Thursday, June 11, 2015

Reagan Dawn Culture

Over the past few weeks I've been finding myself obsessed with the period between 1979 to 1981, which I think of as "Reagan Dawn."  This was augmented by my recent reading of Split Season, a book about the 1981 baseball season and its attendant strike by Jeff Katz and today's rewatching of Wet Hot American Summer, which attempts to recreate the feel of the time.

Why Reagan Dawn?  A particularly bad set of circumstances (Iran hostage crisis, oil shock, inflation, Soviets invading Afghanistan reheating the Cold War) helped get a Right wing ideologue elected president only sixteen years after Barry Goldwater went down in flames.  This was a time of swift backlash against organized labor (in the form of Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers), culture war fever (the Moral Majority was founded in 1979), and reheated nationalism (I'll get to that in a bit.)  It was a transitional period of time where the 70s malaise was at its worst, but the 80s neoliberal philosophy was coming into its own.

This time period also happens to be when I became aware of popular culture to the extent that I could participate in it.  I saw The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980 and I remember a kid who wore a "I shot JR" t-shirt.  There were a lot of important cultural moments in that era, but here are few I'd like to comment on, given their links to the political culture of the Reagan Dawn.

Disco Demolition Night

Disco was the dominant music of the mid-to-late 70s, but it also engendered a "Disco Sucks" backlash by rock fans.  While their animus cannot simply be chalked up to racism and homophobia, a good deal of it can.  That backlash achieved its peak in the infamous Disco Demolition Night that took place between two games of a White Sox double-header at Comiskey Park.  The explosion and ensuing riotous behavior by attendees left the field too wrecked to host the second game, which was forfeited.  This moment sees the confluence of eras.  The chaotic dope smoking 70s is on display here, but those shaggy haired rockers are engaged in a reactionary action worthy of the Reagan years.

The "Miracle on Ice"

This is likely the King Daddy moment of the Reagan Dawn.  Most Americans are pretty indifferent to hockey, but they certainly tuned in to see the American national team defeat the Soviet Union.  Portraying the powerful United States as some kind of weak underdog was a common theme during the Reagan Dawn, and no event allowed that narrative to unfold better than the Miracle On Ice.  I am still convinced that this game was a factor in winning the presidency, since Reagan used the newly amped-up nationalism to appeal to voters who would later be eviscerated by his economic policies.

Rock n Roll High School, Over the Edge, and The Warriors

These films, all from 1979, give you an idea of why the Moral Majority was so incensed.  They all show youth gone wild, blowing up their high school, attacking their parents, and joining gangs, respectively.  All treat drug use and sex as wallpaper to teenage life without any punishment for those who engage in once immoral behavior, while mocking authority figures. I get a thrill seeing this stuff, mostly since my teen years were the era of DARE and AIDS, and I thought sex or drugs would kill me.

Absence of Malice

Seven years after Nixon resigned in the wake of Watergate, crusading journalists become the villains, rather than the heroes in this film.  It's a perfect curtain-raiser for the Reagan era, when all those who wish to decry its injustices would be marginalized and defamed.

Corporate Arena Rock

The great rock acts of the 1960s mostly seemed to run out of gas in the mid-1970s, part of what motivated the whole punk movement.  It's easy to forget now with the benefit of hindsight, but the punks were at the fringe of the rock world.  At the center were faceless bands who, like corporations, were easier to identify by their logos than by pictures of their band members: Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Journey, Styx, et al.  All played well-produced music made for the radio, but pretty forgettable compared to the stuff going on in the New Wave and punk world.  Some 60s veterans even managed to be reborn in this mold, like Jefferson Starship, which included members of the seminal psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane.  Their 1979 hit "Jane" dropped any pretense of art and revolution for some ass kicking corporate rock backed by piano triplets a la Toto (which, fitting the vibe of corporate rock, was made up of session musicians.)  During this same period, the once wild and wooly world of FM radio rock stations became corporatized and bureaucratized, leading to uniformity of playlists.

My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

Beneath the Van Halen surface there was a lot of interesting music coming out during the Reagan Dawn, and much of it reflective of the era's changes.  This album, a one-off by David Byrne and Brian Eno, combined experimental music with field recordings of music and political and religious rants on AM radio.  The radio preachers are a sign of the Moral Majority times on songs like "Help Me Somebody," and the opening track "America Is Waiting" keeps repeating a newscaster's intonation of "America is waiting for a message of some sort or another," a mantra for the malaise of the late Carter years.

Kool and the Gang, "Celebration"

When I say "Reagan Era music" your mind might immediately jump to synthesizers and loud drum machines.  However, the first real specimen of Reagan music might very well be "Celebration" by a suddenly de-funkified Kool and the Gang.  It was #1 in February of 1981, right after Reagan's election and the return of the hostages from Iran.  It's the song that got played at every wedding and graduation and bar mitzvah in the 1980s, an empty, fun song about having a good time.  It's not a bad song, but a far cry from primal slabs of pure funk like "Jungle Boogie."  Like a lot of other people at the time, Kool and the Gang were wanting to put the past behind them and enjoy the present without thinking about the impact on the future.

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