30 Things All ’80s Kids Remember
We remember when MTV actually played music.
People can be too quick to dismiss the 80s. They associate it with synth-pop and parachute pants, as if everybody alive during that decade behaved like they were extras in an MTV music video. But for those of us who grew up during the go-go ’80s, it felt more significant. The music that others find so cheesy still manages to bring a tear to our eye, and we remember the decade’s milestones like they were the most important benchmarks in world history. Hey, the ’80s gave civilization the moonwalk and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’d like to see your generation accomplish more in less than 10 years. Here are 30 things that happened in the ’80s that we’ll never forget.
When Michael Jackson did the moonwalk for the first time in 1983, while singing “Billie Jean” during a Motown television special, it didn’t just become his signature move. It was also the moment when every kid in the United States decided they wanted to be a pop superstar. If you didn’t practice the backward glide, which looked deceptively easy when Jackson did it, then it’s debatable whether you were actually a kid during the ’80s.
When an 18-month old baby fell down a well in her Texas aunt’s backyard in 1987, the world was transfixed by efforts to save her. It took 56 hours to pull her out, and CNN broadcast every nail-biting second of the rescue. It got so intense that President Reagan claimed, “Everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” It sure did feel like that for all of us who lived through it.
Nothing else compares with the white noise of a busy arcade, with games like Galaga and Donkey Kong and Miss Pac-Man being played simultaneously, and the gentle clinking of tokens in kids’ pockets. We would gladly spend entire weekends without seeing natural sunlight, our faces bathed in the light of cathode-ray display screens.
Unless you were Gordon Gekko and had one of those gigantic mobile phones, most people used phones that were attached to the wall and connected to the handset with a cord that could only be stretched so far. But that wasn’t about to stop a kid looking for a little privacy. If you pulled that cord tight enough, you just might be able to make it into another room, closing the door so you could at least have the illusion that your parents couldn’t hear every word.
Even if you weren’t a fan of the show, everyone tuned in on February 28th, 1983, to watch the historic final episode of the Korean War comedy. Along with 106 million other people, we teared up during that last scene, when Hawkeye looked down from his helicopter and realized that B.J. had spelled out “GOODBYE” to him with rocks on the helipad. It gave us all the feels!
The simplicity of this anti-drug campaign, created and championed by First Lady Nancy Reagan, made a convincing case. Granted, most situations are a lot more nuanced than “just saying no,” but the First Lady’s guest appearance on Diff’rent Strokes is something every ’80s kid will remember.
If your only memory of the Smurfs is that 2011 computer-animated movie starring Neil Patrick Harris, you know nothing about the shirtless blue creatures that mesmerized so many kids in the ’80s. It began as a bizarre Saturday morning cartoon in the early ’80s, where we first learned about the tiny (and mostly male) commune living in an idyllic town who used their species identifier, “Smurf”, as a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. We watched all of this while eating Smurf-Berry Crunch cereal and playing with our Smurf action figures. It was a Smurfy world!
Thanks to iPods, we take portable music-listening for granted. But in the ’80s, trying out a Walkman for the first time felt like nothing short of a revolution. You could listen to your favorite songs while out in the world? And you could do it privately, without forcing your musical tastes on the general public? Only robot maids and jetpacks would have been less life-changing.
It’s become one of the most well-known lines in pop culture history, but nothing compares to hearing it for the first time in a movie theater—and not knowing for sure if Darth Vader was telling the truth. Remember, this was at a time when the Internet didn’t exist. As a kid, hearing this news was unsettling, and unconfirmable. Was Vader telling the truth? We argued about it and were never entirely sure. The excitement of not knowing the exact lineage between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is something future generations will never understand.
On one day in May 1986, 6.5 million people held hands to recognize hunger and homelessness, creating a human chain across the United States. Or at least that’s what we remember being told. Most of us never figured out where to go to be part of the historic event. But it definitely happened, and we definitely bragged that we were a part of it.
The heartbreaking moment when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after its takeoff, killing all seven crew members—including civilian school teacher Christa McAuliffe—will forever be burned into our memories. It’s a horror that didn’t seem real even as it was happening in front of our eyes, on live TV, and it’s something many of us still have not been able to make sense of to this day.
In the ’80s, we didn’t just drink soda, we had fierce soda loyalties. We took the Pepsi Challenge and let our taste buds make the hard choices for us. When New Coke came out in 1985, everybody had an opinion about it. People argued about cola the way some people argue about politics today.
You didn’t need to love football to memorize every lyric to this iconic and utterly ridiculous one-hit wonder by 1985 Super Bowl champs the Chicago Bears. It was the kind of song that was unafraid to make rhymes like “I’m the rookie” and “no dumb cookie.” Never have professional athletes been so willing to make complete fools of themselves. And we were mesmerized.
The ABC afterschool special is how we learned, with the help of famous people who weren’t quite famous yet, that drunk driving is bad (thanks, Michelle Pfeiffer), that teenage boys can have complicated emotions (Ben Affleck), that depression is a disease (Matthew Modine and Meg Ryan), and that high school girls shouldn’t be attracted to their English teachers (Cynthia Nixon). Seriously, where else were we going to learn these things?!
For those who weren’t alive during the golden age of MTV, it’s hard to explain what it was like to watch music videos all day long in order to maybe see the video of the one song you loved more than anything in the world. For kids who grew up with YouTube, where everything is instantly accessible, it makes no sense to imagine enduring six hours of garbage when you really just want to see the video for Duran Duran’s “Rio.”
This guy was one of the best divers on the planet, with two gold medals under his belt from the ’84 Olympics. Nobody expected anything but perfection. And then, at the ’88 Olympic games in Seoul, he hit his head on the freaking board during a reverse somersault dive and gave himself a concussion! Today, it would be like seeing LeBron James trip over a basketball and falling flat on his face—it just doesn’t happen. Louganis eventually got five stitches, but not before getting back on the board, with a bloody scalp, and trying the dive again. He won a gold medal and cemented his place in Olympic history.
The best-selling book of 1981 was The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube, which sold more than six million copies. But despite the title, solving a Rubik’s Cube was anything but simple. We’d stare at the handheld puzzle for hours, wondering how in the world we’d ever get the colors aligned. If we ever did it, we’d instantly become legends in our social circles. It was (for most of us) an impossible dream. Still trying to figure it out? This Is the Secret Trick to Solving a Rubik’s Cube Quickly.
It wasn’t easy to capture the perfect playlist on a cassette tape. You had a limited amount of time—just 30 minutes per side—and finite musical resources. If you didn’t already own a song on vinyl or on an officially-sanctioned cassette, your best bet was to tape it off the radio. But that meant waiting… and waiting… and waiting. Making a digital playlist takes minutes, but crafting the perfect mixtape took weeks.
In 1982, a personal computer became the first non-human to be celebrated on Time Magazine’s annual “Man of the Year” cover. They called it “Machine of the Year” and even those of us who’d never touched a computer knew this was significant. But at the same time, it was also kind of scary. Did this mean robots were finally poised to conquer human civilization and turn us into their minions? Thankfully, the machines haven’t taken over yet.
It was our favorite sport in gym class, and also the most feared. We don’t even remember the rules anymore, other than that it specifically involved hitting your opponents with a ball as hard as you possibly could. The National Association for Sports and Physical Education denounced dodgeball in 2006, calling it “not an appropriate activity for K-12 school physical education programs” because it “does not help kids to develop confidence—certainly not the student who gets hit hard in the stomach, head, or groin.” Um… isn’t getting hit hard in the stomach, head, or groin the entire point of dodgeball?
There was something refreshing about the riiiiiiip of a Trapper Keeper velcro sleeve being opened. It felt like your personal papers were the most protected things in the universe. Nobody could break into a Trapper Keeper without alerting everyone in a one-mile radius.
Even if you were too young to understand what the Berlin Wall was or why it was important, we all knew it was a big deal. So when our president declared, during a speech in West Berlin in 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the entire world took notice. Just two years later, in November of 1989, the Berlin Wall finally came down, and it felt like democracy would never be the same.
Almost from the moment he was drafted to the Chicago Bulls in 1984, Michael Jordan was a superstar. Even Larry Bird called him “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” The Bulls didn’t become the unstoppable juggernauts of basketball until the early ’90s, but Jordan’s scoring power was already legendary among young NBA fans. Even if you didn’t own a pair of Air Jordans, you remember watching that first Spike Lee “It’s gotta be da shoes” Air Jordans commercial, which debuted in 1988.
Every ’80s rock star played at this historic benefit concert in 1985, which was intended to raise money to stop Ethiopian famine. Around 1.9 billion people watched the performance—and to put that in perspective, that’s approximately 40 percent of the world’s population. If you weren’t glued to your seat for the Led Zeppelin reunion, or to watch Queen command the crowd at Wembley Stadium, you missed something truly spectacular.
People still sit this way, with their legs crossed under them. But long gone are the days when you’d hear a teacher instruct their students to “Sit Indian style on the floor.” We shouldn’t have to explain why. It’s culturally insensitive to Native Americans. Today, sitting like this is called “criss-cross applesauce.”
Anyone who tried playing Super Mario Bros on their Nintendo system and just couldn’t get it to load knew the perfect solution: just blow on the cartridge a few times. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Never mind that studies have proven otherwise and even Nintendo insists that blowing on their cartridges wasn’t a good idea, we were all convinced it was science.
Spanning five seasons in the late ’80s, Pee-wee’s Playhouse was the most creative, surreal, hilarious, wall-to-wall crazy show on Saturday mornings. It somehow managed to feel both innocent and subversive, a safe fantasyland that felt vaguely dangerous. It was the perfect escape for any kid who felt different and needed a reminder that he wasn’t alone.
Kids today just don’t know the pain of going to a video store, finding the video you’ve been waiting for weeks to see, and realizing with horror that it’s only available in VHS and your family has a Betamax player. Noooooooo!!
It might seem like old-fashioned technology to today’s tech-savvy kids, but for those of us who’d never seen a doll bear talk and blink, it was downright horrifying. Just watch this commercial, if you dare, and see if it doesn’t induce some serious ’80s-era PTSD. We all knew the truth about Teddy, that when we turned out the lights and went to sleep, that’s when he’d try to kill us. Teddy Ruxpin is coming for you! He’s coming for us aaaaaalll! As scary as he was, he’s worth a lot of money today. For more things from the past that are valuable now, check out the 27 Silly Things from Childhood Worth Tons of Money Today.
From The Breakfast Club to Sixteen Candles, we didn’t watch these John Hughes-directed movies as a diversion from the real world. They were blueprints to our personal identities as teenagers. Were you a Blane or a Duckie? If that reference makes no sense, your youth wasn’t defined by Pretty in Pink. And if you still don’t have fantasies of playing hooky, Ferris Bueller-style, well into adulthood, you’re absolutely not an ’80s kid. And for all things ’80s, check out the 20 Photos Only Kids Who Grew up in the 1980s Will Understand.
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