50 Things Only People Who Lived in the 1980s Will Remember
Grab your parachute pants and get ready to take a trip down memory lane.
Nostalgia for the 1980s is so rampant that even people who weren’t alive during the glorious decade like to celebrate it as if they were. Teens today will even put on tracksuits and Kangol hats and boogie out to the likes of LL Cool J. However, those of us who witnessed the ’80s firsthand aren’t just sentimental for that bygone era. All those cultural cliches that people try to emulate? Yeah, it’s in our DNA. We are the ’80s and the ’80s are us. Keep reading to discover 50 things that any true child of the ’80s won’t just remember, but probably still thinks about on a regular basis. You can take the kid out of the ’80s, but the ’80s will always persevere.
Keeping Your Valuables in a Fanny Pack
When it came to financial security and fashion in the ’80s, the kangaroo was everybody’s role model. Yes, fanny packs are utterly ridiculous. And yet, it’s hard not to love an accessory that makes things more accessible and keeps them safe.
Waiting All Afternoon for Your Favorite Video on MTV
When MTV premiered in 1981, it offered 24 hours of nonstop videos. The only caveat? In this world before YouTube, you were helpless to MTV’s line-up and would often end up waiting hours just for your favorite three-minute Men Without Hats video.
Constantly Anticipating Nuclear War
During the ’80s, everyone had a nagging anxiety that nuclear war imminent. And it didn’t help that on TV, movies like 1983’s The Day After were depicting harrowing scenes of the world after a nuclear attack. Even Sting expressed the sentiment we all had with his 1985 hit “Russians:” “I hope the Russians love their children too.”
Watching the Series Finale of M*A*S*H
Never before had the ’80s seen a TV event quite like the M*A*S*H finale. When the two-and-a-half-hour “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” episode aired on February 28, 1983, more than 100 million viewers tuned in, making it the most-watched program in television history at the time. (It was only beaten in 2010 by the Super Bowl.) Whether you religiously watched all 11 seasons of M*A*S*H or you couldn’t pick “Hawkeye” Pierce out of a lineup, this series finale was one of those shared experiences that bonded people during the ’80s.
Only Wearing Neon Fashion
From leg warmers to oversized tops to Members Only jackets, anything you wore in the ’80s had to be so bright and vibrant that your outfit became its own light source. If staring directly at your ensemble could lead to irreversible cornea damage, then you knew that you were doing something right.
The Debut of the Macintosh Super Bowl Commercial
It’s been called the greatest commercial in Super Bowl history—but in 1984, when it first aired, most people had no clue what it was trying to sell. In 60 mesmerizing seconds, Macintosh treated viewers to a dystopian nightmare in which a Big Brother lecture was interrupted by a woman in bright red shorts hurling a mallet towards the screen and causing an explosion.
The bizarre commercial ended with an ominous voice announcing the new Apple Macintosh personal computer—and suddenly, everyone had to have one. There have been attempts to duplicate the captivating weirdness of this original Apple commercial, but as the L.A. Times once observed, “there can be only one… just as there can be only one Hoover Dam or one Eiffel Tower.”
Lady Diana Becoming Princess Diana
The wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Diana in the summer of 1981 was more than just the spectacle of wealthy monarchs getting hitched. At the time, some 750 million people across the globe watched what was widely described as a fairytale wedding, one that influenced nuptials for years to come. Even the biggest cynics couldn’t help but get butterflies in their stomach after watching those royal lovebirds finally say “I do.”
Coke Reinventing Their Recipe
It’s still a mystery why the Coca-Cola Company thought it was a good idea to ditch its tried-and-true recipe in favor of what was essentially a watered-down Pepsi. Naturally, when they unleashed “New Coke” in 1985, the response was overwhelmingly negative. According to Time, more than 40,000 letters were delivered to the company, demanding that they bring back the original recipe… or else. Coca-Cola finally did just that three months after the release, and it was such huge news that Peter Jennings even interrupted an episode of the daytime soap General Hospital to make the announcement.
Thinking Max Headroom Was the Future
Maybe it was all makeup and prosthetics, but Matt Frewer—the man behind Max Headroom—sure had us fooled that we were witnessing the future. The ABC series, which only aired from 1987 to 1988, was required viewing. It even made a convincing case for New Coke when Max delivered the inimitable catchphrase, “C-c-catch the wave!”
Horrifyingly Watching President Reagan’s Assassination Attempt
In March 1981, the world watched as President Ronald Reagan was gunned down by John Hinckley Jr. while leaving a hotel in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t the first presidential assassination attempt, but in a new media age in which cameras were everywhere, the footage of those frightening minutes made onlookers feel like they were right in the middle of it.
Crafting a Mixtape
In the 1980s, making mixtapes was an art. It wasn’t like the Spotify playlists of today, which you can add an unlimited number of songs to and throw together with just a few keystrokes. Rather, an ’80s mixtape meant working with cassettes, which only provided a finite number of minutes for you to make a musical statement. What’s more, you had to actually own physical copies of the music you were including. What a concept, right?
Working Out with Jane Fonda
By the mid ’80s, there were very few households in the U.S. that didn’t own at least one well-worn VHS copy of Jane Fonda’s Workout. The at-home workout tape was so popular, in fact, that it’s now one of the best-selling videos of all time, with more than 17 million copies sold. What made it so popular—besides the fact that Fonda herself was wearing a belted leotard and working up a sweat to synth music—was that the exercises were ahead of their time, following the same stretching and resistance routine that many personal trainers use today.
Wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarers
“You got that hair slicked back and those Wayfarers on, baby.” When Don Henley sang those immortal lines in his 1984 hit “The Boys Of Summer,” he wasn’t making a random wardrobe choice. In the ’80s, Ray-Ban Wayfarers were the only sunglasses that anyone hip or relevant would even consider putting on. From The Blues Brothers to Tom Cruise and Madonna to Jack Nicholson, everyone coveted Ray-Bans. Singer Corey Hart even wore his at night, although nobody could ever figure out why. (So he can what exactly?)
Calling Someone to Ask Them Out
During the ’80s, you weren’t able to ask somebody out by simply swiping left or right on a phone app. You had to pick up the phone, dial a number, and then have an awkward conversation while you mustered up the courage to actually invite your crush on a date. It didn’t always go according to plan, but that was the excitement of dating.
Buying Your First VCR
VCRs were already being sold in the late ’70s. However, the price tag on the machine back then could be oppressive—ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $1,400. So it wasn’t until the ’80s that they became more ubiquitous. When prices dropped to a far more reasonable $200 to $400, suddenly every household had their own VCR. The only question was, did you want a VHS or a Betamax? (There was only one right answer, but nobody knew that then.)
Who doesn’t need a novelty phone that looks exactly like an obese orange cat with an appetite for lasagna? And if that wasn’t creepy (or kitschy) enough for you, Garfield’s eyes would also open and shut whenever the receiver was picked up or put down. (Here’s an example of one in the 1985 movie Ninja Terminator.)
Sure, it didn’t come loaded with all the special features of today’s phones, but ’80s kids loved them nonetheless. And if you have a hankering for a Garfield phone of your own, they’ve been washing up on the shores of France for about 30 years now. Go help yourself!
Using Dawn to Clean Birds During the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Everything about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, when an oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Arctic waters in Alaska, was horrifying to watch. However, there was a glimmer of hope when people learned that Dawn, the dishwashing detergent, was effective at cleaning the oil off of birds and sea turtles. A 2003 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (quoted by an article in The Wichita Eagle) claimed that Dawn is highly recommended “because it removes oil from feathers; is non-toxic; and does not leave a residue.”
Wanting to Live Like Ferris Bueller
Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), the Chicago high schooler who played hooky and had the adventure of a lifetime, was everything that teens wanted to emulate in the 1980s. He was the perfect poster child for kids who wanted to misbehave without doing anything technically illegal. Sure, maybe it was near impossible to lead a parade singing “Twist and Shout,” but most people could at least find an excuse to skip work or school and see a ball game. As Bueller reminded us in the 1986 film, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” And for more timeless classics, check out The 50 Best American Movies of All Time.
Mr. T Pitying His First Fool
Although it’s safe to assume that Mr. T was constantly pitying fools on his first TV show, The A-Team, he actually never uttered the phrase there. The catchphrase began with the 1982 movie Rocky II, in which Mr. T, as boxer Clubber Lang, sneered during an interview that he didn’t hate Rocky Balboa, “but I pity the fool.” With this oft-quoted line, Mr. T turned pitying fools into a cottage industry. Even more so than his mohawk or gold chains, it’s what he’ll always be remembered for.
The “Just Say No” Campaign
First Lady Nancy Reagan had the best of intentions when she launched the “Just Say No” campaign in the early ’80s, even though some critics complained that her solution to the drug epidemic was maybe a little too simplistic. But when she made a cameo on Diff’rent Strokes and convinced Gary Coleman and the gang that “all drugs are dumb,” well, that was enough for us. “Say no” it is, Nancy!
The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird Rivalry
There are sports rivalries, and then there’s the former rivalry of basketball greats Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They were the Thor and Loki of their time; the Professor X and Magneto of 1980s basketball. Who you saw as the so-called bad guy depended on which team you were rooting for—but when it came to raw talent and instant likability, it was hard to deny that Magic and Larry were pretty evenly matched.
Being Obsessed with Solving a Rubik’s Cube
The first time you sat down with a Rubik’s Cube in the ’80s, it probably seemed like an impossible challenge. However, that impossibility was what made the Rubik’s Cube so popular. People love a good mystery, after all! The national obsession with the Rubik’s Cube was so huge that ABC even briefly aired a cartoon with a Rubik’s Cube as the main character titled Rubik, the Amazing Cube. (Yes, it was terrible, but most people watched anyway because of Rubik’s Cube fever.)
Thinking Greed Is Good
Just months after Gordon Gekko uttered those infamous words in Oliver Stone’s 1987 masterpiece Wall Street—“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”— the “Black Monday” stock market crash devastated Wall Street and much of the global economy. In the largest one-day stock market decline in history, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 22.6 percent in just one session. Trillions of dollars in wealth were lost around the world. So yes, 1987 was a year that gave us both a super cool quote about greed being good and concrete evidence that sometimes greed comes back to bite you in the behind.
Hands Across America
On May 25, 1986, approximately 6.5 million people held hands for 15 minutes around the country and created the greatest expression of human love and compassion that the world has ever seen. Or at least that was the idea when Ken Kragen attempted to organize Hands Across America. In reality, there were big gaps in the deserts of the Southwest, and some ranchers used their cattle to fill in the empty spots, putting them hoof-to-hoof. So really, calling it “Hands and Hooves Across America” would have been more accurate.
Worshipping Hair Bands
Bon Jovi. Cinderella. Motley Crüe. Def Leppard. Poison. Ratt. Whitesnake. Warrat. Quiet Riot. Van Halen. So much Aqua Net was used to create the hair for these metal and rock bands alone, it’s amazing we have any ozone layer left at all.
The Cabbage Patch Doll Craze
There’s a reason why Time called it “the great Cabbage Patch Kids madness of 1983.” Admittedly, we did all go a little bonkers for those adorable dolls that looked oddly like Mickey Rooney. Some parents even got into fisticuffs with each other in the toy stores, battling to get the perfect Cabbage Patch for their child. We’re not being hyperbolic; parents were seriously punching each other for dolls.
Flipping Tapes to the Other Side
You’d be in your car listening to a cassette or in your living room listening to a vinyl record on the hi-fi, and all of a sudden the music would just… stop. If you wanted to keep rocking out, you had to stop what you were doing and take out the cassette or pick up the vinyl record and turn it over. Yes, in the ’80s, listening to your favorite music involved active participation. The harsh reality of physical media is that only so many songs can fit on a side one.
Trying to Find Out Who Shot J.R.
If there was such a thing as going viral in the ’80s, it happened during the 1980 season finale of Dallas, in which oil tycoon J.R. Ewing (played by Larry Hagman) was shot by… somebody. Nobody knew by whom, but it was all anybody could talk about that summer. More people had wild and far-fetched theories about who shot J.R. than they had about the Kennedy assassination. There was so much excitement and speculation that when Dallas returned later that year, a record 83 million viewers tuned in, according to The History Channel.
The Birth of 24-Hour News
Up until 1980, you could only watch the news at designated times in the morning and evening. But with the arrival of CNN, news junkies had a way to stay informed around the clock.
Though the brainchild of Ted Turner become the cultural phenomenon that it is today during the Gulf War in the early ’90s, those who tuned in during the ’80s were able to witness the dawn of a new media age in its infancy.
Trying to Learn How to Breakdance
In the ’80s, just about every kid in the country wanted to learn a few breakdancing moves. Maybe not everyone had what it took to bust a move like the Windmill or the Head Slide—but if you could pull off a respectable Robot, that was enough to be able to bust a move at the school dance without looking completely foolish.
The Challenger Explosion
Like 9/11, everyone who was alive in the ’80s knows exactly where they were on January 28, 1986. It was on this day that the 10th flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which carried five NASA astronauts and a civilian schoolteacher, exploded just 73 seconds into its flight, killing everybody on board. Innocent lives were lost that day—and the dream of everyday people making it to space felt even more out of reach.
The Super Bowl Shuffle
What made the Chicago Bears the most exciting team in sports in 1985? Winning the Super Bowl certainly helped, but what ultimately made the team a sensation was a quirky little hit song called “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” Though their singing and dancing was just so-so, there was something hypnotic about how hilariously bad the whole production was. Even all these years later, we can’t help but sing along to every ridiculous lyric: “We’re not here to cause no trouble / we’re just here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle!”
Baby Jessica Falling Down the Well
Who knew that a baby trapped in a well could bring an entire nation together? But that’s exactly what happened when one-and-a-half-year-old Jessica McClure Morales fell into a well in her aunt’s backyard in Midland, Texas, in the fall of 1987. Everyone in the country was glued to their TV screens as rescuers worked tirelessly to pull the child to safety from that 22-foot-deep crypt. It was a nail-biter every step of the way—and when that mud-caked baby face finally saw sunlight again, it felt like a victory for all.
Hitting the Arcade on Friday Night
Sure, you could play video games at home, but there was something special in the ’80s about hitting the arcade with a big roll of quarters in your pocket and challenging some friends to a friendly game of Rampage. The sound of an arcade packed with kids joyfully banging on buttons and pulling at joysticks will always be music to our ears.
Listening to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Many Americans weren’t all that aware about the famine in Ethiopia until they heard the unforgettable chorus of “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” recorded by a super group of British musicians called Band-Aid. In addition to raising money for famine relief, the song also delivered a pretty darn catchy tune. Even people who haven’t thought about Ethiopia in decades can still belt out those lyrics, “Do they know it’s Christmastime at aaaaaall?”
Tawny Kitaen Flying on Top of a Car
The band Whitesnake made ’80s pop metal that was pretty easy to forget. However, what wasn’t so easy to forget were their music videos, particularly the ones starring the lead singer’s girlfriend, Tawny Kitaen, who made rolling around on a luxury car look like classical ballet. Her starring roles in Whitesnake videos were enough to inspire hundreds of kids around the world to follow their musical dreams.
Dave Letterman Introducing the World to Velcro
In the ’80s, David Letterman was still the rebel of late night television, and he knew just how to find comedy in things that no one had ever considered before. Case in point: We never thought velcro was all that funny until we saw Letterman with velcro shoes, a velcro dart gun, a velcro basketball, and—the piece de resistance—a velcro suit. If you’ve never watched a man in full velcro jump from a trampoline onto a velcro wall, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Cutting Up Perfectly Good Clothes to “Redesign” Them
It started out with tearing holes in the knees of your jeans or tights and cutting off the collar on your sweatshirt so you looked like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. And soon, it evolved into a style movement where clothing wasn’t fashionable unless it was almost entirely shredded. There are even online tutorials on how to cut up a shirt so that it looks ’80s-ready.
The Chernobyl Disaster
As if people in the ’80s didn’t feel anxious enough about the threat of nuclear war, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 made everyone all the more acutely aware of how vulnerable they really were. On April 26, 1986, at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine in the former Soviet Union, a reactor explosion caused a lethal amount of radiation to be released into the atmosphere. As a result, 30 people died and hundreds more were sickened with radiation poisoning, and it took weeks just to fully contain the incident.
The Miracle on the Ice
It was one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history and a reason to feel pride in American athletes. The XIII Olympic Winter Games of 1980 took place in Lake Placid, New York, but the odds were stacked against the U.S. hockey team. With a team made up of college kids, nobody expected the U.S. to stand a chance against the Soviets, who had a powerhouse team of experienced athletes. However, on February 22, 1980, the scrappy Americans beat the Soviets in a stunning upset, a David-and-Goliath story that Sport Illustrated picked in 2016 as the single greatest moment in sports history.
Wearing Down Vests No Matter the Time of Year
Maybe everyone secretly wanted to be Mork (Robin Williams) from Mork & Mindy, or perhaps they thought a puffy vest would transform them into Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) from Back To The Future. Whatever the reason, down vests were not just something your mom made you wear on cold-but-not-too-cold fall days; kids in the ’80s wore them because we thought they were cool.
Dieting with Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Takes Off, Elizabeth Taylor’s 1986 bestselling book on weight loss, was a compelling read even if you didn’t want to shed a few pounds. In just a matter of pages, Taylor’s advice could zig-zag from helpful to downright loony. Admittedly, we have yet to try her patented tuna salad—which involves combining tuna with tomato paste, grapefruit, scallions, and mayonnaise—and we likely never will. We’re also in no hurry to eat peanut butter and steak sandwiches, which Taylor swore by, or cover our fruit with a cottage-cheese-mixed-with-sour cream dressing. Just reading about her out-there diet ideas is enough to decrease our appetite, frankly.
Playing with a Nintendo Game Boy
The very concept behind the Nintendo Game Boy seemed too good to be believed when it came out in 1989. Back then, people would’ve been just as shocked had jetpacks become commercially available. But sure enough, Nintendo had done what seemed impossible at the time: They found a way for gamers to hold a gaming device in the palm of their hands. Granted, the games weren’t that sophisticated at the time—Tetris seems like cave paintings by today’s gaming standards—but it still felt like sweet, sweet freedom being able to game on the go.
Madonna Rolling Around in a Prom Dress
Though most people don’t remember much of the first-ever televised MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, they’ll always remember Madonna writhing around the stage in a wedding gown while singing “Like a Virgin.” It wasn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it was impossible to look away from the unique performance.
Years later, in an interview with Jay Leno, Madonna admitted that her stage crawl only happened because she lost one of her stilettos during the performance. “I thought, ‘Oh my God; how am I going to get that? It’s over there and I’m on TV,’” she explained. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll pretend I meant to do this,’ and I dove onto the floor. I rolled around and I reached for the shoe.” And so history was made.
Watching That Tennis Showdown
We can still picture it like it was yesterday: the calm and unflappable Bjorn Borg versus his rival, the short-tempered and volatile John McEnroe. It wasn’t just a great tennis match; it was the most dramatic tennis showdown of all time. Though both players had won seven times against each other, it was Borg who would be victorious at 1980’s Wimbledon, winning his fifth straight title and causing McEnroe to have some epic temper tantrums.
From the “Choose Life” shirts inspired by Wham’s 1984 hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” to the “Frankie Say Relax” shirts that everyone was wearing regardless of whether they actually listened to the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, slogan shirts were an essential fashion statement in the ’80s for anyone who wanted to look like they were regularly hanging out in the MTV green room.
Proudly Sporting Mullets
Men and women alike donned the ‘do that offers business in the front and party in the back, despite future regrets. Even George Clooney, the handsomest man alive referred to his brief stint with a mullet in the ’80s as his “awkward phase.”
The Berlin Wall Coming Down
President Reagan first issued the challenge during a speech in Berlin in 1987, infamously asking the Soviet leader to “tear down this wall.” Nobody really believed it would happen, but just two and a half years later, the wall that had divided East and West Germany for almost three decades and had become a symbol of the Cold War finally came down. Thinking about that day—November 9, 1989—still gives us chills.
Acid Wash Jeans
There are so many rumors about the origins of acid-wash jeans. Some believe that an Italian company accidentally washed jeans in bleach without water and realized they’d struck gold; others think it was punk rockers who first invented the look in the early ’80s, splattering bleach on their jeans and jackets so that they looked more damaged. While we might not know where acid-washed jeans came from, we do know that they were a staple in the ’80s for everyone from mall kids to city-clubbing adults.
Thinking That Holding a Boombox Over Your Head in Someone’s Lawn Was Romantic
All it took was one scene in 1989’s Say Anything, during which John Cusack stood on his ex-girlfriend’s front lawn and held a boombox over his head blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” and suddenly every guy was convinced he knew exactly how to woo the woman of his dreams. As much as we loved this movie, it should have come with a disclaimer: “Please don’t try this at home.” And for more romantic gestures you should leave in the past, here are 25 Old-Fashioned Dating Rules to Stop Following After 40.
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