Riding Shotgun: Ronald Reagan, Junk Bonds, and Other Mindless Drivel We Used to Love

This time the 80s wants our money.

What goes around, comes around. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Everything is cyclic, and so forth. Well, American culture is certainly proof of that. We’ve seen trends — hideously conceived at the outset — put out of their misery, only to be resurrected 20 years later by the great gods of pop fashion: bell-bottoms, ghostwhite guys with Afros, puffy poet shirts. The list is endless.

Some made no sense then and even less now. Every article of clothing worn in the late 70s should have been burned and the ashes scattered to the four winds to prevent children from raiding their parents’ closets today.

But some trends, some resurgences, can be expected. Some things we should have seen coming, and some we might actually welcome with open arms.

And so, I’m pleased to introduce you to the bastardization, and the fierce exploitation, of my childhood.

Well, not just my childhood, but that of the youth of my entire generation — the 80s kids. Now, I’m not talking about those adults today who remember the death of disco, the emergence of punk rock, and spent that decade trying to cash in on the Reagan-era gimme-gimme-gimme boom.

Those are yuppies. Lamentably, they came to define the 80s, and so we hate them. I can only hope that most were suffocated under the weight of fallen junk bonds and were never able to pass on their defective genes.

I’m talking about the kids of the 80s. Those of us who are in their early-to-mid-20s now and spent our burgeoning, playful, prepubescent years during that decade. We didn’t have a clue who Walter Mondale was, and our thoughts on Ollie North consisted of severe displeasure that the Iran-Contra hearings pre-empted our favorite TV shows.

We wore the fashion, but we weren’t really vain. We listened to the music, but we weren’t allowed to go to clubs yet. We grew up in that culture, but thankfully we weren’t scarred by it. No, we hit that whole post-pubescent, self-awareness thing in the 90s. Grunge and Bill Clinton — what a way to spend our teenage years.

But in the 80s, we were children. What a fun decade to grow up in. The creation of video games, VCRs, computers — there was just so much fun shit to play with. And now we’re adults. We’re in the workplace, we have credit, and for the first time in our lives, we are a serious buying power. We don’t have to ask our parents for anything anymore (although if they’d like to give us a few bucks, we’re not gonna stop ’em).

And since buying power shapes the market, the market is embracing our childhood. Everything we loved, everything we played with, everything that we clasp to our breast with the sweet strength of nostalgia, is hitting the shelves for a second time. Children of the 80s, this is for you.

Do you remember when you came home from school and turned on the TV to find the afternoon commercials littered with ads for 60s compilation albums — two guys looking like a cross between Cheech Marin and ZZ Top doing bad stoner accents and trying to convince you that owning a re-mastered version of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” would make your life complete?

Now it’s ads for 80s hits that clog up the gap between programs. All those one-hit wonders are glued together for our listening pleasure and being hawked by those same two actors, re-mastered themselves in pastel-T-shirt-and-ghostwhite-linen-jacket Miami Vice gear.

We had our radios tuned to that music, but I don’t think anyone of us was sporting a Flock of Seagulls hairdo at that age. At least I certainly hope not. Whatever 9-year-old was allowed to do that has probably been locked in his therapist’s office since 1988.

Classic 80s rock. I’m sorry, but it’s going to take more than mere time to make me believe that Whitesnake can ever be called “classic.”

Moving on … the music was cool and needed to be addressed, but we were kids. We had more important things on our minds. Toys.

The three biggest toy lines of the 80s are coming back in force and in style. And if you haven’t been to a toy store lately, you might be surprised by just how familiar the selection is.

“I have the power!” our muscle-bound hero bellowed. The sound of it just made our nerves thrill. Was there any boy who didn’t dress up as a Masters of the Universe character for Halloween between ’81 and ’90? If there was, I don’t want to know about it.

He-Man. Sure, he had a name that sounded like a bit of Tarzan dialogue (“He man, you Jane, me dizzy”), but the testosterone-overdosed hero was a heavyweight contender during Saturday mornings and threw his weight around considerably on the toy shelves.

The spin-off universe featuring She-Ra was, surprisingly enough, a giant hit among girls — one of the only action figure characters that can make that claim. And Mattel, the company that originally manufactured the toy, has decided that he’s worth dusting off and putting back on the rack.

The reissuing of the original figures has already begun. You can find your old favorites at your local toy store: He-Man, Skeletor, Beast-Man and all your ugly favorites. Mattel is also in the process of a (to borrow a term from Tim Burton) reimagination of the classic characters.

This involves making them even more bad-ass than before, and removing some of the silliness and ridiculous disproportion of their bodies (which, in retrospect, there is a copious amount of). Todd McFarlane showed the world that action figures could fly to new realms of detail and realism (Spawn, Movie Maniacs) and, by the looks of things, these new/old figures will live up to 21st century expectations.

When Hasbro created a series of 12-inch soldier dolls in 1964, I doubt they thought that the line would be so popular. It took 18 years, but when G.I. Joe returned in 1982, accompanied by a cartoon and tiny, highly poseable figures, it taught a whole new generation of kids what it mean to be a “real American hero” … and how cool rocket launchers could be.

That particular version of the toy line lasted for over a decade, eventually disintegrating into utter crap in the mid-90s. Since then Hasbro, has kept the product on the shelves with a line of commemorative and “historically based” army figures.

Well, now the characters we grew to love (and showed our love by ripping their rubber-band-attached legs off) are coming back. And if anybody knows how to advertise a comeback, it’s Hasbro.

Not only are new versions of the old favorites hitting the shelves (look for Duke, Cobra Commander, Snake Eyes, Destroy, Storm Shadow and other classics), but Joe has returned to comics. The Image title is more colorful, shinier and splashier than any of the original Joe books and is becoming a big name in the comic world.

Check out Hasbro’s Joe Web site for a list of the new toys and some interactive fun.

There’s one more bit of info from Hasbro that needs mentioning, but look — I’m out of space and out of time. So the next installment is going to be dedicated almost solely to the toys that turned me into a fanatic in my youth, and managed to do it again in my 20s — arguably the most popular toy line on both sides of the globe.

I think I’ll call it “So Much More Than Meets The Eye: How the Japanese taught us to love the giant robot.”

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood