The world was ending in 1988. Everybody had something to lament: The Soviets were conducting nuclear tests at Semipalitinsk; a Ninth Circuit panel overturned the ban on gays in the military; Larry Flynt came out on top in Hustler v. Falwell; Jimmy Swaggart shamed himself; First Republic Bank collapsed in the largest FDIC-assisted failure in history; al-Qaeda was formed; billions were spent on savings-and-loan bailouts; Pan Am 103 was blown up over Lockerbie. Cultural developments were polarized, to say the least: On Broadway, Phantom of the Opera opened; on the other side of the country, a hip-hop group called N.W.A. released its first studio album, Straight Outta Compton, which had the nation’s scolds running around with their Underroos on backward.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote that we all are meat to “Conqueror Worm,” but those “vermin fangs / In human gore imbued,” for all their rapacity, have nothing on nostalgia, the appetite of which is omnivorous and bottomless, Exhibit A being the new film, also called Straight Outta Compton, telling the story of N.W.A. in those years. If in 1988 you had attempted to explain to N.W.A.’s critics — or its fans, for that matter — that in one blink of history’s eye the group would be the subject of a sympathetic cinematic biography courtesy of Universal Studios, you’d have been laughed at. If you had further informed them that Time magazine would complain that the film was “sanitized,” that “it never manages to transcend biopic hagiography,” you’d have been funny-farming in no time.
(Oh, and did we mention that Dr. Dre would become a billionaire by licensing his name to Apple?)
In 1988, Time reported that most Americans blamed violent and depraved pop-music lyrics for social disorders; in 1991, a Time music critic described N.W.A.’s follow-up album as “grotesque.” Only a few years later, Straight Outta Compton was on Time’s list of all-time great albums. In 1991, the magazine argued that N.W.A.’s commercial success was “raising questions about why ghetto rage and the brutal abuse of women appeal to mainstream listeners,” and today, Time complains that Dr. Dre’s “1991 assault on female journalist Dee Barnes — dismissed by Eazy-E because the ‘bitch had it comin’ — doesn’t make the final cut” in the film.
That’s a sign of the times, too: In 1991, Time was worried about the inclusion of fictional violence, and in 2015 Time is worried about the exclusion of real violence. We still haven’t quite figured out how to order our understanding of history and fiction when the two overlap. It is probably best to let the movies be the movies and let the history books be the history books: I believe that Oliver Stone’s Nixon is probably the best film yet made about American politics — just so long as you don’t watch it thinking it has anything to do with the life of the fellow who served as the 37th president of the United States.
N.W.A.’s most celebrated and most infamous track from Straight Outta Compton was “F*** tha Police,” which is about as subtle as you’d expect. This was the Age of Crack, when cities such as New York and Los Angeles were miniature failed states that would be unrecognizable to those who know those cities only in the form they’ve had for the past 15 years or so. N.W.A. was hardly the first group of young men trying to figure out the alchemy described by Joe Strummer — “turning rebellion into money” — to voice such sentiments. The Dicks, a now mostly forgotten punk band, had put out a song called “Hate the Police” in 1980. But the Dicks were safe, white, gay socialists in a college town, so nobody much cared. N.W.A., and those who followed, people cared about. Some of those early gangster rappers were indeed hard guys from the streets; more than a few of them grew up in middle-class families with married parents. But they played their roles convincingly. The aesthetic strategy of their music, like that of punk rock a generation before, was essentially the same as that of the classic horror movies of the 1950s: Take a genuine fear; make a cartoonish exaggeration of it that in the short term stokes terror but in the long term gives us a safe vessel in which to contain it; and buy yourself a Rolls-Royce or three.
Like a classic horror movie, the urban-horror genre of the 1980s looks a little silly in retrospect.
And like a classic horror movie, the urban-horror genre of the 1980s looks a little silly in retrospect. The embarrassing attempt by Black Lives Matter to reconnect with that energy only goes to show how little of it remains. When you have arch-conservatives such as Rick Perry working for criminal-justice reform and sweating about our incarceration rates, and loft conversions down the street from the infamous Bronx intersection in Bonfire of the Vanities, it’s a different scene. But we still have safe, white socialists from college towns — hello, Senator Sanders! — to set the stage for this increasingly uninteresting form of theater.
What terrified us in the 1980s, like what terrified us when the original Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (1956) was in the theaters, didn’t come to pass. The monsters of 1988 did not follow the career paths that the pundits predicted: By the end of 1991, there was no more Soviet Union, and Communism was repudiated, nearly universally. AIDS did not become a pandemic, though it is, unhappily, very much still with us. The violent crime that had so thoroughly arrested the public’s attention at the time of “F*** tha Police” was dramatically mitigated, falling by more than half across the country and much more dramatically in New York and Los Angeles. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher became the United Kingdom’s longest-serving prime minister since Lord Salisbury, the Reagan coalition looked unassailable, and the Left lamented the certain rise of right-wing autocracy across the English-speaking world. A few years later, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were the power couple of world politics. The population bomb didn’t explode, capitalism did not collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and Louis Farrakhan’s insistence that the Gulf War was the opening salvo in the Battle of Armageddon turned out to be slightly exaggerated.
That we have reached a point at which we can look back at a cultural artifact such as Straight Outta Compton with a measure of sentimentality is, as counterintuitive as it may seem, an extraordinarily positive sign of the times. It’s only “Plan 9 Straight Outta Outer Space.”