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Flashback: 8 pivotal pop culture moments from the ‘80s

Posted by Scott Kearnan  April 23, 2013 10:34 AM

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Bitten by the “spring cleaning” bug, I found myself exploring the dustier corners of my cable’s On Demand menu this weekend. (Way more fun than a closet-cleanse.) And lo and behold, I unearthed something pretty spectacular to share.

When you have copious time to kill, check out The ‘80s: The Decade That Made Us, a six-part series from the National Geographic Channel. If you love looking at pop culture through a political lens – and you’re reading this blog, so I hope you do – then this is a gold mine stuffed with leg warmers, shoulder pads, and brick-sized cell phones. But it’s not one of those I Love the ‘80s-type specials found on VH1, where b-list comedians just narrate nostalgia-inducing music videos. (Uh, thanks for the intellectual closed captioning, guys.) The ‘80s: The Decade That Made Us not only does a great job narrowing down some of the watershed moments in politics, tech, economics and entertainment, but it offers up some interesting perspectives on how those events shaped our current cultural climate.

Yes, we are far enough removed from the ‘80s that we can now observe the lasting effects of that decade's entertainment milestones – which, funny enough, often seemed insignificant at the time. I jotted down eight observations featured in The ‘80s that jumped out at me. (Find more about the full series, including the episode schedule, here.)

#1. Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith establish racial harmony.
Okay, we're still working on this. But musically we've come a long way, and this collaboration played a part. In the early- and mid-80s, rap music was associated almost exclusively with urban black youth and struggled to find broader support. Then in 1986, Run-D.M.C. covered Aerosmith's '75 hit "Walk This Way." By layering rapid-fire rhymes over Joe Perry's unmistakable guitar lick, and with an assist from Steven Tyler's trademark wails, they created a hit that was more successful than the original - and made rap seem accessible to suburbanites. The music video shows the bands literally tearing down walls between rock and rap, "white" and "black" music: Aerosmith peers its head into Run-D.M.C.'s underground recording studio, and Run-D.M.C. storms Aerosmith's arena concert full of fist-pumping white kids. Makes you wanna buy the world a (New) Coke.

#2. Madonna pioneers the concept of "self-brand."
Long before every starlet was a multi-industry hyphenate ("I'm a recording artist-actress-model-magi-unicorn!"), Madonna, who was essentially assigned at birth the world's best stage name, established the then-radical concept that you could be famous for being - well, yourself. In her case, fame was not the byproduct of extraordinary musical talent. Rather, musicality was one ingredient in a potent mix of skills: ambition, smarts, stage presence, artistic mining, savvy marketing. Her coming-out performance of "Like a Virgin" at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards is legendary, and not only because her sacrilegious stage humping was so outrageous. Notice how, at this first awards show of its kind, she already knows to play more to the television camera than the actual audience. That's branding. Which begs the question: how is Lourdes not yet Tumblr famous?

3. Jane Fonda makes sweating sexy.
Speaking of Madonna, the pop star has become something of a middle-aged fitness icon for women. (She even has her own line of gyms.) But Jane Fonda deserves credit for popularizing aerobic workouts for women, and glamorizing exercise that encouraged them to tone up, not just slim down. (Don't have a pair of light weights? Don't worry - soup cans will work just fine!) Sure, you can also blame her long-running home video series for spreading the unfortunate gospel of spandex onesies and legwarmers so puffy and colorful that it looks like your ankles have started to ferment. But the effects of Fonda's fitness revolution are still being felt today. In your abs. And your lats. And your glutes. And your...

#4. Back to the Future campaigns for Ronald Reagan.
As Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, Michael J. Fox had already created an obvious icon for the '80s growing young GOP movement. (Also for sweater vest and attache case fetishists.) But his Back to the Future, one of President Ronald Reagan's favorite flicks (and quoted in his 1986 State of the Union address), was also a subtle valentine to the era's popularly professed Republican values. In it, teenage skateboarder Marty McFly is transported to the 1950s via '80s-rific modern technology: the kind that can only manifest as crackling blue lightning bolts. He meets his then-teenage parents, repaints certain aspects of Norman Rockwell existence, and returns to the '80s to find his once-dysfunctional family now glowing and wholesome thanks to his intervention. The not-so-subtle moral of the story is that free will, not fate, determines one's lot in life. Back to the Future is a fun flick, but its legacy is how it captured zeitgeist-y lightning in a bottle.

#5. The Sony Walkman makes us all anti-social.
Slight overstatement. But the introduction of the Sony Walkman turned listening to music in public from a necessarily communal experience to a private one. On one hand, that was fantastic: did anyone really need to know that you were choreographing your own New Edition dance steps in your head? On the other hand, it sparked the now prevailing notion that all our home technology should be available to us on-the-go 24/7. And being constantly immersed in our own individual worlds is bound to breed insularity among people. Think I'm exaggerating? Oh my god, there's a NAKED person to your left! See? Made you look. I had a feeling you were reading this on your phone.

#6. Dynasty embodies that bigger is better.
Ostentation was an '80s family value, and the Carrington clan of evening soap Dynasty did it best. Everything here was super-sized. Everything. The shoulder pads. The beaded brocade. The hats. The shoulder pads. The McMansions. The parties. Did I mention the shoulder pads? The drama. The attitude. Most of all, the bank accounts. But best of all, the catfights. These women make today's "Real Housewives" look like total amateurs. Though Joan Collins does seem like the progenitor of Lisa Vanderpump, proving that even eye gouging and hair pulling can seem classy when performed by someone with a British accent.

#7. Teenagers become the target demo.
As your company credit card statement can probably attest, it's a lot more fun to spend another person's money than it is to spend your own. So the booming '80s economy caused advertisers to focus on teenagers (and increasingly children) like never before, and mall culture thrived thanks to gum-snapping adolescents blowing their allowance at Orange Julius and Chess King. A brave new teenage world that celebrated superficiality became parodied through "valley girl" stereotypes, like those immortalized in this Frank and Moon Zappa song. Yet somehow, a lot of people didn't get that this was supposed to be satire. Must have inhaled too much Aquanet.

#8. The Cosby Show moves an African-American family to the primetime block.
Before The Cosby Show, prime time television only rarely featured African-American families - and even those tended to trade on white audiences' firmly ensconced stereotypes. Depictions of upper-class African-American families? Those were virtually non-existent. But then the Huxtables came along, offering certain viewers a broader idea of what black families looked like. Cliff was a doctor and purveyor of colorful sweaters, Clair was a lawyer and recipient of my personal vote for Best TV Mom of All Time (her withering glares are pure gold), and their kids ran the typical gamut of endearing to occasionally obnoxious. A #1 hit for five out of eight seasons, The Cosby Show aired its final episode amid the inflamed racial tensions of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots: a reminder that TV shows can't change the world, but they can at least keep certain stories moving forward.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Scott Kearnan (@thewritestuffSK) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and communications consultant focusing on lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment. He's also a part-time smart aleck and buffalo wing connoisseur. "Media Remix" is where couch potatoes meet pop culture criticism. More »

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