Why The '80s Nostalgia Boom Is About To End
"Has ('80s nostalgia) finally run its course?" naively asked a The Guardian article from January 2010, and here we are 12 years later, binging the latest season of a "Goonies meets It" show while sincerely hyped about a new Tom Cruise movie. Note that we say "naively" with the full awareness that an article from 2034 or 2050 or 3459 might quote us and call us fools for assuming that 1980s mania would ever end. However, there's an even greater chance that our collective infatuation with the '80s really is coming to an end sometime soon ... only to give way to something far weirder and self-referential.
Much has been written and video essay'd about the so-called "30-year nostalgia cycle" theory, which claims that whatever was popular three decades ago will be popular again now, no matter how cringey and uncool it might have seemed only a few years ago. In reality, it's more like a "25-to-35-year-ish cycle." It's not as simple as "people are nostalgic for whatever happened exactly 30 years earlier" -- the '70s had Star Wars (a throwback to the sci-fi serials of the '40s) but also Grease and Happy Days (both set in the '50s). The '80s had Back to the Future (a literal throwback to the '50s) but also Dirty Dancing and Wonder Years ('60s). The '90s gave us Austin Powers ('60s) and only a year later, That '70s Show (duh), which lasted into the mid-'00s. And so on.
The fact that the decades sorta blend together makes sense when you think about it, and not just because "decades" is an arbitrary concept invented by The Man to make you get sad and buy a sports car at 50. It's not like all of Hollywood gets together to decide which decade we'll all fixate on next -- it's something that gradually happens as certain age groups rise up the ranks in the industry. The '80s boom happened because most of the people pitching and approving stuff were young Gen-X and older Millennials whose brains were shaped by early MTV and 23-minute toy ads passing themselves off as cartoons.
And, since everyone's career advances at a different pace (some get their first sexual harassment scandal at 25, some at 65, etc.), it's only natural that different nostalgia periods should overlap. That's why the '90s boom has been quietly growing in the background even as the '80s one persists. We've been getting a slew of sequels and reboots to iconic '90s properties (Space Jam, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), new franchises set in that era (Captain Marvel, Yellowjackets), and a whole bunch of shows and documentaries examining events from that decade (American Crime Story, Woodstock 99, Pam & Tommy). Mark our words: at someone point, The Simpsons is gonna get a '90s nostalgia-fueled revival without even being canceled first (we're pretty sure most Fox execs forgot it's still on the air).
And if the '90s are already here, that must mean we are on the cusp of '80s mania being phased out in favor of early-'00s nostalgia, which is gonna be pretty bizarre in comparison for several reasons. For one thing, while it's fairly easy to make an '80s show that ignores, say, the Iran-Contra Affair, the '00s were marked by unfortunate events that are somewhat harder to get around, like 9/11, the effects of mass shootings on school life, the financial crisis, the emergence of Nu Metal music, etc.
It's a lose-lose situation: if shows joke about or trivialize the famously terrible parts of '00s life, they risk coming off as insensitive (it's still "too soon" for some people), but trying to ignore them would only end up drawing more attention to their absence. A wacky workplace sitcom set in a 2003 airport that leaves out the rampant paranoia and racism of the era would lead to a thousand think pieces about how it must be set in an alternate reality where the Twin Towers are still standing. Another thing that was inescapable in the early '00s was ... well, '80s nostalgia.
We're already seeing examples of the nostalgia loop that might soon take over pop culture: The Goldbergs, a sitcom set in the '80s, had a full episode revolving around the events of the movie The Wedding Singer (1998). Aside from casually revealing that the entire show is set in the Adam Sandler-verse, the episode itself is a paradox because it's banking on our memories not of the '80s themselves but the '80s as seen from the late '90s. This is, in essence, nostalgia about nostalgia.
Another example is the upcoming That '90s Show, which will be set in the '90s (again, duh) but will rely on our fondness for a vision of the '90s created mainly in the '00s. It's even been confirmed that Tommy Chong will reprise his aging hippie character from the original show, who will presumably wear flannel shirts and get into skating in the new one.
Perhaps the reason '80s/'90s nostalgia has lasted longer than usual (or feels like it has) is that we know the '90s/'00s nostalgia boom that will follow it is gonna be the freakiest cycle yet, in great part because of how intense and widespread our fascination with the era of giant shoulder pads has been. Or maybe we're wrong. Maybe the paradox of meta-nostalgia is what will finally kill the cycle and allow human culture to look into the future as one, free of the shackles of the past. We'll know for sure when they announce a gritty Herbie remake.
Top image: Netflix, Casey-Werner Distribution