When you trade in nostalgia, the idea of a milestone anniversary for something you cherished in your formative years is constantly on your mind. Since starting this blog, I have watched the 20th, 25th, 30th, and even 40th anniversaries of pieces of popular culture that were personal milestones come and go. Some, I have celebrated; others, I have acknowledged but decided not to cover because the idea of constantly chasing such anniversaries sounds exhausting.
That being said, today marks 30 years since New Year’s Eve 1988. Nothing significant happened exactly on this day, but when I was thinking about what to write for my annual New Year’s Eve post, the thought of the 1988-1989 school year kept popping into my head and the more and more I thought about it, I discovered that in hindsight, this was a year that was more important than I once thought, both personally and culturally.
Why? Well, for a number of reasons (and not just mathematically), 1988 was the beginning of the end of what we commonly celebrate as the 1980s and as we moved into 1989, we would see our culture shift into that odd post-1980s hangover that was the pre-Nevermind early 1990s. It was, as the title of this post suggests, a time when we were on the brink. The Cold War was ending, we were heading toward a new decade, I was hitting puberty, and there were other societal shifts that we as a culture were both seeing and wouldn’t realize were there until they were over (or in my case, 30 years later).
So, to take us out of 2018, here is my list of … Eight Significant Things about 1988-1989.
1. The Sixth Grade. I will start with the personal (and try to not go on too much about it considering that it could have been its own essay (and was part of an essay I wrote in 2011 called “Songs in the Key of Nerd”) and then get into the cultural, so that’s why I’m starting with where I was both physically and academically. My son is in the sixth grade right now, but his experience is a lot different than mine because he moved up from elementary school to middle school whereas I spent 1988-89 in my final year at Lincoln Avenue Elementary before heading up to Sayville Junior High. So, school-wise, I was smack in the middle of my last year of childhood.
It seemed to feel that way at times–while we were constantly reminded of the changes that adolescence would bring (often through the psychologically painful experience of Family Life Curriculum filmstrips), we would still get together and smash Autobots and Decepticons together or would finish our homework quickly so as to not miss the latest cartoons. That being said, this was the year where I saw some of my friends get girlfriends (as “girlfriend” as you can get at that age) and the cliques that would make junior high and parts of high school heaven for some and hell for others began to form. I mean, I remember one girl in my class getting an unfortunate nickname at the very end of sixth grade because of events I wasn’t party to and it dogged her at least through most of the seventh grade. Point being: kids can be serious assholes.
But really, watching my friends go through all of this had an impact on me because of my relative immaturity. Yes, I realize that I’m not exactly the most mature person now, but when I was eleven years old, I was still very much a kid. I thought I was mature because I didn’t just only watch cartoons and had seen a number of R-rated movies by then, but my days at home were spent with my action figures and my sister’s stuffed animals as well as my Nintendo games, which leads me to …
2. My Toy to Video Game Transition. My eleventh birthday is one of the most important ones of my childhood because my big gift that year was the Nintendo Entertainment System. I realize that in the grand scheme of things, I came to Nintendo a little late (the system was released in 1985, after all), but after years of playing it at my friends’ houses and bugging my parents for a system of my own, I opened up the Action Set with its zapper and Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge. By the time I was in high school and we had all moved on to 16-bit systems (though I never owned one), I had about 20-30 games.
On New Year’s Eve 1989, I probably had less than ten and rented many more from Video Empire. Ice Hockey and the EPYX Winter Games cartridges were two that were in full rotation and I remember that my friend and I put together a running record of the sports games we were playing along with our team records and player stats. What this meant, of course, was that we were making fewer dives into the toy closet for G.I. Joe. The 1988 action figure archive at YoJoe.com shows that of the figures that were released in the 1988 collection, I owned only the new version of Storm Shadow and of the 1989 figures, I had Recoil and the new Snake-Eyes. I also remember giving away a number of my old toys to other kids on the street or to charity, so while Hasbro and other toy companies kept making them, I wasn’t asking for them.
What was I asking for? Well, that would be whatever was being previewed in …
3. Nintendo Power. Prior to the summer of 1988, Nintendo had been publishing a small magazine called Fun Club News, which came if you had signed yourself up for the Nintendo Fun Club. I did have the very last issue of this magazine because it didn’t take my parents much convincing to let me send away for a membership. That proved fortuitous because I would be one of a number of kids who got in on the ground floor with Nintendo Power when its first issue shipped right before school started in 1988.
Nintendo Power was one of the most important magazine subscriptions I would ever have and I literally read the cover off of the first issue, which had an in-depth look at Super Mario Bros. 2 and a guide to the second quest of The Legend of Zelda, complete with a fold-out map of the overworld (a map I still have even though I don’t have the issue). Over the years, I would tear out or set aside maps and tips about Dragon Warrior (a game I played obsessively) and would make sure I held onto specials like the NES Game Atlas. I even sent in my Duck Hunt score to be published in the high scores column.
I would be a subscriber pretty much up until my freshman year of high school (I still have a silver Nintendo Power lapel pin that I received for being a longtime subscriber), which is when I decided to not renew because of the magazine’s waning NES coverage and my lack of a Super Nintendo. And while my interest in video games is next to nothing–I’ll the occasional classic arcade game or one-and-done fighting or sports game–I can’t state enough the role that both the NES and Nintendo Power played in my post-toy ‘tween-hood.
On the other hand, there was …
4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now, I know that the original TMNT cartoon minseries aired in 1987 but the ongoing series premiered on October 1, 1988 and ran at around 4:00 every afternoon on WPIX for at least the next few years (and for all I know, by the time I was in high school and was done with it, it may have still been on). The Ninja Turtles was a pop culture phenomenon that hit a number of people in my generation and the generation after on multiple levels and in multiple media. There was the aforementioned cartoon, which came along at the right time and filled a void that had been left by the cancellation and fade-outs of other shows like G.I. Joe, The Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Voltron, and The Thundercats (some of which were still run here and there). It had a blend of action and humor that had mass appeal and also was a series with a continuity, so things that happened in the miniseries or earlier seasons had effects that you could see later on.
At the same time, there would be a live-action movie in 1990 (with a Vanilla Ice-infused sequel in 1991) and what was quite possibly one of the hardest, most frustrating NES games ever produced in 1989 (along with a different, more kick-ass arcade game). Plus, some of my friends got their hands on issues of the original Eastman & Laird comics, which showed a more violent, mature group of heroes than what was being shown on our televisions after school. And when I say get my hands on, it was one or two people with individual issues because those early issues were hard to come by until a few trades came out in the early 1990s. Looking back, it wasn’t anything more violent than some of the things we had seen in Schwarzenegger movies, but at the same time, it went beyond the silliness of the cartoon and if I may take a stupid shot at sounding profound, represents our straddling the lines between childhood and adulthood.
Speaking of Schwarzenegger …
5. Twins. Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger had already been a known actor prior to this comedy that co-starred Danny DeVito as his unlikely twin brother, but Twins is quite possibly one of the top three most important movies of his career. Debuting in December 1988, it went on to gross $111.9 million at the box office and was the fifth highest-grossing movie of the entire year (#1 was Rain Man, which would go on to win best picture). It was his first movie to gross over $100 million–Predator, which had made $59.7 million the previous year, was a distant second. It was also Schwarzenegger’s first real foray into a genre that didn’t have him holding a giant machine gun. Yes, there are a couple of action-type scenes in Twins and there are a number of times when Schwarzenegger’s Julius gets to show off his muscles, but it was a comedy that was kind of a risk. As good as he was at cracking one-liners before dropping people off of bridges or after throwing steam pipes through their torsos, could Arnold be part of a comedy duo?
Obviously, the answer was yes and he would go on to do it again in 1990 to the tune of $91.4 million with Kindergarten Cop. 1988 begins a Schwarzenegger era where he is literally the biggest star on the planet beyond just churned-out violent muscle-fests. It would reach its peak in 1991 with James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (his highest-grossing film ever at $205.8 million) and would be an era that included appearances in Guns N’ Roses videos, co-founding Planet Hollywood, and even putting his star power behind the Republican presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush (more on him later). And while I know that he would have hits in 1994 and 1996 with True Lies and Eraser, which are both good movies, things for him (and in a way the ’80s action hero era) would come to a crashing halt with the bomb that was 1993’s Last Action Hero).
Personally, I watched the crap out of Twins. I may have seen it in the theater, but even if I didn’t, that was one of those movies that was on regular rotation in my VCR for the better part of at least a year after we got it. I don’t think I have seen it since the 1990s, so I’m not sure it holds up. But what I do know is that I loved it at the time. And I also knew–because I watched Entertainment Tonight like a fiend back in the day–that Schwarzenegger doing comedy was a big deal then and that movies were not just something I rode my bike to see on summer afternoons. They were a business and had history, which was prevalent in the #2 highest-grossing film of 1988 …
6. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A film that I probably haven’t seen in at least twenty years and a movie that I am surprised isn’t up there with other ’80s megaflicks like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a movie that takes a ton of the classic animated characters, puts them into Toontown, gives us a noir-like detective story surrounding old Hollywood, and takes us on one of the best rides of the decade. I’m hot and cold on all of Robert Zemeckis’ films, but this one is among his very best, and not just for the experience of the live action mixed with animation and all of the characters. It’s well-written, well-paced, and holds up incredibly well.
Plus, it gives us this rich history of animation and got me–and I honestly think a lot of other people–interested in older cartoons. Now, I have nothing against the cartoons I watched in the 1980s and you can hear Amanda and I run through as many as we can think of on episode five of “It Came from Syndication”, but at the time Roger Rabbit came out, the classic cartoons were relegated to the edges of prime cartoon viewing. Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, and Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies were something you might catch if you were up at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning or happened to be home sick at about 2:00 in the afternoon, and Disney shorts were available at the video store in the kids’ section (I know, I rented them all the time when I was six). But what sprung from this was a number of shows that eschewed the half-hour toy commercial for simply giving us animated entertainment.
Without Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, I don’t think we get Tiny Toon Adventures or Animaniacs. We already had DuckTales, and Disney was about to give us Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers, so we may have gotten The Disney Afternoon anyway. Still, when you think of both of those major studios–Disney and Warner Brothers–they reaped some serious benefits from the film and subsequent releases. In fact, this resurgence of WB animation combined with the biggest film of 1989 would wind up giving us one of the best animated series of all time, and Roger Rabbit’s success combined with a Bambi rerelease that brought in a solid amount of money would be a precursor to the Disney renaissance that began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid.
Personally, it got me more interested in movies and the history of movies that ever before. I had been a fan of making-of specials, especially those that were about Star Wars, but that’s because I thought it was cool to see how many guys fit up Jabba the Hutt and how they made the Millennium Falcon fly. I’d also read a couple of books about the making of the Star Trek TV show and its sequels. But when specials started airing about Who Framed Roger Rabbit as well as about the history of some of the characters that were in the movie, I got hooked on both what went into the movies I was watching as well as the movies that came before. I still watch behind-the-scenes DVD extras when I get the chance, but my teenage and early adult years were filled with books about movies, movie documentaries, and even a few film classes. I give Roger Rabbit partial credit for that (with the rest of it going to Lucas, Spielberg, and my constant Entertainment Tonight watching), and I also give the movie credit for mixing old with new and even though it takes place in 1947, shows both the dark and the bright that was the late 1980s, which we could also see prominently in …
7. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. If there is any song that encapsulates the late 1980s, especially 1988, it’s Bobby McFerrin’s earworm, a song that was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in the fall of 1988 but had a title that became this nationwide phenomenon. I mean, it was even silk-screened on those cheap T-shirts that you see at shitty gift shops on the Jersey Shore, and if that’s not a sign of mega-popularity, I don’t know what is.
To be honest, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, which is found on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise film Cocktail, is a good song that holds up well thirty years later, unlike another song from that soundtrack, the Beach Boys’ #1 hit “Kokomo,” which my friends and I loved when it was popular in 1988-1989 but have since come to see the error of our ways.
If you look at the Billboard number ones for all of 1988, you’ll see: “Faith” by George Michael, “So Emotional” by Whitney Houston, “Got My Mind Set On You” by George Harrison, “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson, “Need You Tonight” by INXS, “Could’ve Been” by Tiffany, “Seasons Change” by Expose, “Father Figure” by George Michael, “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley, “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson, “Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car” by Billy Ocean, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” by Whitney Houston, “Wishing Well” by Terrence Trent D’Arby, “Anything for You” by Gloria Estefan & The Miami Sound Machine, “One More Try” by George Michael, “Together Forever’ by Rick Astley, “Foolish Beat” by Debbie Gibson, “Dirty Diana” by Michael Jackson, “The Flame” by Cheap Trick, “Hold on to the Nights” by Richard Marx, “Roll With It” by Steve Winwood, “Monkey” by George Michael, “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns n’ Roses, “Love Bites” by Def Leppard, “Red Red Wine” by UB40, “Groovy Kind of Love” by Phil Collins, “Wild Wild West” by The Escape Club, “Bad Medicine” by Bon Jovi, “Baby I Love Your Way/Freebird Medley” by Will to Power, “Look Away” by Chicago, and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison. And I did the laborious task of making you read all of that because there are common threads running through a lot of them. Many are from albums or artists that were sophomore efforts, anticipated follow-ups, or second acts; a couple are teeny boppers who still had more gas in the tank; and a number of them are parent-friendly ballads by bands that were not parent friendly. I think that maybe with the exception of the Guns n’ Roses and Bon Jovi songs and “Dirty Diana” (which I have to confess I didn’t realize was a number one), the parent-friendly radio stations like WBLI played every single one of these.
And while a number of them are outstanding selections from outstanding albums–INXS’ Kick is one of the best albums of the late 1980s and George Michael’s Faith deserves the accolades it go then and now–many of them had this gilded quality. They were bright and polished but were ultimately hollow once their novelty wore off. In fact, I find it ironic that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which was a bit of a novelty in itself because it was the first a cappella song to top the charts with McFerrin doing the entire thing, holds up as well as it does. But from what I can recall from their Behind the Music episode, Cheap Trick hated “The Flame,” that Will to Power song makes two songs that aren’t even that good that more awful, and we got Rick-rolled in the middle of it.
But really, this shows how the late 1980s was the polar opposite of the darker, earlier part of the decade–there was a lot of light and bright stuff but a ton of really ugly crap was bubbling up underneath, which brings us to the last thing on this list …
8. The Election of George H.W. Bush. Now, I bring this up because it was one of the most important national events of the year, but also because Bush recently passed away. I personally don’t have that much of an opinion of the man. Yes, I was alive during his presidency, and yes, when I was 15 and he was running for re-election, I didn’t want him to win, but when I saw people on Facebook and Twitter (some of whom were barely alive or not alive at all when he was president) spew venom in his direction upon his passing, I have to say that I was a little confused and wondered if I had missed something.
I mean, I probably had. I was eleven years old in 1988. Aside from some vague memories of seeing Jimmy Carter on television, I only knew a president in Ronald Reagan, and with the exception of seeing coverage but not fully understanding Iran-Contra, I wouldn’t grow to become critical of him until I was older and had studied more about him. I paid a little more attention to Bush’s election and his subsequent administration, but that’s because as we went down the road of his presidency, we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Desert Storm, which were huge victories for the United States and its ideals.
At the same time, the country was sliding into a recession, one that would really dominate his re-election efforts in 1992. By the time he lost that re-election bid, we were in a place and time that many of us come to associate with “The Nineties” or at least the early Nineties. Prior to the dot-com boom of the latter half of the decade, this was a time of social consciousness and austerity, and our culture reflected it. I know it’s probably over-simplifying things to say that the grunge of the early 1990s was a reflection of the times and a definite response to the sheen of the 1980s, but I’m 3600 words into this post, so I’ll just say that serves a high-level view well enough. When you dig deeper, you see that it’s a little more complex, but even the complexities hold that up to be true. Bush isn’t directly responsible for the recession but I wouldn’t say that he entirely got a raw deal–after all, the writing was on the wall for at least a year prior to his election, so he should at least shoulder some blame for the state of the country in the fall of 1992.
And if the 1992 election was a throwing-off of some of the last vestiges of the 1980s, the 1988 election was an attempt to keep things going when the bloom had started to come off the rose. We would spend the next few years second-guessing what we’d been doing and would see through the sheen and saccharine of what was being presented to us. It’s not a perfect formula–the early ’90s gave us a lot of superficial trash pop culture–but there was a definite shift that was in its infancy when Bush took office in 1989 and would become more prominent during his term.
As for me, I would continue to dab in and out of the comforts of my toys and video games while dipping my toes into the water of things more mature. The next couple of years would personally be some of the most tumultuous of what was still an ultimately very charmed childhood, something I wouldn’t have been able to think of when I was watching the ball drop to welcome in the end of the Eighties.