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The Shipwreck Rose: Wang Chung Tonight

Wed, 12/13/2023 - 19:04
The author, at left, having a high-1980s teenage moment at Coney Island in 1985.
Courtesy of the author

You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if your winter coat for a few years in mid-decade was either: a) a tattered, black-wool blanket from Goodwill that you wrapped around yourself while wearing a wan expression and pretending to be a street urchin, or, b) an unlined black-leather motorcycle jacket, several sizes too big, that sent a shiver through your body every time the inside of the sleeve touched your bare arms, and your arms were bare because you only had a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off underneath.

You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if you “pegged” your jeans by folding the fabric over at the ankle and then rolling the cuff twice, tightly. You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if you regularly used scissors to change the shape of your clothes, cutting crewneck sweatshirts into boat-neck sweatshirts, cutting vintage Pucci shift dresses into minidresses that fell six inches above the knee (and you only realized decades later that it was incredibly stupid to destroy a vintage Pucci silk-jersey shift dress). You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if your idea of a good Saturday night was pool-hopping in the dunes, house to house, between Main Beach and Two Mile Hollow. If you knew someone who got left behind by his friends while drunkenly pool-hopping on a Saturday night, fell asleep on a leather couch in the living room of a stranger’s oceanfront home, and only woke up when the dawn began to break, punk pink and yellow, through the huge, plate-glass windows that faced the breakers. If you knew someone who broke into a neighbor’s house only for the joke of taking a bite out of a Famous Amos cookie and leaving it mysteriously on the kitchen counter.

You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if you played billiards and drank Rolling Rock at the bowling alley, dropping quarters into the slot to hear LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” over and over again until someone threatened you with a pool cue. If the dope who sold nickel bags in the bowling-alley parking lot grew up to be a detective. If you still consider the moment when Run-DMC sampled the heavy metal guitar licks of Aerosmith to be a seminal turning point in the evolution of pop culture. If you danced to “Get Down on It” by Kool & the Gang at your first-ever middle school dance, doing the Bump with a freckled boy with sweaty palms, and transitioning on the dance floor from the bump to ska skanking sometime between 1981 and 1984. If you know that “two-tone” refers not just to the antiracist ska revival of Great Britain but also to the black-and-white checkerboard pattern on sweaters, T-shirts, and shoes that skateboarders and ska kids wore back then and that are still seen on the Vans sported by your own children, who have zero clue.

You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if it made you mad that Madonna had stolen Debby Harry’s style in the music video for her first hit song, “Lucky Star”: black and white and platinum hair bleached to smithereens. If you bleached your own hair to smithereens over the bathroom sink. If, in the absence of commercial hair dyes in blue, green, or pink, you ever used Magic Markers to tint your locks. If you ever shaved your head. If you customized your own white canvas Converse high tops with spray paint because Converse only manufactured them in white or black. If you spent entire weekends watching MTV at the weekend house of a friend whose coke-sniffing stepfather had a Mercedes convertible and cable.

You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if you first encountered cocaine when it was being sniffed by city kids whose parents rented your neighbors’ house every summer and who got expelled from Brearley. If you knew teenagers who smuggled marijuana in plastic-wrapped bricks, taped to their chest under their intarsia sweater, home from a winter vacation at Half Moon in Montego Bay, Jamaica. If it seemed embarrassing, but not criminal, that half your girlfriends at 15 or 16 “dated” men in their 40s who took them to hear Bucky Pizzarelli at the Cafe Pierre on a “date” in Manhattan that included an overnight at the Pierre Hotel.

You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if the scents that transport you — a magic-genie flash — straight back to your youth are, in chronological order: Bain de Soleil Orange Gelee (“for the St. Tropez tan”), Trident peppermint gum, stale cigarettes inside the time-space capsule of a vintage Dodge Dart driven by a classmate doing donuts in a parking lot, wood smoke from beach bonfires, Noxzema, Oil of Olay; Crabtree and Evelyn talcum powder in “damask rose,” Dippity-Do hair gel, wood smoke, stale cigarettes and B.O. on a mohair sweater the morning after a night at the Jag, Miss Dior purchased in a two-tone houndstooth box at the duty-free shop at Charles de Gaulle Airport the summer between junior and senior year of high school, Aqua Net, Yves Saint Laurent Opium perfume, wood smoke.

If you believed for a moment that you’d actually, personally, invented the phrase “big hair” after watching the Smiths play at the Beacon Theater in 1985. If you were never “emo,” because “emo” didn’t exist yet, but you could have been accused, at certain points, of being Goth, because it was true that you mostly wore black. If it took you weeks to wear in your stiff Levi’s 501s. If you walked with a limp for weeks after wearing brand-new Doc Martens. If you remember fashion before the revolution of Spandex, before Donna Karan popularized “stretch.” If you were the first person the grown-ups knew who dressed in polyester 1960s castoffs from the Bargain Box.

You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if you know what the “Fiorucci” in the Sister Sledge lyric refers to — “Gucci, Pucci, Fiorucci” — and taped a postcard of Fiorucci’s angels-on-a-cloud logo to your bedroom wall. If you ever considered Swatch and the United Colors of Benetton to be internationally chic. If you once bought, and then regretted buying, black, stiff, zippered bondage pants from Boy London. If you ever wore an item of clothing sewn out of a Union Jack or thumb-tacked a Union Jack to the wall above your bed.

If synthesizers transport you back. If the song that everyone agreed was the song that would deliver bittersweet pangs of nostalgia in the future, when you all were grown up and living a melancholy middle-aged life of disappointment in the suburbs, was “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. If the song you listened to on a boombox in the back of a hired limousine on your way to senior prom was “Dance Hall Days” by Wang Chung, and it made you feel sad, even then, that your youth was fleeting.

If you thought the Cold War had happened decades before, in the 1950s. If you were informed by your health teacher that your entire generation’s childhoods had been darkened by waking fears and night terrors of nuclear apocalypse but you never really believed the nuclear apocalypse would come.

If the future was Japan. If the future was machines. Fax machines, ice-cube machines, air-pop popcorn machines, answering machines. If you had a friend whose parents mail-ordered a Crazy Calls cassette tape for $14.95 so that their answering machine could play the words “Nobody’s home! Nobody’s home!” to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and you kind of liked this answering machine message because it was so unbelievably kitsch.

If you loved Pee-wee Herman and Dolly Parton for their embrace of kitsch, and you wore a miniskirt made out of “Star Wars” novelty twill because that was kitsch, and plastic-jewel ruby and diamond rings from the gumball machine because they were kitsch, too, and kitsch was a mind-set that was actually a nihilistic critique of life in the postnuclear world of shopping-mall consumerism.

If, when you visualized your adult self, you saw yourself ludicrously at some distant date in the hazy future walking briskly into an elevator wearing pumps, pantyhose, and a skirt suit with power shoulders, carrying a briefcase like Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl.” If you fell in love with Julian Sands in the role of George Emerson in “A Room With a View”: joy! beauty! truth!

You may have been a teenager in the 1980s if you glued yourself to the television news when the protesters flooded Tiananmen Square in 1989, standing in front of the tanks, and you honestly believed the world was about to become a better place.


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