The decade that never dies

Patrick Bateman likes videotapes and cocaine. By day, he is a Wall Street investor, absorbed by the inanities of facial regimen and business card hue. By night, he orders prostitutes to his home, then tortures, rapes and kills them.

Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” is a satire of ’80s yuppie culture, and its protagonist a synecdoche of Reagan’s America. But this is not the version of the decade Yalies will entertain as they pay their annual visit to Salvo, scouring for a “Flashdance” shoulder-exposing jersey, some Brat Pack acid wash and “Xanadu” leg-warmers for tonight’s “Safety Dance.”

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YDN
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Yalies used to own all the necessary accessories already because “Safety Dance,” originally called “End of the ’80s,” was conceived back when the Cold War was still thawing. In 1990, reverence smoothly transitioned into nostalgia, and the dance was renamed for the one-hit wonder by Canadian synth-pop quartet Men Without Hats.

“Safety Dance” is Yale’s most popular college-sponsored party and shares the social calendar with another annual ’80s tribute, Zeta Psi’s “Rad.” Yale doesn’t have just one ’80s party that is incredibly popular — we have two. Now that a-ha, Soft Cell and The Human League are for the most part purged from even upperclassmen’s iPods, it’s striking that the 90s hasn’t yet replaced the ’80s as our fetishized decade of choice.

“The ’80s,” of course, is a man-made concept; time flows, styles ebb and aesthetics evolve. We could define the ’80s starting from 1982, when Madonna dropped “Like a Virgin,” or 1978, when Space Invaders made video arcades a mall staple. The ’80s may have ended in 1989 with the Malta Summit or in 1992, when “The Cosby Show” went off the air. The parameters are arbitrary because we have a collective understanding of what the 80s mean; it leaked into our childhood with Nick at Nite and jelly shoes, My Little Ponies and Cabbage Patch Kids, Smurfs and Yogi Bear. No doubt ’80s nostalgia is to an extent a personal one.

But cone-shaped breasts and hair bands played little to no part in our childhoods. By the time we swooned over Ferris Bueller, Mathew Broderick was married to Carrie Bradshaw. And it took pubescence for us to identify with the existential torment of John Hughes’ teens. Our exultation in the ’80s, it seems, is far more than a Freudian retreat into Punky Brewster high tops. Everything about the ’80s fascinates the Generation Y mind, even the creepy things, like Pee Wee Herman and crimped hair.

Young people also romanticize the ’60s and ’70s, but I’ve never purchased an ethnic print kaftan to attend a Yale rager. The ’80s defined itself in reaction to the decades before it. It was a super-establishment time of high finance and power suits. Social change and artistic expression were no longer the only acceptable life goals for crops of new graduates. With Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Money Changes Everything” blasting from tape decks, the quest for a six-figure salary lost its taboo. The world has never gone back.

At the same time, the media industry became epically corporatized. The mega-mergers of Sony and Columbia, Matsushita and MCA, and the blowout marriage of Time and Warner, birthed a new buzzword — synergy — fusing media and markets to optimize profits in the newly coined “global marketplace.”

MTV, which launched in 1981, created a whole new promotional playground for the music industry, prioritizing singles and images over concept albums and song-quality. Musical artists had to be good-looking, skin-baring and hyper-styled. Singers became TV stars, movies made merchandise, Eddie Murphy launched a music career, and a Hollywood actor was elected president, twice.

Art transformed into product, a process accelerated by the synthesizer, which killed the live and thrashing anarchism of high punk. The Sex Pistols broke up in 1978 and the Clash began to disintegrate in 1982. The lead singer of the New York Dolls, Buster Poindexter, released the samba-flavored bah mitzvah favorite “Hot, Hot, Hot,” and David Bowie and Mick Jagger joined forces in the jazzercise anthem “Dancing In the Street.”

The music that came in the wake of raw punk defines the sonic landscape today. Goth rock, like the Cure and the Smiths, carried darker currents through the ’80s and laid the groundwork for the alternative rock of the 1990s. Even today’s emo teens have a Pavlovian weep reflex to Morrissey’s crooning baritone.

Read any Pitchfork interview with an indie band, and their “influences” read like an anthology of ’80s New Wave: Depheche Mode, Sonic Youth, New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pixies. These bands used feedback and distortion to invent a new sound, which evolved into the techno, house and trance ubiquitous in the club scene today. Synth-pop is New Wave’s danceable subgenre, which filled the void left by disco. Its drum machine beats are sure to make any Yalie in a “Frankie Says Relax” muscle tee down to dry hump.

The ’80s have a particular draw for Yale students because like the Wall-Street whizzes of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” the Yale archetype is a fiscally moderate-to-conservative aspiring Master of the Universe, who, on those rare free evenings unleashes all of his or her feverish energy. The neons and spandex of the “Safety Dance” lend Yalies a fleeting escape from their normal selves, the self who un-tags Facebook photos that may hurt their future electability. Yalies are too highly strung for the hippie drug use of the ’60s and its mellow buzz; they need Red Bull, Monsters, grain punch, amphetamines or weed that would induce comas in their parents. Hence the “Safety Dance” is a perfect outlet for the burdened Yale psyche. It is a masquerade of excess.

It is a carefully-packaged, media-glorified excess. The synth-pop genre exploded because they were able to work this glittery image. The British band Duran Duran was getting no U.S. radio airtime at the turn of the decade but was godfathered into teens’ eardrums by MTV. In the band’s 1981 hit video, “Girls on Film,” a rodeo girl in a metallic bra rides down a catwalk on the back of man with a horse head, as the film rapid-fire freezes like an Eyes Wide Shut meets Daisy Duke photo shoot. “Wider baby smiling you just made a million,” Simon Le Bon sings, winking at an industry he had learned to synergistically exploit so well.

Madonna was the best-selling artist of the decade, precisely because she was able to leap so gracefully between media platforms, from her music, controversial videos and theatrical tours to the film “Desperately Seeking Susan” and the graphic photo book, “Sex.” “Material Girl” isn’t so much a wink, as it is a full facial spasm at the ’80s zeitgeist.

Michael Jackson was the most tragic player of the ’80s media game. Although his career began in the ’70s and continued into the ’90s, it was his ’80s get-up — a military jacket, a single white glove — that fans donned in memoriam.

The ’80s spawned the first generation of hyper-mediated babies, so self-conscious of themselves and their aesthetic that Siliman College created a tribute dance before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We can only visually grasp the ’60s and ’70s through hazy protest footage and the few films that have entered our cultural reservoir. The ’70s aesthetic conjures little beyond shag carpeting, burnt orange drapery and magically straight pre-GHD hair.

The ’80s, however, are richly signified. There are the brightly-streaked sneakers, throwback jerseys and über-branded sportswear of the budding urban hip-hop scene. There are the leotards and sweatbands of the decade’s fitness craze, which I discovered through my mother’s “Buns of Steel” VHS.

We see the seeds of our own digitalized universe in ’80s visual culture: Atari, Nintendo, Sega, laser tag and the science fiction inspired films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. We get a huge retrofix from lego-like video game graphics, campy visions of the future and the blocky desktops that most of us can remember entering our homes for the first time. Electronica is the sonic compliment of this phenomenon: the triumph of technology and the erasure of the human hand. Our memories of the ’80s aren’t painted in watercolors, but programmed in JavaScript.

Maybe when we overcome our visceral discomfort with the elongated ass and tapered cuff of the mom jean, the ’90s will ripen into a retro cultural touchstone. But it’s unlikely that it will ever surpass the ’80s — the decade when the spirit of the ’60s and ’70s reversed itself. The resurgence of the religious right, the wave of sexual repression and the consequent porno-boom is still rippling through our culture today. The AIDS epidemic robbed thousands of gay men of their futures but also brought gay communities to society’s surface. The U.S. support for the Mujahedeen and Saddam Hussein and the indulgence of the Reagan era explain a lot of today’s political and financial strife.

Perhaps “American Psycho” is a more accurate description of the ’80s and the ’00s than we like to admit. Patrick Bateman likes videotapes and cocaine. Today, kids like Hulu and cocaine. Even if our birth certificates say otherwise, we are all babies of the ’80s, living its inheritance even as we dress up in homage.

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