#2. National Regression
Most memorable '80s movie protagonists either ranged in age from fifth to 12th grade (Elliot in E.T., Ferris), or were specifically modeled to appeal to kids in that age range (Indiana Jones, the Star Wars Universe). If parents, teachers or police officers appeared in movies, they either didn't have their shit together or were the bad guys. America's decision to focus its energies on entertaining children is usually attributed to the success of Star Wars, but I'd argue that cause and effect worked the other way. George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, John Hughes and other filmmakers were responding to the demands of a country that suddenly wanted to be back in the fifth grade.
Just look at what happened to franchises that existed before and during the '80s. Rocky went from being a gritty franchise about a poor, retarded boxer to a live-action cartoon in which a superhero punches the entire Soviet Union in the face, and the Soviet Union thanks him for it.
Stallone considered just making Captain America, but decided that the costume wasn't gay enough.
But nowhere was America's regression clearer, or more clever, than with Jim Henson's The Muppet Babies. In the '70s and early '80s, the Muppets were aimed at adults as much as children. That all seemed to change in 1984, when Henson included a brief dream sequence in the The Muppets Take Manhattan in which Miss Piggy imagines what it would have been like to grow up with Kermit. Henson was immediately bombarded with letters from people who loved that sequence, and suggested that it should be its own show.
Henson took them up on their request, but he also seemed to be commenting on the weirdness of it as well. For instance, the theme song opens with the dubious advice "When your world looks kind of weird and you wish that you weren't there / Just close your eyes and make believe, and you can be anywhere" while visually name dropping two of the most successful escapist films up to that point.
He wasn't trying to be subtle.
He wasn't taking a clear side in the debate, but he clearly knew that he was part of a very strange conversation. Take the single weirdest part of the series.
Look, kids, it's Nanny, the faceless giver and taker of life in our universe!
Why did we never see Nanny's face? Where did she keep disappearing to? Couldn't she see that the pig had reached sexual maturity before the rest of the babies, and was one unsupervised play date away from ruining Kermit?
Never showing Nanny's face was a weirdly surreal choice for a children's cartoon, and one I suspect Henson made specifically to draw attention to all of the above questions. Nanny was the perfect symbol for the parents and caretakers in '80s culture -- a mostly absent, faceless proxy for responsibility and the real world who didn't really make any sense when you think about it. And Henson wanted you to think about it, which is really the only difference between her and the mom in E.T.
Psychiatrists would probably call what happened to '80s pop culture regression -- when the mind can't reconcile two separate ideas, and takes shelter by returning to a younger, more carefree time in its mental development. A standard example of regression is the mid-life crisis, when middle-aged men sleep with younger women to cope with the inevitability of death, and the negative impact it tends to have on their ability to achieve an erection.
No one credits death with also being a huge cockblocker.
But if it really was regression, the means there were issues the culture was reverting to childhood in order to avoid. To understand what they were, you first have to understand ...
#1. Can a Decade Be a Megalomaniac?
The '80s were the product of a long, psychologically complex staring contest between America and Russia. The U.S. was coming off a losing streak following the Iran hostage crisis, and economic malaise of the late '70s. The problem was that they were in a zero sum mind game with a country that didn't play by the same rules. If the Kremlin decided to send out an economic report claiming Soviet engineers were converting Moscow's sewage into precious metals, they didn't need to worry about whether the Russian people believed it. Who were they going to call bullshit to? That's the advantage of state-controlled media.
Your rubles fuel the Soviet Union's immortality!
If the US released a similar report, it had the media and elections to deal with. To level the playing field with Russia, America would need to be able to somehow convince a nation of independent thinkers that capitalism could shit gold. That would require everyone in America to suddenly go crazy, and is exactly what happened. At some point in the '80s, Americans in all walks of life realized that when they believed in capitalism with all their might and ignored the inner voice telling them that they just hit that homeless guy with their Ferrari, good things happened.
Oliver Stone was shocked when Wall Street, his cautionary tale about corporate greed, was instead taken as a how-to guide for succeeding in business. It didn't matter that Gordon Gecko goes to jail at the end of the movie, or that Bud Fox betrays his father. You just couldn't get the '80s down.
Or as the '80s interpreted it, "This guy's about to land an awesome back flip. You try!"
This isn't far off from the psychological concept of megalomania, an unrealistic belief in one's superiority and grandiose abilities that in extreme cases, leads to thoughts of omnipotence. The only difference between the '80s and a crazy guy standing on the corner who thinks he's controlling the traffic lights with his mind was that they weren't totally wrong that they were affecting the world, and also that the crazy guy isn't actually screwing anything up.
Unfortunately, you can't play chicken with reality forever. Wall Street's self perpetuating optimism machine eventually exploded with the financial crisis. The decision to ignore racial tensions for an entire decade resulted in the L.A. riots. The belief that "Just say no" was a reasonable strategy for dealing with drug addiction led to an explosion in drug use. And occasionally things got really bad.
I'm talking, of course, about the song "Kokomo."
If you've ever wondered why America never produced a great rock group on level of the Beatles and Stones, the answer is they sort of did. Go to any list of the greatest albums ever recorded and you'll find The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds listed somewhere in the top five. Go to this YouTube link and you will find a song that sounds like it was co-written by Kenny G and Jimmy Buffett to commemorate a warm, tropical evening on which they had terrible sex with one another.
The video underscores everything that is wrong with the song. The Beach Boys appear to be in their mid 50s, and also animatronic sex offenders. One of them is wearing a hat that says "The Beach Boys" on it.
The only person who actually appears to be alive is the drummer, who is 30 years younger than everyone else on stage. Any creepiness he takes off the table with his youthful exuberance is more than made up for by the fact that he appears to be having some manner of really lame orgasm and happens to be TV's John Stamos.
TV's John Stamos, having an orgasm into a drum set for some reason.
How did these guys produce one of the greatest rock albums of all time? The short version is that the guy in the green hat who keeps giving you the thumbs up ...
... is Mike Love, the only original Beach Boy left in the band. Pet Sounds, and everything that was ever good about the band, was the work of his cousin, Brian Wilson. Wilson had to create Pet Sounds behind Love's back, and when Love heard it, he was furious. He thought that The Beach Boys were successful because of their upbeat lyrics about fast cars and surfing. When he heard that Brian had written, arranged and mixed the most groundbreaking album ever recorded in America, he warned him not to "fuck with the formula."
The disagreement over the greatest album ever recorded in America would eventually lead to Brian leaving the band, and Mike taking over. Since then, The Beach Boys have only had two No. 1 hits. The first was the one and only song that was ever fully recorded by Brian for the sequel to Pet Sounds. It's called "Good Vibrations," and is considered one of the greatest rock song ever recorded.
For your own sake, do not confuse it with the other "Good Vibrations."
And this is what's so profoundly awful about "Kokomo." It's not just a bad song -- it's what we have instead of the "what might have been." Paul McCartney says that Sgt. Pepper's was inspired by Pet Sounds. What might Brian Wilson's response to Sgt. Pepper's have sounded like? What about the Beatles' response to that? Instead of that hypothetical classic rock arms race, we have "Kokomo" -- the only No. 1 hit released by The Beach Boys that Brian Wilson didn't touch.
By 1988, the country had come around to Mike's way of thinking. The '80s wanted soothing music that told us what we wanted to hear -- in this case that all the soul withering work we put in at the office was worth it because we'd all be retiring to tropical islands like the bad guys in Die Hard. That's why "Kokomo" is the most representative pop culture artifact of the '80s. It insists that everything is going to be great while simultaneously proving that can't possibly be true because, well, you're listening to someone dressed like the Skipper sing a love song to a vacation resort.
Jack O'Brien is the founder and Editor in Chief of Cracked.com. You can follow him on Twitter, and also in the real world if you're sneaky enough.
For more from Jack, check out Why The Reaction to Bin Laden's Death Proves We're Screwed and Why Bill Murray Is The World's Greatest Mythological Figure.