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  •   1980-1990
    And We Saw It All on MTV


     '80s illustration
    (By Hanoch Piven for The Washington Post)
    Ninth in a series

    By Henry Allen
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, September 30, 1999; Page C1

    This is the Air Guitar Decade.

    People aren't themselves, they're the roles they play. Things don't have to be things, just be like things – authentic imitation bomber jackets, suburban country kitchens with the Martha Stewart baskets that never carry anything ... Martha Stewart herself, in fact – the air-guitar perfection of Martha as mom, hostess, gardener and chef ... she's an idea in people's minds, like Donald Trump playing Donald Trump and building buildings he can put "Trump" on. (He gets called "The People's Billionaire" by the New York Daily News. That's the kind of decade it is.)

    "I'm not a doctor but I play one on television," says a soap opera actor who then does an ad for Vicks cough syrup as if he were the top upper-respiratory man at Johns Hopkins.

    An actor is elected president. Talking to a journalist who mistakenly recalls seeing him on a movie set, Ronald Reagan says: "You believed in it because you wanted to believe it. There's nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time."

    Previous presidents have played the hero, but Reagan understands that the presidency of the '80s is a character role, requiring a character actor's coy opacity – a face like folk art, simple and sturdy, a cameo carved in a walnut shell, a face so familiar you seem to see every detail even at a distance: the 1940s hair he never changed (that wave mounting back from his forehead, a reverse of Kennedy's mop), the chevron tilt to the eyes, the preoccupied alertness of the nearsighted, the glance of the slightly deaf, sharp and meek at the same time. His mouth puckers in an unhurried O and then a smile slides to the side of his face while he arches an eyebrow – the jaunty but purposeful look of a man who looks like he's got his hat cocked to one side even when he isn't wearing a hat.

    Symbol is substance everywhere.

    Witch hunts – literally – ruin the lives of day-care workers. Altar orgies! Satanism! (Are we feeling guilty about handing our children to strangers on our way to work? Is that what this craziness symbolizes?) The media get very serious about the Iran-contra scandal, but it looks more like air-guitar Watergate. The homeless symbolize America's callousness but it turns out many aren't homeless as much as they're schizophrenic or alcoholic.

    The symbolism of taking up combat positions might hurt our diplomacy in Lebanon, so a Marine unit bunks down in an office building where a suicide bomber kills 241 of them. Days later, this setback is symbolically redeemed by our victory over a Caribbean country called Grenada, which has gotten too cozy with Cuba and communism for our liking.

    New Hampshire schoolteacher-citizen-mom Christa McAuliffe isn't a scientist or astronaut, but she gets to ride on the Challenger space shuttle for 73.621 seconds as Mrs. Front Porch U.S.A. in Space. Then it blows up.

    Reagan gets the news. He asks: "That's the one the teacher's on?"

    Challenger explodes
    The shuttle Challenger blew up in a catastrophe that killed seven astronauts and horrified millions of people. (AP)

    Some news is not so symbolic. There are recessions and firings, drug-driven crime turning cities into free-fire zones. Reagan gets shot. The pope gets shot. Airplanes blow up and people are afraid to travel. Your kindly hometown savings and loan collapses, and you, the taxpayer, have to make good on its debts. AIDS is going to kill everybody if we don't do something.

    After some patches of early-'80s fog, Reagan announces: "It's morning again in America."

    Not dawn's early light, maybe, but a placid 10:30 or so, with "Doc down at the drugstore thinking about pulling the skin books off the magazine rack, the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit a thing of Jimmy Carter's age-of-limits past, the school kids back to basics, and most people back to work," as a media type writes.

    The Cold War ends. America shrugs off a stock market crash. There's a conditional stability to things, like the feeling when you walk toward baggage claim after a bumpy plane ride. Things feel larger than life and unreal at the same time, a condition Jean Baudrillard calls "hyperreality." (He's a French intellectual – they've gotten very big again.) Experience is a theme park, reality sings through a karaoke microphone, and authenticity is a brand name on your shirt, sneakers, blazer, purse. Those aren't underpants, those are Calvin Kleins. That isn't three days' growth of beard, you're just doing Don Johnson from "Miami Vice."

    Cocaine is the drug of the moment. It turns existence itself into an air guitar, as if you can become an idea of yourself. Cocaine makes you feel famous, gives you an edgy hyper-clarity, as if you were looking at yourself through the wrong end of the binoculars. Airless, wary, presumptuous – this is the founding mood of postmodernism, which is to say self-consciousness.

    Not a painful self-consciousness, but a feeling of being a peeping Tom looking through your own window. It's a short step to the exhibitionism of televised confession on the Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera shows, or to upscale trend-toadies replacing their curtains with "window treatments" that let passersby see them sitting on chintz couches petting a Lhasa apso as if they were practicing for Robin Leach's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Except the Lhasa apso keeps peeing on the rug – they have an appointment with the pet psychologist to work on this.

    The personal is the political – as if private and public lives were the same, nothing to hide and nothing to tell. The ideal for these people is to live at one pleasant remove from reality, as if they're touring another country – drinking bottled water and sampling food from each other's plates while the waiters talk about them. They fill the rest of the time by working 82-hour weeks, then standing in movie lines and asking their friends what happened on "Miami Vice" or "Hill Street Blues."

    The response: "All I watch is MTV. I start watching some horrible video from Twisted Sister or somebody and I'm hooked."

    You jog in your jogging clothes, lift weights in your weightlifting clothes and look at yourself in the mirror as if you're auditioning to be your own body double. Sweet pain, cruel pleasure. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone inspire men to grow breasts at the gym. Women "go for the burn" with Jane Fonda's workout tapes. They burn off so much body fat that they stop having periods. Air-guitar sexiness.


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