The perfect 80s song would just be God.
Wait. Let me start over.
I am, technically, a child of the 1980s, born alongside Music Television and the Macintosh. I took my place within a society of high tops, leggings and mullets, of hair bands, synthesizers and cellular phones, of Rocky, Rambo and Indiana Jones, of Reagan, Thatcher and Magnum P.I. It was Morning in America, and it seemed for a while as if that morning might very well last forever.
Yet the champions of freedom were, it seems, a bit too zealous in fighting their Cold War, for the 1980s ended prematurely in those final days of 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Francis Fukuyama suggested that 1991 marked not just the end of the 1980s but also the end of history, with democratic capitalism standing victorious atop the ash heap of 500 years of ideological struggle. In a certain sense, I suppose, he was right — it was the end of history, at least according to his impoverished conception of it — so it is ironic that the event marks my first historical memory: even now, I can see the statue of Lenin — cold, hard, and colossal — toppled by an angry mob of thousands. I was 6: I did not know what it meant, but I knew that it meant something.
I mention this in order to make a confession: I have no memory of the 1980s. While the story of the statue is true, I just looked up the rest on Wikipedia. I am, technically, a child of the 1980s, but I did not realize it until it was too late. I remember only the event that marked the end of that decade — and, subsequently, the derision of the 1980s as ten solid years of cultural farce.
And here I make another confession, one far more personal: I miss the 1980s, miss it as an orphan misses the parents he never knew. Few know of this: when my generation has laughed at its origins, I have laughed with them as best I can, hiding my longing for what I missed: Music Television! The Macintosh! High tops, leggings and mullets! Hair bands, synthesizers and cellular phones! Rocky! Rambo! Indiana Jones! Reagan! Thatcher! Magnum P.I.! Anyone who hears of these things and feels nothing, I contend, is beyond recovery. To me, one who came of age during Evening in America, they signify the adventure of a time when to be young was very heaven.
We’re getting to God. Don’t worry.
There is, of course, an element of irony to all of this — as there must be, given that we are talking about the 1980s. I know, deep down, that I didn’t really miss much. I know, deep down, that the object of my longing is something of a falsification, a form empty of real content. And yet even this seems appropriate — indeed, this seems to be the defining trait of the culture of that decade. The 1980s were a time when, after exhausting itself in 20 years of struggle over political and economic matters, America sought to lose itself in pure form.
“Na na na na na: na na na na na na na na.
Na na na na na — na na na na na na na na.
Na na na na na na, na: she’s got the look!”
When Per Gessle wrote “The Look,” he scribbled guide lyrics — gibberish, essentially — to stand in for the two other verses; though he originally intended to write meaningful lyrics, he quickly realized that gibberish was actually better and changed nothing, giving us the song we have today. I take this argument to be decisive.
The generation that came of age during the 1980s is infamous for its superficiality, for its commitment to form over content. I want to suggest that there may be as much nobility as vapidity in this. Aquinas taught that God is pure form; while I doubt that the men and women of the 1980s had this in mind, there is nonetheless an echo of his doctrine in their attempt to jettison content from their culture. Every decade tries to transcend itself, but to do so through superficiality is novel indeed. It is, perhaps, a form of life worth recovery.
Daniel John Sportiello is in his second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. Listen to his radio show on WVFI every Sunday at 4 p.m. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.