The ’80s began, appropriately enough, with a toy that not only spanned generations in its popularity, it wasted countless hours of people’s lives pointlessly – setting the stage for 30 years (and counting) of avoiding human contact via the latest hot gadget.
Invented in Hungary in 1974, the Rubik’s Cube was licensed by the Ideal Toy Corp. and introduced to the U.S. in 1980. It consisted of multi-colored, interlocking cubes that combined to make one large cube. The goal was to get all six sides of the cube the same color.
It wasn’t long, though, before a combination of frustration and boredom resulted in kids taking apart their cubes, rearranging them in the correct order, and claiming they had solved the puzzle.
Amazingly enough, the Rubik’s Cube continues to sell today in a variety of forms, from keychains to a computer version that analyzes move sequences and records player metrics. Because when it comes to finding new ways to waste time, people are freaking ingenious.
“WHERE’S THE BEEF?”
The ’80s had lots of catch phrases: “I pity the fool.” “Say hello to my little friend.” “Go ahead … make my day.” But nothing was as pervasive and annoying as “Where’s the Beef?”
It began as a commercial for Wendy’s hamburgers – a trio of elderly women examine the large bun of an unnamed competitor’s hamburger before one of them crankily barks, “Where’s the beef?” Before you could shout “Grandma’s off her meds again,” the phrase had been plastered to T-shirts, bumper stickers and dirty cartoons that elicited snickers in middle school study halls.
In 1984, presidential candidate Walter Mondale even used the catch-phrase while campaigning. Mondale lost the election in the biggest landslide in U.S. history, so clearly, Americans decided that they certainly had a beef with him.
In the ’60s, people grew their hair long. In the ’70s, it was long and feathered. So maybe it was just the natural evolution of things that resulted in people running around in the ’80s looking like Phyllis Diller in an electrical storm. The hair not only grew longer on both men and women, it grew up – as in, a foot or more toward the sky.
All this poofery had to be kept in place by something, so the sale of cheap hair spray like Aqua Net went through the roof. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the first reports of holes in the ozone layer began coming out during this time.) There were numerous variations on the style – the bow head, the claw, the mullet – but they all had one thing in common, and that one thing was BIG.
There are conflicting reports about how bling – obscene amounts of shiny, gawdy jewelry worn by one person – got started. Some blame Mr. T. Others blame hip hop culture. But given the celebration of excess that defined the ’80s, it’s probably safe to say that it was simply another example of taking things to the extreme. As in: Why wear one gold-plated Mercedes hood ornament around my neck when I can wear 47?
Of course, not many people could afford real gold jewelry, so they opted for the $14.99 version offered in the jewelry department of Kmart. They looked pretty snazzy too – until the cheap metal coating wore off and your neck started to turn green. Unfortunately, the zombie look wouldn’t be hot for another two decades.
You can’t blame keyboard players for wanting to take the spotlight now and then. They’re usually relegated to the background, stuck somewhere between the drums and the background singers, while the lead vocalist and guitarist work the crowd and get all the attention. But the keytar – just like it sounds – looked almost as dumb as bodiless guitars, which were also all the rage in the ’80s.
And no, it didn’t make keyboard players look cool. Imagine being backstage at a rock concert in 1985. A groupie comes up and asks, “What do you play?” And you say, “The keytar!” Yeah, good luck keeping her away from the guy with the Flying V and a codpiece.
CARTOONS WITH A MESSAGE
Remember Saturday mornings as a kid? It was the best time of the week – no school, no homework, no chores. Just you, a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and the television. You could look forward to hours of mindless immersion in an orgy of cartoon nirvana.
That all changed in the ’80s. Suddenly, it wasn’t good enough for He-Man to give Skeletor a good beat-down. He had to explain not only why Skeletor deserved the beat-down, but the psychological underpinnings behind the actions that resulted in the beat-down and a lesson on how you, at age 7, could avoid a similar beat-down.
Every character, from Lion-O the ThunderCat to Papa Smurf, had some words of wisdom to impart. Oddly enough, they never mentioned how to keep the bad guys from breaking out of jail – probably because they were too busy jabbering about some life lesson instead of keeping an eye on their prisoners.