The regular soundtrack at my local Goodwill — indeed, at most second-hand stores in Toronto — is an endless mix of eighties music. It’s a playlist that sounds very much like this, streaming (or so it seems) from some local radio station whose listener base consists mainly of people whose adult existence has never lived up to their memories of high school.
It’s not precisely that I dislike eighties music, or those who listen to it. I have my own not-so guilty pleasures from the era: Big Country, the Go-Gos, the Bangles, A Flock of Seagulls, Joan Jett and — a song I will never tire of — Dead or Alive’s immortal “You Spin Me Round.” My own musical preferences — which emerged independently of pop radio in the very late eighties and early nineties — include certain albums released during the eighties, probably chief among them REM’s Chronic Town (which I still have on cassette), Murmur, Document, etc. and U2’s Boy, October, War and all their live releases from 1980 onward.
But when eighties music enjoyed its long revival from the late nineties onward via ‘Retro’ weekends in clubs, and on radio and music television (and accompanying compilation albums), I gave it a pass. I was never able to get into the collective nostalgia for a decade that had produced such prolonged personal misery that its music actually filled me with nausea.
One afternoon, half a year ago, I was browsing at the local Goodwill when something — some current in the air, some internal tremor, some awareness of an unseen threat — made me feel distinctly uneasy. I stopped still where I was, in the middle of a narrow aisle, and listened. And what I heard was Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”
Most people remember “Take My Breath Away” because it was featured on the Top Gun movie soundtrack in 1986. I have never seen the entire film, but know the song because it received heavy radio airplay that summer — the summer I graduated from grade eight, worked at my first real job, entered puberty, and first encountered V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series of books. The song’s visceral power, to me at least, derived from its juxtaposition of displacement and longing, its paean to desire and desolation — things I felt acutely that summer, and for several years thereafter.
In the nearly three decades that have elapsed since the song’s original release I have, of course, heard it again from time to time, on the radio in the car or on the sound system in some shopping mall. And, apart from some vague twinge of remembrance, it has never struck me the way it did a few months ago at the local Goodwill.
One afternoon in grade eight a boy at school pointed at my clothes and taunted: “Goodwill!” He continued to do so for the rest of the afternoon, ratcheting up his attack whenever the opportunity arose, and encouraging a small chorus of classmates to join in. At the time I was rather perplexed: I had always thought of that particular boy as less hostile than my other classmates [and have, in fact, continued to think of him that way, although it occurs to me now that he was the same classmate who poured blue paint onto my hair a few months later — an assault to which the school responded by gathering both grade eight classes together and asking what I had “done” to deserve it]. More importantly, I wasn’t exactly sure what “Goodwill” was, never having been inside one. I did, of course, understand the nature of his attack: my clothes had failed, as usual, to live up to the social standard in effect in the eighties. My shoes were too white, too Trex instead of Tretorn; my outfit too redolent of Bi-Way or Bargain Harold’s (two long-vanished discount retailers that, like K-Mart, sold knock-off clothes and cheap electronics before WalMart drove them to extinction). I did know all about second-hand clothes, though: my mother volunteered regularly at a local hospital charity shop whose main stock-in-trade was the cast-off clothing that filled my closet.
And what I understood from his taunting was this: if it was a socially risky to wear cut-rate clothing from a discount store (the source of most of my classmates’ wardrobes), it was a far greater shame to be seen wearing something second-hand — worst of all from Goodwill, that repository of discarded objects and, by extension, the domain of undesirable people.
I remain sufficiently defensive about those days to point out that my parents, while unable (or, equally, unwilling) to buy into the excess of the eighties, were not precisely poor.
It is true that they had very little money. But they were highly educated, furnished their home with books and antiques — and had put every penny they had into large and valuable tracts of suburban land that they sold very profitably to a developer in 1989, putting to a decided end any narrative of our “poor” family that persisted even at that point.
Until then, though, I lived for eight years in a community where social worth was defined by visible proof of consumption. Reeboks, a Swatch watch, a Cabbage Patch doll and a neon “Choose Life” sweatshirt didn’t guarantee popularity — but they provided necessary protection against being labeled a loser. And it wasn’t only teens — the targets of so much advertising — who were affected. Their parents took up or abandoned jogging, wore larger (or smaller) earrings, ties and shoulder pads, bought smaller (or larger) domestic (or imported) cars and furnished their living rooms in pastel (or beige) in accordance with the continually shifting dictates of consumption. My mother recalls encountering another parent among the school supplies on display in a store one September, agonizing over whether she was buying her son the “right” lunchbox — not out of any interest in his aesthetic preferences, but in a panic about being (and buying) properly on trend.
The odd thing was that our community — a suburb just east of Toronto — was and remains demographically working class. The parents of my classmates were, for the most part, factory workers, low-level functionaries and stay-at-home mothers who fought for groceries in the chaotic environs of Knob Hill Farms, bought knock-off clothing at at K-Mart and waited in line for cheap jewellery and off-label electronics at Consumers Distributing. On occasion I would even encounter some classmate’s mother shopping at the charity shop where my mother volunteered — a meeting that, rather than leveling the social landscape, only reinforced the stigma against us for being “seen” in such a setting.
The social violence I experienced in my late childhood and teens has marked me in certain ways. It has made me diffident, socially awkward and wary of friendship. It has turned me into a virulent opponent of coercion in any form.
It has also given me the gift of a hard kind of forgiveness.
A decade or two ago I realized that many of my classmates — and their parents — had lived essentially desperate lives. They were no more able than we to live up to the kinds of conspicuous consumption the eighties demanded: the difference was that it mattered to them — mattered enough for them to cling to any material advantage over those who appeared to have less; mattered enough to justify the kinds of social exclusion, name-calling and physical assault I and my siblings suffered for the worst part of a terrible decade. And in doing so they embodied Robert Roberts’ argument in The Classic Slum (1971) that no group hated the working class so much as the lower middle class, because they lived in terror of being mistaken for it.
And so, whenever I hear eighties music playing at the local Goodwill, it makes me a little anxious. It reminds me of the desperation of that decade — a desperation summed up, in fact, by certain iconic eighties songs, among them Rush’s “Subdivisions” and Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers.” I’ve noticed, over the years, that both songs elicit strong visceral responses from many people who grew up during that decade. Those who had “fit in” socially tend to respond ruefully, able to admit at the safe distance of two decades that those were cruel times. Those who felt excluded respond grimly, bearing such songs like a torch of remembered resentment. And then there’s me, for whom eighties music has all the character of an anthropological curiosity. It makes me feel as if, after having traveled a great distance, I have returned to the site of some distant trauma, a trauma so far removed it has left little trace other than a vague sense of anomie, and an inchoate anxiety.
An anxiety elicited from time to time by some song standing out from the ceaseless stream of eighties music on tap at the local Goodwill.