Aesthetic Subtlety and the True Magic of ‘Stranger Things’

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The first season of Netflix’s blockbuster, 1983-set Stranger Things brought an entirely new mood to the streaming service’s own original filmography, and it left a neon mark on TV-goers across the US. Over the course of midsummer 2016, retro fashion fanatics and horror fans alike found common ground in the endless list of reference to the most iconic sci-fi films of the decade, fairly average but nonetheless attention-grabbing special effects, and a very much talked about original score by synth-dreamers Survive. We heard Corey Hart’s exceptionally audibly aesthetic 1983 hit “Sunglasses at Night” in the series’ soundtrack. We watched the quasi-protagonistic boys play the 1983 Expert edition of Dungeons & Dragons in Mike’s basement, and make connections in their own adventures to 1981’s The Empire Strikes Back (which they are in fact, very into.) But even after the film grain and overabundance of analog technology in the prop bank, name-dropping every hit film, album, and toy of the mid-80s won’t give you a perfect throwback.

To me, this is where the unsung magic of Stranger Things’ 80s small town atmosphere comes into play. Stranger Things gives such a comfortable, genuine, relaxed representation of 1983 because it is just that- comfortable, genuine, and relaxed.

Not once so far in the Duffer Brothers’ show’s one (soon two) season stretch have we witnessed a scene in the Hawkins High School gymnasium with a squadron of sophomores rocking high side ponytails screeching obscenely and inappropriately about John Stamos on the month’s cover of Teen Beat. When Jonathan and Joyce Byers argue on the street in Episode 4 (“The Body”), the signature gangster from every throwback film with fingerless leather gloves and a boombox on his shoulder is nowhere to be seen. At this point, I would probably groan if I saw a coked-out glam metal band with hair approaching heaven step out of a limousine in season two. The truth is, Stranger Things never needed to remind you you were watching a show set in the 80s. We aren’t constantly being reminded that we are going through the 2010s as we walk down the street or go grocery shopping today. We don’t need to be, because we are immersed in it. We are living it. Stranger Things doesn’t show you what the 1980s were- it goes the extra mile and pulls you right into it, in the most normal, authentic way possible.

Granted, kitschy and obnoxious 80s clichés are not without their merit. Many would even argue the retrowave scene is built upon them, having taken the best (or worst) of 80s trends, and planting them in the terrain of cyberpunk culture, music, and literature. We find beauty and fun in embracing the revolutionary over-the-top fashion, art, and music of the decade. There’s nothing funner than ruining a pair of black skinny jeans gluing 80s occult metal patches onto a denim jacket, and nothing will make your heart beat faster than seeing your teenage dream circle a roller rink in neon-accented exercise spandex at an 80s-themed sweet sixteen party. Sometimes, however, it’s nice to have the thought of driving home in your 1977 Cutlass Supreme (not a 1984 Ferrari Testosterossa) and getting a good, long night’s sleep in a comfy bed with an ugly comfortor and a frilly bedskirt.

Now of course, this is just the opinion of a young ghoul with a website and an internet connection. I didn’t live through the 1980s, and neither did a large portion of the retrowave community. But Brian Setzer and The Stray Cats were not quite a product of the 50s. Justin Hawkins and The Darkness didn’t exactly live through the 70s. (Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best name to reference.) But we are evidently living in a renaissance of synth music and 80s aesthetics, in an age where communication has never been easier and art has never flown smoother. The synth/retrowave/neo-80s scene is only growing every day in every part of the globe, and it isn’t going anywhere. Films and shows like Stranger Things only serve to bolster it in the best way possible, giving insight into an era where things were simpler, albeit stranger.

Stranger Things is slated to return for their second season on October 31st, 2017 on Netflix. You can watch the trailer here.

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