The 80s & Me by C.K. Kelly Martin
Several years ago I told my editor I was going to write a book set in the 80s. At the time what I had in mind was basically a YA story centred around a girl crushing on an unobtainable older guy, zero fantastical elements and entirely different characters than appear in Yesterday. In the end that idea fell by the wayside and I wrote a collection of other young adult novels instead. But the pull to write about the 80s remained, probably because, although I spent a lot of the eighties feeling like I was waiting for something to happen, in many ways it was a terrific time to be young.
When I was sixteen in 1985, just like Freya, the Internet as we know it didn’t exist, neither did pocket-sized cell phones. In fact, no one really had a cell phone and if they did it was close to the size of a shoe box. In the 80s I had no home computer (they didn’t do much in those days anyway) and no answering machine. If someone called your house while you were on the telephone, they met a busy single and had to call you back later. Hell, my family didn’t even have a VCR until 1986 and I think we got our first microwave roughly around the same time.
Happily, however, we did possess an Atari system in the 80s and while the graphics now seem almost headache-inducing, I spent hours entranced by the magic of Pac-Man and Missile Command. Because my dad was a school principal sometimes on weekends he’d bring home the school VCR and camcorder and my brother and I and our friends would goof around with it, doing mock VJ-musician interviews. Music television was new too then, you see, and occupied a lot of my mental space. MTV was born in the U.S. in 1981 and my younger cousin still remembers how excited I was, upon visiting him and his family in Michigan, to discover a channel dedicated to music videos (Canadian cable channel MuchMusic debuted a few years later, in 1984).
It’s difficult to explain how monumental music television felt to a generation who has grown up with a zillion TV channels and instant access to virtually anything you want to watch, but the concept of music videos was achingly fresh at the time and bands and musical artists like Duran Duran (I was a huge Durannie and when I went to see them in Toronto in March, 1984 I swear half the girls I was in tenth grade with were in attendance too), Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson and Madonna swelled the ranks of their fanbase with what were then original visions.
My best friend and I began to snap up concert tickets for our favourite bands and artists (sometimes sleeping outside the local Ticketmaster office to score decent seats). Toronto visits from our favourite musicians became day long events. We’d write notes excusing each other from class and take the commuter bus downtown to hang out outside the MuchMusic studo where touring musicians would show up to promote their concerts. I filled an autograph book with signatures by The Thompson Twins, Paul Young, General Public, The Cure’s Robert Smith and others. Post-concert days I was positively giddy from the experience of having been that close to the music I loved and the people who’d created it.
Atari. New Wave music. The Star Wars trilogy craze. Interesting new technologies on the horizon (home computers may not have been capable of much at the time but computers certainly had potential – in 1982 Time Magazine named the computer its man of the year). Awesome teenage movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High,Footloose, War Games, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Back to the Future. All these things came together to create the feeling that life was full of promise and would only get better and better. Of course, there was a downside to the era too and it was a massive one. All the androgyny seen in the music industry at the time may have meant you could do what you wanted with your hair (plenty of new wave guys at my school had ‘tails’ and male heavy metal fans wore their hair big and long) and sung about your angst until the cows came home, but I didn’t encounter a single person during high school who outwardly identified as gay. Too, the only visibly pregnant student I ever saw at school was one in eighth grade who didn’t appear again after summer. Clearly the atmosphere of the times was unaccepting to LGBT youth and pregnant teenagers. Especially at my Catholic high school!
Then there was the gnawing fear of nuclear war. The 80s was cold war time. The U.S.A. versus the Soviet Union. Although the threat of nuclear war hasn’t disappeared, it doesn’t inhabit the forefronts of our minds like it did then, possibly because other fears like terrorism, global warming and a global financial slowdown have taken its place. But I still keenly remember watching the 1982 anti-nuclear documentary If You Love This Planet with my 10th grade Geography class. A fire alarm erupted in the middle of the film and everyone in my class jumped a mile wondering, for a second, if this was it: the end of life as we’d known it. That acute anxiety is reflected in TV shows and movies from the time including Testament (1983), The Day After (1983), When the Wind Blows (1986), Miracle Mile (1988), Threads (1983) and the 1984 novel Warday.You can see it, too, in the heartfelt music video from the time, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes by new wave band Ultravox and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes.
And just like that I’m back to music because when it comes to the eighties that’s what sticks with me the most – Morrissey crooning that he knows it’s over, Yazoo’s Alison Moyet hollering ‘don’t go, Til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann lamenting that ‘voices carry and Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Sommerville ruminating on the pain of being a smalltown boyand acting as a window to a world that was still hidden in my high school halls.