12 Things That Made The ’80s The Greatest Decade

12 things that made the '80s the greatest decade

1980-1989, what a glorious time.

If you grew up in this decade you know what a great time it was to be alive. If you’re from a younger generation you might be curious in looking back on 12 things that made the ’80s the greatest decade.

The 1980s were a time of great pop culture including some of the best movies, music, TV shows, and toys of all time. It is the decade most often associated with nostalgia and the style, and memories of the decade, continue to live on.

You can listen to the podcast version or read on…

I was born in the late ‘70s and similar to anyone who was born then we weren’t a child of the ‘70s but one of the ‘80s. We were just getting old enough to embrace everything the ‘80s would have to offer. This isn’t to say that if you were older in the ‘80s that you didn’t appreciate it but your main, and fondest, memories are usually based on when you were a kid.

Call it “golden age thinking” or looking back with rose colored glasses but most things seemed better when you were a kid. Ask anyone who grew up in any decade, they will tell you that’s when things were the best, sports were better, music and movies were better, and it was just a better time to be alive.

We look back fondly and as time goes by but we don’t think about all the crap that was happening. We tend to remember the last time we had a memory of it and over time this filters out any of the garbage and you’re left with pure nostalgia.

So let’s look at 12 things that made the ‘80s the greatest decade. These are of course from my vantage point so feel free to scream at me in any manner you feel fit. (in no particular order)

1.  The Movies

Was the ‘80s the golden age of movies? It might be hard to argue that. It gave us some of the biggest movies and trilogies of all time and gave rise to the blockbuster. Star Wars would get the ball rolling when it was released in 1977 but the momentum and the fandom really took shape in the ‘80s with the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

This could also be called the Spielberg era as you’v got the classics like E.T (which was actually the highest money maker of the ‘80s) The Goonies, and the monumental Indiana Jones movies. (luckily The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was long after the ‘80s and it can rot in hell)

This is the era that brought us the PG-13 rating which was the perfect movie classification. It allows things to not be so family friendly but didn’t push it too far so that younger people were isolated from it. It was actually Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that would lead to the first PG-13 rating and set the tone for this awesome genre of movies.

You also have my favorite of all time; Back To The Future and the epic sequel that combined all the best elements of time travel. With BTTF 2 you had a look into the past, the future and then it acted as a sort of prequel taking us back into the original movie.

We can go on and on about all these glorious movies and some other notables that round out the decade are

  • Ghostbusters
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Top Gun
  • Crocodile Dundee
  • 3 Men And A Baby
  • Gremlins
  • Batman (people think of it in the ‘90s but it makes the cut)

2. G.I Joe

G.I Joe is one of a handful of iconic toys and cartoons from the ‘80s. If you were a kid growing up in this decade G.I Joe was one of the biggest parts of your life. Your day would be centered around getting home intime to watch it on T.V. Birthdays and Christmas would be based around asking for, and hopefully getting, any of the toys.

I’m still going on 30 years of not getting the aircraft carrier for Christmas…

G.I Joe was created by Hasbro and had existed for decades in a larger form. During the Vietnam war, any war based toys took a massive hit in the sales department and were really hard to market and sell. Thanks to the success of the Star Wars toyline G.I Joe was now introduced in 1982 as a 3.75-inch version as opposed to its old 12-inch size.

The also created one of the first marketing approaches by using a cartoon show as basically a 30-minute commercial to sell the new toys. Making the figures smaller also allowed for Hasbro to make a ton of vehicles they could sell with them that wouldn’t be gigantic. They would end up making over 250 different vehicles, and I wanted every single one.

The big thing they did with the cartoon, that other toy companies would soon follow, was they gave G.I Joe a backstory. Up until then, he had just been an army man. Now he had an enemy in COBRA and a real mission to follow.

When you combine this with traditional marketing it was like crack for a ten year old kid. There was no way to resist the allure of G.I Joe and it makes it one of the best toys and cartoons of all time.

3. The Music

The ‘80s brought us so much new variety when it came to music along with some brand new genres. Up until then, everything had been pretty much rock-based. Heavy metal was becoming more prominent in the ‘70s and pop music has always been in the mix but the ‘80s brought us some new categories and variations we hadn’t heard before.

It’s obviously impossible to cover this gigantic topic in a few paragraphs but when you think of the ‘80s you think of Michael Jackson who ruled over it all. You think of Madonna and U2 and it was the era where we were introduced to a new art form called Hip-Hop (which I’ll cover more in a second.

It gave us New Wave music and Devo, we started seeing more house music and a growth of punk rock. Death Metal and Metallica emerged in the ‘80s. Disco was thankfully long dead but we were hearing more synthesizer-based music and more electronic production.

The ‘80s still featured some classic bands like the Rolling Stones and Queen who found a whole new generation of fans. MTV would launch in 1981 and would forever change the way we consumed music. Bands and artists had to learn this new way to present themselves in this new visual medium.

This is a time when album sales meant everything and it’s where the real money was made, unlike today.

Here were the top-selling albums by year:

  • 1980- Pink Floyd “The Wall”
  • 1981- REO Speedwagon “Hi Infidelity”
  • 1982- Asia “Asia”
  • 1983- Michael Jackson “Thriller”
  • 1984- Thriller again
  • 1985- Bruce Springsteen “Born In The USA”
  • 1986- Whitney Houston “Whitney Houston
  • 1987- Bon Jovi “Slippery When Wet”
  • 1988- George Michael “Faith”
  • 1989- Bobby Brown “Don’t Be Cruel”

Also, here were the year-end Billboard # 1 songs of the ‘80s:

  • 1980: “Call Me” – Blondie
  • 1981: “Bette Davis Eyes” – Kim Carnes
  • 1982: “Physical” – Olivia Newton John
  • 1983: “Every Breath You Take” – The Police
  • 1984: “When Doves Cry” – Prince
  • 1985: “Careless Whisper” – Wham!
  • 1986: “That’s What Friends Are For” – Dionne & Friends
  • 1987: “Walk Like An Egyption” – The Bangles
  • 1988: “Faith” – George Michael
  • 1989: “Look Away” – Chicago

Any surprises here? I don’t remember Chicago being at the top of the charts and definitely not Dionne and Friends, though that was my grade 8 graduation song that we had to sing in front of actual human beings.

If you want to go a bit deeper on 80s music, check out my article about the 20 best bands of the decade.

There’s a good chance you owned a majority of those albums and it’s most notably a decade where you would sit with your tape deck listening to the radio-ready to jump on the song you were waiting to record. Except the DJ would talk over most of the intro…

Which leads us to…

4. The Mix Tape

20 best bands of the 80s

If you want to put the ‘80s, in a nutshell, it may be the mixtape. There was no such thing as MP3, Apple Music or Spotify. If you wanted to capture music you would have to sit diligently by your tape deck just waiting for whatever song you wanted to hear. You would call up radio stations to request it and just hope you had a good trigger finger.

This was also the era of the dual cassette tape deck which meant you could copy tapes and put together your own mixes. If someone you knew had a tape you wanted you could copy it over on to a blank one and it was magically yours! A great advent was “high speed dubbing” which would transfer that tape over even faster.

Now with your collection of cassettes, you could make your own compilations and the mixtape was born. This was the ‘80s version of a love letter as you could put together all the meaningful songs to give to the person you liked. Spotify has allowed us to do that today but that’s just a matter of a few quick taps. The mix tap took WORK and commitment. That was half of what made a mixtape so special, the effort.

So now you’ve got a killer mixtape that you painstakingly put together, what were you going to listen to it on? The first is checking out this amazing Bluetooth Ghetto Blaster you can get on Amazon.

The other is…

5. The Walkman

The Walkman changed the way we consumed music. It allowed us to take it on the go and it was also a style statement. Portable music and transistor radios have existed for years but you were forced to listen to whatever the radio station was playing. With the Walkman, you now had something that was catered to you.

Every tape you put in was your choice and it revolved around your lifestyle. Sony invented the Walkman in 1980 and it was almost called the “Sound-About”. It was created because the owner of Sony at the time wanted to be able to listen to his music while traveling. They had portable tape players but they were too big and bulky and not convenient at all.

The forefather of the Walkman was called the “Pressman” and was a mono cassette recorder. The owner of Sony wanted this but shrunken down and to use just for playback. When the Walkman was released Sony was hoping they could sell 5,000 units a month. In the first 2 months, they sold 50,000.

If you want to learn more about the amazing story of the Walkman check out my blog on its history. (check out this sweet modern Walkman on Amazon)

It became a bit of statement wearing that yellow case and earphones. This became like an accessory the same way the white earbuds would be when the iPod was first introduced. So now you had your own personal listening device that you could listen to your favorite type of music. And for a lot of people in the ‘80s that would be….

5. Hip-Hop

Hip Hop has its roots in the Bronx. DJ Kool Herc was credited as the godfather of hip-hop and it came together quite naturally. At house parties, Herc wanted to always keep the people dancing. The funky records he would play, like James Brown, contained “breaks” where there wouldn’t be any lyrics and you would mainly hear drums and a beat.

People loved dancing to these “breakbeats” and he found that if he had two of the same record he could play the breakbeat back to back for an extended period of time. This leads to more dancing and also “break dancers”.

So whenever there would be a party or event the DJ would have a master of ceremonies, or M.C, who would make announcements. They would keep the music going but use the break portion of the records so the M.C’s announcements wouldn’t get mixed up with the song lyrics.

Over time the M.C would use this time to announce when the next gig or party was going to be and since they were in the spotlight they would embellish things a bit. This turned into bragging, then boasting, then rhyming to not only inform but entertain.

The M.C’s would then start to showcase their skills against other M.C’s and that lead to battling and full rhymes they would put together. People wanted to hear more and they would start recording these rhymes that they performed over some funky beats.

This is the birth of hip-hop and it would explode during the 1980s.

Over the ‘80s we would get legends like Grandmaster Flash, Rakim, LL Cool J, Run DMC, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest. Then things would move west and it brought us the early days of Gangster rap including N.W.A with Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy E, along with Ice T, and Snoop Dogg.

There’s also the story of the Boombox or Ghetto Blaster, and how it helped pave the way for hip hop. Check out my article on that right here!

6. The Clothes

Is there any other decade that gets as mocked as much as the ‘80s do for the fashion? When you think of the ‘80s it may conjure up images of a lot of fluorescent pinks and greens, like that image above… There were a lot of velvet scrunchies and crimped hair that was being held by them also.

Converse high tops were still big but so were any type of white high top basketball sneakers. You had the epic acid wash jeans movement and it seems like everyone was wearing a belt pack of some sort.

You had leg warmers, bike shorts and just a whole lot of spandex. Baggy clothes were still popular and groups like RUN DMC would popularize big gold chains and white Adidas shoes.

The punk style lead by people like Cyndi Lauper would be popular and it seemed like everyone was wearing blazers and blouses with giant shoulder pads in them.

The “Memphis Style” was a big influence behind the design and aesthetic of the 80s. Check out my blog on the importance of the Memphis Group and Memphis style.

Some of this might make a comeback but it’s still hard to look back on your old school pictures…

7.  Transformers

Arguably the best toy and cartoon of the ‘80s. If it’s not then it is at least right up there. The Transformers toys, made by Hasbro, were a rip off the Diaclone toys made in Japan. Hasbro basically took them straight up and changed around some colours and accessories.

But they saw the success that happened with G.I Joe and created a 3-part TV series in 1984 that were used to launch the toys. I don’t know a single kid my age who wasn’t obsessed with transformers. You had characters like Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, Starscream, Soundwave, the Dinobots and a ton more.

Like G.I Joe, you were watching 30-minute commercials where they were introducing the backstory of the Transformers along with characters and vehicles. We didn’t care though, they were amazing. I still remember being crushed one Christmas certain I was getting Soundwave based on the box I saw wrapped under the tree. It turned out to be a multipack of Life Savers.

Transformers would lead to cartoon movie in 1986 that would traumatize a lot of kids. The movie killed off a lot of beloved characters as a way to clear out old inventory and then introduce a bunch of new ones for the upcoming toy line. It was also essentially just a 90-minute commercial

And I’m still not over the death of Optimus Prime. Sorry for the spoiler alert…

While you’re at it, take a look at my top 10 cartoons from the 80s!

8. The TV Shows

A bunch of classic sitcoms came our way in the ‘80s and would eventually lead to the advent of “Must See TV”.  Certain nights like Thursday and Friday would become must-watch nights where they would stack a bunch of top shows together.  You did not want to miss these nights if you wanted to know what the hell everyone was talking about.

Some of the notable shows in the ‘80s were Growing Pains, Who’s The Boss, Family Ties, Webster, Full House, Cheers, ALF, The Wonder Years, The A-Team, The Dukes Of Hazzard, Knight Rider, honestly, there are so many beauties from this time period.

The number one show actually from 1985-90 every single year was the Cosby Show. Here’s a sample of the top ten highest-rated shows from right in the middle of the decade and the ratings they got:

  1. The Cosby Show – 33.7
  2. Family Ties – 30.0
  3. Murder, She Wrote – 25.3
  4. 60 Minutes – 23.9
  5. Cheers – 23.7
  6. Dallas – 21.9
  7. Dynasty – 21.8
  8. The Golden Girls – 21.8
  9. Miami Vice – 21.3
  10. Who’s The Boss – 21.1

The very highest-rated sitcoms today will do, at their very best, 15-18 million viewers which wouldn’t even put them in the top 30 in the ‘80s. Most shows average around 4-6 million viewers these days but there are obviously a lot more networks, channels and streaming services vying for your attention.

8. The Breakfast Cereals

What a time to be alive. If you were a kid in the ‘80s breakfasts could be an event. There were so many over the top, sugar-laden cereals with intensive marketing that you couldn’t resist. They were colourful, novel and probably had some sort of free toy inside.

This was a big era for interactive cereal boxes and you probably spent your whole breakfast totally engaged in the back of the box. To a kid, this was like their daily newspaper or iPhone.

Cereal commercials were basically low-level cartoon shows with characters that made you instantly identify that product. Nutrition was out the window and the idea of being able to eat cookies for breakfast was mind-blowing.

Here are a few notable cereals from the 1980s:

  • Cookie Crisp
  • Pac Man Cereal
  • C3P0’s
  • Ice Cream Cones Cereal
  • Smurf Berry Crunch
  • Pro Stars
  • E.T Cereal
  • Marshmallow Krispies
  • Mr. T Cereal
  • S’mores Crunch

I go A LOT deeper on breakfast cereals from the 80s in this article.

10. Saved By The Bell

Saved By The Bell would carry over into the ‘90s but it is all ‘80s at its core. The story of Zack, Lisa, Kelly, Jesse, Slater and Screech would show us the magical world of Bayside High in California.

Saved By The Bell started as a show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss. They knew the focus of the Miss Bliss character wasn’t going to steer the direction of the show but instead a character named Zack Morris would.

Played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Zack Morris was a student at John F. Kennedy Jr High in Indianapolis, Indiana. It started in 1988 and would only last one season before being retooled as Saved By The Bell.

The characters of Zack, Screech, Lisa, and Principal Belding were brought over from Good Morning, Miss Bliss to Saved By The Bell. The transition had them “moving” to the fictional town of Bayside.

You could almost think of this as Saved By The Bell: The Junior High Years but the character of Zack Morris would change a lot. He could now basically get away with everything, while also playing every sport and getting an impossible 1502 SAT score.

The goal was to create one of the only live-action Saturday morning TV shows. Saturday mornings were primetime for cartoons and doing a live-action show gave them the chance to stand out. It also catered to older kids who were getting past the cartoon phase.

The first show would be called “Dancing To The Max” and the Saved By The Bell era began on August 20, 1989.

Fun Fact: One of the original producers HATED the name Saved By The Bell and disallowed it to be used in any of the theme songs. Four different themes were made and only one contained the words saved by the bell. He had to cave to the one we know now as it had sounded the best by far.

11. The Video Games

In case you’re not aware of this there was a time in the early ‘80s where video games died and no one wanted to be involved in their production ever again. Atari ruled the roost going into the early ‘80s but that lead to the great video game crash of 1983.

Some people chalk this up to the atrocious E.T video game but the writing had been on the wall for a bit. Atari had no control over the video games that were being released and this resulted in a ton of crap that flooded the market. These awful games turned off kids from playing them and they were becoming more interested in the new home computer hitting the market such as the Commodore 64.

So, within a few short years, the video game industry went from making around 2 billion dollars down to only 100 million. This caused the crash and companies distanced themselves from anything video game-related.

Until an upstart company from Japan called Nintendo came on the scene. Nintendo had started as a trading card company in 1889 and had moved into electronics and then into video games. The released the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986 and it would become the best selling console of its time and changed the industry forever.

We would also get the Sega and Sega Genesis and some amazing games. Here’s a list of the top 10 selling video games of the 1980s.

  1. Super Mario Bros: 1985 – 40.24 million units
  2. Tetris: 84-89 – 30.26
  3. Duck Hunt: 1984 – 28.31
  4. Super Mario Land: 1989 – 18.14
  5. Super Mario Bros 3: 1988 – 17.28
  6. Super Mario Bros 2: 1988 – 7.46
  7. Pac-Man: 1982 – 7.00
  8. The Legend of Zelda: 1986 – 6.51
  9. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link: 1987 – 4.38
  10. Excitebike and Pitfall: 1984/1982 – 4.16

You might be interested in the mini Atari you can get on Amazon.

Or the incredible SNES Nintendo Classic Mini.

12. Deregulation

Wait, what the hell is deregulation? Well, it’s responsible for a huge amount of the pop culture we experienced in the ‘80s.

Up until this point, the act of advertising to children was heavily regulated. Through a lot of research and study it was concluded that a young child could not differentiate between a TV show and an advertisement. It also showed the damage that happened from targeting youngsters and exposing them to so much promotion.

This severely limited the number of toys and products that could be directly targeted to children. And this is where Ronald Reagan comes into play. One of the first things Reagan does after becoming president is appoint a new head of the Federal Communications Commission in 1981.

His name was Mark Fowler and the first thing he did was lift the ban on advertising to kids and said that children’s television should be dictated by the marketplace. This is why you saw an explosion of cartoons and related toys in the ‘80s. There was nothing holding manufacturers back from pushing anything they wanted and It’s what leads to things like:

  • G.I Joe
  • Transformers
  • My Little Pony
  • He-Man
  • Strawberry Shortcake
  • M.A.S.K
  • Voltron
  • She-Ra

A lot of work had been done to stop toy-inspired programs and this is why you saw shows like Transformers and G.I Joe be able to basically be ½ hour commercials.

It’s also why you see a huge amount of junk food and cereal releases in the ‘80s along with commercials that look a lot like cartoons. It was also huge for fast food companies and they could make their commercials more child-friendly and it’s why companies like McDonald’s used so many cartoon based characters. They also would release the Happy Meal in the ‘80s by using this same approach.

So the intentions were always commercial but it gave us some of our most beloved shows we know today. Despite the commercial aspects, many of the creators would still focus on creativity and story to help create more of an attachment to the shows.

Wrapping It Up

It’s funny to think about how we have Ronald Reagan to thank for a lot of our most beloved toys and cartoons. They said that kids would dictate the market and I guess we did. If something was crappy enough you just wouldn’t be interested but so much of the ‘80s was able to tap into our sense of wonder.

A lot of things hold up, especially the movies, and some went down in flames, like the fashion. Even some of the cartoons look a lot crappier than you may remember them being. The music seems even better than you remember and it felt like a time where the focus was on the art as we weren’t oversaturated with so much content from every direction.

I realize this barely skims the surface of the ’80s but hopefully, I captured some good highlights. And since you’re a fan of this decade, check out my list of 80s items and products you can still get now!

Tell ’em Large Marge sent ya!

P.S. If you want to be kept up to date with everything to do with the 80s, just sign up for the Everything 80s newsletter below, it’s a good one!