The Campaign Spot


Missing the 1980s Era of Nationally Shared Cultural Experiences

Today’s Jolt also featured a look at our ongoing 1980s pop-cultural revival. Readers of The Weed Agency probably noticed the music and other little cultural markers of the decade in the early chapters, revealing a bit of my Eighties obsession.

This Section of the Morning Jolt Comes With Its Own 80s Music Playlist

The other night I caught a few episodes of National Geographic Television’s series,The 80s: The Decade That Made Us and found myself feeling intense nostalgia.

We’re in a boom time for 80s flashbacks. AMC is offering “Halt and Catch Fire,” an intriguing drama series set in the nascent personal-computer industry in Dallas in 1983.

This is a commanding haircut.

There’s a new album out from Michael Jackson. The multiplex features the Transformers again, as well as a remake of 21 Jump Street, and a slew of more 1980s remakes are on the way. A new Star Wars film will be back in a few more years. The Duke Boys are riding again in a commercial for Auto Trader. Two summers ago, Gotye gave us a song that feels like it came from a long-lost Sting or Peter Gabriel cassette. You can’t tell me that those robots of Daft Punk wouldn’t have fit in well with Devo’s red plastic flowerpot hats, Thomas Dolby’s blinding science, or Toni Basil’s so-fine cheerleader Mickey.

Daft Punk x Storm Troopers.jpg

“The Emperor has judged you overplayed.”

Even the iconic A-ha “Take on Me” video reappeared in the form of a Volkswagen commercial late last year.

Watching National Geographic’s fast-moving documentary series on the major world events and cultural trends of the 1980s, I was struck by how many events seemed like truly nationally shared experiences. It is entirely possible that I am misremembering and romanticizing my years of childhood and early adolescence. But am I wrong that almost everybody who was old enough to understand the event remembers the Challenger explosion? Or how about Hands Across America? Laughing about “New Coke”? I wasn’t old enough to watch The Day After, but I remember some of the hubbub and news coverage of it. I was stunned to learn that an estimated 100 million Americans watched it. (The U.S. population in 1983 when it aired was 233 million!)

We have a cornucopia of entertainment, news, lifestyle, and media options that were absolutely unthinkable back in the 1980s, and there are a lot of advantages to the modern world. Today Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels and Nothing On” would be considered a crappy basic-cable package. We’re in the era of a couple hundred channels, and as a result, very little, if anything, gets our collective attention anymore. This means nationally shared experiences are fewer and far between.

When VH1 creates its “I Love (whatever we end up calling this decade),” the comedians and minor celebrities will spend time discussing “major” pop-culture phenomena, figures, and, trends that I simply never encounter.

For example, as far as I can tell, the Kardashian family consists of Kim . . . and the other ones. Breaking Bad was one of the most-discussed television shows of recent years — a cover subject in National Review! — and its biggest audience was . . . 6.4 million viewers.

The performers of the top five singles on iTunes right now:

1) Five Seconds of Summer


3) Sam Smith

4) Ariana Grande

5) Nico & Vinz

I have never heard of any of these people. “Ariana Grande” is something I hear called out at Starbucks.

I don’t think this just reflects me being an old fogey. (“You mean older fogey!” — The Couch. Shut up, Jonah’s couch! Get back in the Goldberg File where you belong.) This isn’t me complaining that these kids today play music that sounds like noise. I’m saying that you can have a top-five single in the U.S. and not permeate my cultural bubble, and I think there’s a good chance that these five haven’t permeated your bubble, either.

We’ve seen this Balkanization in the news world, where conservatives believe that there is some sort of news that they think is hugely important, and extensively covered by the media they consume — Kermit Gosnell, Benghazi, the IRS scandal —and that same news barely makes a ripple among the apolitical or “low-information voter.” (Perhaps the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union prompted Americans to ensure they remained “steady-baseline-of-information voters.”)

Maybe the only truly shared national experiences we have in today’s America are in the realm of sports. Perhaps U.S. national-team goalkeeper Tim Howard is the new little baby Jessica stuck in the well.

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