Monday, July 13, 2015

What Happened In The 80s, Anyway?

From the 1970s.

The other day a friend of mine mentioned they had something to show me: it was an economics text, they said, from the 70s, and it presented as obvious things like "economics is a moral science" -- meaning, I take it, that economics is inherently concerned with well-being and distributive justice and so on.

I immediately thought "Oh, yes -- of course. That was the 70s I knew." And then I thought, "What happened to that world, anyway?"

I mean the world with ads like the one at the top of the post, showing a little girl in overalls interested in building stuff with lego.

That's the world in which people talked about peace and justice all the time, dressed in goofy clothes like bell-bottoms for fun, and thought that, even though there were a lot of problems, it was possible things were going to get better and that someday we'd all be able to live in diverse neighborhoods in happy prosperity.

This might just be me, but I feel like now in 2015, after so many political and economic problems of the last few years, it's easy to slip into thinking of the narrative as essentially a simple expansion and contraction sort of thing. Like: idealism, following by tough times, producing widespread grasping self-centeredness.

But it's pretty obvious that that isn't it at all. In fact, there's that huge time in between: the 80s and 90s. It's crazy to me now to remember that when I quit math to do a PhD in philosophy in 1997, the world was in the middle of its dot com craze -- people acted like even pursuing a safe-course secure quiet job in scholarship was kind of nuts when you could make a fortune doing something else. Someone in my grad program actually quit to make money day trading.

No, the end-of-the-70s mood was something more complicated. I was born in 1966 and I went off to college in 1984, so I was the wrong age to be a reliable narrator. But what I remember most about that time was the sense that massive social forces had decided that Fun Was Over and it was time to Get Serious.

Hanging around the dorm one day, someone showed me an image that had been going around. It showed one Brooks Brothers' ad from the late 70s and one from the early 80s. They both showed a well-dressed white man from the back, and they were virtually identical, except that the earlier one had slightly longish rakish hair and the 80s one had a perfect, clipped, conservative cut. I remember we all thought, "Oh yeah: that about sums it up."

Half our class was going off to work for Goldman Sachs. Is it any wonder so many Gen-Xers became slackers?

So what happened? What was so great about Hungry Like the Wolf and Dirty Dancing that we had to give up KC and the Sunshine Band?

I'd been pondering these questions lately while listening to some disco, and I happened to read Arthur Chu's excellent essay linking the old anti-disco movement to the new #gamergate one.

Chu reminds us that that even in an era in which Christians "literally believed rock bands were Satanic cults who used backward masking to hypnotize people," the worst and most destructive violence against music "was wrought by guys who just didn’t like disco."

Indeed, people freaked out against disco. Chu mentions us of record burnings and the event in 1979 at Comiskey Park where disco records were burned and the crowd got so riled up they trashed the stadium and the cops had to be called in.

I remember at the time being confused. I wanted to be cool, and the anti-disco people were positioning themselves as the cool kids. But I loved disco. I thought disco was fun and great for dancing and an expression of the Life Force. I was concerned and upset: how could cool figure into my life if cool required being anti-disco?

Chu argues in his essay that the anti-disco force was in a deep sense a force of angry white guys, enraged at the empowerment of women, black people, and gays, and targeting disco because it was a vehicle of expression for just those forces.

The 70s, Chu says, were a time of great conflict and change, and were thus deeply disturbing to the people who stood to lose out somehow through those changes. Those who had a social status to lose lashed out, struck back, not because "disco" was somehow "fake" but because they didn't want the change they thought was coming.

I think he's right. And I think that if he's right, part of the answer to what happened in the 80s has to do with fear and hatred.

It's less a story of tough times leading to renewed self-interest, and more a story of rage and backlash -- a story of people desperate to hold onto and reassert their relative importance over other people.


Anonymous said...

You went to college when you were 9 years old?

Patricia Marino said...

Ha, thanks for catching that! Fixed :)

Gottabounceyo said...

And I think it's important to remember this was the time of the rise of Reagan (which in my view) is the beginning of where the "train came off the tracks" in the US, and the Powell Memo in the early seventies which outlined a "call to arms" for the corporations - see this link:

Janet Vickers said...

Everything is about power. It's just that it's not easy to see that inequality is a greater threat than equality, and hatred is a form of unexamined despair.

Daniel said...

I was pretty young at the time and not paying attention to political stuff much at all. What I remember was actually sort of opposite of what you suggest (although maybe it's not opposite at all): I remember disco being considered sort of too commercial and poppy. One kid on the school bus in fourth grade (1978/79) said to me, "Disco's dead, but rock is rolling." Disco was put in antithetical relationships to rock, or alternative, or punk. Maybe for older people, who lived in cities, the broader cultural associations of disco with gay people, black people, women, and drug parties held sway for cultural conservatives. In my small town, I'm not so sure. But who knows?