On January 29th with our Opera in Conversation, we discussed the power of 80’s Pop Culture, pop culture in general, and nostalgia, in honor of Opera Omaha’s upcoming production of The Elixir of Love (set in the 1980’s in all its glory) with the owner of Pop Culture Exchange, Candy Pacheco. Our rendition of The Elixir of Love taps into very current trends of covet towards fashion and styles of the past with costumes that are straight out of Grease and Clueless. We recognize each of the characters for the tropes that they represent, and in spite of having seen them before, continue to want them replicated.
Candy Pacheco has built a business on nostalgia, and he commits to the vision through and through with his store being inspired by an old vhs store. He notes that popular culture being resurrected has much to do with each person remembering that they had something or that they had wanted something in the past. A secondary way that popular culture is resurrected is that nostalgia is the impetus for recognizing and cataloguing experiences and memories; shops like Candy’s, and productions like The Elixir of Love, play a part in maintaining a sort of historical record with more feeling. Nostalgia guarantees that we aren’t so removed from the record as one might be towards an ancient civilization’s material record. While for many people, nostalgia is the driving factor for buying collectibles from the past, for newer audiences, Candy admits, “I’m not so sure if it’s nostalgia or discovery”. There is a charm to older works of pop culture, as well as the concurrent resulting physical manifestations in toys and collectibles.
Why might we experience nostalgia? What differentiates the past from our present? I think that one aspect that was pointed out is especially important in the digital age of ephemeral data: tangibility.
Candy says with a laugh that, “There are kids who come in who look like they’re from the 80s… they’ve got like a baseball cap, a denim vest with buttons all over them of bands from the 80s that LOOK like they’re from the 80s… and they’re rocking a Walkman with cassettes”.
Lauren Medici cuts in, “Where do you even find a Walkman and cassettes??”
“At my shop, I guess.”
To hold a physical tie to a feeling in one’s hands is special. Those pins attached to the kid’s jacket each represent a moment and experience in time that pixels on a screen cannot.
This is also demonstrated in The Elixir of Love through the bombastic but down-to-earth costuming and content. It’s designed to be something familiar but with more liveliness and texture. It isn't a liveliness that can be captured on a screen or in a magazine. The texture is due in part to the fact that the visuals are reminiscent of what we remember or envision of the 80s, but stylized. Take music played on a Walkman—it isn’t perfect, but it has personality in its imperfection. It’s tangible.
In music, the influence of Michael Jackson and Madonna lives on. Those encapsulations are valued not only due to talent, but also due to them serving as an earmark in the history of popular culture. They’re archetypal, which contrary to belief, can in fact be a very good thing. Take The Breakfast Club, a film that delights even today. The Elixir of Love’s Adina is the Molly Ringwald of the group. The jock bad boy is our Belcore. If Ally Sheedy’s character was just a little cleaner and was deeply in unrequited love, the result would be the emo Nemorino. Derivative works can be dry, but this is often more a symptom of a lack of passion towards the work than the mere repetition of elements. The Netflix television show Stranger Things, as well as the newest It film, harken back to the 80s. They might have recognizable elements of the past, but the final product is with a modernized flavor. When the two can work in harmony, it can be exciting. However, many want to tap into the aesthetic themes and boldness at the point of their gestation in order to avoid failures such as the film Jem and the Holograms (2015).
The market of the 80s and 90s served as an interesting catalyst for creativity that differs in fundamental ways from the current media market. In the past, television shows were created in order to sell toys. Sweet-smelling Strawberry Shortcake would not have been picked off of the shelves if not for the show, and He-Man’s patchouli imbued skunk nemesis, Stinkor, would never have been able to exist in some kid’s back yard without somehow bringing him together with other disparate characters on the big screen. Toys first, entertainment second.
Nowadays, the merchandise plays second fiddle to the creative product, be that a film, comic, or video game. While it might seem as if marketing might have sucked the life out of older television shows and left them a husk of capitalism, it in fact provided a unique opportunity for the wackiness that was media in the past to flourish. Storytelling was often not too self-serious, and that frivolity is what set it apart from modern television. Batman iterations are a good example: the Batman of the past could produce a hearty chuckle for the campy aspects, while the most commonly thought of Batman of the 21st century is a raspy-voiced gritty machine of unmitigated violence. As Candy says, many people might think that, “I’m not having that much fun with this.” While the production of television shows was tied to the production of plastic in the 80s and 90s, it really was fun. And maybe that's what people are missing. Fun is exactly what The Elixir of Love is trying to bring back to opera.
By Lillian Snortland
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow