Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now
The following is an excerpt from Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now--Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by David Sirota (Ballantine Books, 2011).
Die, Hippie, Die! Every time one of these ex-hippies comes prancing in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads and pretend we care about people. - Alex P. Keaton, 1986
For the past several days I've been noticing a steep rise in the number of hippies coming to town. . . . I know hippies. I've hated them all my life. I've kept this town free of hippies on my own since I was five and a half. But I can't contain them on my own anymore. We have to do something, fast! -Eric Cartman, 2005
In 1975, a Democratic Party emboldened by civil rights, environmental, antiwar, and post-Watergate electoral successes was on the verge of seizing the presidency and a filibuster-proof congressional majority. That year, the Rocky Horror Picture Show and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were two of the three top-grossing films -- the former a parody using the late-sixties sexual revolution to laugh at the puritanical fifties, the latter based on the novel by beat writer Ken Kesey. Meanwhile, three of the top-rated seven television shows were liberal-themed programs produced by progressive icon Norman Lear, including "All in the Family" --a show built around a hippie, Mike Stivic, poking fun at the ignorance of his traditionalist father-in-law, Archie Bunker.
A mere ten years later, Republican Ronald Reagan had just been reelected by one of the largest electoral landslides in American history, and his party had also gained control of the U.S. Senate. Two of the top three grossing films were Back to the Future, which eulogized the fifties, and Rambo: First Blood Part II, which blamed sixties antiwar activism for losing the Vietnam conflict. Most telling, "All in the Family's" formula of using sixties-motivated youth and progressivism to ridicule fifties-rooted parents and their traditionalism had been replaced atop the television charts by its antithesis: a "Family Ties" whose fifties-inspired youth ridicules his parents' sixties spirit.
The political and cultural trends these changes typified were neither coincidental nor unrelated, and their intertwined backstories explain why we're still scarred by the metamorphosis.
The late 1970s and early 1980s marked the birth of an entire industry organized around idealized nostalgia, and particularly midcentury, pre-1965 schmaltz. You likely know this industry well--it survives in everything from roadside Cracker Barrel restaurants to the Jersey shore's Old Time photo stands to Michael Chabon's novels to Band of Brothers-style miniseries glorifying the valor of World War II vets--and it first found traction in the 1980s creation of The Fifties(tm).
Turning a time period into a distinct brand seems common today, what with the all-pervasive references to generational subgroups (Gen X, Gen Y, etc.). But it was a new marketing innovation back in the 1980s. As Temple University professor Carolyn Kitch found in her 2003 study of mass-circulation magazines, generational labeling is "primarily a phenomena of the last quarter of the 20th century," and it began (as so many things have) as an early-1980s ad strategy aimed at selling products to Baby Boomers and their parents.
Like all sales pitches, fifties hawking employed subjectivity, oversimplification, and stereotypes. For eighties journalists, advertisers, screenwriters, and political operatives seeking a compelling shorthand to break through the modern media miasma, that meant making The Fifties into much more than the ten-year period between 1950 and 1959. It meant using pop culture and politics to convert the style, language, and memories of that decade into a larger reference to the entire first half of the twentieth century, all the way through the early 1960s of the New Frontier--those optimistic years "before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn't wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I'd never find a guy as great as my dad," as Baby from the classic eighties film Dirty Dancing reminisced.
Why the fifties, and not the 1930s or '40s, as the face of the entire pre-sixties epoch? Because that decade was fraught with far less (obvious) baggage (say, the Depression or global war) and hence was most easily marketed in the saccharine entertainment culture of the devil-may-care 1980s.
Indeed, as the Carter presidency started to crumble in 1978 and Reagan began delivering fiery speeches in preparation for his upcoming presidential run, the crew-cut-and-greaser escapades of "Happy Days" and the poodle skirts of "Laverne & Shirley" overtook the sixties--referencing urbanity, ethnicity, and strife of Norman Lear's grittier sitcoms. In movie theaters, Animal House and Grease hit classic status almost instantly. These successes encouraged the culture industry to make the eighties the launching point for a self-sustaining genre of wildly popular back-to-the-fifties productions.
There were retrospectives such as Diner, Stand By Me, and Peggy Sue Got Married and biopics of fifties icons such as The Right Stuff, La Bamba, and Great Balls of Fire! There was Hoosiers, with its bucolic small towns, its short shorts, and its nonbreakaway rims. There were Broadway plays such as Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, commemorating the honor, frugality, and innocence of the World War II years. And there was a glut of new Eisenhower biographies.
Even 1980s productions not overtly focused on decade nostalgia were decidedly recollective of fifties atmospherics.
There was Witness, which used the story of a Philadelphia cop's voyage into lily-white Amish country to juxtapose the simplicity of America's pastoral heritage against the crime-ridden anarchy of the black inner city.
There was Superman and Superman II--films that reanimated a TV hero of the actual 1950s, idealized Clark Kent's midcentury youth, and depicted his adulthood as the trials of a fedora-wearing anachronism trying to save modern Metropolis from postfifties peril. And there were the endless rip-offs-the Jets-versus-Sharks rivalry of West Side Story ripened into the socs-versus-greasers carnage of The Outsiders, while the hand-holding of Grease became the ass-grabbing of Dirty Dancing.
Through it all, pop culture was manufacturing a Total Recall of the 1950s for a 1980s audience--an artificial memory of The Fifties that even came with its own canned soundtrack.
Though we tend to think of the late 1970s and early 1980s as the glory days of punk rock and the primordial soup of what would become rap, Wurlitzer-ready rockabilly and doo-wop were the rage. This was the heyday of the Stray Cats and their standing base, the moment when Adam Ant released the jukebox jam "Goody Two Shoes," and Queen's rockabilly hit "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" hit number one on the charts. As the Hard Rock Cafe and Johnny Rockets franchises created a mini-fad of fifties-flavored restaurants, the B-52s' surf rock was catching a new wave; Meat Loaf was channeling his Elvis-impersonation act into the absurdist 1950s tribute "Paradise by the Dashboard Light"; and ZZ Top was starring in music videos featuring a muscle car that Danny Zuko might have driven at Thunder Road. Even Billy Joel, until then a folksinger, was going all in with a blatant teenybopper tribute, "Uptown Girl."
This sonic trend wasn't happening in a vacuum--it was thrumming in the shadow of the chief missionary of 1950s triumphalism, Ronald Reagan.
The Gipper's connection to The Fifties wasn't just rooted in his success as a midcentury B-movie actor nor in his American Graffiti pompadour. The Fifties had long defined his persona, career, and message. Here was "the candidate of nostalgia, a political performer whose be-bop instrument dates from an antediluvian choir," as the Washington Post wrote in 1980. Here was a man campaigning for president in the late 1970s and early 1980s calling for the country to go back in time. And not just a few years back in time--way back in time to the dreamy days before what he called the "hard years" of the late 1960s.
"Not so long ago, we emerged from a world war," Reagan said in a national address during his 1980 presidential campaign. "Turning homeward at last, we built a grand prosperity and hopes, from our own success and plenty, to help others less fortunate. Our peace was a tense and bitter one, but in those days, the center seemed to hold."
Writing to a campaign contributor, Reagan said he wanted to bring forth a "spiritual revival to feel once again as [we] felt years ago about this nation of ours." And when he won the White House, his inauguration spelled out exactly what he meant by "years ago": The lavish celebration dusted off and promoted fifties stars such as Frank Sinatra and Charlton Heston.
This wasn't a secret message or a wink-and-nod-it was the public theme of Reagan's political formula. In a Doonesbury comic about the 1980 campaign, cartoonist Gary Trudeau sketched Reagan's mind as "a storehouse of images of an idyllic America, with 5 cent Cokes, Burma Shave signs, and hard-working White People." When naming him 1980 "Man of the Year," Time said, "Intellectually, emotionally, Reagan lives in the past." The article added that the new president specifically believes "the past"-i.e. the The Fifties-"is his future." And as both the magazine and America saw it, that was the highest form of praise- just as it is today.
This all might have gone the way of New Coke if the early-1980s celebration of The Fifties(tm) was happening in isolation. But those Bob Ross paintings of happy Levittown trees and Eisenhower-era blue skies only became salient because the eighties placed them in the American imagination right next to sensationalized images of Woodstock and the Kent State massacre.
Securing that prime psychological real estate meant simultaneously doing to the sixties what was being done to the fifties--only with one twist: Instead of an exercise in idealization, The Sixties(tm) brand that came out of the 1980s was fraught with value judgments downplaying the decade's positives and emphasizing its chaos.
Through politics and mass media, a 1960s of unprecedented social and economic progress was reremembered as a time of tie-dye, not thin ties; burning cities, not men on the moon; LBJ scowls, not JFK glamor; redistributionist War on Poverty "welfare," not universalist Medicare benefits; facial-haired Beatles tripping out to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," not bowl-cut Beatles chirping out "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Some of the sixties bashing in the 1980s came from a media that earnestly sought to help Baby Boomers forgive themselves for becoming the buttoned-down adults they had once rebelled against. Some of it was the inadvertent side effect of an accelerating 24-hour news cycle that historian Daniel Marcus notes almost always coupled references to the sixties with quick "shots from Woodstock of young people cavorting in the mud, perhaps discarding various parts of their clothing or stumbling through a drug-induced haze."
And some of it was just the uncontrived laziness of screenwriters and directors.
"Getting a popular fix on the more elusive, more complicated, and far more common phenomena of the sixties is demanding because a lot of it isn't photogenic," says Columbia professor Todd Gitlin, the former leader of Students for a Democratic Society and author of The Sixties. "How easy it was to instead just make films about the wild people, because they are already an action movie, and their conception of themselves is already theatrical."
The revisionism and caricaturing revolved around three key themes, each of which denigrated the sixties as 100 percent awful.
The first was the most political of all--patriotism. Love of country, loyalty to America, national unity--these were memes that Reagan had been using to berate the sixties since his original jump from Hollywood to politics.
During his first campaign for California governor, he ran on a platform pledging to crush the "small minority of beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates" at Berkeley who were protesting the Vietnam War. As president, he railed on nuclear-freeze protesters (like Steven and Elyse Keaton in that first season of "Family Ties") as traitors "who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority."
The media industry of the time followed with hypermilitarist films blaming antiwar activists for America's loss in Vietnam (more on that in the chapter "Operation Red Dawn"), and magazine retrospectives basically implying that sixties social movements were anti-American. As just one example, a 1988 Newsweek article entitled "Decade Shock" cited the fact that "patriotism is back in vogue" as proof that the country had rejected the sixties--the idea being that the sixties was wholly unpatriotic.
But while flag-waving can win elections and modify the political debate, it alone could not mutate the less consciously political, more reptilian lobes of the American cortex. So the 1980s contest for historical memory was also being waged with more refined and demographically targeted methods.
For teenagers, The Fifties(tm) were used to vandalize The Sixties(tm) through a competition between the Beatnik and the Greaser for the mantle of eighties cool. As historian Daniel Marcus recounts, the former became defined as "middle-class, left-wing, intellectual and centered in New York City and San Francisco"--that is, defined as the generic picture of weak, effete, snobbish coffeehouse liberalism first linked to names such as Hart and Dukakis, and now synonymous with Kerry, Streisand, and Soros. Meanwhile, the Greaser came to be known as an urbanized cowboy--a tough guy who "liked cars and girls and rock and roll, was working class, usually non-Jewish 'white ethnic' and decidedly unintellectual."
This hero, whose spirit we still worship in the form of Joe the Plumber and "Bring it on" foreign policy, first stomped the Beatnik through the youth-oriented iconography of the 1980s-think idols such as the Fonz, Bruce Springsteen, and Patrick Swayze; movies like Staying Alive, Rocky, and The Lords of Flatbush; bands such as Bon Jovi, Guns N' Roses, and Poison; and, not to be forgotten, the chintzy clothing fad of ripped jeans and tight white T-shirts.
For adults who experienced the real fifties and sixties, the propaganda had to be a bit less overt to be convincing. So their memories were more subtly shaped with the arrival of a life-form whose mission was to absolve the hippie generation for becoming the compromised and depoliticized elders they had once railed on and protested against.
This seductive species became known as yuppies--short for young urban professionals.
The invasion of the yuppies and all of their requisite tastes, styles, and linguistic inflections officially commenced when Newsweek declared 1984 the Year of the Yuppie, following the publication of The Yuppie Handbook and the presidential campaign of Gary Hart--a New Agey candidate who looked as if he carried a dog-eared copy of the tome around in his breast pocket. A few months later, Adweek quoted executives from the major television networks saying their goal in coming years would be to "chase yuppies with a vengeance"--a prediction that came true, according to Rolling Stone's 1987 report on a series of hit shows that the magazine called Yuppievision. By 1988, a suited Michael J. Fox eating sushi was on the cover of an Esquire magazine issue devoted entirely to "Yupper Classmen." Fittingly, one of the articles noted a poll showing that 60 percent of Americans could identify the word yuppie--almost twice the number that could identify the nation's secretary of state.
While yuppie certainly evoked supermodern feelings in the 1980s, the concept was etymologically rooted in a politicized past. The word made its public debut in a 1983 newspaper column about Jerry Rubin, the leader of the Youth International Party (yippies) who had abandoned his sixties radicalism for the 1980s world of business. His life story was a textbook yuppie parable of sixties rejection: He was a member of the "vanguard of the baby-boom generation," which had "march[ed] through the '60s" but was now "advancing on the 1980s in the back seat of a limousine," as Newsweek put it.
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