In 1988, I was an overweight high school freshman, sporting stone-washed jeans, a near toxic dose of Bennetton “Colors” perfume, and a poof that drooped like the fronds of a dying houseplant. Standing at the mirror in a high school bathroom wreathed in cigarette smoke and Aquanet, I struggled with my bristle brush while the girls next to me, those committed enough to bring a crimper to school, bonsai’d their hair to perfection. Their braided jeans fit perfectly. They had an unironic relationship to both cheerleading and football. The covers of their Trapper Keepers were adorned with the plasticized smiles of the New Kids on the Block.
I looked at these girls and thought: Where am I? My friends were a Breakfast Club comprised entirely of bookish Brians and reclusive Allisons —nerds and losers. Like misfits everywhere, we sought refuge in art and music, comics and film. But what the 80s shared with the 50s—in addition to the shellacked bouffant—was that it was an era of breathtaking conformity. The 80s were about chain stores gobbling independents like PacMan pellets, and the same over-produced pop songs playing on the same radio stations. It was about uniform heterosexuality and unambiguous conflicts. Coke vs. Pepsi and McDonalds vs. Burger King and Jock vs. Nerd and Rich vs. Poor.
When I ransack my childhood memories for clues as to why I felt so consistently lost and ashamed, so persecuted and wrong, I find that 35 percent of these feelings could be chalked up to the usual adolescent angst, but the rest of it…?
The rest of it was 80s based.
Whatever my feelings about the decade, there are two people I know who loved the 80s and lived them to the fullest: my parents. Alexander Vilenkin and Inna Simone came to America in 1976 as political refugees from the Soviet Union, and having already experienced a lifetime of scarcity and censorship, happily embraced the abundance of suburban living. They went mall-shopping and drank Folgers Instant and watched women in couture dresses tumble into swimming pools on Dynasty and Dallas night after night. When they’d lived in Ukraine, they had collected stamps from the exotic places they were prohibited from visiting. Now in America, they went on vacations and filled photo albums with pictures from those countries. The same consumerism that I found oppressive was, to them, a hard-earned delight. The 80s was their happy ending.
My 80s, in contrast, was a scavenger hunt for authenticity in an era when slickness was sacrosanct, and to be a teenager at all—that is, an acned, insecure, gawky person-in-progress—felt like an affront to the times.
Which is how I came to stalk the used book shops, indie record stores, and vintage clothing shops of Harvard Square. I sought out independent zines and comics like samizdat, and made it my mission to be wherever the mainstream wasn’t, like the basement of the store in Lexington where the manager regularly let kids smoke weed after hours. I pined for other decades. Like the 70s, with its boring, earth-bound hair and depressing sitcoms. Or the 60s, with its countercultural hedonism and social conscience.
And then one day, like a doomed polar explorer stranded on an ice floe drifting through the Antarctic Ocean, I spotted a cormorant drifting in the air high above, a sure sign of land, hope, salvation. It was 1991; technically the 80s had ended, but spiritually they lived on. The hair was still high, the rich were still cool, and the food was still bad. But change was in the air. The first chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were drifting over the airwaves. Twin Peaks was in its second season. Flannel began to replace stone-washed jeans. The idea of being smart or different didn’t seem to merit a punch in the neck anymore. A diffuse wave of niceness overtook my senior class. The hard boundaries of cliques softened. I met a Jewish guy with a mullet, a rider of unicycles and baker of bread, whose nickname was Jesus. He became my first real boyfriend.
This was the wave of enlightenment that carried me to college, to Tufts in 1992, where the 80s finally died for me. I remember that sudden drunk rush of options, an endless choose-your-own-adventure of classes and clubs, personas to try on and discard. And I like to think that coming to Tufts is still like that, even for the hyper-connected kids of today—a discovery that life isn’t a modest prix fix meal, but rather an endless buffet.
Looking back now, I’m not entirely sure how many classes I’d taken toward my humanities requirement before I realized that my carefully nourished 80s phobia could reasonably be understood as something else. I came to understand that, in its own way, it was all kind of, well, conformist. Rebelling against the mainstream culture in which you were raised—hating on disco or Britney or zoot suits or surf movies starring Annette Funicello—is a teenage rite of passage that goes back generations and has little to do with the cheesiness of a given decade’s ballads or the crispness of its hair. Curating the best hits of bygone eras is easy, but you have to actually live through your own Milli Vanilli, your own Thighmaster infomercials and Just-Say-No commercials. Maybe that cultural dreck becomes a metaphor for the dreck of teenagedom—the thing we’re most grateful to shed when we go to college. For me, coming to Tufts marked the beginning of something wonderful and new, but it represented the end of something, too. College set off the implosion of a million private dictatorships.
Jesus no longer has a mullet. He’s now my husband, and sometimes we talk about how we’ll explain the weirdness of the 80s to our daughter. We will play her ballads by Richard Marx and show her our Mario Castelli photo book, which immortalizes 80s icons like Joan Collins and Suzanne Summers and Lionel Richie in all their gold-lamé glory. We’ll tell tales of dot matrix printers and daytime talk show hosts frothing about welfare queens in pink Cadillacs. We’ll watch the original Karate Kid, eat a Stouffers TV dinner and wash it down with some Capri Sun.
But we’ll also show her my parents’ Soviet stamp collection, which is now mine. Because when it comes to assessing an era, it all still depends on where you’re standing.
Alina Simone, J97, BFA97, is the author of the essay collection You Must Go and Win and the novel Note to Self, both published by Faber. She is a regular contributor to Public Radio International’s The World.