What do you remember from the 1980s? From MTV to the first walkman, we look back on the Edgy Eighties defined by political turbulence, wealth and individualism
It might sound like a stupid question, but when do you think the 1980s were? and how long do you think they lasted? What did they come after and what happened next? Where they start and finish depends on what you think they are. Some decades are more than a description of ten year blocks—think the Thirties or the Sixties.
The Eighties are often wrapped around one particular political career—that of Margaret Thatcher. As one of a very few politicians to receive an “ism”, after her name, the “Thatcher Years” is often synonymous with the decade.
In which case, the Eighties started with her election on May 4, 1979 and ran to November 22, 1990. But that is never going to get us to what they felt like as a period of time, at the time, and how they have been remembered since.
Lists of 1980s items
The Eighties was a decade filled with lists, charts and compilations—in the style of a magazine show or even Reader’s Digest.
So instead of one big story of the decade I took inspiration from these lists and compilations and set out a series of different moments or objects to explore the complicated relationship between the big questions (the nation, the state, the Cold War, the environment, gender and race, for example) and the cultural moments that captured people’s attention.
In Now That’s What I Call a History of the 1980s, I list together the giant CND sign on Glastonbury festival’s main stage, Bananarama singing about Northern Ireland, Roland Rat taking over breakfast TV, Adam Ant’s make-up and the tabloid value of photos of Princess Diana’s legs.
Objects we have in common
If you were to write your own top list of 1980s objects, some of their meaning might only be obvious to you—a precious moment, or special song for example. Other objects might speak to national and international events more clearly—a passport, polling card or even a badge collection.
The point of listing history is to shine a light on the different and complicated ways that we can remember the Eighties—not in one overall “which side were you on?” story, but in a way that shows what we have in common, as well as what separates us.
Here are three ways the 1980s taught me to think differently:
1. Sony Walkman
Our hyper-individualised approach to music taste began with the Sony Walkman
The first Walkman was sold in 1979 and could be said to sum up the idea of the Eighties as the selfish decade.
When Thatcher famously declared “there’s no such thing as society”, she hailed a vision of the share and homeowning democracy where individuals should be supported to work hard and motivated by competition.
The rise of the Yuppies, Harry Enfield’s “loadsa money” and the rise of expensive but unfilling nouveau cuisine all suggested a similar view, where competition is good and money counts.
But the Walkman helps us think about the individual in the “no such” society. The Walkman was the soundtrack that allowed a totally individualised and isolated world.
"Wearing a Walkman allowed people to build their own soundtrack as they travelled through the world alone"
If you had a Walkman you only ever had to listen to what you wanted to and you didn’t have to share it with anyone else (unless you happened to have a double headphone jack). Wearing a Walkman allowed people to build their own soundtrack as they travelled through the world alone.
It also changed the ways other trends developed. The rise of jogging as a pastime and the fitness industry was buoyed by the development of the Walkman, as its soundtrack motivated endless miles of jogging.
Interestingly, the Falklands War was the first conflict in which some of the combatants had access to a Walkman. For those soldiers, the Walkman supplied a soundtrack to the war, and brought the sounds of home with them. It also made batteries a really valuable commodity on the islands.
MTV helped to turn music videos into a vital cultural phenomenon
In April 1981, MTV was launched. MTV turned music videos into an industry and an art form of their own. Before then, music videos had been a stand in or advert for the original song or live performance.
If the Walkman let you build your own personal soundtrack to life, MTV and music videos let you share music and its images with as many people as possible.
Music videos were collectively watched in pubs, bars and gyms, as well as with friends and families at home—if someone had the right subscription and technology that is.
"MTV turned music videos into an industry and an art form of their own"
The individual and collective enjoyment really came to a head with video jukeboxes in some bars and cafés that let individuals decide what the whole room would watch and listen to. You no longer had to wait for designated music schedules on TV—you could have 24-hour music and images.
Alongside the introduction of Channel 4, access to satellite and cable broadcasting, and the rise of breakfast TV and late-night broadcasting, MTV gave audiences in the Eighties more chance to watch what they wanted to watch for as long as they wanted to watch it.
3. Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations
Now! That's What I Call Music helped to track the era-defining hits from the 1980s to the early 2000s
The first Now! album was released in 1983. The concept was planned and delivered in the space of a week by Richard Branson’s independent label Virgin with support from EMI—the product of Branson’s approach to business.
Branson realised putting his label’s artists on compilations put out by labels like K-Tel and Ronco was just making money for his competition. He decided that they could keep the compilations in-house and invest the profits in new talent for Virgin.
The series capitalised on each new music technology as one format took over from the next. It was available in vinyl and cassette, minidisc, CD, Betamax, VHS and laser disc, and then as downloads. Their success actually changed how popularity was measured in the industry.
"If your first Now! was anything up to Now! 7, it means you grew up in the Eighties"
When Now! 10 beat Madonna to Number One in the UK Albums Chart in 1987, her label Warner Bros pushed for a separate chart for compilation albums to offset their domination of the regular music chart.
Branson explained how Now! worked as a way of thinking about the past and the present. “It was a powerful and meaningful statement in its own right and, when abbreviated to 'Now!', gave the ultimate contemporary message”.
Now! has since become a way of seeing the histories of our lives. Each compilation captured a snapshot of the charts, marking both its moment in time and inviting comparisons between eras.
Now! numbers marked life events as birthday gifts or Christmas presents, or as part of a particular generation. The first Now! you owned marks your life in time. If your first Now! was anything up to Now! 7, for example, it means you grew up in the Eighties. Now!’s 1992 compilation signalled the CD generation.
Now That’s What I Call A History of the 1980s: Pop Culture and Politics in the Decade That Shaped Modern Britain by Lucy Robinson (Manchester University Press) is out July 11
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