Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question: What 1983 pop-culture event would you like to go back to either experience again or check out for the first time?
I was 2 in 1983, so even if I watched KISS’s famed unmasking with my parents, I don’t remember it. That being said, I’d love to go back and see that now for the first time—as the 32-year-old I am now, of course. Because of the Internet in 2013, there are no secrets as to what masked celebrities look like. We know that, underneath those helmets, Daft Punk is just a couple of regular dudes, and that the same thing holds true for Banksy. Still, KISS going public without its makeup must have been simultaneously shocking and underwhelming, the musical equivalent to Geraldo opening Capone’s empty vault. After all, those wire-haired schlubs were the alien rock stars millions of women had been lusting after, and, just... ick.
I didn’t know David Cronenberg’s name in 1983, but my 10-year-old self was familiar with one of the director’s most infamous scenes: the head-’splosion in his 1981 film Scanners. I’d been able to sneak into that movie because my grandmother managed a movie theater back then, and she’d frequently babysit me and my brother by letting us roam around the place at will, regardless of the ratings of the films being screened. For some reason, though, I wasn’t able to see Cronenberg’s follow-up to Scanners, 1983’s Videodrome. That’s probably a good thing. Scanners had scarred my psyche enough; I can’t imagine what my still-growing brain would have made of Videodrome’s even more provocative and poetically grotesque final image. That said, out of sheer perversity, I wish I could turn back the clock and see Videodrome for the first time at that age. It’s now one of my favorite movies—but by high school I’d already had most of it spoiled by loudmouth friends (and back issues of Fangoria).
I was born in 1970, so when the ’80s arrived, I was primed and ready to begin obsessing over whatever the new decade had to throw at me, watching whatever TV had to offer, and finding merit in some of the most ridiculous premises imaginable. When I think back to 1983, my brain immediately latches onto a short-lived series which, although I know in my heart of hearts was probably awful, I wish I could experience again through the eyes of 13-year-old me, because I can still remember the giddiness I felt when I first heard about NBC’s Manimal. As someone who was thrilled by the adventures of the Wonder Twins, I’d always thought it was a cool concept that someone could transform themselves into an animal, and now I was going to see it unfold in live action? Best. Show. Ever. Well, for a few weeks, anyway. Once I began to slowly but surely realize that the limitations of 1980s special effects and weekly prime-time series budgets meant that we wouldn’t actually be seeing much variety of transformation (they tended to lean on the hawk and the panther), let alone the actual transformation process, Manimal began to lose some of its fascination, but not quickly enough that I wasn’t seriously bummed when NBC pulled the plug on the series after only eight episodes. Looking back at the opening credits, William Conrad’s narration is just about enough to bring my inner 13-year-old to the surface, but I’ll never be able to experience the same intensity of bliss I did on September 30, 1983, and, boy, I sure do wish I could.
Seminal hardcore band Minor Threat played its final show in September of 1983. I was only 7 years old, living 1,400 miles away, and mostly rocking Quiet Riot’s Metal Health in ’83, so I wasn’t able to get to the Lansburgh Cultural Center in D.C. to watch the band end its short, influential career (with the Big Boys, no less). Now I can download a bootleg of the show, but that’s hardly a substitute. I’d love to see Minor Threat at age 37, but if we really want to go down the wish-fulfillment rabbit hole, I’d transport my 17-year-old self—the one who painted MINOR THREAT in Liquid Paper on his backpack—to 1983 to see that show. His/my mind would be blown.
The closest I’ve ever come to having a religious experience at a movie was at Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s concert film of the Talking Heads. I saw it five times in one week—the one week that it played at the Hammond, Louisiana, theater that had presumably booked it by mistake—and it was instrumental in my decision not to work for a living for as long as I could help it. The movie came out in 1984, and I didn’t see it until 1985, but the shows Demme filmed took place in December 1983. If I could go back in time, be there for those shows, and pick up Alan Moore’s first issue of Swamp Thing on my way home, that would be a good holiday season.
Call me crazy, but I’d like to go back to 1983 and see A Christmas Story during its original theatrical run. Not because I need to see it again—like every other oxygen-inhaling, carbon dioxide-exhaling human, I can recite the film front to back—but because I’d like to witness the now-ubiquitous holiday classic with a half-full theater of unsuspecting ticket-buyers. The film famously opened to mixed reviews and a so-so box office, so there would be a perverse thrill in watching a semi-amused audience quietly chuckle (or not) along to a film that would one day mutate into an unstoppable, 24-hour-TBS-marathon monster. Would that 1983 audience recognize a classic when they saw it? Would they realize the film would eventually be used as televised white noise on Christmas Eve? Could they possibly imagine that they’d be receiving imitation leg lamps from their uncreative and Christmas-gift-stumped children in 30 years?
Back in 1983, our house didn’t have MTV, so I experienced the world première of the “Thriller” video via, of all things, audiocassette: My cousin tape-recorded a sleepover where she and a bunch of friends watched it and reacted to it with excited squeals. Later, she watched it again, while giving me a play-by-play of what was happening onscreen. She was much more of a Michael Jackson fan than I was at the time, but even so, I had the feeling that I’d missed out on a pop-cultural event, and a good time. Turned out I had no idea how generation-defining it would be. While I did get a thrill out of hearing that familiar opening riff coming out of a cassette tape accompanied by excited, authentic reactions, if I had it all to do over again, I would have tracked down a friend with pay stations and organized my own viewing party. Maybe my cousin and I could have exchanged audiotapes of our first reactions.
I wasn’t around then, but I would love to have seen the M*A*S*H finale along with everyone else in America. An unthinkable 60 percent of U.S. households tuned in for a television show. The audience was so high it took until the 2008 Super Bowl to beat it. It’s kind of silly. Television has changed, but what am I nostalgic for, the mass audience? Good riddance. My friends are all “busy” with their “jobs” and “lives,” so we’re each watching everything at different rates, but that’s what Twitter’s for. Television can still be plenty social, and the fact that there’s so much more nowadays (more channels and shorter seasons to pack more shows in) means there’s that much more to talk about. But I’d still love to have been there for the M*A*S*H finale, just to have shared the experience.
Thanks to the primacy of Nintendo nostalgia as the dominant form of popular home video-game history, 1983 isn’t usually spoken of as an essential year of gaming. But there are two games that I’ve long wished I had the chance to play in the proper context. The first is M.U.L.E.,a fast-paced multi-player strategy/economics game. I’ve played it a bit, much later, and the simplicity and excellence of its design shine through. Had it been updated regularly and well, it could have been a party video game for the Settlers Of Catan set. Then there’s Ultima III: Exodus, widely understood as one of the best and most important role-playing games of all time. It was the first game to include tactical combat where you moved your characters, there were towns where you could talk to people, and a plot that didn’t entirely exist within the manual. Problem is, it’s all but unplayable now, thanks to the most common version being the terrible PC port. I can see how it would have been mind-blowing. I just wish I’d been able to have my mind blown by it.
Indie rock was a big part of my life for a long time, as a radio DJ, music critic, sometime band member, and simply as a fan, but I joined the party just when it was ending, after Nirvana broke through. Words like “indie” and “underground” didn’t mean so much when PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth were getting radio airplay. But there was a time when those words spoke volumes. In the heady pre-Internet days, being a real music fan meant being part of a secret club, with meetings in cramped record stores, and messages passed around through badly photocopied fanzines. There was a sense of community between the people who went to the trouble to track down obscure singles from tiny record labels, which has been lost in the Spotify era. All of this is a roundabout way of saying I wish my teenage years had arrived 10 years earlier, in time to hear R.E.M.’s Murmur when it was new and revelatory. If there was a moment when “college rock” got started in earnest, it was 1983, with punk dead, the radio dominated by hair metal, and the most interesting work in music being done in the shadows. What must it have been like, trying to decipher Michael Stipe’s cryptic lyrics for the first time? I would have been hearing not just an album of good songs, but reassurance that, in Reagan-era America dominated by conspicuous greed and big hair, there were still artsy, creative people doing interesting things, if you were willing to seek them out.
I’m old enough to remember when Def Leppard’s Pyromania came out, but I was far too young to really get the impact of the pop-rock perfection of that album. I didn’t know what Mutt Lange’s production brought to the table, and my young brain couldn’t objectively analyze the insanely catchy hooks that permeated almost ever track. All 8-year-old Ryan knew was that Def Leppard’s music videos were the wildest, coolest things he’d ever seen. Thus, Def Leppard was the coolest band he’d ever known. Nowadays, those videos resemble something out of This Is Spinal Tap. (Why is lead singer Joe Elliott wielding a sword? Why are there dramatically lit druids? What’s up with the emo lady tied to a tree?) But the music still holds up, as uncool as it is to admit that. I’d love to go back and appreciate this record as a collection of music rather than a collection of images. I got there eventually, but I wish I had arrived there sooner.
I was 3 years old when Kill ’Em All, Metallica’s debut record, came out, and I wasn’t even aware of it until many years later. Given all the halfway-heated conversations I’ve had about which Metallica album is the best album (my answer always being Kill ’Em All) and even, in my more narrowly argumentative and screaming moments, about how Kill ’Em All is, in fact, the only good Metallica album, I wish I could have been there when it was released. It’s purely for my own benefit, so I could pull out the rhetorical trump card of “You weren’t there man! You don’t know what it was like when Kill ’Em All dropped!”. But for this scenario to work I’d have to be 10 or 15 years older, and arguing about thrash metal with people 10 or 15 years my junior. But then their rebuttal could be, “What’s this guy doing hanging out with us? Why is he yelling about Kill ’Em All? Doesn’t he have friends his own age?” Then I’d end up losing the very argument I traveled back in time in order to win. Guess it’s one of those time-travel-paradox things.
I was obsessed with scary stories when I was a kid; I was also very easily frightened, which meant a lot of peeking at things out of the corner of my eye and then regretting it for weeks after. It may seem tame now, but Roald Dahl’s The Witches deeply unsettled me when I was old enough to read it. I can still remember flipping through the opening chapters in a school library, knowing what was coming (the bit about the girl in the painting gave me nightmares) but unable to resist reading on. As an adult, scares are a bit harder to come by. Movies can still get to me sometimes, but books rarely do, and with the nostalgia that clouds good judgment, I miss being that easily frightened. I’ll probably re-read The Witches at some point, just out of curiosity, but I doubt it will affect me as deeply; and I’ll probably be distracted wondering if the villains of the book, a hideous collection of grotesque women who delight in murdering children, represents some sublimated misogyny and/or anti-Semitism, because that’s just stuff you think about when you’re a grown-up. So while I wouldn’t want to go back to 1983 (I’d be four, which is a little young for reading that many sentences), I do wish I could re-experience being so uncomplicatedly afraid of magical creatures who wanted me dead.
I joined the indie rock appreciation party a touch before Mike did, but in 1983 I was 12 and too young to appreciate R.E.M. during its early years. Not only would I have wanted to hear the unique, jangly, emotional sounds of Murmur when it came out, I would have wanted to see Stipe, Mills, Buck, and Berry play at small clubs like Hoboken’s recently closed Maxwell’s, not the amphitheater that I saw them in when I eventually managed to see them live, during their final tour in 2008. But on the other end of the spectrum, I would have loved to seen The Police at the top of their game, touring arenas and stadiums in support of their biggest (and final) album, Synchronicity. Why? Because it was rare back then to see a band that most would consider to be alt-rock today playing bombastic shows in front of huge crowds. And it would have been the last chance to see Sting and company before their breakup, since after that we were left with just Sting and his sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-bloated solo material to rely on.
In 1983, I was 4 years old and more interested in Nickelodeon and Care Bears than anything musical. As a huge R.E.M. fan, I echo others who have talked about Murmur (although as a big fan of the Nick talk show Livewire, I may have seen the band on the show that year and not realized it). More than that, though, I wish I had seen The Smiths’ first U.S. show, on New Year’s Eve 1983 at Danceteria in New York City. I’ve seen Morrissey solo eight times and Johnny Marr with Modest Mouse, but I’d give anything to have seen the band live during that era. Video footage from that time shows Moz at his cheekiest, inciting pandemonium in a crowd whose fervor is inspiring. Plus, to hear early songs such as “Hand In Glove” and “These Things Take Time” in their rawest, most desperate form? Swoon. Plus, as an added bonus, who opened for The Smiths that night in NYC? Why, none other than Madonna.
One of my favorite TV episodes of all time—the two-part first season finale of Cheers, “Showdown”—aired in 1983, so I would like to go back and watch that live and participate in the reaction to it. Except nobody was watching the show in its first season, so it would probably just be me exclaiming, “Did you see that?!” to a bunch of people who had been watching Simon & Simon, and then I would have to admit I’ve seen very little Simon & Simon, which would be awkward. So maybe I’d go to that summer, when Cheers reruns began to build steadily in the ratings, to the point where its second season audience was large enough for it to survive on its own, before it got a Cosby Show bump in season three. Or I’d just watch Simon & Simon like everybody else. And like it.