By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Born in 1981, I remember the decade very well since 1985.
This was the decade of big hair, big deals and big political events. The wall came down in Berlin, and Ronald Reagan ruled the White House for most of the ’80s through the Cold War and even an assassination attempt.
Major corporations like IBM, McDonald’s and Sony featured iconic products and displayed them for the world to see during Super Bowl commercials.
And the mullet joined forces with teased hairstyles to attack the ozone layer like a one-sided battle between the Deceptions and Autobots.
The 1980s has so many memorable moments, trendsetters, unforgettable styles and lasting images. It was hard to narrow it down to just 10 things I remember most about the ’80s. What are the 10 things that define this decade?
Before I list my personal 10, here are a few honorable mentions: “Alf,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Prince, “Reading Rainbow,” “A-Team,” “E.T.,” “Transformers,” Devo, Michael J. Fox, “The Royal Wedding,” My Buddy/Kid Sister, Pee Wee Herman, He-Man, Nickelodeon, MTV, “The Terminator,” Magic vs. Bird, Bruce Springsteen, the after-school special, Erica Kane, Pepsi, Hi-C, Where’s the beef?, California Raisins, acid-washed jeans, Star Search, Bon Jovi, Rice-A-Roni, hair bands, “Die Hard,” microwave oven, Trapper Keepers and cassettes.
Locally, do you remember Jerry “The King” Lawler, Adventure River and Libertyland?
10. Wayne Gretzky
The Great One. That’s all I need to say. His landmark trade put the NHL on the map nationwide. From 1979 to 1988, Gretzky was the driving force that made the Edmonton Oilers a dynasty, winning four Stanley Cups from 1984 to 1988. Then Gretzky was traded to the United States to play for the Los Angeles Kings. His trade shook not only the hockey universe but also made Gretzky a crossover star in Hollywood.
What made Gretzky a national treasure in Canada was his 894 career goals and 1,963 career assists. But his boyish charm, marriage to Janet and unparalleled abilities on the rank made him an ’80s icon.
Now that current NBA great LeBron James is about to call L.A. his professional home, we will see King James pop up even more in shows and movies. Gretzky took the blueprint of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain from the 1970s and blew it up. Now all athletes dream of going to Hollywood.
9. “Rocky IV”
Speaking of Hollywood, the best movie of the 1980s is Rocky IV. It was done so well, it would have been my college thesis on the Cold War if I was a senior in 1985. I hated Ivan Drago. That steroid junkie killed the beloved Apollo Creed. Drago was a representation of the Soviet Union doing whatever it takes to beat pure American muscle. That’s where our hero Rocky comes to the rescue.
While Drago continued his regiment of juicing and high-tech machine training, Rocky went old-school with running in the snow, lifting rocks and even using humans for his strength training. I still use the “Rocky IV” Soundtrack and training montage as a guide in my workouts.
Of course Rocky avenges his friend’s death and shows the world the United States is No. 1.
The 1980s has so many Halloween costume-worthy musicians. A few notables are Boy George, Prince, red-jacket Michael Jackson, Devo and even George Michael with Wham. But these boys don’t hold a clothes hanger to Madonna.
Not only did she reinvent her style over and over again during the decade, whatever Madonna choose to wear became essential to girls across the nation. From her “Like A Virgin” to “Like A Prayer,” Madonna could make blonde or red hair trendy.
Madonna continued to exercise the power of fashion through the 1990s and 2000s. But the ’80s were her peak. Maybe it was because her music had more cultural impact as well.
Madonna’s meteoric raise has given us current female acts like Lady Gaga, Brittney Spears and more.
Madonna is my official face of 1980s pop music. And I have a confusion, Borderline is still my jam.
7. 1984 Olympics
The music of John Williams still plays in my mind for every Olympic I’ve watched since 1988. The summer games are the must-see for me and it is all because of the 1984 Summer Olympics hosted by Los Angeles. The 1984 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXIII Olympiad, was an international multi-sport event that was held from July 28 to Aug. 12.
These games made household names of Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Mary Lou Retton, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mary Decker and Florence “Flo Jo” Griffin-Joyner.
Those fantastic Americans help bring home 174 medals with 83 gold. The 1984 Olympics still are entertaining to watch in replay. The drama still holds up 34 years later. The colorful settings are still eye catching. And the amazing athletes’ performances still blow your mind.
These games paved the way for the current formula for successful Olympic broadcasts. Build up the drama, make the athletes celebrities, use plenty of bright colors and pray the action lives up to the hype.
6. Saturday morning cartoons
With a box of cereal, my blanket and teddy bear, I would tune into ABC, NBC and sometimes CBS for such shows like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “He-Man,” “Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies,” “Duck Tales,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “The Smurfs,” “The Real Ghostbusters,” “ThunderCats,” “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” “Voltron,” “Snorks,” “Care Bears Family” and “Disney’s Adventures of the Gummy Bears.” Even live-action shows like “Punky Brewster” and “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” got in on the act for entertaining children.
Some think the traditional Saturday morning cartoon platform died when No Child Left Behind became law in the 2000s. But the real death of the format came in 1991 with Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill. Instead of putting the children first and airing our programs, instead networks placed the trial during prime viewing hours for young folks. It forced us to grow up too soon.
As a 10-year-old, I had to face the fact of no more innocence and goofy entertainment. I know most of these cartoons were used to sell toys and fill up a Happy Meal at Mcdonald’s.
But children today are missing out on just being children. Cartoons can be educational, but their first job is to entertain. The classics of the 1980s fulfilled their requirements.
5. Hulk Hogan
I am a real American. For those who are older than 35, that theme means Hulk Hogan. Hogan means wrestling. Even people who hate the art of professional wrestling know the man in yellow and red.
Maybe it was his “acting” in movies. He was known to make a cameo appearance in a show or movie preaching good, clean living. He wanted us kids to drink our milk and take our vitamins.
Hulk Hogan was symbolic to the decade because of his loud speech, over-the-top behavior, huge muscles and taking down the bad guy.
He was the face of an industry and a proud symbol of Americana. Hogan used his platform to better the world for children and entertain adults. He gave us all something to believe in and be proud. And he managed to do all of this with a wrestling ring as his main scenery.
4. ‘Just Say No’
I had the shirt. It was given to me when I was in kindergarten. Maybe I was a little too young to understand the seriousness of illegal drug usage, but I loved my green “Just Say No” shirt.
“Just Say No” was an advertising campaign as part of the war on drugs. It was targeted at children to discourage children from engaging in illegal recreational drug use by offering various ways of saying no. The slogan was created and championed by then first lady Nancy Reagan. Reagan’s effort did result in a decline in drug use in America. But “Just Say No” got a bigger spotlight than DARE and MADD because the White House was supporting it.
DARE and MADD also addressed the use of alcohol and cigarettes. Although only two are still active, “Just Say No” lives on because at the end of the day, that is the best way to avoid starting a bad habit. Maybe it needs a comeback for all this prescription drug use going on in U.S. America.
3. Nighttime soap
Thanks to my mom, I am fully aware of required viewing after 8 p.m. of “Dallas,” “Knots Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” “L.A. Law” and “Dynasty.” The genre that gave birth to Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place of the 1990s was at full force in the previous decade.
Each network invested in bringing shows like “All My Children,” “The Young and the Restless” and “Guiding Light” to prime time. With the sun down, the soap opera could be more daring, edgy and sexual.
And it was the perfect way for my mom and her peers to spend a Wednesday or Thursday night. She was on the edge of her seat, worrying who was hooking up or will the thief get away with fraud. Plot twists just made her upset but they kept her tuning in each week. Watching two middle-age women fighting near a pool with a mansion in the backdrop gave her minutes of joy. I still don’t get it as this genre has been replaced with “reality TV.” Like I don’t care about the drama of today, I still don’t know who shot JR. It was all a dream anyway.
Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, Frogger, Centipede, Galaga, Tetris and Defender just to name a few can express gratitude to one video game. The granddaddy of them all Pac-Man made playing video games in the arcade essential in the ’80s. Pac-Man was cool enough to create a new trend of playing games at home.
The success of Pac-Man made a demand for technology like Magnavox Odyssey, Pong, Telstar, Intellivision, Vectrex, ColecoVision and the standard setter Atari 2600.
Whether spending a quarter or if your parents dropped hundreds of dollars, all members of the family took a shot at trying to navigate Pac-Man through the maze. Being chased by ghosts has never been so much fun. Use those large dots wisely and in a timely fashion. Level after level challenged gamers for hours and hours. The beautiful thing is watching a person today still rush to a Pac-Man arcade station, place in the quarter, rest his or her arm on top the machine and use the other hand to work the joystick. This game is timeless.
If one thing symbolizes the 1980s … it is the mall. Before Amazon, Ebay and other online shopping, U.S. Americans had to walk outside of their front door and then open up a car door. Once that motorized vehicle was started, those in the car would travel miles to a large structure housing various stories, entertainment options and eateries. Malls were the most popular things of the decade. All the things previously listed could be found in a mall. Malls were so trendy that teen pop stars Tiffany and Debbie Gibson shot videos there. Malls would pop up in ’80s movies like “Commando” or “Weird Science.” If a girl needed to undergo a transformation in her looks and style, the mall was essential.
Now malls and essential are not used in the same sentence. Those mega indoor shopping centers are a dying breed. No longer do we have the Mall of Memphis. It was the ideal place to be on a weekend, from stores to ice skating.
My personal hangout of the Raleigh Springs Mall is a pile of dirt now. And a couple of smaller malls hanging on as Wolfchase and Oak Court bookend Memphis.
I miss malls and how they allowed us to socialize. We have less and less human interaction every day. The mall gave you a chance to have a date at the movies, grab an ice cream float with your pal, eat any kind of “foreign” food, indulge with a pocketful of quarters in the arcade or buy a new church suit. It provided opportunities to listen to music at the record store, grab a “TV Guide” to stay informed of shows or visit the newsstand to read all about it. The mall has been replaced with the computer and our smart phones. The ironic thing is most teenagers walking around in the Wolfchase Galleria today are locked in on their phones wearing a retro ’80s shirt as an instrumental version of a Madonna songs plays overhead.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for Journal West 10 Media LLC. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.