An '80s revival? But Madonna never left

The '80s are, like, totally back.

Well, maybe not totally. While those waxing nostalgic haven't pulled out their leg warmers and parachute pants quite yet, across the country there are disturbing signs that pop chic from the "Dynasty" Decade is creeping into the clothing and listening habits of unsuspecting people everywhere.

Consider a few trends: In New York, Members Only jackets are some of the hottest items at vintage-clothing shops, and teens are once again break dancing on the streets. In San Francisco, clubgoers in torn pastels clamor for cover bands playing Flock of Seagulls tunes.

On television, decade-of-greed pretty boys like Charlie Sheen and Rob Lowe now find themselves with prime-time hits. And, as U2 wins a couple of Grammies, bands like Bon Jovi and Journey are again spreading their big-haired joy.

Add to this the current political mood of huge tax cuts, missile-defense systems, and a renewed focus on faith, a person might feel a certain zeitgeist deja vu.

For some observers, much of this is simply part of a recurring pattern of nostalgia.

Everything old is new ... again

Every 20 years or so, the explanation goes, people revisit trends in fashion and music from two decades earlier in order to transport themselves back to the halcyon days of youth and freedom.

The early 1960s saw a '40s redux in fashion, for example, and the '90s brought back bell bottoms and disco from the '70s.

Yet this time around it's a little more complex, say some nostalgia watchers. The current revival differs significantly from the 20-year pattern seen in the past.

In fact, the very nature of pop culture during the rise of Madonna and "Miami Vice" may prove the end of nostalgia as we know it.

"The '80s is the first decade which was this smashing together of everything," says Robert Thompson, current president of the International Popular Culture Association and professor at Syracuse University in New York. "A little '60s here, a little '70s there, the decade of grunge and Salvation Army clothes - when you have this smashing-together style, it's a lot harder to identify it as 'pure' '80s."

In addition, another reason some see so-called Gen-Xers as less nostalgic than their baby-boomer forebears is that pop culture can never really make a comeback now - it never leaves.

In an era of cable TV and retro radio stations, old TV shows and hit songs are always available.

This week, Nick at Night is replaying sitcoms for its "Revenge of the '80s Marathon," with shows such as "Alf," "Silver Spoons," and "The Facts of Life." But this megadose of '80s TV doesn't include its regular schedule of that decade's humor.

The proliferation of channels and programming on cable and satellite TV has kept much of the pop culture in all decades alive and well.

"There's a sense now that it's really hard to go back to nostalgia, because it never went away," says Mr. Thompson. "The song you were listening to during a crucial moment in the 1980s" is still on the radio.

In the past, most of the nostalgic pop chic of a 20-year cycle were songs and shows seldom heard or appreciated during their own day. "Leave It to Beaver," quintessential '50s nostalgia, never made it to the top 30 TV shows when it first aired. Same with "The Brady Bunch." For something to provoke a reaction, it must be sufficiently surprising, tapping into a person's uncorrupted memory.

"It's the cheesiest things that get revived," says Simon Doonan, creative director at Barney's New York, an upscale specialty clothing store. "People who would never have listened to Journey at the time - myself included - kind of get into it when it comes back again."

Mr. Doonan, who also writes a weekly fashion column for The New York Observer, has also witnessed top fashion designers currently tapping into both the glamour looks of shows like "Dynasty" and the torn, ragged look of Pat Benatar and early Madonna - "chopped-up, asymmetrical hair and jangly jewelry and rubber bracelets and everything."

Pop fizzles if exposed too long

But if it's the cheesy - er, lesser-known - aspects of the past that make nostalgia so potent, as they're constantly reprised, they can become as stale as Proust's madeleine.

Like a nonrenewable resource, sources of nostalgia can become depleted. "It's harder and harder to do now when our entire pop-culture history is available on cable 24 hours a day," says Thompson.

Another riff on heavy metal

There is one "pure" '80s phenomenon that did actually go away for a while, and has now returned full force: heavy metal music.

From black T-shirts emblazoned with grotesque images to thrashing guitar riffs and unintelligible lyrics, hard-metal music has come screaming back to life.

"Even I find myself listening now to heavy metal stuff, which I thought was really rock bottom in the early '80s," says Doonan. "But now it's kind of funny, because they have the patina of time on them to give them humor and distance."

This distance, however, is becoming harder and harder to achieve.

"[Nostalgia's] only amusing if it's catchy, well done, and rare," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "It's all '70s, '80s, and '90s now, so it just becomes this murky soup of what was cool when you were young."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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