The six-part National Geographic Channel series “The 80s: The Decade That Made Us” was something I was a little wary about when I first heard it promoted. For one thing, it reeked of “I Love The 80s” and for another, it’s bang on time to be the exact same sort of annoying “NOTHING WAS EVER EVER THE SAME” Baby Boomer bullshit we’ve been hearing for…well, about fifty years now.
It turned out pretty good, not least because of the crisply ironic narration by Rob Lowe (I didn’t think it was possible to laugh so hard at a mere ‘thank you’) but largely because they skipped going by year. Instead, they went with broader thematic episodes, starting with the malaise of 1980 that led to Reagan’s election in the first place and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the entirely-persuasive argument that pop culture is what brought down the Soviet Empire (granted, the shortcomings of Communism and the disguised internal rot of the USSR’s economy didn’t help). Along the way, they looked at MTV, Madonna, the emergence of the cell phone and the arrival of computers on desktops, the creation of the cliffhanger as the indispensable end-of-season dramatic TV device…
The annoying thing about the 60s is that they always get the ham-handed booming “THIS IS THE DECADE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING” treatment, usually with Buffalo Springfield or Jimi Hendrix in the background. They changed a lot, sure. But Vietnam didn’t serve as enough of a cautionary tale to prevent Iraq, and the expansion of social programs of the 1960s has been going the other way for quite some time. Only in the field of civil rights do you see the slow widening of the American circle still happening, and there’s a case to be made that time takes care of that anyway (how many people still look at Irish or Italians as an “ethnic minority” with racial prejudice as an obstacle to their progress?) – not to deny the impact of a black President within living memory of Birmingham’s dogs and firehoses.
But the old firm nailed this one: the 80s were the decade that made today. Hell, the entire GOP platform is built on the (hazy) memory of Ronald Reagan, or at least what they thought Reagan stood for. Cut taxes, always. Robust aggressive foreign policy, everywhere. Make America look as much like 1955 as possible. As it was in the 80s, so today. Similarly, the promotion of individual achievement at the expense of collective good – definitely 80s. The apotheosis of true American working people stopped being the blue-collar hardhat and started being the yuppie. The man at the top is far more to be admired than his staff and employees. For crying out loud, Donald Trump is still afflicting us thirty years on. Will no one rid me of this meddlesome onion-loaf-hair-having jackass?
Personal computers and mobile phones weren’t invented in the 1980s, but they were first made commercially practical – which puts us on the road to the iPhone. Popular music in its current form relies on MTV visuals and hip-hop beats, both of which came into the view of mainstream America in the 1980s. What are Katy Perry and Lady Gaga if not an extended pastiche of Madonna? The modern concept of protest, of charity, of collective action – draw a straight line from merely buying a record to merely retweeting a hashtag. 80s.
There was, however briefly, a bit of a 60s moment in the early 90s. We acted like we cared about the planet for about a year and a half. We made a big show of disdaining the greed and excess of the Me Decade. We elected a couple of children of the 60s as young dynamic types to be our Democratic ticket for President. And then the other side went right back to fighting the same battles of the 60s, which will apparently always be with us. And all you need is Rambo to show that refighting the 60s in perpetuity is itself a child of the 1980s.
The 80s made us? We still live there. Mostly for worse.