As a cultural phenomenon, the 1980s began on May 21, 1980, with the release of the film The Empire Strikes Back. They ended on September 16, 1991, when the band Talk Talk issued their final masterpiece, Laughing Stock.
In between those two events was a lot of brilliant art, literature and music. A lot of it is in danger of being forgotten in the manic rush to repurpose everything from the Reagan years as kitsch, nostalgia, and second-rate video games. Whether due to the relentless takeover of all culture by popular culture, journalism that allows for shallow pop analysis by untrained thinkers, or a social media grid that makes the hard work of becoming an artist creating new work impossible – or perhaps a bit of all of it – America is not producing artists or journalist with much knowledge, historical learning, or general perspicacity. As a result, the 1980s are now remembered not for their great artistic works, but as a fizzy time of cheesy music, pastel colors, science fiction movies and kitschy video games. It’s incredible that it is this version of the decade that is now influencing the culture in 2018.
The latest journey in the 80s time machine is Ready Player One, the new Steven Spielberg movie. The protagonist, Wade Watts, lives in 2045 and travels to a virtual reality defined by 80s pop culture references. The film is being called the ultimate geek out and nostalgia ride. In the Ernest Cline novel and the film, there are references to John Hughes movies, 80s video games (Donkey Kong, the Atari 2600, Nintendo, Sega), Back to the Future, AC/DC, Risky Business, Rush, Stephen King (The Dark Tower), and Dungeons and Dragons, among many other things.
This quickly goes too far. After seeing the film, Vulture reported that there is a scene in which two characters share their first date, a scene that “takes place entirely within Stanley Kubrick’s [1980 film] The Shining.” “It’s an homage that keeps going and going,” reports Emily Yoshida, “both impressive in its veracity and jaw-dropping in its emptiness. It’s the peak and nadir of ‘Remember this?’ cinema all at once, and where you land on it is probably a good indicator of how you’ll feel about the movie as a whole.”
If the 80s theme nights at bars, Taylor Swift ripping off 1980s synth pop masters the Pet Shops Boys, the TV shows set in the Regan decade, and the avalanche of books taking place in the Miami Vice milieu aren’t enough to make you want it to stop, the desecrating of Stanley Kubrick’s film should do it. Why not just have someone belching in front of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s masterpiece Untitled?
A serious examination of 1980s culture reveals that there was a lot of thrilling, important, and even timeless art being made. Not only Basquiat, but Warhol and Barbara Kruger, George Baselitz, Ernst Ludwig Kirshner and Annie Leibovitz. There were novels and short stories that were more literature than pulp fiction — The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lonesome Dove, Love in the Time of Cholera, Neuromancer, the stories of Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver.
There were films like Wings of Desire, Cinema Paradiso, A Room with a View, Babette’s Feast, Round Midnight, and Akira Kurosawa’a 1985 masterpiece Ran. No less thrilling was the music: New Order, the Replacements, the Pixies, the neo-classic jazz of Wynton Marsalis, Public Enemy, the Smiths, U2, Suede, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello. There was Talk Talk, who began the decade as a synth-pop group and ended it with two art rock masterpieces, 1988’s Spirit of Eden and 1991’s Laughing Stock.
In his book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Simon Reynolds notes that to be alive and young and culturally aware in the 1980s was to have a bracing antipathy to nostalgia. Young people didn’t care about the hippies of the 1960s. The 1970s were a funny reference point to make jokes about bad clothes and tacky disco. The idea of going back twenty of even thirty years to ape the styles of earlier generations would have been considered weird and embarrassing.
I was a college student living in Washington, D.C. in the mid to late 80s, and the cultural atmosphere was one that celebrated the latest artists, writers and musicians. Just a few blocks from the small row house I shared with three other guys in Georgetown were two jazz clubs, two art house cinemas (the Key and the Biograph), three record stores, and a used bookstore owned by the writer Larry McMurtry, whose masterpiece Lonesome Dove had been published in 1985. In one weekend I could see Ran, or David Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome, pick up the latest record by avant-garde modernists Siouxsie and the Banshees, and browse paperbacks by the newest and best writers. In 1984 Editor Gary Fisketjon launched Vintage Contemporaries, a paperback imprint of Random House. By the end of the 80s, Vintage Contemporaries would have almost one hundred titles. As Joy Williams once noted, “The line was a mix of reprints and originals, and nearly thirty years later the checklist found in the back of the books reads like a ballot for some Cooperstown of late-20th Century fiction.”
Vintage Contemporaries was where I discovered Thomas McGuane, Jay McInerny, Steve Erickson, Richard Ford, and Mona Simpson. My friends and I talked about these writers, as well as the latest Spike Lee film or Blue Nile record. Nobody had any interest in the big pot cloud that had descended at Woodstock. Star Wars, whose last film had been released in 1983, was already fading fast.
What drove artists forward back then was the reality that to create or be something great took a lot of effort, and though many of the era’s artists betrayed great personal vices, laziness wasn’t one of them. In this way the artists of the 1980s were no different from those of previous generations. Instead of hiccupping out a blog post, a writer in the 1980s, like a writer in the 1940s or 1960s, had to hone his craft and get approval by gatekeepers in the media and the publishing houses. Musicians didn’t create hits on home computers, but had to do what bands from Duke Ellington to the Beatles had done — tour and play live. I still remember seeing the Cowboy Junkies arrive to do in-store record signing, exhausted from driving all day and then trudging off to play live that night.
As mentioned earlier, the poppy 80s group Talk Talk ignored the criticism of their record label to produce two albums that are now considered works of genius, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, records that could only be realized after years of practice and experimentation.
More than thirty years later, the internet and our social media addictions have changed everything. Along with helicopter parenting, the digital grid allows kids to avoid the kind of risks and hard work that was once required of artists, and that made them want to break new ground. Our goal as young writers and musicians and painters in the 1980s was to be great, and that required toil. These days, why sweat it out for years when you can just upload a half-baked idea onto YouTube?
Today, anyone with a computer can write a song, anyone with a smart phone is a photographer, and anyone with a blog is a journalist. On one level, this is wonderful. After all, too often the gatekeepers of the pre-digital era were liberal censors, or simply had too much power to decide what was art or not and what should and should not be published. Yet as the art house theaters and record stores and quirky magazines that sustained the era’s creativity have shuttered, modern writers and artist suffer no difficult time of formation.
As pop culture continues to overtake the culture at large – what’s left is an echo of a partially recalled time. There is nostalgia for the past, for the time before the dominance of our lives by Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, when people could have ditzy fun with distraction or the hostile filter of social media. But this nostalgia offers a distorted view of the 80s. The irony and kitsch of the era takes prominence; left behind is the sweat that went into creating the best art the decade produced.
The most ambitious young journalists in the 1980s would have been embarrassed to publish the half-baked or unedited writing that’s provided clickbait on the modern internet, or to pass themselves off as experts on things they knew nothing about. We had read Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese ― as well as H.L. Mencken, Walter Lipman, Hemingway and Dickens. We wanted to be great. There was honor in it, unlike spending days riffing online about comic books.
Today’s cultural experts giggle at Cyndi Lauper’s Day-Glo hair, and forget T.C. Boyle’s remarkable 1987 novel World’s End. There’s also Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, a book my friends and I debated in bars and coffee houses when it came out in 1985 when Ellis was still in college at Bennington. The book presents a demimonde of young nihilism in Los Angeles, and while pretentious and too cheaply graphic, Less Than Zero was an attempt at a broad statement about the spiritual crisis affecting the modern era. For all its flaws, Less Than Zero was a stab at something great. College students in 2018 are too busy debating Star Wars and proper gender pronouns to try something so bold. To do so requires making a lot of mistakes first.
In 2018, the slightest criticism offered to a young writer, musician or journalist on Twitter is met with a napalm strafing of invective and resistance. The internet is wonderful in allowing talent to be exposed to the masses, but it has also made people lazy. Our culture is stuck, like Wade Watts in Ready Player One, bathing in a digital realm of shiny pop culture while the real world is a wasteland.
Thanks to YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, people like Kim Kardashian and pop star Justin Bieber can be famous from the time they are children. But the worldwide attention has made it impossible for them to experience the traumas and struggles that so often make great art necessary. Bieber will produce many more hits, songs no doubt inspired by the 1980s. But he will never produce a record like Laughing Stock.