An Overview of the History of the 1980s in America

The 1980s

The 1980s was a decade of tragedy and innovation, a decade of big hair bands and sci-fi movies, and a time for change. During this time period stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna began their rise to fame, while franchises such as Star Wars gained popularity. This was also a time when international conflict struck, Olympics were boycotted and bombings left people dead around the globe. Even amongst all the bad things that spotted this decade, there were new advances in technology and research that had an enormous impact on the future.

Together, all of the conflicts, inventions, people, and trends, interacted with each other in order to shape the decade we call the 80s. During the 1980s many people, from politicians to athletes, made their mark on the decade. As far as entertainment goes, Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Tom Cruise, Nina Blackwood, and Oprah Winfrey were all a big part of the entertainment industry during this time period.

There were also many athletes who gained fame during this time. Athletes like Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Carl Lewis began setting recordings and gaining recognition as outstanding athletes. Other athletes, like Lance Armstrong, got their start in the 80s, before they went on to be world-renowned stars. There were also several people that paved the way for changes in politics.

Jesse Jackson was the first black presidential candidate and Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman running as vice president. Ronald Reagan, who was president of the United States from 1981-1989, appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Conner.

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In addition to all the people who made impacts on athletics, entertainment, and politics, other people were making social and technological advances that would help the world. Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Pope John Paul II, Sam Walton, Princess Diana, and Christa McAuliffe are just a few of the people who’s actions and contributions during the 1980s earned them recognition from the rest of the world. This decade was influenced by a wide variety of people, many of them continued to have an impact on society in following years.

From 1980-1989 there were many significant events that helped to shape this decade. In 1980, John Lennon was assassinated in New York, Mount St. Helens erupted, the United States boycotted the summer Olympics in Moscow, and 125,000 Cubans left Cuba for America. The following year there were assassination attempts on Pope John Paul II and on U.S. president Ronald Reagan; the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, was appointed to the Supreme Court; Prince Charles’s marriage to Lady Diana was watched by millions of people all over the world; the disease known as AIDS was discovered; and the first space shuttle launch of Columbia was successful. The year 1982 saw the Tylenol Scare as well as the opening of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. In 1983 the U.S. embassy was bombed in Lebanon and Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. There was more controversy in 1984, when Indira Ghandi was assassinated and the Soviet Union boycotted the summer Olympics that were held in Los Angeles, California. The middle of the decade lead to the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer and the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic; leaded gas was also outlawed in the United States. Tragedy struck in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. This year also saw the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the U.S. bombing of Libya, and the return of Haley’s comet. In 1987 DNA was first used to convict criminals, baby Jessica fell down a well, ‘Black Monday’ occurred when the stock market dropped 22%, and the Iran Contra scandal was exposed. The Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York was bombed in 1988. The end of the decade saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, an enormous oil spill by the Exxon Valdez, and the beginning of the human genome project.

Although the 1980s saw bombings and tragedies all around the globe, there were also many discoveries during this decade that would impact that future.

The 1980s was a time when many new technologies took hold in the world. The very beginning of the decade saw the creation of the hepatitis-B vaccine, the invention of the compact disc, and the introduction of Post-It Notes. In 1981 IBM released the first Personal Computer, and the scanning tunneling microscope was also invented.

By the following year, human growth hormone could be genetically engineered; the ACE Inhibitor was invented; as well as the artificial heart and the camcorder. In 1983 the soft bifocal contact lens was invented and the first Personal Digital Assistant was introduced. In 1984 the CD-ROM was invented. The next year, Microsoft invented the Windows program. In the year after that, a high-temperature super conductor was invented, synthetic skin was invented, and Fuji introduced the first disposable camera. In 1987, the first 3-D video game and disposable contact lenses were invented. The digital cellular phone, Doppler radar, and Prozac were all invented in the year 1988. In 1989, high definition television was introduced. During the 1980s, there were many advances in technology not only meant to improve the daily lives of people, but also many advances in medical technology that would prove to be incredibly helpful in the future.

Music during this decade could be found from a wide variety of artists. From Michael Jackson to Metallica, people with different musical tastes could find satisfaction in the talent of the 1980s. While Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, Madonna was the Queen of Pop. These two idols are just a few of those that ruled Top 40 charts during the 80s. Another popular musical style during this time period was big hair bands, like Motley Crue, Van Halen, Cinderella, Def Leppard, and many more. Other bands and artists who made their mark during the 1980s were Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Elton John, Diana Ross, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Paul McCartney, Journey, Lionel Richie, Peter Gabriel, The Talking Heads, Bon Jovi, Billy Ocean, George Michael, Whitney Houston, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, U2, Cheap Trick, Rush, INXS, Billy Idol, Wham, The Scorpions, ZZ Top, KISS, and Ozzy Osbourne. The 1980s was a time for diverse musical interest, and many of these artists gained their fame during this decade.

Movies during the 1980s saw an increasing focus on action, horror, science fiction, and teen comedies. One huge movie franchise that gained popularity in the 1980s was the Star Wars series, which pioneered new cinematic effects that only boosted its popularity.

Groundbreaking horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and The Shining were also released in the 1980s. Films like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were also very popular films during this decade. In addition to these, other movies that proved to make it big during this time period were 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, Caddy Shack, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Big, Die Hard, The Wall, Romancing the Stone, Alien, Scarface, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Arthur, The Untouchables, Risky Business, E.T., Airplane!, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, The Karate Kid, Beetlejuice, Blues Brothers, Beverly Hills Cop, and Good Morning, Vietnam. From John Hughes’s teen comedies to the original slasher films, there were many big movies in the 1980s.

In addition to music and movies, different foods were also gaining popularity during the 1980s. During this decade Cool Ranch Doritos were introduced, as well as Caprisun Juice, Microwave Popcorn, Lunchables, Lean Cuisine meals, Olive Garden restaurants, Fruit Roll Ups, the McRib, and Chicken McNuggets. From getting their start 30 years ago, these foods are still enjoyed all over the world today.

Every generation harbors different fads and trends, and the 1980s is no exception to this. A couple things that became hit sensations during this decade were the Rubik’s cubes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Other things that were popular during this time period were PacMan, Cabbage Patch Kids, Big Hair Bands, Break Dancing, Ouija Boards, Hackey Sacks, Skate Boarding, Video Arcades,  Artari, Walkmans, and Swatch Watches. All of these things were significant to this time period.

Each decade has its unique vocabulary. During the 1980s words such as airhead, dope, fly, and dweeb littered the speech of many people. Phrases like “gag me with a spoon,” which meant that something was gross, were common among adolescents. Other words such as fresh, legit, and wicked were all used to describe things that were considered to be cool. In addition to these words and phrases; for sure, spaz, chill, faze, homeboy, hype, step off, sucka, butt ugly,

gnarly, and lame were also very frequently used during the 80s. Fashion of the 1980s was very distinctive. Girls during this time period could be caught sporting stick up bangs, side ponytails, off shoulder shirts, mini skirts, thick belts, long t-shirts, shoulder pads, legwarmers, 34 legging, scrunch socks, high tops, jellies, stilettos, flats, bright make-up, hoop earrings, and fingerless gloves. Boys, on the other hand, wore band shirts, black and neon shirts, leather and jean jackets, rolled sleeves, sleeveless shirts, tight leather pants, bright colors, tight stonewashed jeans, jammers, parachute pants, corduroy pants, long and layered hair, Mohawks, high tops, and ray-bans. The 1980s was a very unique time for fashion.

During the 1980s there were many cars that could be found on the road. Just to name a few, there was the 1986 Mercedes Benz 300E, the 1986 Ford Taurus, the 1983 Pontiac Firebird, and the 1980 Chevrolet Camaro. Although some on these cars are no longer found today, some are prized possessions.

Cars, fashion, vocabulary, fads, foods, movies, music, inventions, events, and important people are all different factors that must be taken into consideration when learning about the 1980s. All of these forces interacted to create this unique decade. Although many years were taken over by conflict around the globe, many new innovations and discoveries were being made during this decade that would help lay the foundation for new technology to be developed in the future. A time when big hair bands and Star Wars ruled a generation, the 1980s brought many new sensations to the attention of the world.


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An Overview of the History of the 1980s in America. (2022, Aug 14). Retrieved from

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