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Pop Culture History 101

In 2002, VH1 introduced ‘I Love the …,’ a nostalgia-driven franchise that changed how we talk about culture, injecting entertainment into the discourse around entertainment

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So, you think you’re an ’80s fan?

This is the question asked of viewers at the start of each episode of VH1’s I Love the ’80s, a strange but vibrant comedy docuseries that debuted early in the 21st century. It didn’t matter if you’d never considered that question before, or never considered how, exactly, one could be a fan of a whole decade. At the tail end of 2002, VH1—to that point a music channel perhaps best known for programming like Behind the Music—wanted to show you what it meant to be an ’80s fan, to make you into one, and to introduce the very idea of being a groupie of a decade into the pop culture landscape. With Americans still feeling the pain of 9/11 and heading toward the Iraq War, VH1 was looking back—way back—and moving forward into an era of quippy, nostalgic television programming.

On December 16, 2002, VH1’s I Love the ’80s premiered with two hour-long episodes. Two new episodes then aired each night for a week, followed by a 10-hour-long marathon on January 1, 2003, and then subsequent re-airings—a lot of them. The show, which broke down each year of the ’80s into a one-hour segment, served as a look back at the pop culture of the decade, with topics ranging from music to TV to movies to newsworthy events, celebrities, video games, fashion, and more. Comedians and celebrities would offer up their—often lightly mocking, emphatically enthusiastic, or fully sarcastic—commentary on a host of given topics, juxtaposed with original clips of the topic in question. One night you’d see Melissa Etheridge reminiscing about her personal experience with the mullet hairstyle; the next, Aisha Tyler would be talking about how “everybody hated Blair” and her hair dryer on The Facts of Life. It was nostalgic entertainment, and a new form of pop culture education, years before Full House became Fuller; before YouTube, the internet as a whole, and streaming services made original older entertainment infinitely more accessible. In many ways, VH1’s I Love the … series taught a microgeneration how to consume and discuss popular culture.

I Love the ’80s was an immediate success. “It was the first show, I believe, in VH1 history to get over a 1 rating,” Michael Hirschorn, former executive vice president of programming and production at VH1, recalls. In 2002, I Love the … averaged over a million live viewers in the 18-49 demographic across the season. In no time, VH1 was franchising I Love the ’80s, churning out sister series I Love the ’70s, I Love the ’90s, I Love the New Millennium (which, oddly, covered only 2000-2007 and premiered in 2008), I Love the ’80s Strikes Back, I Love the ’90s: Part Deux (Why French? Who knows), and 2014’s I Love the 2000s, which was finally able to cover the decade in full. It also led to the creation of Best Week Ever, a weekly pop culture recap show that starred many of the same faces and ran from 2004 to 2009, and then briefly again from 2013 to 2014.

Back before all of this, though, the team at VH1 had little to no idea that I Love the … would be such a hit. The show was originally based on a BBC show of the same name, one that Hirschorn read about in The Face magazine. Inspired in part by reading Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, mulling over the distinction between Baby Boomers’ and Gen X’s music and approach to nostalgia, and thinking about the “ironic love for the crappy pop culture that formed our childhood,” he brought I Love the ’80s to the United States. VH1’s version of I Love the ... covered 18 to 22 topics per episode, in comparison with the BBC’s six to eight, and Hirschorn and Co. decided to focus on comedic commentary over more straight-faced recitations of factual information. “Don’t talk about, you know, ‘In 1983, He-Man came out.’ Who cares?” Karla Hidalgo, executive producer for the entire I Love the … series, explains. “I mean, people care, but for the purposes of TV, for the purposes of a comedic show, who cares? … That was sort of my big contribution to it. … [that] and let’s cover everything, not just music but TV, film, fashion, music.”

The shows didn’t cover everything, but they did touch on nearly every category of pop culture, selecting segment topics via what Hidalgo calls a “highly scientific” process: getting all the producers in a room with a bunch of research (TV ratings, books, and such) and brainstorming about what to include in addition to the givens, like the top grossing film of a particular year or, you know, Madonna. The team tried to add in a few trends, to tie TV shows to the year of their most memorable episodes (as with Diff’rent Strokes’ “Just Say No” episode) or highest-rated season. Recurring segments—such as the Makeout Songs of the Year in I Love the ’80s or the Roller Rink Anthems in I Love the ’70s—were also invented to keep each episode loosely within the same structure. “We wanted things to be really popular that everyone remembers, but we also wanted some sort of comedy value,” Paul Tinelli, a researcher and writer for I Love the ’80s, recalls. “Personal recollections really drove the show.”

“There’s definitely a little personality from each producer in each year,” segment producer Sandra Kuhn agrees. The age breakdown of the producers in the brainstorming room was a good mix—there were some who remembered the decades in question well and a few who were a bit younger. Personal memories aside, both Hidalgo and Tinelli emphasize that they were trying to craft conversations about the collective experience, particularly when it came to the pre-internet, pre–social media eras when such experiences existed on a mass scale but without the social media component that enabled people to connect over them. Imagine watching the finale of Game of Thrones without Twitter—now imagine adding more than 10 million viewers to that experience.

The program was lighthearted in nature and mostly touched on heavier topics like the AIDS epidemic through the lens of pop culture. “If we couldn’t find some angle that would keep it light … then generally we didn’t do it,” writer and producer Mike Goudreau explains. That thinking had shifted slightly by the time I Love the New Millennium came around, when Tinelli says that they had to figure out how to include the 9/11 attacks “in a way that’s obviously not irreverent.” (You can judge how successful the show was at doing so here.) But the series’ chief goal was always to entertain.

And it was entertaining. Hidalgo remembers people talking about it in a chat room on the VH1 website shortly after I Love the ’80s debuted (remember chat rooms?). Specifically, the chat room was discussing a shampoo commercial from the early ’80s, gushing and laughing over their memories of the ad—which speaks to the power of nostalgia that the show exploited. I Love the ... seemed engineered to inspire viewers to want to chime in, to discuss it later with their friends; that element was even present in the somewhat subjective nature of how the producers selected the topics included in a given year. Their brainstorm sessions were informed both by research and personal recollections, and it tracks that viewers of the same generation would experience similarly personal reactions to the topics covered. “It was definitely something people reacted to,” says Jillian Barberie, actress, sportscaster, radio broadcaster, and I Love the … commentator. “They feel like they’re part of it, you know? They agree or disagree with you, but they want to play the game.” Seeing some of the pop culture you lived through, and either loved or hated, replayed and discussed on screen—that’s bound to send at least a tingle of recognition and nostalgia straight through your chest.

The series was fast-paced, with a funny and loose vibe. Even if not all the jokes landed (and some comments would surely not be said today), the sheer volume of personalities present, including a lot of comedians, meant viewers could reasonably expect to be entertained. It was also easy to “accidentally binge,” as Hal Sparks, a comedian and actor who was on the show so much that some fans thought he was the host, says—VH1 aired the series often, and there was a low barrier to entry. You didn’t need to be caught up on any previous episodes to drop in and stay awhile. “If you had an hour you could relive this one year, and that was sort of a cool thing,” says Brian Galindo, senior editor at BuzzFeed, who was in college when I Love the ’80s first aired.

But beyond the nostalgic entertainment and amusement factors, it was also educational. VH1 isn’t exactly the History Channel—nor were they trying to be—but I Love the … was, in many ways, a crash course in pop culture history. A diligent student could take notes and extend class into independent study, renting The Breakfast Club or Heathers from Blockbuster and downloading the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” or Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina” from Kazaa. (Has the statute of limitations for downloading illegal MP3s in 2003 expired? Asking for a friend.)

The show, which Sparks calls “a Whitman sampler of culture,” didn’t offer a complete curriculum, yet it still served as something of an alternative history class—if history class was taught by comedians and celebrities—to people who didn’t live through the decades in question. Someone who’s never seen the TV show Dallas might, thanks to I Love the ’80s, still understand how important the question “Who shot JR?” was in 1980. Does that mean they can claim they’ve seen or truly know Dallas? No. Does it mean they know what it was like to live through the ’70s or ’80s? No. Does it mean that they’d be able to understand a JR joke made in the Season 4 finale of Jane the Virgin nearly 30 years later? Yup. Sometimes that’s good enough.

“I can’t imagine I was completely familiar with everything [referenced]. But I think that’s also a really good jumping off point for those types of things,” says Kara Brown, television writer and former cohost of the podcast Keep It, tells me. “Cause you’re like, ‘I don’t necessarily need to go watch all these TV shows,’ nor were we able to at the time … it gave you just enough kind of understanding.” Alanna Bennett, former BuzzFeed writer and current staff writer for Roswell, New Mexico, loved I Love the ’90s the most because it gave her insight into her older brother’s world. The series was an encyclopedia that gave her “the building blocks of a vocabulary about what pop culture is, how it fits in people’s lives, and the way that it shapes the culture that we live in and the people around us,” she explains. (Both Brown and Bennett were young teens when the series debuted.)

There’s certainly room for critiquing the show’s style of education. Josh Kurp, in a 2010 piece for The Awl, likened the show’s attempts to give pop culture context to a generation who didn’t actually live through the ’80s to the cultivation of a false nostalgia. It’s true that being told something was important and cool isn’t the same as living through that cultural moment, though it’s also possible to learn about the pop culture of the past, enjoy it, and not necessarily feel falsely nostalgic for it. Of course, there was mockery of the show at the time, too; press questioned whether it was too soon to delve into the ’90s and 2000s. In “I Love the ’80s: The Pleasures of a Postmodern History,” Dr. Charles Soukup of the University of Northern Colorado refers to this kind of program as creating “a history that offers only pleasure,” speaking to the aforementioned omission or irreverent treatment of serious historical events and context.

As long as expectations are kept in check, it’s also OK to take I Love the … as what it is: a lighthearted, niche form of anthropological study. “I think it is interesting to look back at things and talk about them, and understand the time that they were created and how they’ve impacted things now and how they’ve moved it forward, or how things have moved forward,” Brown says. I Love the … didn’t provide deep-dive analysis, but it served as a starting point for it, a baseline for looking back at what pop culture was during a certain time. Our pop culture landscape is rife with references to other material, in the entertainment we consume and the conversations we have every day (especially online), and being able to keep up is, for better or worse, a form of currency. I Love the … came at the right time—just as a generation of culture enthusiasts were coming of age, hungry to be a part of conversations with people who were older than them, and just before the advent of online resources that’d render this kind of curation obsolete. “[It’s] recent history … it’s not going to be taught in school, but it’s still very important cultural history of what has been,” Bennett says.

Of course there’s a debate to be had about the value of nostalgic entertainment as a whole—one that’s particularly relevant today in the Age of the Reboot. It often feels like we’re living at the center of a vortex of recycled IP, and entertainment that’s designed to tickle the nostalgia bone without bringing something new to the conversation can sometimes feel a bit easy or lazy. At the time, however, I Love the … felt like a new form of nostalgic entertainment, and it was at the forefront, in this century at least, when it comes to capitalizing on nostalgia for entertainment purposes. There was other entertainment programming that trafficked in nostalgia at the time—never forget 2000’s Charlie’s Angels movie—but not nearly as much as there is right now.

We don’t get BH90210, 21 Jump Street, or [choose your own reboot] without the nostalgia fever that’s been spreading since the early aughts, exactly when I Love the … debuted. The fun, quick way I Love the … presented its nostalgia, and the fact that it kept going back to the well to produce more seasons, predicted and enabled today’s nostalgic entertainment boom, as well as the rapid-fire way we consume pop culture. Segment producer Craig E. Shapiro hopes that I Love the … “preserved some moments in time as a time capsule”; ironically, that now refers to both the decade-specific content covered on the show as well as the moment in the early aughts when this type of comedic, nostalgic commentary was revving up. Nostalgia itself is hardly a new concept, but I Love the … pushed nostalgic entertainment forward, fast and furiously.

The series, and its style of talking about pop culture, also anticipated and helped direct the way we currently discuss pop culture. The one- or two-line commentary in the show differs from the deep examination that a lot of content receives now, but the irreverent tone and the idea that anyone—not just prestige publication critics and writers—could express an opinion on the pop culture of the moment reverberates today. What is Twitter—the best version of it, at least—if not talking about pop culture and other things with your online friends? I Love the … tapped into and depicted a loose, personal, and funny style of discussing pop culture, taking the casual way you talk with your friends from the private to the public sphere. It was a “precursor to a lot of the kind of pop culture writing that became more popular in the late 2000s,” Brown points out. “People really respecting pop culture enough to even sit down and have that conversation … treating it like it was something worth discussing in that way, and that it is entertaining to talk about entertainment.”

Now, the nostalgia snake is eating its own tail by virtue of even discussing I Love the … and its pop culture impact. What will a program like I Love the … look like when it’s made in 15 years about our current decade? An I Love the 2010s might as well be a mash-up of all the I Love the … shows that came before. “In the 2010s, content production was at its peak, but they were mostly obsessed with rebooting and revisiting everything from the ’70s and ’90s again. Also, p.s. the world was on fire.” On the other hand, will a throwback docuseries even be necessary when anything we might want to relive is at our fingertips whenever we want it? Will anyone ever be nostalgic for today’s pop culture? I’m sure someone in 1989 asked themselves that very question … only they didn’t have a “Rewind - The Sound of 1987” at the top of their Spotify account.

Jessica MacLeish is a pop culture writer and freelance book editor based in Brooklyn (but also on the World Wide Web, tweeting sporadically @jessmacleish).

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