5 Baffling 80s Trends (Explained by Rare Mental Disorders)
Every decade has its regrettable trends. But the further we get from the '80s, the clearer it becomes that it was ... different. Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees, and other times you can't see the forest for the clown mask you're wearing backward while masturbating in the woods at midnight. The '80s was one of those other times.
At a certain point, future generations are going to come to us wondering what the hell happened, so we'd better get our story straight. Fortunately, neurologists and sociologists have identified a number of rare and serious mental disorders that are going to come in handy when explaining just what the hell was wrong with everyone.
80s Fashion Was a Symptom of a Mental Disorder
Eighties fashion has become such a standard pop culture whipping post, it's easy to overlook how weird it really was. The 50s through the end of the 70s represented a gradual unpuckering of American assholes, and literally let its hair down. When rock stars suddenly started wearing their hair like they'd had it blown out and styled for the prom, it wasn't just weird. It undid decades of progress in the field of not giving a shit.
Black musicians also decided to take a 180-degree turn away from a decades-strong tradition of getting cooler.
Women took hair metal as a challenge, and entire species of low flying birds were never seen again.
And it wasn't just the hair. A Google image search for the phrase "80s makeup" reveals the decade's beauty secret: Don't let them see what your face looks like.
After decades of caring less, Americans were suddenly trying way too hard, and their goal appeared to be "look like we're all in the same terrible sci-fi movie."
The scientific explanation starts with the question posed by the Iraqi torturer in Three Kings: What is the problem with Michael Jackson? There are probably many answers to that question, but the one I've always found most interesting is that Michael Jackson had no idea what he looked like.
Michael Jackson, before and after the '80s.
This isn't as rare as you might think. In his new book Incognito, David Eaglemen explains that our eyes are mostly used to take in information about things that are unfamiliar or changing -- if you're driving, your eyes see the traffic light go from red to green, but you already knew that. What you may not realize is that the 95 percent of your visual field that is the street you drive down every day to work is being filled in by your brain from memory.
We do so much seeing with our memory that our visual cortex has 10 times as many nerves transmitting information from our brain as from our eyes. While this is useful when we're trying to drive without plowing through an intersection, it also means that what we see is actually a blend of what's actually out there, and whatever weird shit we have echoing around in our head.
"This one also looks like my ex-wife. How are you not seeing this?"
That's how insecurities about body parts or facial features can actually show up when you look in the mirror. While Jackson suffered from an extreme form of this called body dysmorphic disorder, the system that causes it might explain some of the havoc '80s fashions wreaked on family photo albums. As the body dysmorphic disorder Wikipedia page notes, there are plenty of other "types of body modification that do not include cosmetic surgery" such as "wearing extravagant clothing or excessive jewelry."
The three most common areas that BDD sufferers distort are the hair, skin and nose. This makes sense in the context of Jackson, but it also helps explain some of the inexplicable 80s hair and makeup trends. There are even corresponding iconic '80s fashion tragedies for Michael Jackson's string of unnecessary nose jobs. For instance, the BarberBase.com suggests that "a person with a very prominent nose might consider a medium to large-sized mustache."
Uh, my eyes are up here ladies.
What about those giant glasses that made everyone's face look like it was being swallowed by a Venn diagram? Eye-wear experts suggest people with large noses go with large, over-sized frames to compensate.
Plus, your face can now generate enough wind resistance to stop a car should the brakes fail.
It's surprising more people didn't just start hiding their face behind the Groucho nose and glasses, like Humpty.
Told he was funny looking, still got things cooking. Just saying, White Snake.
People tend not to associate the '80s with racism. The '70s had Archie Bunker insulting every race on the planet on network TV, and the Jefferson's were still in the process of moving on up. But at least the '70s were willing to ask questions about racism. The only question the '80s asked about racism was, "Wait, you mean car racing? Because we've never heard of that other thing you asked about."
"Jim Crow? Is he the wacky neighbor on Mr. Belvedere?"
The '80s refused to show black people who weren't extraordinarily wealthy (the Huxtables, the kids from Diff'rent Strokes and Webster), or weren't actively overcoming their differences with white people (Crockett and Tubbs, Riggs and Murtaugh). Eddie Murphy became one of the decade's biggest movie stars by inventing the buddy cop movie in 48 Hours (in which his "buddy" calls him a "charcoal-colored loser," and the N-Word. Banter is fun!) and a cop from inner city Detroit whose childhood friends are all white people. It wasn't until he was fully established that he was able to show audiences what life is really like for a black man in America (who is secretly a wealthy African prince).
When black characters weren't making white people feel good about how well everyone was playing together, they had a tendency to mysteriously disappear. In Ghostbusters II, when the team have to face charges in court Winston takes an unexplained leave of absence. Showing a black guy in court was apparently too edgy, even if he was with three white guys, and the court in question was being attacked by the ghosts of mobsters.
As usual, The Man gives the black guy a pass, and sticks it to the middle-aged white guys.
The only analogy we have weird enough to explain what happened to the issue of race in the '80s is a clinical condition called anosognosia that prevents people from believing they've suffered an injury or disability despite clear physical symptoms. These people aren't lying when they claim their plainly paralyzed leg isn't paralyzed. They literally can't believe it. For instance, after Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas suffered a debilitating stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body, he refused to retire, and launched an embarrassing media campaign claiming he could kick field goals with his paralyzed leg.
American pop culture couldn't ignore the racial divide any more than Justice Douglas could stop being paralyzed, movies just ended up acknowledging racism accidentally. For instance, in Teen Wolf, Scott (Michael J. Fox) finds out that he's a werewolf, and we find out that werewolves happen to embody nearly every single white stereotype of black people. After Scott turns into the wolf, he's not just good at basketball, he plays like a Harlem Globe Trotter, dribbling the ball between his legs, spinning it on his finger and pointlessly looping the ball behind his back before dunking. Traditional werewolf traits like grave robbing and howling at full moons are replaced with traits like spontaneous break dancing, calling classmates "my man" and starting a dance craze called "The Wolf" that can best be described as "what white people look like when trying to do the dance from 'Thriller.'The only downside to his new "wolf" powers appears to be that women don't love him so much as they love his doggy style -- the girl of his dreams makes him transform into the wolf before they have sex for the first time. Hey, you know what they say about wolf penises.
They're barbed and terrifying?
Eventually, the school turns on the wolf when he rips a guy's shirt open for saying he murdered Scott's mom. Scott decides he has to forfeit his "wolf" powers, and play the big game as himself. Objectively speaking, this is a terrible decision, since Scott is the worst anyone has ever been at basketball in the history of movies about basketball. And that's why Teen Wolf accidentally nailed race in the '80s more than any other film. Mainstream culture was cool with "the wolf" as long as he was dunking or dancing or making them laugh. But at the first whiff of totally justified unpleasantness, they made him disappear.
Alien Gay Syndrome
The '80s gave us some of the most misogynistic music ever, performed by men who didn't seem to realize they were dressed in drag. The guy giving you pouty lips in this photo ...
... is also the guy who sang the line, "Immigrants and faggots, they make no sense to me."
Psychoanalysts usually call this sort of thing sublimation -- the funneling of unacceptable urges into more acceptable formats that end up revealing the stuff you were trying to suppress. For instance, the people who designed the Washington Monument didn't know they were building a monument to boners.
It was only because they thought they were building a monument to George Washington that their unconscious was able to take over, and give our nation's capital a 558-foot-tall erection. But sublimation has been around as long as sexually frustrated men have been making art. If you spend enough time looking at anything that came out of someone's brain, you can find the hidden penises.
What separates pop culture in the '80s, beyond the standard lack of subtlety, was how frequently people trying to send the same general message ("I am a heterosexual man") ended up sending a message that I'm assuming they would perceive as the exact opposite of their intended message ("I am interested in having sex with dudes. All of them, if they're available.")
That picture of Axl Rose wasn't taken after he dozed off first at a heavy metal sleep over party. If you hear an '80s rock song about being a sex maniac who loves boobs, there's a pretty good chance it was being sung by a band that dressed like they were trying to trick men into masturbating to their album covers. And they weren't being ironic, since irony wasn't invented until later generations needed to explain the beach celebration in Rocky III, and why their older brother was calling them a fag while body slamming them in a bright yellow Speedo.
In action movies, Dirty Harry gave way to '80s action flicks that used filmmaking techniques from the world of fetish pornography to bring us montages of Sylvester Stallone's muscles.
One of the most popular toys of the '80s was named He-Man, which most scientists agree is the manliest possible combination of two syllables (assuming Ox-Dick is off the table). In the '60s, a toy named He-Man would have been a soldier or a cowboy. In the '80s, it looked like it was designed by a gay Mason whose only experience with male anatomy was a Mr. Universe competition.
It wasn't like the subtext was just slipping out here and there. It was as though there were two opposing forces of manliness and militant homosexuality waging a carefully thought out war in the brains of toy manufacturers and rock musicians. That's why mainstream pop culture's relationship with homosexuality feels more like rare impulse control disorders like Tourette and Alien Hand Syndromes, which cause patients to say or do the exact opposite of what they want to in a given situation (use the C word while reciting wedding vows, choke yourself while reciting wedding vows, or doing anything at all really).
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 ...
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.