There's a fantastically annoying ad on Spotify at the moment for yet another Hits of the 80s compilation CD. Voiceover man hails "the decade that just won't die" – which is true, even though, along with a large number of like-minded people, I spent most of the 80s doing my best to kill them. But with shoulder pads and bad prints being the order of the day summer-fashion-wise, with Wire magazine championing a genre of music they call "hypnagogic pop" ("it refashions 80s chart pop-rock into a hazy, psychedelic drone") and with the release of two blockbusting remakes on the same day – The Karate Kid and The A-Team – it seems that the 80s zombie everpresence is being reaffirmed, in pop culture and, so I'd argue, just about everywhere else. Like it or not, the 80s are still what made us who we are today.
But why is anyone even bothering to revisit pap like The Karate Kid and crap like The A-Team? Is it just that we're reaching the final splintery barrel scrapings? Or could it be that there were some things that the 80s did much better than we do them now? This is something I have been loth to admit, but I'm starting to come around to it.
My slowly emerging respect, if not love, for the 1980s is not based on any lurking nostalgia I might have for my teenage decade. At the time I hated the time. I was 11 when we kissed 1979 goodbye, with the kids' chorus on Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall succinctly expressing my views on pedagogy, life, the universe and everything (as per Douglas Adams). Much of the coming decade gave me a kind of sick-in-the-back-of-the-mouth cultural nausea. I didn't really get rid of this taste until I decamped to Prague in the spring of 1990. On the streets there, not much had changed since before the Velvet Revolution – the red stars had been removed from the buildings all down Wenceslas Square, soon to be replaced by adverts for pilsner. Prices were still pegged at their communist levels. Jeans, too, were still pegged and stonewashed. But it felt like a different place. And I felt as if I'd escaped from Margaret Thatcher. She was harder to shake off than I anticipated, however.
The 80s turned out to be both the climax and the anticlimax of the cold war – a political conclusion that miraculously sidestepped nuclear war. And the more I think about it – and I've been thinking about it a lot recently – the more I see that it's only as a mess of competing and overlapping micro-cold wars that the 80s can be understood.
Philip Roth, in his lesser-known novella The Prague Orgy, made the clinching observation about the difference between the Soviet bloc and the US. "There, nothing goes and everything matters; here, everything goes and nothing matters." John Lydon put it even more succinctly in the Sex Pistols' Holidays in the Sun: "I'm looking over the wall, and they're looking at me."
The 80s were very much about cold war walls, with "us" on one side and "them" on the other: the west v the east, America v England, left v right. It's hard to see such polarisation in today's pop culture. Everyone admits to guilty pleasures. Everyone sneaks off and enjoys a junk food blowout, a multiplex no-brainer, Girls Aloud. To boycott things entirely seems over-strident, pointless. What do you think you're going to achieve?
But ironic consumption was something that the 80s pioneered. At my university in 1986, the cult movie was Top Gun. Students in groups of eight or 10 would go to see it, again and again. They would single out girls at student discos and serenade them with Unchained Melody. As they boarded buses, they would chant, "I feel the need, the need for speed." They were revelling in the beginnings of a so-bad-it's-good spree that continues to this day.
For some of us, though, bad meant evil. In communist countries during the 1980s, dissidents did their best to annoy, outwit and undermine the apparatchiks with ironic gestures. Their more serious work, though, was the creation of alternative culture – a space where open political debate could take place, where important books were distributed in lovingly typed samizdat editions.
One way I have of understanding my total devotion to the Smiths between 1984 and 1989 is as a minor form of cultural dissidence. The Smiths are rarely seen as a political band – not when compared to the Redskins or even the Jam. Their ideological stance is too easy to parody as an extended bedroom sulk. But Morrissey was one of the few public figures to say anything as overt as "the sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher escaped unscathed". To go along with being a Smiths fan involved a great deal of anti-consumerism. Meat was murder. Clothes came from charity shops, or your mum's bottom drawer. Music was supplied by genuinely independent labels – and the latest 12-inch remix from Level 42 was a work of the corporate devil. In other words, we were boycotting most of the world.
And this is where it gets complicated, because, looking back, I seem to find myself looking at myself over a wall. From 2010, where everything goes and nothing matters, Britain in the 1980s very much looks like a communist domain where nothing went and everything mattered.
Among the things, pop-culturally, that mattered most of all was Top of the Pops. If a film is bad, these days we say, "I want those two hours back." But if there was a really bad record in the higher reaches of the charts in the 80s, that meant you could anticipate a wasted four minutes of your life, waiting for it to finish and the next bad record to come on. But you couldn't not watch TOTP altogether, because there was just that chance that something life-changing (like the Smiths) might come along.
You weren't entirely alone in this. To see John Peel's grimace after he introduced, say, Barry Manilow was to know that some of "us" were working away in close proximity to white-socked partytime posers like Bruno Brookes or Gary Davies.
It's the "everything matters" aspect of the 80s that has started to turn my opinion of them around. One of the main messages of 80s Hollywood was "you can change your life". Often, this was done in some astonishingly vile ways. There's a mini-genre of movies which I've been having some fun trying to identify: the self-betterment-through-prostitution film. These include American Gigolo and Pretty Woman (1990, but filmed in the previous year). There's also the get-ahead-by-running-a-brothel mini-genre, such as the Tom Cruise vehicle Risky Business or Henry "the Fonz" Winkler's Night Shift – where the brothel is in a morgue. This kind of thing was acceptable then.
But the most iconic cinematic mode of the 80s was the sports training montage, as showcased in Rocky. This was a shortcut way for Hollywood to deal with the growing influence of music videos from MTV (not launched in this-side-of-the-wall Europe until 1987). Soundtracked by crashing synth-drums and AOR power chords, the montage showed self-improvement in catchy action – as the hero or heroine worked till they were musclebound. Ludicrous, I know. But it's hard to find anything with a similar get-ahead conviction these days. Fates tend to be accepted and lived with, not turned around. And, as a result, we're very good at something the 80s did disastrously or not at all – disaster movies.
Similarly, although 80s cinema seemed at the time to be about rapacious individualism, the moral of a film like The Breakfast Club was that if you put a jock, a geek, a criminal, a prom queen and a kook together for long enough, they'll find out they have a lot in common. Compare this to Twilight – imagine the carnage of a Saturday morning detention at Forks high school. Twilight's message is clear: some of us are vampires, some are werewolves, and never the twain shall share a lunchbox.
Rocky was also the template for the rise-from-poverty movie. Poverty being quite a major theme of the 80s, and something that isn't very often mentioned these days. Sylvester Stallone clearly spent much of his early career envying Pacino and De Niro, and turning his films into 90-minute audition tapes for Martin Scorsese. There's a direct lineage through Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to Stallone's Rocky (and his almost-forgotten street fable Paradise Alley) and on through The Karate Kid. At each stage, though, a little of the grit gets washed off, the poverty becomes a little more bogus. What's notable, watching 80s TV and movies now, is how much more gritty and soulful they seem than today's mainstream product. You believe Ralph Macchio's just some scrawny kid; you know Jaden Smith is a gym-honed star-in-the-making.
Not that the 80s weren't obsessively body-conscious. Fitness – be it Jane Fonda's Workout video, jogging or dirty dancing – was all some people cared about. This was the decade which switched us from leisurewear to sportswear, from leather-uppers to Air Jordans. Much of the music seemed to have been created in the hopes of accompanying a sports training montage, in the knowledge that it would be pumped, bumped and thumped to in gyms across the world.
This let's-get-physical dynamic made a strange hybrid when it crossbred with 80s poverty chic. You end up with oddities like Donna Summer's She Works Hard for the Money or Simply Red's Money's Too Tight to Mention. At the time, this seemed frankly hypocritical. Rich pop stars in glossy videos asked When am I Going to Make a Living? and asserted they were living in the Love of the Common People. The question is, where has all this stuff gone? It's not that I'm expecting protest songs in the Download top 40, but there seem to be an awful lot of non-subjects, an awful lot of things which just don't matter.
As I look at it now, 80s pop culture was exactly that – a culture not a monoculture. It tolerated diversity of race, age, appearance. Clearly, the 1970s were the great age of porky, beardy, ugly blokes making great pop (Abba, ELO, 10CC) – but the 80s still allowed the ill-favoured and over-40 to have a mainstream musical presence. Back then, not all pop was made by sexbots from Planet Airbrush. I've been trying to avoid the phrase "a more innocent age", but what else is there to say when you compare Bananarama trogging around the stage looking like your sister's overdressed mates to Lady Gaga's latest outbreak of joyless S&M squarebashing?
True, Lady Gaga is, most people would admit, quite a character. And it's most of all in the creation of strong characters that the 80s seems to beat us hands down. Again, this may be a hangover from cinema of the 70s. Any tyro Hollywood scriptwriter will tell you that they want their plots to be character-driven. But it's high-concept movies that dominate; the pitch comes first, the players can be tacked on later. Mr Miyagi – atrocious stereotype that he is – is a character who managed to transcend the movie he was in. The same goes for The A-Team. It's Mr T's iconic-ironic status that makes the show remarkable.
Maybe it's something paradoxical that I'm starting to treasure from the 80s – the very moments when they were striving to be what we are now, but failed. There's a particular style: the clumpy editing that predated digital; the dodgy complexions that couldn't be fixed in post-production. But there's also substance: the dying lights of 60s idealism and 70s social conscience; the glimpses of a world which, if it had known what really mattered, might have been completely different.
Toby Litt's novel King Death is published by Hamish Hamilton. The A-Team is reviewed on page 10 and The Karate Kid on page 11.
• This article was amended on 6 August 2010. The sentence 'Although it was to be another two years before Douglas Adams coined that particular phrase' has been deleted because the phrase, 'life, the universe and everything' had been coined before 1980.
Just the high points...
Movies, music and TV genres that the 1980s did best
Father-son body swap
This micro-genre's Citizen Kane moment was in 1988, when Tom Hanks wished himself Big. Hanks was beaten to the punch, however, by Like Father Like Son the year before, with Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore.
Indian burial ground movies
Nothing can curse a house quicker than being built over a graveyard – those vengeful spirits just won't lie still. There are only two of these that count: The Shining and Poltergeist. 1989's Pet Sematary tried the same trick, but it's just not in the same class.
After a wave of 70s films showcasing fearless, brilliant women breaking the gender straitjacket, the 80s saw a major variation: step forward dim-bulb Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. But Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda et al did some heavy lifting in this area with Nine to Five (1980). Andrew Pulver
As home computers reached awesome new powers of 48k and beyond, much music sprang up around these new machines. Kraftwerk's 1981 Computer World was the ultimate domestic microchip fetish; see also Oakey and Moroder's Together in Electric Dreams, and Gary Numan's Are 'Friends' Electric?
Songs about nuclear war
The frisson of impending apocalypse led to another new pop motif. At one end there was Frankie Goes to Hollywood's chart-topping Two Tribes; at the other, Stoke's pounding hardcore dons Discharge yelling through 1982's seriously harrowing A Hell on Earth.
Kiss and Mötley Crüe were silly enough, but the rouge-caked, backcombed, static-shock-hazard likes of Twisted Sister, Hanoi Rocks and Stryper were another level. Tom Hughes
Shows about the unemployed
After the first Thatcher recession, unemployment was the 80s' big preoccupation. Boys from the Blackstuff was the decade's Big Drama, but creative responses to the lack of a proper job propped up Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Minder, and Only Fools and Horses.
TV for and about lazy students
Full grants, tenured academics and cheap bedsits conspired to make the 80s student perfect TV fodder. Their scuzzy existences were satirised in The Young Ones, and sofa-dossers were catered for by quiz show Blockbusters.
Glove puppet superstars
Basil Brush and Sooty blazed the trail, but they were kids' stuff. As Tiswas and Going Live's audiences got older, so did the puppets: Spit the Dog, Gordon the Gopher and, biggest of all, Roland Rat (left). He saved TV-am, you know. AP
...Excerpted from http://www.geocities.com/EnchantedForest/Glade/4721/ with permission from UncleBob.
"We are the children of the Eighties. We are not the first "lost generation" nor today's lost generation; in fact, we think we know just where we stand - or are discovering it as we speak.
We are the ones who played with Lego Building Blocks when they were just building blocks and gave Malibu Barbie crewcuts with safety scissors that never really cut. We collected Garbage Pail Kids and Cabbage Patch Kids and My Little Ponies and Hot Wheels and He-Man action figures and thought She-Ra looked just a little bit like I would when I was a woman. Big Wheels and bicycles with streamers were the way to go, and sidewalk chalk was all you needed to build a city. Imagination was the key. It made the Ewok Treehouse big enough for you to play in. With your pink portable tape player, Debbie Gibson sang back up to you and everyone wanted a skirt like the Material Girl and a glove like Michael Jackson's. Today, we are the ones who sing along with Bruce Springsteen and the Bangles perfectly and have no idea why. We recite lines with the Ghostbusters and still look to the Goonies for a great adventure.
We flip through T.V. stations and stop at the A-Team and Punky Brewster and "What you talkin' 'bout Willis?" We hold strong affections for The Muppets and The Gummy Bears and why did they take the Smurfs off the air? After school specials were only about cigarettes and step-families, the Pokka Dot Door was nothing like Barney, and aren't the Power Rangers just Voltron reincarnated?
We are the ones who still read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Beverly Clearly and Judy Blume, Richard Scarry and the Electric Company. Friendship bracelets were ties you couldn't break and friendship pins went on shoes - preferably hightopVelcro Reeboks - and pegged jeans were in, as were Units belts and layered socks and jean jackets and jams and charm bracelets and side pony tails and just tails. Rave was a girl's best friend; braces with colored rubberbands made you cool. The backdoor was always open and Mom served only red Kool-Aid to the neighborhood kids - never drank New Coke.
Entertainment was cheap and lasted for hours. All you needed to be was a princess with high heels and an apron; Sit 'n' Spin always made you dizzy but never made you stop; Pogoballs were dangerous weapons and Chinese Jump Ropes never failed to trip someone. In your Underoos, you were Wonder Woman or Spiderman or R2D2 and in your treehouse you were king.
In the Eighties, nothing was wrong. Did you know the president was shot? Star Wars was not a movie. Did you ever play in a bomb shelter? Did you see the Challenger explode or feed the homeless man down the street? We forgot Vietnam and watched Tiananman's Square on CNN and bought pieces of the Berlin wall at the store. AIDS was not the number one killer in the United States. We didn't start the fire, Billy Joel. In the Eighties, we re-definied the American Dream, and those years re-defined us. We are the generation inbetween strife and facing strife and not burning our backs. The eighties may have made us idealistic, but it is not idealism that will push us to be passed on to our children - the first children of the twenty-first century. Never forget we are the children of the Eighties!!"