liking the heck out of it. Sometimes, you just know. Like if you were a bald kid with psychokinetic powers or something.

Before I get back to ST… Games are naturally jumping on board, and I would be here all night if I tried to list them all, but you could focus on the obvious Outrun style racing games like Power Drive 2000 and Neon Drive quite easily, or VR games with an 8 bit appeal like Ping Pong VR for HTC Vive, or any of the slew taking place in the 80s or with an 80s soundtrack. I can hardly check out a classic song on Youtube these days without reading “Anyone else here from GTA5 ?” And reviewers like AVGN, Nostalgia Critic and Pat The NES Punk have covered old console titles ad nauseum for years.

Finally, how about some elaborate parody/fan-film in collaboration with the Hoff ?

Need I say more… So what’s at the root of all this? Is it just a trend that was bound to happen? Why’s it peaking now? Will it ever end? Should it ever end? Maybe when all the Hasselhoffs, Stallones, Van Dammes, and Schwarzeneggers of the world have kicked the bucket we’ll finally get over it. But maybe not. I mean, MJ’s long gone and they’re still finding ways to bring him back.

And when we can just dig up anything on demand, like a five minute version of the Airwolf intro, or 8 hours of the MacGyver theme decades after those shows were done, can you really call that a “trend” per se?

I’ve got this theory that eras, as we know them are slowly going the way of the buffalo here in the 21st century. There are no new flower-power 60s or Roaring 20s, no new 80s with its poofy perms and hairspray, no new grunge 90s. There is nothing to define the “noughties” as such (a pathetic attempt at a moniker, by the way) except for the fact that we are information addicts who are simultaneously connected and disconnected.  And we move more and more towards living in decentralized pop-culture bubbles which can go on indefinitely; You just need to choose one, and that is your new reality.

It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the past, either. It could be a game universe, a meme, it could even be a bunch of overlapping things creating a subculture – kind of like bronies and furries have tangential connections to the 80s through the original My Little Pony, but in practice have zero to really do with what it was.

Those of us especially whose most formative years were in the 80s and 90s will naturally be drawn back to them, and so we are – I wrote a book this year which heavily covered a childhood story set in a Stand By Me reminiscent late twentieth century town full of mystery and odd happenings – a true story at that… and my first novel will also have a lot of such material. So guilty as charged. I can’t help myself! Like virtually every 30-something and 40-something man and woman alive today, I both lived and love the 80s.

And I suppose I can then understand why The Duffer Brothers might love it, or Regular Show creator JG Quintel, or even JJ Abrams, even though the guy’s 50. He did Super 8 of course.

Some of it is a cash-grab no doubt, some is pure love and nostalgia for what we perceive to be a better, simpler time in our lives, some is recapturing youth, and some is escapism (who really wants to be in The Running Man’s version of 2017?!). Some is that bubble-theory I mentioned. Some is the fascination with turning our world into the idealized fantasy such fiction presented us then, as opposed to say… The Dark Knight Rises.

And I think now that we’re here in the “real” future, we’re reminded of the world of 2015 presented in classics like Back To The Future II, and creeped out by the similarities between The Running Man’s 2017, and the very possible prospects of one where Trump is president of the USA and reality shows are blood sport games for the entertainment of an emasculated society. We like seeing how things really turned out and imagining what could have been.

So the answer is: Why we love it all is a bit complex. And that complexity probably means that the re-emergence of the 80s is not just some passing fad. It might be peaking now because of our age, but it’s already matched the original 80s in duration and may even double or triple it. Because we’re a bunch of die-hards set in our ways, with our best years in some ways (I prefer to think not all) behind us, and we’ll rock out to Maiden all the way to the old folks home if we dang well please! That’s how we’re wired.

So why, of all of the various franchises I’ve name dropped here, have I chosen to focus on Stranger Things, when I’ve barely said an actual thing about it in detail as of yet? Sure, it’s in vogue right now, it’s topical at least for another season… but that’s not it. Well, a couple of points are on my mind just now. One is the soundtrack but I’ve already covered that. It draws you in from the beginning if you’re already a fan of synthwave or those classic scores. Well done.

Then there’s something that’s been irking me quite honestly ever since I finished the first season so I wanted to get it off my chest. There’s a red thread going through Stranger Things, Super 8, Midnight Special and others. It’s this aforementioned “kid gets a psychokinetic ability/superpower/has a speshul relationship with an alien” thing that’s been going on since E.T.

Because Stranger Things came so close to perfection, it bothered me all the more that they took the same easy out. There are literally thousands of different equally creepy and cool things that they could have done. I’m continually annoyed by Hollywood in this regard, and that probably isn’t going to end any time soon.

But it managed to nail just about everything else. The score, the vibe, the little details, the mystery, the characters. I also appreciated that they pulled a fast one on the audience multiple times, making you think that they were going to fall into some terrible cliche, then U-turned at the last second. It’s to the point that it’s hard to believe that the same people responsible for this show were involved significantly in another retro-Twin Peaks-wannabe-fest, Wayward Pines. (I haven’t even mentioned Riverdale yet… phewf… I’d better end this here. Not Duffer Brothers by the way, just more fodder for fans of the genre.)

What’s your favorite 80s-esque entertainment? Do you think it’s gone too mainstream? Is it a fad or is it here to stay? Weigh in below!

Meantime, I’m going for a walk… my BMX is at the shop.

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