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And a Reagan New Year! 

Learning to live with -- and even love -- a retro-'80s fad that just ... won't ... die

Wednesday, Jan 1 2003
Flashing fluorescent colors bounce athletically around the room. "Material Girl" is blasting, and hundreds of people's bangs are losing volume. I'm sweating, and the women all around me are glistening. The moment is perfect, like the best day of seventh grade.

I can't take my eyes off two girls in red-and-white headbands. Their dance moves resemble those from a workout video, as do their outfits: green and orange sweat shirts, sweat pants with elastic waistbands, and PUMAs. I introduce myself and find out that they call themselves Deb Pop N' Lock and Tiff Snake. Deb is the one with blue leg warmers, and Tiff is the one with pink leg warmers, but that is their only difference. Their faces are smeared with electric-blue eye shadow and bright red lipstick, and their voices contain more than a trace of Valley Girl. They are somehow beautiful.

We step outside the club into the cool air, and they tell me the stories of their lives. They're not related, but they live together in Nob Hill and sleep on bunk beds, rotating the top position every two months. Originally from Santa Barbara, they strongly identify with "mall girl" culture. As their names suggest, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany are major inspirations. They call themselves "anti-indie rock" and worship the members of Journey as gods.

Their top five favorite movies, which they list off in tandem, are:

1) The Breakfast Club

2) Footloose

3) Ferris Bueller's Day Off

4) Dirty Dancing

5) Back to the Future

"In the '80s it came from the heart and soul," says Tiff, stretching her calves in front of the Cat Club's green-and-black sign.

"Some people think we're comedians," says Deb, "but we don't think we're funny. We wear these clothes all the time, and cause chaos wherever we go, but we're oblivious to it. People are like, 'Why are you wearing those clothes?' and we're like, 'What are you talking about?'"

I hear the track change from Billy Idol to Cyndi Lauper, and the next thing I know Deb and Tiff are pulling down their pants. They reveal their underwear. REO Speedwagon emblems adorn the front. On the back, their names are written in dark orange marker.

This is much better than seventh grade. I love the '80s.

It wasn't always like this. I used to loathe '80s revivalists and everything they stood for. That was just a week ago, in fact ...

It all started one foggy morning when I journeyed into the Mission District with my friend Libby Kountzman in search of shoes. Tired of waiting for the 26 Valencia bus, we stumble into Friend's Cafe at Duboce and Valencia. Its fraying, mismatched Oriental rugs, assorted hand-painted chairs, and Army-green couch give it a comfortable, homey feeling. Still, there's something vaguely unsettling here. We get our drinks, sit down, and Libby begins telling me about her latest purchases from Good Vibrations. But I can't concentrate. For some reason I'm beginning to panic.

I suddenly realize, and then verbalize, the problem: "They're playing Great White."

Hollywood ain't paved with gold
It's just a trick of light
Sunset falls on stars of old
And blinds you with its light

"The Angel Song." It bothers me that this song is being played. It was a cherished anthem from my formative junior high years, after all. I bought the cassingle with my own money. I memorized the words and cried to the lyrics. Sure, I had never kissed a girl up to this point, but if I had, this song would have been playing in the background.

Fly lonely angel
High above these streets of fire
Fly lonely angel
Far away from mad desire

OK, so it doesn't make much sense, but that's not the point. The point is that it epitomized my desperate pre-adolescent longings for female companionship. This is not a song to be heard, it is a song to be forgotten. Besides, it was not a "hit." "Once Bitten Twice Shy" was a "hit," and when was the last time you heard that song?

I storm to the front counter to demand an explanation. "Is this on the radio?" I ask the barista, who is quietly making a mocha.

"No," he says, turning around, oddly calm.

"Is it one of those 'Monster Ballad Compilation' things?"

"No," he says, setting his glass down and wiping his hands with a rag. "It is a CD I burned."

The man truly has no bad intentions. His name is Phil Azraei, and he came to San Francisco shortly after arriving in the U.S. from Amman, Jordan, in 1989. Though he wasn't actually living in the United States during most of the Me Decade, he insists that all the best of culture was happening then, including Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bobby McFerrin, Guns 'N Roses, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

He even has good things to say about Ronald Reagan: The Teflon president made many improvements in the economy, the people of Jordan like him a lot, etc. Perhaps this viewpoint is an anomaly. After all, foreigners are often obsessed with tacky American culture.

"Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" by Gloria Estefan comes on as I sit back in my chair.

"Can you believe they're playing this music, Libby?" I ask, staring down at the espresso-sludge remains of my latte.

"Yeah, it's great," she says, and then notices my frustrated scowl. "The '80s are still in, you know."

"Still?" I ask. This is news to me. Bad news.

"Oh yeah. They've been popular for a few years now -- haven't you noticed all the mullets and mohawks? -- but now it's being taken to a whole new level. We're talking feathered bangs, Farrah Fawcett-style."

I'm going to need something stronger to drink.

"Personally I just bought a pair of red and black striped wool arm-warmers, and some more lip gloss. Nowadays it's all about the heavy gloss. And the off-the-shoulder sweat shirt look. It's a shout-out to the bar mitzvah days."

About The Author

Ben Westhoff


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