’80s BABY: Looking Back at The Best — and Worst — Of Gen-X Nostalgia
While today’s adolescents are hooked on Taylor Swift, selfies, smartphones and superhero movies, it’s inevitable that those current pop culture points of reference will be looked back on by tomorrow’s grown-ups with as much embarrassment as fondness.
The same is true for everything we loved in past decades, and though much of what Baby Boomers and their Gen-X offspring watched and played with hasn’t felt as outdated as Pet Rocks, mood rings, VHS tapes and Vanilla Ice, it’s still fun to remember the fun parts of life that existed alongside the trepidation of pop quizzes, peer pressure and acne.
One of the many sites that specializes in spotlighting pop culture nostalgia is 80’s BABY, created by comedian and blogger John Bilancini. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Bilancini and occasional guest writers like comics Sarah Kennedy, Kevin Froleiks and Greg Orme reminisce about some of the best — and worst — fashion, toys, technology and entertainment from the ’80s and ‘90s.
Since debuting in March, 80’s BABY has explored a kaleidoscope of subjects: cheap yet charming local TV ads, suburban shopping malls, Sega, MTV, indoor soccer, and even Garbage Pail Kids cards. As you can surmise, more remembrances of vintage pop culture are in the offing for readers of the blog, who can also contribute their personal recollections of the ’80s and ’90s on Twitter @NostalgiaIsADrug.
Comprehensively researched yet strengthened by a humorous perspective, the stories found on 80’s BABY will gin up the giggles as much as they’ll jog your memories. As one of many children who came of age in the “Me-First Decade”, Bilancini views his blog as much more than an ongoing celebration of the fun parts of youth during the 1980s.
In the blog’s presentation and via his writings on 80’s BABY, Bilancini captures how some of the same joyous — and not so joyous — experiences he shared with kids in his hometown of South Amherst, Ohio over 30 years ago impacted him on his way to adulthood in 2019.
On the Internet, nostalgic content has been incredibly popular. Since 80’s Baby is one of many sites that focus on vintage pop culture trends and entertainment (yours covering the ’80s and ‘90s), what did you do to make this platform stand out among others?
John Bilancini (80’s Baby creator/blogger/comedian): My impression of most of the pop culture nostalgia websites is that they aren’t trying to tell a story about the things that they cover. It often strikes me more as a list shouting, “remember this?” at the reader. While I definitely fall back on the list format with some frequency, I make an effort to explain what every I cover meant to me. In a way, I’m writing a memoir of my childhood, told through stuff.
How did your own childhood memories, plus your exposure to ’80s and ’90s era movies, TV, music and pop culture, influence and inspire you to create this site?
JB: As I approached adulthood I said the same things that I think everybody says, like “I’m never going to lose touch with popular music.” Of course, by age 25 that wasn’t true. I believe that nearly everybody’s taste is established sometime in their teens, and at that point, while you can always add new things to it, the core of what you like is permanently lodged.
I was born in the 1980’s. My formative years took place when grunge music was huge, and I still love it. My wedding soundtrack was primarily mid-90’s grunge and pop, and my wife came down the aisle to The Lemonheads’ “Into Your Arms.” (She’s five years younger than me, so it wasn’t really her music, to be honest, but she was on board with it.)
I was able to scratch the itch of talking about those things I loved through a podcast I did for a year with another Brooklyn comedian, Brandon Ream (who also co-hosts a nostalgia podcast called The Nostalgic Front). The podcast was called 1994, and we went month-by-month through the year, talking about all the 1994 releases. From there, I realized there was so much more I wanted to cover from childhood, and a website seemed like the best way of doing that.
Yourself being a comedian, how does that factor into and enhance your perspective on the vintage subject matter that you write about on 80’s Baby?
JB: In comedy scenes where you’re seeing a lot of the same people at open mics and shows week after week, groupthink sets in when it comes to joke writing. You’ll go through waves where several people are telling a joke about the same topic. I make a conscious effort in my premises to talk about things that other people aren’t talking about. A lot of the time, I mine the past for these topics. It doesn’t always work; sometimes a reference is too dated to make relatable in a stand up setting. But often when it doesn’t translate on stage it’s perfect for 80’s Baby, due to the audience being self-selecting.
What stories are you currently working on, and when can visitors to the site expect to read them?
JB: In the coming weeks, I have articles coming out on chain restaurants like Rax, Outback, and Tony Roma’s, (plus) a few toy box articles covering Popples, Madballs, and Pillow Pals, and snack articles dealing with Flintstones Push Up Pops, discontinued McDonald’s items, and Jo Jos (fried potatoes popular in the Midwest). I also plan to continue to add entries to ongoing topics like VHS tapes my family owned, 25th anniversary articles of things released in 1994, and guest articles from some of my talented friends.
I like to cover things that are specific to Northern Ohio, since that’s where I’m from and a lot of memories and experiences are tied to the specific place, but I realize it’s not relatable to a large number of people so I try to just slide them in on occasion. I recently wrote an article about indoor soccer and was proud of it, but it was essentially just for me. I’m really looking forward to December. Christmas is my favorite holiday, and there are so many Christmas related memories I want to cover.
What’s the overall reaction from readers been like on the site’s Twitter page, and from readers who visit your blog as a whole?
JB: To be honest, not many people have vocalized their likes and dislikes related to the site. I released an article on May 6 covering (the classic children’s novel) Sideways Stories from Wayside School, which garnered a lot of comments on Facebook, but other than that people have been fairly quiet.
What story/pop culture memory discussed on 80’s Baby has generated the heaviest amount of reader reaction?
JB: Aside from Wayside School mentioned above, I published an article collecting the animated childhood crushes of some of my comedian friends. That article proved to be pretty popular. It also helped that several people had contributed, which meant that the article was shared to a much wider range of potential readers.
What are some of the best nostalgic stories you’ve received from readers?
JB: (The) Book It! (article on Pizza Hut’s long-running child reading program) resonated with a lot of people. I truly believe that the Book It! program is the greatest thing that a fast food company has ever done. Pizza Hut created fans for life. The “cartoon crushes” article revealed that Gadget from Chip ’N Dale’s Rescue Rangers led to a sexual awakening for prepubescent boys and girls alike.
Describe the research process that goes into preparing the articles that you and your contributors put on 80’s Baby, and how, as a writer, you mix the historical facts of each article with humorous commentary.
JB: Everything starts with a memory. Once I think of something I want to cover, I begin with Internet research. If it’s something visual, I go to YouTube next to look for an episode or a commercial. Since a lot of the time I’m writing about things from my perspective, I don’t go too deeply into the historical facts.
I give the reader enough context for perspective if he or she is unfamiliar with or doesn’t remember the thing I’m writing about, but I figure that there are enough places online to find out more about something if he or she wants to do a deep dive. As for the comedic aspect, above all, my job (if I got paid) is to make it entertaining. While formulas and structures exist, a lot of comedy writing is intuitive. You identify the places to insert jokes as you’re writing them.
One of the biggest goals you have for 80’s Baby is to make it a place where today’s adults can relieve the stress of their present lives — and the problems of life in the 21st Century — by looking back at their childhoods. Talk about the impact that putting this site together and writing about your own memories of growing up in the ’80s, has had on you.
JB: I was a snobby film dork in college. One of the films we covered in one of my courses was Magnolia. There are a lot of memorable scenes in it, but one that comes back to me to this day is Jason Robards in bed, bellowing “Regret.” I’m not the bedridden and dying type of old yet, but at 38 I no longer consider myself young, and I have a fear that I think is shared by a lot of people my age that my best years are behind me.
The “looking back” that I refer to is a mixture of regret that I didn’t do even more with that time, combined with a comfort in the things I loved that I did do. As for escaping from 21st Century problems — everything sucks now. Everything probably sucked then, too, but I was 10. I thought things were going great. Also on the whole, the Internet was a terrible idea, and we should toss the whole thing in the trash.
What’s been your favorite pop culture memory to write about, and which ‘80s/’90s era trend/entertainment isn’t as good looking at it from an adult perspective as you thought it was when you were a kid?
JB: As I mentioned earlier, I wrote an article on indoor soccer that meant a lot to me and I enjoyed writing (it). I did a two-part playlist of songs that were played at my middle school dances (that) brought up a lot of memories I hadn’t thought of in a while, so that one was also a lot of fun.
Also, Pizza Hut’s Book It! program is one of my favorite things from childhood. My parents encouraged reading from an early age, and my sisters and I devoured books as children. Getting free pizza for reading was an incredible bonus for something we were going to do anyway. I love Book It! so much I got a Book It! tattoo for my last birthday.
Two negative takeaways come to mind. The first one is fairly general, and it’s that almost every Saturday morning cartoon from the 1980’s is garbage. We didn’t realize it at the time, but if you revisit them now they’re practically unwatchable.
The other one is for an article I haven’t written yet. I’m planning to do a series of articles on TV pilots, and whether they hold up today, so I watched The Drew Carey Show. I remember the show as being smartly written, and since it took place in Cleveland I always appreciated it as a representation of where I am from. On re-watch, I found out that the show starts with a gay panic joke, straight out of the gate. I get that it’s a vestige of the time, (and) that hack jokes like that played well in sitcoms, but it was still disappointing.
Overall, what do you hope people who visit 80’s Baby get out of reliving their childhood memories through the site?
JB: Above all, I’d like 80’s Baby to be an escape. I would like people to be reintroduced to things that meant the world to them at some point but were forgotten along the way. For newcomers, hopefully they encounter something cool that leads them to dig deeper and uncover new interests. And I want them all to share these discoveries with everybody they know, so I can do this full-time and expand to week-long coverage.
Visit 80’s Baby at:
https://eightiesbaby.net/ (articles posted Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays)
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/nostalgiasadrug