Saturday, May 05, 2007

1980 - 1990

I’m not very good at understanding or articulating my reservations and dislikes about something or someone - generally my negative opinions are only ever spurred into words by hearing them put into words by someone else; a circumstance which consequentially makes me wonder whether or not I actually have any negative opinions of my own at all. This makes me generally a pretty rubbish scholar of English literature and is the main reason why I don’t see myself bothering to take my studies past BA level – it’s hard to do literary criticism when you have trouble saying anything more coherent that ‘I don’t like it’. I do, however, dislike things, I dislike lots of things, and people, lots of people – I’m just really not very good at putting my misgivings into words even inside my own head.

I mention this because I’m about to try and explain the reasons for one of my biggest dislikes, even though I’m not even entirely sure if I have any. Bear with me, this might take a while…

I believe that the Eighties - I mean the decade from January 1st 1980 to December 31st 1989 - was a fundamentally bad idea. It was a decade of bad politics, bad art, bad music and just generally crappy aesthetics. It’s not the first of the bad eras of history, not by a long shot – I don’t think many would mourn the loss of the dark ages, nor would anyone with any taste be particularly bothered by the removal of much of the 18th century – but it is the one I am most familiar with. I am aware that as someone born smack bang in the middle of the decade this seems like a strange belief to have, I consider my origins in the 1980s in much the same way that catholics think of man's inherent sin - it's something that I must work to overcome through good deeds and a life of good music and good design.

I first tried to write this blog entry a few months ago when I found myself sitting around at home instead of going to see a film called Mirrormask with some of my flatmates, which for all I know might be a very good film. The reason I decided not to go up to the campus cinema was because one of my flatmates tried to describe it to me as ‘fantasy, like labyrinth or the neverending story’ which are probably two of my least favourite films of all time ever. There is something about 80’s fantasy films that makes me feel physically sick. I think it’s partly their terrible special effects, corny scripts and icky monsters but mostly it’s because they, in their seemingly unending stories and freakish detachment from reality, remind me really strongly of the kind of horrible, inescapable nightmares I have when I’ve got a fever of 101 and am in the process of throwing up everything I’ve ever eaten in my life. As I’ve got older I’ve found that my distaste for 80’s films isn’t just restricted to that particular genre – I have a special hate reserved for that type of action movie that got really big in the 80’s which took an almost sociopathic delight in presenting gratuitous, remorseless violence – films like the ‘death wish’ movies, Robocop, Rambo that have a level of violence unseen in popular culture since the revenge tragedy went out of fashion.

It’s not necessarily the excessive cruelty and violence that particularly bothers me – many years of films and computer games has dulled the shock value of even the quite graphic pretend violence – it’s the way in which the violence often comes from characters whose actions the audience is supposed to support. The prevailing cultural attitude in the eighties seemed to disdain human compassion and empathy as weakness - the idea of society was seen as stinky liberalism and the action movie stars didn’t have mercy and were lauded for it. This culture bred off itself, creating the impression of a world in which human life was no longer particularly valued then using this lack of basic humanity as evidence that merciless force was the only way to combat the perceived decay of society that these attitudes had formed. It all reminds me of the writings of fascists like Ezra Pound in the wake of the First World War – in a civilisation destroyed by violence they looked to a ideology which promised them only violence as their hope of release from a ‘botched civilisation’.

The subject of fascism brings me neatly into my next big area of dislike – 1980s music. In the late seventies the punk movement started to associate itself with Nazi iconography; swastikas, iron crosses, leather, etc, this wasn't done to show identification with fascism, but because in British society there are few things more shocking and socially unacceptable than a swastika. Some time around the turn of the decade, however, the original intention was forgotten, bands like the charmingly named Joy Division (named for the groups of Jewish women in concentration camps who were used for the sexual pleasure of Nazi soldiers) donned slicked down hair and leather and the desire to shock was replaced with a sort of perverse admiration.

When talking about the music of any decade I find that talking about the stuff that was really popular isn’t the best way to gauge the general quality of the time – we don’t judge the 70s on the Bay City Rollers, nor do we judge the 60s on Cliff Richard – and so similarly I won’t judge the 80s on the dross that topped the charts most of the time. The 80s seemed to be the decade when every single genre of music drifted helplessly into self parody – I mean just look at the most popular ‘alternative’ band of the time – Metallica – who seem to be a band who took ‘This is Spinal Tap’ as a creative springboard and then went downhill from there.

I think my opinion of the eighties began with my disgust as a child (with a liking of cars, planes, mud, shiny things etc) with the design of 1980’s cars. The style of the time was for hard angles and straight lines; decades of aerodynamic research and beautiful designs were washed away in a horrible wave of cars that seemed to take the flat-pack wardrobe as their main source of inspiration, it’s like a rule was introduced that rulers had to be used all the time when designing cars, that someone hid the machines for bending metal. My sneaking suspicion that the 80’s was a decade where taste was not allowed has been confirmed, and then some, in recent years by my discovery of the horrific aberrations that constituted electric guitar design back then, seriously, I challenge you to take one look at a Fender HM ‘Strat’ and not weep with horror.

I understand that the strict chronological definition of ‘the eighties’ as an era doesn’t necessarily correspond exactly with the inception or lifespan of the things that I’m associating with it: I know people were making cars that looked like wardrobes in the late seventies, they were writing songs with godawful drum machines and nasty synths in the seventies, that people still wore stupid clothes and big hair well into the early nineties but the fact is that the eighties was when these things became iconic cultural touchstones. To any one still in any doubt, I close by stating that the eighties was the decade when a car like a Delorean DMC-12 could be considered desirable by people who weren’t blind and that music like the Pet shop boys could be popular.

I’ll probably revise this when I think of more coherent arguments.