Saturday, June 18, 2011

How the 80s Affected our Modern Culture

Last Wednesday, I went to Powell's City of Books to attend a book signing / lecture by liberal activist David Sirota, whose latest book is about how the culture of the 1980s has affected the way we view the 1950s and 1960s as well as influenced the future (where we live now). It was an awesome lecture. I had attended Sirota's previous lecture at Powell's for his The Uprising book. He mentioned that he was in vacationing on the Oregon coast with his family but wanted to stop in Portland first at one of his favourite bookstores to give this lecture.

He gave a great Powerpoint presentation that illustrated some of the greatest hits of the 80s decade that have come into reality for our current time. As a child of the 80s, I really appreciated this fresh look at how our cultural images have actually helped create the world we inhabit now.

Sirota said that he was inspired to write this book when he realized how many movies and television shows of the 1980s were coming back in style, such as a new Rambo movie, a film version of The A-Team, a sequel to Wall Street, and strangely, a sequel to Top Gun. Really? I've not heard of such a movie. How did I miss that one? The only problem with this, though, is that all those remakes and sequels BOMBED at the Box Office! However, Sirota showed in his visual presentation that images from 80s movies were used or became reality in the 2000s: Bush acting as Maverick by strutting out on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in that flight suit, the increased dependency on hired mercenaries to do jobs outside of the legal structure (Blackwater as The A Team), the ethos that "greed is good!" uttered by Gordon Gecko, Rambo in Afghanistan in 1988 morphed into U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2001 (in October, it will mark the ten year anniversary of our invasion. The Soviets withdrew after ten years, will we?).

The next portion of his lecture, Sirota spoke about how in the 1980s, there was a re-framing of how the 1950s and 1960s would be viewed. He had a clip from Back to the Future that featured the sequence at the shopping mall with the Libyan terrorists. According to Sirota, one of Americans greatest fears is of foreign terrorists striking at the heart of the American pastime: shopping at the mall. Interesting that it involved Libyans as terrorists, with Libya being our latest military adventure. Sirota asked, when faced with this existential crisis, where does Marty McFly go? Back to the safe and septic 50s, where the worst thing to worry about was some bully. The 50s are portrayed as the ideal age, where men had great jobs and women stayed home, people did what they were supposed to do, conformity ruled. What is ignored, though, is reality. Particularly segregation, lack of freedom for women, conformity.

In contrast, Sirota said that the 60s are viewed with disdain, and he used clips from the show Family Ties, where Alex P. Keaton consistently mocks the hippie ideals of his parents and idolizes Nixon and Reagan and unfettered capitalism. Interesting that both Marty McFly and Alex P. Keaton are played by the same actor: a Canadian named Michael J. Fox. So, Sirota presented the idea that the 60s ideals are marginalized and mocked while the 50s are lionized and held up as the ideal. This particularly true among conservatives, who often talk about the Golden Age of the 1950s ("where black people knew their place!"). Woody Allen covered this topic quite excellently in his current film Midnight In Paris. The message of his movie is that there is no golden age. Each era has their positive and negative aspects, but human tendency towards nostalgia remembers the good and forgets the bad. The solution is to make each moment we live into a golden age of opportunity. Love that movie!

When I was a teenager in the mid-to-late 80s, I remember being influenced by the movies and music that came out of the 1950s and I did not like the 1960s. I still don't have a positive view of hippies, mostly because of the drugs and free love movement. I admit that I think people dressed better in the 1950s and I wish 50s fashion would come back in a big way. As a young man, when looking at photo albums of my Great Uncle Jim and Great Aunt Effie, I was stunned how beautiful and fashionable my Great Aunt Effie was. Recently, I got a special DVD collection of Betty White's shows from the 1950s (Date With the Angels and Life With Elizabeth). She's well dressed for a stay at home wife. Mad Men shows just how well dressed people were in the early 1960s. According to Sirota, the myths of each decade is not a neat line. So when he talks about the 1950s, he means the culture that was common from the post World War II era to the mid-1960s, and the culture of the 1960s that we think of actually covers 1966 through the mid-1970s.

Sirota compared the presidential candidates (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004) to the 50s versus 60s values, with the Republican candidate standing for 50s values and the Democratic candidates representing 60s values. Even the election issues seem to boil down to the cultural war between the 1950s versus the 1960s. Its interesting that for me, a child of the 1980s (even though I was born in the early 1970s, I was more aware of popular culture in the 1980s and identify with that decade more than any other. Interestingly enough, my sister was born in the early 1980s but identifies with the 1990s more than the decade she was born in), I was more interested in the 1950s than the 1960s, but as an adult, I value the ideals of what came out of the 1960s (except for the drugs and free love movement). I don't find the 1950s era of conformity appealing at all. When teabaggers talk about returning to that era, I just have to laugh because you can never go back to the way things were. Progression is the natural order of human evolution. Personally, I'd love to see a more spiritual culture emerge. Something never seen before that embodies the best ideals of every era while maintaining openness to change and appreciation of diversity.

The most interesting aspect of Sirota's lecture is the growth of the "cult of personality" or "cult of narcissism", embodied by the likes of Michael Jordan and his branding as someone to emulate. This individualism and focus on selfishness has the most potential to do harm because it promotes valuing "super humans" over the team or the community. You can see it in the messages promoted by the right wing. If you're not successful, its your fault because you're lazy or unambitious. If you're a self-made success, you deserve it all (low taxes, privileges, adulation, a reality show!). This view is hurting our culture and society, because success is getting harder and harder to find for many people. It has little to do with one's abilities or ambitions, and more to do with how the laws are written. Do those corporate CEOs who looted their companies and accepted bailouts "deserve" such wealth?

The final aspect of Sirota's lecture focused on the message that government is incompetent and evil (he played a clip from E.T. where government agents in space suits invade a suburban home. I remember being terrified by this scene as a child). He gave examples from The A Team, where a group of private mercenaries are available for hire if the police department is unable to solve a crime for you. What's laughable is that government is unable to locate members of The A Team but various people are able to (such as pop singer Boy George in one episode). Other private investigators for hire include Magnum P.I., The Blue Moon Detective Agency (Moonlighting, my favourite show of all time), and Knight Rider. Sirota also included the example of the Dukes of Hazzard for their constant rebelling against and outwitting the authority of Boss Hogg.

The lecture was great. I didn't go up and meet the author afterwards, even though I wanted to and the line was short. I plan to get the book when its in paperback. I look forward to reading it. Sirota (also born in the 70s and a child of the 80s) is definitely on to something. There was little mention of the music, though. No decade perfected pop music like the 80s did. The enduring popularity of 80s pop can be heard on Adult contemporary radio stations or in any store that plays music. You don't hear songs from the 60s or 70s as much as the 80s in the public sphere. Long live the 80s! Well, maybe as far as the music goes. This book gives a reader plenty to think about (such as how much pop culture has influenced our thinking in regards to political issues).

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