Welcome to the Valley: How youth culture of the 80s spread from Los Angeles and into the mainstream
“You can tell right away,” 14-year-old Moon Zappa — daughter of experimental musician Frank Zappa (1940 - 1993) — explained in a 1983 interview with Mike Douglas (1920 - 2006), about how to recognize a Valley girl. “You just watch their mannerisms. They’re always flipping their hair... with the ear to the shoulder… twitching. They’re frantic. It’s fun to watch and to experience.” She describes Vals, as they were otherwise known, as if they were some reclusive tribe she encountered on a remote island. Actually they lived only about ten miles away from Hollywood, where Moon lived, up the hill in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
She saw them at parties and in one of the Valley’s many shopping centers, most notably the Sherman Oaks Galleria. The unofficial hub of the Valley, the Galleria was where these well-to-do young women spent most of their time and billies on clothing and accessories from Fashion Conspiracy and Judy’s. Outwardly, they typically wore, “lots of ruffles, and miniskirts, and metallic things,” according to Moon. In their purses were an abundance of rubber hair bands, both a brush and a comb, strawberry flavored gum that would inevitably be twirled around their index fingers, and most crucially, no fewer than three tubes of roll-on lipgloss. Her name, and the name of her buf, was most likely to be some variation of Chris.
A Val always had to shop with at least three friends, because, according to Mimi Pond’s 1982 book, Valley Girl’s Guide to Life: “Everyone else has to help you decide what to buy, you can't get it unless it looks super darling on you. And if you don’t like one of the girls you’re with you can get her to buy something totally grody.”
Like any subculture, Vals formed their own sociolect known as valspeak, a surprisingly extensive set of words and phrases, some of which were borrowed from skateboard culture and from surfer culture, as many Valley kids spent a lot of time down at Malibu Beach. Tubular, for example, which refers to something being great or cool and became a ubiquitous phrase in the ‘80s, comes from the feeling of catching a wave and riding perfectly inside of it.
Other words have become so commonplace, it’s hard to remember that they first came from the mouths of hot babes. Words like “awesome,” and ‘totally; ” using “so” and “really” (pronounced seeeew and rilly) in place of the word “very.” If you’ve described yourself as mind-blown, or if you’ve bailed at a party because it was too lame, you’ve used valspeak. And though they were by no means the first to utter the phrase “Oh, my God!”, its contemporary dramatic delivery was first heard echoing across the Valley.
Frank Zappa heard his daughter imitating valspeak and asked her to record a song with him. The result of their collaboration was the 1982 hit “Valley Girl.”
It wasn’t meant as a tribute. What listeners interpreted as a fun novelty was critical social commentary. “I hate the San Fernando Valley,” Frank Zappa told David Letterman in 1982. “It’s a most depressing place.” Ventura Boulevard, which runs 18 miles east to west through the Valley, is the longest avenue of contiguous business in the world. Frank Zappa was critiquing the mindless consumerism provided by such commercial-heavy centers, and the ditzy, vapid Valley girl as a product, and symbol, of placing style above substance. He sings lyrics like: “On Ventura, there she goes/she just bought some bitchin’ clothes/tosses her head and flips her hair/she got a whole bunch of nothing in there.”
In between those verses, Moon carries on a one-way conversation in valspeak, uttering phrases like, “Gag me with a spoon!” (to refer to something unpleasant or disgusting) and “Bag your face!” (You’re ugly!). Her impression exaggerated the sing-song, emphatic, excitable sound used by Valley Girls, suggesting that these traits were a sign of lack of intelligence. “You must (form) a severe underbite…the muscles straining and the jaw pulled out, slurring your words, make them seem like they’re just rolling out,” she explained in the same interview, instructing how to get the cadence just right.
Writer Amy Asbury argues, in her 2012 book Valley Girl: Childhood in the ‘80s, that for herself and her friends, valspeak was an almost involuntary aspect of their transition from childhood to adulthood, like acne or a growth spurt. “When I entered junior high school in the Valley, suddenly my speech was peppered with ‘likes,’ too. I could not say a sentence without using that word,” she recalled. “A lot of the teenaged girls in The Valley sounded that way, especially if they were excited in some way (the excitement could be positive or negative, it didn’t matter),” she explains. “I don’t think they tried to sound like that, it just happened.”
Douglas, too, notes this excitability in his interview with Moon. “The effervescence! They’re all so excited! And seemingly so happy!” (As if these were bad things). Linguist Deborah Tannen explains that there’s a reason that the “like” appears to accommodate that very effusiveness. Teenage girls, she says, “are interested in shifting friendship networks, in who said what to whom and what everyone felt like.” (Like at a sleepover where you can only invite four friends because there has to be a fifth friend to talk about while you max out on Doritos).
Therefore, the quotative like, (“Brandon was like ‘I think we should break up,’ instead of Brandon said,“....) helps the speaker retain the vividness of what was said without being held back by the precision of proper speech quotation. Perhaps some people believe an overabundance of emotion leaves no room for intellect (as if one can’t have both at the same time. I’m sure!)? But for a girl who is starting to navigate a new adult-like world and where she fits in it, “like” also helps to blur the lines among not only what was said, but what that person might be thinking when they said it, and her own interpretations of it and reactions to it.
And yes, it can be used to hedge, or soften, a statement, thereby safeguarding the user, such as a newly self-conscious teenager, against vulnerability and rejection: “Can I, like, tag along with you guys to the beach?” This and the use of “uptalk,” in which the speaker employs a rising tone when making statements, are often interpreted as a lack of confidence, assertiveness and seriousness, traits that should be grown out of once one becomes an ambitious and professional adult. They could be the most lasting and influential aspect of valspeak on American culture, much to the chagrin of older adults, who, as with every generation, think the younger generation are destroying the language. However, many adults use uptalk, and often in the workplace.
A 2013 study at the University of San Diego of the speech patterns of 23 young Southern Californian men and women from various backgrounds, found that while both men and women used uptalk, they used it in different and surprising ways. For example, the women in the study used uptalk 60 percent of the time when performing what was called “floor-holding,” meaning they were anticipating being interrupted by the listener and used uptalk to communicate: “‘Wait, I’m not finished.’”
This would be more in line with a true Valley girl than it might seem. Moon’s initial description of Valley girls was: “(She) knows how to handle herself. She knows all the tricks.” Dr. Marc Leiberman of the University of Pennsylvania refers to studies that suggest that uptalk can even be used by the more powerful person in an exchange, usually a male, often an employer. Rather than insecurity, it can be used by the speaker so assured of his own ideas he uses it to coerce or to demonstrate a false sense of camaraderie. A Val wouldn’t be afraid to tell a dud like this to go with the dirt or bite the ice. The San Fernando Valley may have been the more distinctly suburban area of Los Angeles, but these girls were still from the big city.
Perhaps this is why young people, for a time, went so crazy for the Valley girls and southern California youth culture in general. While Los Angeles was portrayed as a land of fantasy that seemed impenetrable, the Valley, portrayed onscreen, looked a lot like their own neighborhoods but with a fantastic sheen cast over it. In many ways, the San Fernando Valley was the quintessential American suburb.
At 250-square miles, the Valley at mid-century once consisted of mostly orange groves and horse ranches, and the air was thick with the scent of jasmine. By 1980, its population quadrupled in size from 250,000 to nearly 1,000,000. As a result, many of those coming of age in the ‘80s were caught in a kind of continuum of progress and expansion where they often had the best of all worlds. Many report childhoods spent petting and feeding their neighbors’ horses who came all the way up to the edge of the street, and riding their bikes all through the many canyons and creeks. The weather was nearly perfect all year round, making it an ideal filming location. Warner Brothers and Disney studios, located in Burbank, took advantage of it. Movies like E.T. (1982) and Back to the Future (1985), planting the seeds of this idyllic location in the minds of young people across the country.
By the time they were teenagers, all of that population growth had come with mass commercial spread, including those famous shopping centers. When that ideal weather became unbearably hot, they sought refuge in the air conditioning there.
“Back when $20 was all-day money,” said one writer on a Reddit thread about San Fernando Valley in the 80s, but which could describe a typical teenage experience anywhere in the country, “Our parents could drop us off at the mall for the day instead of hiring a babysitter.” At the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which had been made famous as an interior location in the seminal teen movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and several other teen films, including 1983’s Valley Girl. Too young to drink, or even drive, young teens could flex their growing independence, eat junk food at the food court, see movies that featured some of your school friends’ parents, and listen to new records coming out at the record store. Once last season's clothes become joanies, you can buy new ones that aren’t so beige. Most importantly, though, it was a place to see and be seen, to check out the buff dudes, and avoid the honkers and melvins. Teen movie-goers in the rest of the country saw an amplified view of their world projected back to them and they loved it.
All these years later, suburban kids across the country and beyond are heard employing the “oo-fronting” used by Southern Californians, which makes the word “so” sound like “seeeew,” in their own speech. This flies in the face of the understanding that dialects can be influenced by the consumption of media. So long after all of the businesses that made the Valley thrive have shuttered and moved away, valspeak might remain one of its most successful exports.
Blow me away. To the max.