Why is it that the current darling of the pop scene, Taylor Swift, called her best-selling album (released in 2014) 1989? It was, granted, the year of her birth – but among her inspirations for it, she cited the ’80s pop group Fine Young Cannibals and the teen flicks of John Hughes.
Why are we being assailed with advertisements for concerts in which we are invited to bop along with Martika, Katrina and the Waves, and Men Without Hats – as if the last quarter of a century never happened?
“One can never grow tired of ’80s synth pop,” announces the promotional material for Men Without Hats – a Canadian new wave band best known for the 1983 ditty “Safety Dance”.
Paul Lekakis, we are told, “is like a very fine wine, he gets better with age”. His big hit was “Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Room)”. I can attest that the song seemed to get everyone going in the Arkaba in Glen Osmond Road in Adelaide on the Queen’s Birthday weekend in 1987 but I haven’t felt a yawning gap in my life as a result of its absence since.
Australian television drama used to be about a more distant past: the convict era, the gold rushes, the two world wars. Yet, while TV Anzackery has mainly flopped recently, the 1980s do very well indeed.
Millions of us, of late, have settled into a Sunday evening to be reminded of the deeds, both glorious and inglorious, of INXS and Molly Meldrum, Bob Hawke and Cliff Young, Nene King and Dulcie Boling. Magazine wars, it seems, are of more absorbing interest than world wars.
There presumably has to be a simple passage of time before the messiness of lived experience can be set aside in favour of nostalgia. It’s hard to know how long; we are already entering a period of ’90s nostalgia, so 25 years is probably about right.
And there is surely a generational economics of nostalgia, too; the teenagers of one era are the 40-somethings of 25 years later; those who make the decisions about what will appear on our screens, in our museums and between our book covers. They also, generally, have sufficient disposable income to indulge their nostalgia for a commodified past.
All of this was true of the 1980s themselves, which contained a powerful (and lucrative) strain of nostalgia. The British historian of the Thatcher years, Richard Vinen, argues that all those young chaps who went from Oxbridge into the City in the 1980s “acquired a fascination with wealth by watching the television series … Brideshead Revisited”.
Recall, as well, all those new wave boy bands and the neo-Edwardian haircuts. And the seemingly endless procession of Merchant Ivory films in which Helena Bonham Carter’s hair seemed to grow bigger with each passing EM Forster novel.
Nostalgia for a later era, the 1960s, found expression in The Wonder Years, a TV series set in ’60s America but told from the point of view of the ’80s present; and in the inter-generational argy-bargy of the sitcom Family Ties, where laughs were mainly squeezed out of the knowing mutual incomprehension of ex-hippie parents and their three conservative, consumerist and pragmatic Reagan-era children.
Similarly, in Australia during the actual 1980s, there was a powerful nostalgic strain in a country experiencing the anxieties of globalisation and deregulation during an era of explosive capitalism, policy reform and social change.
It was a great age for modern, colonial-style houses and expensive old bits of Australiana, like silver-mounted emu eggs. The historical mini-series was also in full flight; there were dozens of them during the 1980s, a wave of creativity helped along by the 10BA tax concession, network interest and the public’s engagement with matters historical in the lead-up to the 1988 Bicentenary.
The nostalgic interest in the 1980s today extends to the political class. Gareth Evans, a minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, has commented that these governments are now treated “as the Australian gold standard”; yet as he points out, “it did not always feel that way on the inside”.
Again, the passage of time cleans up a messy past. Those who celebrate recall the achievements but forget, politely overlook or find extenuation for the failures, such as the corporate greed, growing inequality and recession that Paul Keating told us we had to have.
From the immediate vantage point of the early 1990s, the decade that had just finished look like one of excess and even some policy failure. More recently, it has been acclaimed as the cause of our subsequent prosperity.
But there are signs – small ones still, at this stage – that we might be falling out of love with the 1980s, at least as a political era.
George Megalogenis’s recent Quarterly Essay, Balancing Act: Australia Between Recession and Renewal, makes the case that the 1980s fetish for small government, tax cuts, balanced budgets and low debt are hampering the ability of the political class to imagine what a post-1980s and post-GFC model of the relationship between market and state might look like.
He believes it should involve a greater role for governments than became fashionable in the 1980s era of economic rationalism.
If we are finding it hard to get over the 1980s, it’s probably in the end because they are still with us, still embedded so securely in our economy, our politics and our culture.
The generation who were teenagers in the 1980s are now increasingly our political masters. At the same time, the solutions of the 1980s are unravelling before their very eyes; plans to secure the car and steel industries were among the earliest actions of the Hawke Government.
To the extent that we recall the 1980s as a golden age, we are likely to find ourselves their captive.
If we can face them more squarely as a historical episode at least as untidy and complicated as any other, we might find in them something of more enduring value and importance than big hair and synthesised pop.
Frank Bongiorno is Associate Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University. This article was first published on The Conversation.