There’s no doubt about it: popular culture is currently dominated by ‘80s aesthetic references, nostalgia, and throwbacks. The enduring popularity of Stranger Things can in significant part be connected to its pitch-perfect invocation of ‘80s references, from the synthwave-inspired soundtrack, to the font of the titles, to the kids-on-bikes-solving-mysteries plotlines. It’s by no means an isolated example. So many other cultural products are ride this tidal wave, from It, to Star Wars, to the arrival of synthwave. Sometimes it appears more elliptically in certain filmmaking or aesthetic choices: I’m thinking partly of the lens flare and neon pink lettering in films like Drive.
So why are we all so obsessed with ‘80s nostalgia at the moment? According to one popular theory, this is all a function of what is known as the 30-year cycle: the idea that cultural trends move in pattens, with the result that the trends and tropes of previous decades will resurface 30 years later, as will nostalgia for said decades and remakes of its greatest hits.
In our current era, the evidence for this seems incontrovertible: from the film world, some of the most prominent examples include the new revamping the Indiana Jones series 27 years after Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as long-delayed sequels to 80s hits like Mad Max, Blade Runner, Alien, Creed, and Twin Peaks, as well as movie-to-musical adaptations such as Heathers, and… a recently announced Back To The Future musical? Some enduring favourites, like King Kong, have even been remade in 30-year cycles (1933-1976; 1976-2008).
The 80s, in turn, saw big movies like Grease* and Back to the Future reflecting on Fifties youth culture. The beauty of films like Back to the Future is how they take the concept of the 30-year cultural cycle and make it literal - Marty McFly has to travel back to his parents’ era in order to fix his own time period. In Dark, meanwhile, Germany’s answer to Stranger Things, there is (spoilers) an actual physical three-way portal that forms an unbreakable connection between the years 1986, 2019, and 1953, creating a loop of events that bind generations.
The Nineties meanwhile seem to inherit elements from the Sixties, with the Nirvana slacker / stoner aesthetic feeling like a re-run of Sixties hippy culture, and Sixties-themed movies like Austin Powers to match. It doesn’t always work - it’s not super obvious how, say, the Fourties (WWII, disintegration of empire, etc etc) informs the Seventies, for instance. Possibly the 30-year cycle is only a post-war phenomenon, a function of the various forms of cultural acceleration that have only come about since countercultural movements have found more of a voice.
*Yes, I know Grease is 1978. What can I say, it’s not an exact science. Shush.
In part, of course, it’s just the rules of supply and demand: in the current climate, a film which cashes in on the cultural wave and sets itself in the 80s is more likely to do well than a film set in, say, the 70s. So in part there’s a self-perpetuating quality to the 30-year cycle. But I don’t think this is an entirely sufficient explanation for the wider phenomenon.
So why does 30 appear to be the magic number? Possibly it has something to do with needing 30 years to get perspective on a decade, in order to be able to get a bead on what typified it. If you’d asked me even a few years ago how to characterise, say, the Nineties, I’d have had no idea. But now, with 1990 almost 30 years away, it starts to become possible to pin down the fashion trends, grunge-and-girl-band dominated music scene, and schmaltzy filmmaking tropes that will accompany our future understanding of the decade.
One common hypothesis connects the magic number to the time it takes for a generation to grow up and becoming the dominant producing voice in the cultural conversation. As one writer puts it:
“the driving factor seems to be that it takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood. The art and culture of their childhood (e.g. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics in 1984) helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world, and so they make art that references that culture.”
I’m not entirely sure this holds water though. Let’s come back to Stranger Things. The Duffer Brothers, with their aforementioned razor-sharp ability to pin down ‘80s references, were born in 1984, meaning they can’t remember much of the 80s. This makes me feel like an explanation beyond individuals’ memory is necessary to understand what we’re looking at here. What’s more, there’s the audience engagement element to consider. When I was very into Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, the BBC’s highly successful take on the 30-year cycle, as semi-critical nostalgic looks at eras gone by, none of my parents’ friends I spoke to who grew up in the Seventies had enjoyed it much, complaining that it gazed on some bad times of the past with a nostalgia that they didn’t deserve. But audiences my age and in their twenties loved it. And if the gritty Life on Mars seems rose-tinted, where on earth does that leave Stranger Things?
Oddly, the 30 year cycle appears to work on this Jungian collective consciousness: you as an individual don’t have to have directly experienced a decade in order to have a mental sense of it. But our cycle seems to only be able to focus on a particular era of nostalgia at once. And it’s interesting, in terms of how we understand collective and social memory, that you can have nostalgia for a time you didn’t directly experience.
It follows, then, that we should start seeing a lot more 90s nostalgia right about now - which, with recent movies like Captain Marvel, I’d say we are: the movie treats 90s mainstays like flannel shirts, Blockbuster, and GameBoys in a way we’ve become accustomed to seeing 80s retro favourites in programmes like Stranger Things. Its publicity campaign even featured a hilarious retro throwback to the bad old days of web design. Meanwhile, new appearances like the Netflix revamp of Sabrina The Teenage Witch and the big remake of 1992 classic Aladdin put the writing even more boldly on the wall.
What else can we expect culturally for the 2020s, based on these observations? Some predictions:
A big reboot of Buffy?
More reunion tours of big popular girl bands
A Broadway musical of The Shawshank Redemption (??)
More re-runs of popular Nineties series appearing back on screens and streaming services, as Friends, for better or worse, recently has
Is this all me seeing patterns when they aren’t there? (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Let me know in the comments!
(And if you’re wondering how this whole post relates to what this blog is supposed to be about, no, I don’t know either. I’m figuring it out. Shush.)
Other stray thoughts:
— Is this an entirely Eurocentric phenomenon or can we see it more globally? (Is it even as broad as that? Is this a white culture phenomenon?)
— Zombies had a resurgence in the ‘10s, what with the growing popularity of The Walking Dead, iZombie, Santa Clarita Diet (and, um, Game of Thrones?). We could interpret this as a 30-year cycle round from the popular Romero Living Dead movies of the mid-80s.* The Noughties, however were absolutely the realm of the vampire, with Twilight dominating the decade. Again, possibly a result of the wheel turning 30 years from Dracula and Nosferatu (both 1979)?
*I’m aware Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later slightly buck this trend. Exceptions that prove the rule, blah blah blah.
— Footnote: Lindsay Ellis provides a brilliant video essay on these ideas here, more through the lens of understanding nostalgia. Check it out.