Sunday, February 22, 2015

Turn Of The Eighties Culture

Today I was flipping channels and landed on a documentary about the "Miracle On Ice," but from the perspective of the Soviet team.  It was all very fascinating and well done, but along with that, seeing the old footage gave me some uncanny feelings.  This was not about the hockey game itself, which wasn't on my radar, but small things, like the way people dressed, the picture quality of the television broadcasts, and the haircuts.  I was born in 1975, meaning that the period between roughly 1979 and 1982 was the first time I can properly remember.  Seeing that footage suddenly reminded me of what the world looked like when I first became aware of it.

I also think of that period of time being its own particular cultural and political moment.  The economy crashed, oil prices and inflation shot up, insanely high interest rates were the response to the inflation, Jimmy Carter's presidency floundered and Reagan came storming in to power with the backing of newly inflamed religious conservatives.  Iranian students took America hostage, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the Cold War got hot again.  The spirit of 60s appeared dead and the conservative revaluation of values in ascendancy, but still far from confirmed.

Popular culture went though some interesting convulsions as well.  Disco went from being the king of the radio to an embarrassing example of the tackiness of the 70s by 1982.  I remember a kid in the first grade who had inherited an older sibling's Bee Gees lunch box, and it seemed like something that came from another planet.  At the same time, the first rap records came out in those years, culminating in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's epochal "The Message" in 1982.

That difference between say, "Night Fever" and "The Message" speaks to a larger trend I've detected in turn of the eighties culture, namely a harder edge than what came before in the shaggy seventies and what came later in the day-glo 80s.  The original Star Wars trilogy is the case in point.  1977 brought Star Wars' inspiring tale of rebels taking down a technological terror, and 1983's Return of the Jedi ended with Ewoks yub-yubbing in triumph, while 1980's The Empire Strikes Back ended with Han frozen in carbonite, and Luke emotionally devastated and dismembered after losing a lightsaber duel to the monstrous Vader, now revealed to be his father.

Or to go back to music, look at what became of the punk movement.  The loud, brash swaggering sound of 1976-1977 had faded into brooding postpunk like Joy Division.  Their music is made for stewing at home on a rainy March day, not kicking against the pricks.  Similarly, in 1979 Elvis Costello went from his straight ahead rock sound on his first two albums to a kind of sideways, paranoid pop music on Armed Forces.  The Talking Heads, a product of CBGBs, sound claustrophobic on 1979's Fear of Music, and moved in more obscure (and even more rewarding) directions on 1980's Remain in Light.

Much the same was happening in mainstream rock music.  The bold burst of life on Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" was nowhere to be seen on 1980's "The River" or 1982's Nebraska album.  The Boss wrote songs of being crushed by working class life amidst deindustrialization, a long long way from being "sprung from cages on highway 9 chrome wheeled fuel injected and stepping out over the line."  Fleetwood Mac vacated their era-defining sound from 1977's Rumours for something more obscure and opaque on 1979's Tusk.  Pink Floyd's increasing flight from their psychedelic roots culminated in the hard-edged, socially critical Wall album.  The once fey and music-hall inflected Kinks put out hard rocking records, including a take on the current economic crisis called Low Budget. 

The advent of MTV in 1981 would soon assist in making much of this style of rock music obsolete.  Before that, the 1979-1982 period saw the end of the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Led Zeppelin.  At the same time, what was to replace it wasn't entirely formed just yet.  If anything, the turn of the eighties is a liminal period, culturally.

The trends of edge and liminality I think can also be seen in the world of cinema, and not just in the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back.  New Hollywood's young directors were getting long in tooth and at the end of their tethers.  Robert Altman went to Malta and made the flop Popeye and spent much of the next decade well below the radar.  Coppola finally released Apocalypse Now! in 1979, years after production began, and really a product of an earlier time.  In any case, that was the last important film he ever made.  William Friedkin released Cruising in 1980, infamous for its insinuations of homophobia, and the last major film he would make in a long while.  Peter Bogdanovich continued to drop off the map.  Warren Beatty, a fellow traveler in this group, made his epic Reds in 1981, which fittingly for a film coming out in the midst of the Reagan revolution, portrayed the political radicalism of the past, perhaps implying its weakness in the presence.  Kubrick predated New Hollywood, and his 1980 horror classic The Shining had him back in a harder edged mode after the lushness of Barry Lyndon.

George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg were the two exceptions to this, of course.  In many respects Spielberg pointed to way forward into the 80s.  His 1979 flop 1941 has an air of shaggy 70s-ness about it.  Not so 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, or 1982's ET, both massive hits.  The 80s would be the decade of the well-made blockbuster, something Spielberg was showing the way to.  They would also be a time of a new kind of comedy film with jokier, raunchier attributes.  That way forward was pretty evident in 1980's Caddyshack and Airplane!

Speaking of ways forward, we can bring this full circle by talking about the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.  The massive outpouring of nationalism it occasioned displayed the deep wells of chauvinism that Reagan would profitably exploit and which would be a salient feature of the 1980s, and pretty much every era since.

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