The '80s

aka: The Decade Of Excess
'Twas a good decade for pop culture.note 
"Legend has it that man once washed his jeans in pure acid!"

The Excessive Eighties: a time where you wake up before you go-go when you want to kick up your Sunday shoes as you walk like an Egyptian, hear doves cry or feel the Punky power like a virgin while you moonwalk the Thriller.

All the men were preppies who wore pastel suits with narrow ties, drove sports cars that Lee Iacocca personally stood behind and traded stocks on Wall Street - after all, as Oscar Wilde said, nothing says success like excess. (Unless they happened to be teenagers, in which case they were Totally Radical or studied karate and learnt the meaning of "Wax On, Wax Off".) Everyone had huge hairdos, enough make-up to sink a ship and power suits with shoulderpads big enough to knock the giant mirrored sunglasses off anyone who walked within a three foot radius of them. And those without them had flat-tops and wore gym clothes and break-danced on top of cardboard. Millenials (then known as "Echo Boomers" and later "Generation Y") started being born, one day to become, despite their best efforts, the young adults of The Turn of the Millennium.

Computing technology first became a true cultural force in this decade, starting a trend that would keep on snowballing to this very day. The Eighties was the decade of cell phones literally sized and shaped like bricks, jokes about being unable to program VCRs, the death of Betamax, and the beginnings of personal computers and gaming consoles beginning to proliferate inside homes, perhaps one of the trends from this decade with the largest of cultural implications. Cable television also took off big time, with MTV, TBS, HBO, and CNN becoming household acronyms.

In the US, it was also the first wave of the Japanese Invasion, the inklings of which started in '78 with the dub of Battle of the Planets, continuing on with Star Blazers ('79), Voltron ('84), getting even more hardcore with Robotech in '85, and hitting its apex by cranking the quality Up to Eleven with the nationwide release of AKIRA ('88).

On the homefront, the 1980s produced a rash of pop-cultural icons that today are looked upon, at worst, with Affectionate Parody, and at best, as the national ideal. The conservative political culture of the era meant two rather contradictory things for the production of pop-culture; on the one hand, the surge of private enterprise together with new media technologies allowed corporations such as Hasbro an unprecedented ability to build massive franchises around their products, typically with a TV show and accompanying toys, but on the other Moral Guardian complaints would challenge the ethics of making a show that was "essentially one large commercial." The result was the rather spoof-worthy And Knowing Is Half the Battle segment common to many mass franchise shows, shoving an Anvilicious moral into the action. Fortunately, these were conveniently located after the actual plot, so kids could just turn it off at that point and run down to buy the toys. Besides, the segments make great joke fodder.

Politically, the first part of the decade, Cold War tensions continued to escalate such as the US doing things like invading Grenada and proposing ludicrously unfeasible military schemes like the Strategic Defense Initiative. Some accuse this of being an intentional move by the West to render the economically inept Soviet Union infeasible by drawing its resources away from things like infrastructure and feeding its people, which market economies could accomplish easily. While this is, essentially, what ended up happening (though more complicated than that in real life; in Eastern Europe the decade's real deathblow to communism was considered to have been all the new media technology), the fact that the other possible outcome of such a strategy was global thermonuclear annihilation had a profound impact on Western media tropes. Most obviously, dystopian Speculative Fiction, particularly set After the End Twenty Minutes into the Future, enjoyed a surge. On the other hand, Star Trek became a defiantly optimistic mainstream Sci-Fi mainstay with the feature film series and its return to live action TV with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The second part of the decade, however, couldn't be more different. Mikhail Gorbachev, spry for a CPSU leader at age 54 (this was the only time in the Cold War that the Soviet leader was substantially younger than the American), shook up the by-then sclerotic Soviet leadership upon taking power in 1985. Gorbachev restructured the economy (perestroika) for "accelerated" development (uskoreniye), encouraged openness (glasnost), made tentative moves towards democracy (demokratizatsiya), and went Karting with Reagan. For a hot second in 1988-89, it seemed like the USSR had reached a final rapprochement with the West. And then came The Great Politics Mess-Up.

Throughout this era, there came new problems like the spread of AIDS which created a public health panic that dealt first a body blow to the gay community as homophobes treating them as modern lepers (even though that community took the danger seriously far sooner than others). However, the epidemic paradoxically later proved a partial blessing in disguise for gay rights as stricken people like Rock Hudson were shoved out of the closet, forcing the public to realize that LGBTI people were all around them, much like themselves. The Eighties also had the highest murder rate in U.S. history, almost twice what it is today.

Politically speaking, the decade lasted roughly from the inauguration of Ronald Reagan on January 20, 1981 to the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991, so almost 11 years. (Sometimes Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in 1979 is considered the start, especially in the UK.) Culturally, the decade lasted roughly from the death of Disco in 1979 to the release of Nirvana's album Nevermind in 1991.

Thanks to a common twenty- or thirty-year lag, it's still The Eighties in much of Fictionland. Although The Seventies and The '90s are gradually returning.

See Also: The Roaring Twenties, The Great Depression, The Forties, The Fifties, The Sixties, The Seventies, The '90s, Turn of the Millennium and The New Tens.


Popular tropes from this time period include:

  • The Aggressive Drug Dealer: Crack cocaine and heroin caught on big during this decade, along with their pushers, hence the establishment of this trope as part of the larger "Just Say No" movement.
  • The Ahnold: After Arnold Schwarzenegger became an icon with his roles in Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator imitating Arnie became a Stock Parody.
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle: G.I Joe, et. al., in order to counteract accusations of being no more than "30-minute toy commercials".
  • Animated Adaptation: Of practically everything, including films, TV shows, comic books, video games, action figures, dolls, plush toys, music videos, and real-life celebrities!
  • Anime, called Japanimation at the time, started becoming somewhat popular in the US in the '80s (although it would take untill the second half of the 90's untill it truly exploded in mainstream popularity).
  • Battle Rapping: Became famous during this decade.
  • Black Metal: Became popular during this era.
  • Blockbuster Age of Hollywood: Heralded by the success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) and the boxoffice disaster of Heaven's Gate (1980) the New Hollywood was put aside in 1980 and the rest of the decade were dominated by family friendly or juvenile pop corn blockbuster movies, with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as the biggest box office success of all time, until Jurassic Park (1993) dethroned it.
  • Canada Does Not Exist: A wave of low-budget cop and action-adventure dramas start being produced in Canada, but primarily for U.S. consumption. This leads to the weird phenomenon of shows which take place in a "nowhereland" that is neither fully the US nor completely Canada.
  • Charity Motivation Song: From late 1984 on, when "Do They Know Its Christmas?" came out.
  • Cold War and Red Scare: A big feature of this period, particularly in the early 1980s with the European Missiles Crisis, the Nicaraguan civil war and Libya. Especially Libya. The Cold War plots here can be divided squarely between before and after 8 December 1987, the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and USSR. It's generally straight Red Scare before that. After, it's Renegade Russian or Make the Bear Angry Again.
  • Come with Me If You Want to Live: Stock Parody popularized by The Terminator.
  • Concept Video: Though music videos already existed in the 1970s many were just a concert performance. The success of Michael Jackson's Thriller popularized music videos with interesting visuals and an actual storyline. All other music artists made music videos and by the end of the decade most young people couldn't even imagine a song existing without a cool video attached to it.
  • Conscious Hip Hop: Popularized by Grand Master Flash And The Furious Five.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Thanks to the movie Wall Street, an enduring image of this time. Part of the economic climate of the time were Ronald Reagan's reforms and the Black Monday crash of 1987.
  • Cyberpunk: kicked off by Blade Runner and Neuromancer.
  • Dance Sensation: Michael Jackson, anyone?
  • The Dark Age of Comic Books: Began with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in 1985.
  • Darker and Edgier: Even though this was a fun decade for many people this decade had many negative sides to it:
    • Crack cocaine was created and many people became destructively addicted to it; to make matters worse, the turf wars between dealers and gangs decimated many black neighborhoods in big cities.
    • The sexually-transmitted disease AIDS became an epidemic. The first two cases of patients dying from AIDS had taken place in 1959, but there are only a handful of known cases dating to the 1960s and 1970s. At least 121 AIDS-related deaths took place between 1980 and 1981. By the end of the 1980s, the disease had spread worldwide and there were over a million known patients. And in the U.S., the initial stigma of AIDS as a "gay disease" contributed to unfair ostracization of its victims and LGBT people in general.
    • The beginning of the (currently ongoing) "war on drugs" resulted in skyrocketing incarceration rates, hundreds of thousands of people ending up behind bars for nonviolent offenses.
      • By contrast, everyone could get behind the big crackdown on the deadly Drunk Driver traffic menace, which finally got taken seriously in a Dude, Not Funny! way.
      • Likewise, smoking found itself marginalized still more with the health menace of second-hand smoke becoming common knowledge, causing a groundswell of efforts to discourage the habit and isolate smokers.
    • An enormous crime wave hit America at this time: this is where NYC got its image as a crime-ridden Hellhole of apathy and darkness, and why so many action movies starring Cowboy Cops were popular.
    • More generally, the 1980s were the time when the American middle class began losing ground in terms of GDP share as more people became part of the upper class.. Socio-economic inequalities more or less kept in check for a half-century started growing again, creating an increasing polarization between economic classes.
    • Unemployment was a huge problem in many Western countries. Very conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in the UK endorsed the free market and privatisations. This was great for billionaires and yuppies, but meant sour times for middle and lower class citizens and the poor, who didn't receive as much help from the government as in previous decades.
    • The arrival of MTV had a downside as well. Music videos became so dominant that authentic artists who played instruments were now expected to create a music video for every hit single they released, because otherwise it would not receive airplay. For some serious artists this was a huge setback, because they were now expected to "act" and "look good" on camera to appeal to the record buying public. By the end of the 1980s many music fans couldn't imagine a music record existing without some kind of video attached to it. Thus several pop stars who looked attractive but couldn't sing or play a note on their instrument were launched to make quick bucks.
    • In the first half of the 1980s many people across the world felt frightened because President Reagan orderded more nuclear missiles to be placed in Europe to defend the US against the Soviet Union. He also endorsed a daft plan, "Star Wars", to protect the USA in space against a possible Soviet attack. Fear for a Third World War and nuclear testing lead to numerous protests and protest singles. Only when Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985 tensions between the USA and USSR started to diminish.
    • The Chernobyl disaster (1986) also lead to a universal fear for nuclear power disasters, especially when a huge radioactive cloud flew over Europe, having disastrous effects on the local farming industry. Since then the place has become a Ghost Town and a place where plants and animals have won back ground on humans.
  • Death Metal: Became popular during this era.
  • Dirty Rap: Popularized by Schoolly D.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: A common way of introducing romance subplots in '80s movies.
  • Drugs Are Bad: A growing awareness of the dangers of recreational drugs (especially the above-mentioned crack cocaine) led to government-sponsored programs designed to teach kids to "Just Say No", which led to this message becoming near-ubiquitous via the Very Special Episode and Public Service Announcement.
  • Dystopia: Dark, crime-ridden Twenty Minutes into the Future or oppressive alternate universes were big in '80s films/TV shows.
  • '80s Hair: If you were in a (popular) metal band or were a female country singer you wore it one way and only one way, BIG! This was also the decade in which the mullet really went mainstream. (Though the actual name "mullet" was only coined and applied retrospectively in The '90s).
  • Erotic Film: As porn theaters started to close and moral guardians fought pornography erotic movies went underground again. They did manage to make back their profit thanks to the success of video rents and sales.
  • Football Hooligans: For the UK at least. It became such a problem that Margaret Thatcher put together a cabinet just to tackle them. Measures put in place then led to Hillsborough. These days the problem has been virtually eradicated, although the trope appears quite often in foreign films set in the UK where football is involved, and Hooligans continue to cause problems in places not the UK (mostly South America).
  • Funk: Still popular in the early 1980s, with Prince and Michael Jackson as prime stars.
  • Fur and Loathing: When it started.
  • The Generation Gap: A new kind of generation gap was created, with left-wing hippie parents trying to understand their right-wing, materialistic yuppie children.
  • The Golden Age of Hip Hop: From the late 1970s, blossoming throughout the 1980s until the early 1990s.
  • Goth Rock: Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cure,... popularized gloomy music.
  • Hair Metal: The most popular metal genre in the 1980s, one that dominated rock until the arrival of Grunge in the 1990s.
  • Heavy Metal: Became targeted as the new dangerous threat to the youth of America, with supposed satanic messages hidden in the lyrics.
  • Hip Hop: Broke to the mainstream during this decade, with Grand Master Flash And The Furious Five, Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys as the frontrunners.
  • Hollywood Action Hero: The 1980s made iconic stars out of muscled Rated M for Manly actors like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Indiana Jones franchise could be counted too, though less testosteron heavy. For a black example, Mr T comes to mind.
  • Hotter and Sexier: Madonna's outrageous more sexualized imagery set a trend for many female pop singers in her wake.
  • House Music: Near the late 1980s club house music became more prominent, resulting in styles like Techno in the 1990s.
  • Idol Singer: Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, just to name a few...
  • I'm Going to Disney World: Advertisment that was very popular from the 1980s on and eventually became a Stock Parody.
  • I Was Quite a Fashion Victim: Applying to works looking at this decade in hindsight, a survivor of the so-called "decade fashion disaster" might confess to this. The fashion statements were so overly radical, more extravagant and less flamboyant than the decade before, it had to be toned down and grunged up a lot a decade later.
  • Japan Takes Over the World: A staple of the decade, particularly in Cyberpunk works. Often seems a little silly now. By the late 1990s this became a more realistic threat to Western investors as Japan's economy overshadowed the US and Europe in its financial success.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compared to the more revolutionary and sociologically progressive 1960s and 1970s the eighties were pretty tame. Virtually all products (film, music, toys, TV shows,...) were heavily Merchandise-Driven and not subtle about it. As a result most of it is very clean, safe, family friendly and didn't take any artistic risks.
  • Limited Animation: Cartoons still suffered from being shoddily animated, thinly veiled toy commercials.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Stock Parody popularized by a famous scene from The Empire Strikes Back.
  • Merchandise-Driven: Virtually every original cartoon made in the eighties seems to be this way.
  • Michael Jackson's "Thriller" Parody: Spoofing Michael Jackson's music video for "Thriller" started in this decade.
  • Montage Ends The VHS: It's when a commercial VHS tape has trailers, intros or just a compilation montage promoting a line of tapes at the end, after a movie or episode it contains is over.
  • Moon Walk Dance: Michael Jackson popularized the moonwalk in 1983.
  • Moral Guardians: The Moral Majority was very strong in the USA and backed by the Reagan government. They attacked Heavy Metal, Goth Rock, pornography, video games and gay culture as threats to the youth. In the UK the Thatcher government also forbid a series of gory horror movies called the Video Nasties for the same reasons. By the end of the decades many moral guardians started to lose their power, as many televangelists in the US got caught up in sex and tax fraud scandals.
  • Narm Charm: Oh yes.
  • New Wave Music: Still popular.
  • Nostalgia Filter / Two Decades Behind
  • Pac Man Fever: "Pac-Man" became a global phenomenon.
  • Parodies of Fire: A Stock Parody popularized by Chariots of Fire.
  • Pretty in Mink: Works that weren't afraid to show fur tended to show even more than they would in The Seventies.
  • Protest Song: Made a return with charity singles like "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are The World" trying to bring in money to help poor people in Africa. The Artists Against Apartheid and the Free Nelson Mandela movement fought against South Africa's apartheid's system. Farm Aid helped farmers in the USA to overcome financial troubles. And many protest songs were written against the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher administrations.
  • Raiders of the Lost Parody: A Stock Parody popularized by Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  • Rich Bitch: Featured in Dynasty, Falcon Crest, et. al.
  • "Risky Business" Dance: A Stock Parody popularized by Risky Business.
  • Shoulders of Doom: The huge shoulder pads, bigger than the ones forty years earlier.
  • Slasher Movie: Very popular during this decade, with Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street as the front runners.
  • Synth Pop: The dominant music genre throughout the decade, making every track instantly recognizable as having an 80s sound.
  • Sweater Girl: With or without shoulder pads. With or without a bra underneath.
  • Thrash Metal: Debuted during this era.
  • Training Montage: Many 1980s martial arts or sports film had one of these, with inspirational music from Survivor, John Farnham or some other classic rocker.
  • Valley Girl: Like, totally!
  • Vapor Wear: Common in the first part of the decade (before Madonna); off-the-shoulder tops and tops with bare backs were common.
  • Very Special Episode: Just about every show had one or more of these, often due to Executive Meddling but sometimes just plain Author Tracts. Drugs Are Bad and Too Smart for Strangers were especially popular.
  • Video Nasties: In 1984 certain gory horror movies were blacklisted by the British government and forbidden to be imported. Many of them were very forgettable, some not even that bloody violent, but they remained in the public consciousness just by the fact that they were put on that list.
  • We Didn't Start the Billy Joel Parodies: A Stock Parody created by the success of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire".
  • A Wild Rapper Appears: Rappers appearing during songs outside their genre became more popular, with "Walk This Way" by Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. as perhaps the oldest and most famous example.

Many things were created or existed in the 1980s:

    open/close all folders 


Works that are set/were made in this time period include:
(Note: many were also a part of the Nineties; usually those made in the later part of the decade, and are marked with a '*').

    Anime 

    Asian Animation 

    Comedy 

    Comic Books 

    Eastern European Animation 

    Film 

For films released in this time period, see Films of the 1980s

    Han-guk Manhwa Aenimeisyeon 

    Literature 

    Newspaper Comics 

    Pinball 

    Professional Wrestling 

    Radio 

    Tabletop Games 

    Theatre 

    Theme Parks 

    Video Games 

    Other 

Random Kid: 'Cause now we know!

Alternative Title(s):

The Excessive Eighties, The Decade Of Excess