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Visual Culture

The Objects That Defined 1980s Youth Culture

E.T. move poster. Courtesy of the Willis Museum.

E.T. move poster. Courtesy of the Willis Museum.

Everyone’s 1980s are a little bit different. As someone who was born in 1981, it was the decade of my own early adolescence in suburban New Jersey. My personal ’80s fanaticisms are a mixture of the things I experienced first-hand, like The Goonies (1985), and those I discovered much, much later, like Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation (1988), or the passionate, activist art of .
Scented erasers. Courtesy of the Willis Museum.

Scented erasers. Courtesy of the Willis Museum.

At the moment, our pop culture finds itself at peak ’80s nostalgia, as news outlets rush to publish their own guides to the decade’s easter eggs hidden in the third season of Stranger Things (2016–present). Those who came of age in the 1980s are now in their mid-forties, so perhaps it just makes sense that the kids who grew up are now showrunners, casting viewers in the nostalgic glow of their own youth.
One could also argue that ’80s nostalgia is on the rise due to some meritocracy of the decades—the eighties were just a cooler, quirkier, and kitschier time to be alive. My own recollections of the time are a murky haze of fleeting passions, both joyous and totally embarrassing. There are, for instance, the Garbage Pail Kids cards, which hit young male culture hard in 1985—pimply teens sneakily trading Boozin’ Bruce for Adam Bomb or Smelly Sally. I’ll never fully wash off the trauma of the humanoid animals residing in Zoobilee Zoo (1986–87). I’ll never live down listening to the Christian hair-metal albums by Stryper that my mom gently forced on me as an antidote to the more “satanic” alternatives. I’ll never forget the uncomfortable prominence of ’s codpiece in Labyrinth (1986).
Adidas Hi Top shoes. Courtesy of the Willis Museum.

Adidas Hi Top shoes. Courtesy of the Willis Museum.

I’ll stop there, since I’m suddenly feeling grandfatherly. The point is, it’s impossible to predict what transient, dumb cultural moments will end up sticking—the kind of ephemeral junk that provides a shiver of recognition, years later. Most of us are forced to coddle our nostalgia in private, or in the company of friends who also can’t believe how long it’s been. But some people take their nostalgic passions and do something more productive, like curate an entire museum show around them.
Such is the case with Matt Fox, whose “I Grew Up 80s” is on view at the Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery in Basingstoke, England, through September 14th. This show is not the first pop-culture exhibition Fox has organized; last year, he drew crowds with “May The Toys Be With You,” which was dedicated to the 1980s staple Star Wars. Fox is older than me by about a decade, and his experience coming of age in the U.K. differs from my own American childhood. “When the ’80s is remembered in Britain, it’s typically Margaret Thatcher, the miner’s strike, and the Falklands War—none of which feature in my exhibition, which is purely about an ’80s childhood,” he said. “It turns out an ’80s childhood was pretty darn great!”
Micro computer games. Photo courtesy of the Willis Museum.

Micro computer games. Photo courtesy of the Willis Museum.

The decade certainly looked different across the pond, but there are still plenty of shared touchstones. Films spotlighted in the show—from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to E.T. (1982) and Back to the Future (1985)—are part of a transatlantic heritage. There’s also Simon Says, the Rubik’s cube, and the maddening, four-colored “memory game.” “I Grew Up 80s” gives each of these artifacts a tiny spotlight, along with Casio watches, the boombox, and candy cigarettes (the pre-Juul gateway drug for badass eight-year-olds).
Archaic computer and video games also get their moment in “I Grew Up 80s,” including many that are completely foreign to this American viewer. I never had the pleasure of playing Jet Set Willy on the ZX Spectrum, an 8-bit computer unveiled in 1982, though I do fondly recall the simple thrills of Paperboy, which hit the Nintendo platform in 1988. And while I likely didn’t discover its age-inappropriate wonders until the early ’90s, Sierra launched Leisure Suit Larry in 1987, a game in which you helped a heavily pixelated bachelor-creep get laid.
Rubik's Cube™. Image © Matt Fox, Courtesy of the Willis Museum.

Rubik's Cube™. Image © Matt Fox, Courtesy of the Willis Museum.

I asked Fox how he might sum up the 1980s to an alien who happened to land in his backyard today. “I’d say the ’80s was a decade in which we culturally had a colorful confetti explosion of creativity,” he reflected. “We crammed so much in! One of the complaints of today’s culture is that much of it is recycled. That certainly isn’t true of the ’80s, in all the areas that children care about: toys, technology, video games, TV, film, music, fashion, food. From Pac-Man to breakdancing, from Thompson Twins to Transformers, from Betamax to BMX, there were so many cool things and ideas bursting in one short spell of time.”

Pac Mac Atari 2600 TV advertisement, 1982.

As for one item in the show that might handily summarize Fox’s entire conception of the decade, he nodded to 1985’s Raleigh Vektar, a high-tech bike that, he said, was the product of two dual manias: BMX culture, amped up by E.T.; and the ubiquity of personal computers, in tandem with the popularity of TV shows like Knight Rider. “Throw all of those disparate elements into the mix and it results in the Raleigh Vektar,” he explained. “It’s a BMX bike with an onboard computer, styled with the sort of heroically angular retro-futurist look that could only come from ’80s design.” Kids could check their stats on the red LED control panels, or “unleash a flurry of arcade-style sound-effects as they cruised along.”
Fox is still a proud defender of 1980s youth culture. “I think the creativity and also the naïve innocence of ’80s culture is something that is worth appreciating,” he reflected. “By the ’90s, it felt like companies and managers were becoming a little too ‘clued up’ on how to do things.” He points to data gathering like market research and audience demographics, which he said became “slickly honed” the following decade. “The output that filtered out through the corporate gatekeepers grew safer and more homogenous,” Fox said. Fast-forward to the 21st century, when social-media ads are micro-targeted to your individual tastes, and it’s no wonder that Fox, and countless others, are wistful for the “unbridled creativity” of the late, great 1980s.
Scott Indrisek is a contributing writer for Artsy.