Stranger Synths: Why the ‘80s Just Won’t Die

“Marty, we have to go back!” (Back to the Future)

Picture it: you’re cruising down a deserted street, nothing but pink and blue lights keeping you company.

In the dead of night, you turn on the radio and take note of the most captivating sound. Tapping your fingers to the pulse of heavy synths and echoing drum machines, you feel entranced. You pass a movie theatre nearby. Teenagers burst into laughter; a sign reading E.T. glowing behind them. As they make their way home, moonlight reveals their pairs of acid-washed jeans and fuzzy perms wrapped in bows of a neon glow.

If such images are not familiar, chances are you have isolated yourself from current mainstream media. With the recent influx of movies and TV shows (It, Ready Player One, Stranger Things, etc.) paying homage to the ’80s, the decade of shoulder pads and mixtapes is more alive than ever. And technology might just be the reason behind it.

Just take a look at Stranger Things. Produced by the streaming giant Netflix, the web television series is a prime example of a story defined by its ’80s setting and its use of technology. Taking place in the fictional town of Hawkins, Stranger Things follows the lives of a group of children as they investigate mysterious disappearances and supernatural occurrences in their town. 

The hit series has universal appeal – appearing on promotional billboards across the globe.
Image: Yuting Gao

But there’s a catch – the events start in the winter of 1983. With technology still being in relatively early development, means of communication and tools are limited. So, when a young child vanishes into thin air, the only resources at the kids’ disposal in the search for their lost friend are their walkie-talkies, bicycles, and a child-like sense of wonder. 

According to official Netflix statistics reported by John Koblin in The New York Times, Stranger Things was 2019’s most-watched original series on their platform, at 64 million plays. Holding a 35% lead over The Umbrella Academy, the show with the second-best ratings, Netflix’s audio-visual love letter to the ’80s shows no sign of slowing down.

With that said, let’s raise the questions: What lays at the root of the ’80s trend, and how can stories like Stranger Things reach such large audiences in the present?

On the question of why the 1980s are making a comeback, according to American media critic Lindsay Ellis, it all boils down to what’s known as the thirty-year cycle.

As reported by Ellis, thirty years is the amount of time needed for young content consumers to grow up and become content creators themselves. She adds the following: captivated by memories of their youth, writers, directors, and producers tend to recapture that certain time. 

A noteworthy example of this nostalgia pendulum is It. While the 1986 horror novel, penned by the best-selling master of horror Stephen King utilizes the 1950s as the setting for part of its story, the 2017 silver screen adaption shifted the action to the ’80s. To put it differently, King referenced the time he grew up in, and the production team behind the movie did the same thing – but adjusted the timeline according to the current wave of nostalgia.

Steven Spielberg, director of 1980s blockbusters such as E.T. and Indiana Jones.
Image: Gage Skidmore

As for what differentiates the ’80s in the repeating cycle of nostalgia consumption, we take a look at the words of Steven Spielberg.

According to Mashable, when asked about the ’80s trend, he responded: 

“I think we’re nostalgic for the ’80s because it was a stress-free decade.”

Putting things in perspective, his words just might be correct. Even with the decade’s difficulties, one may argue that life, as it was in the ’80s, can hold mass appeal, especially to newer generations.

This is best observed through ‘80s technology and its relationship with the society of that time. A rapid technological advancement offered hope; those fearing an impending nuclear war would take shelter in the idea of revolutionary times offering a chance of changing the state of affairs and improving their everyday lives.

Although it was present, technology hadn’t occupied such a significant place in people’s lives as it is the case now.

Children would stay in and preoccupy themselves with consoles from time-to-time, but games were not as complex and the technology was not as accessible. Watching a movie was more than a click away and involved social interaction, whether it’s going to the movies with friends or making new ones over mutual preferences in a local Blockbuster store.

Looking back at the question of why our current world, defined by a constant digital presence, holds stories showcasing ’80s innocence to such high regard, one can’t help but wonder: are there any Stranger Things motivating us, or is it just the wish to disconnect more?