I’m conflicted over whether to let this post sit around and ripen or not, you see, because it’s sort-of inspired by a movie that’s not out yet. We’re not legitimate enough to get into press screenings, and the movie comes out in two weeks? Three weeks? Something like that. You know what movie it is?
Rock of Ages.
Yes, indeed. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I actually want to see this movie. I could list a lot of fake excuses, like about how it’s an interesting cultural essay on a period of American history, or how it functions as musical anthropology, or how I want to make fun of Alec Baldwin’s hair. But the thing is, I just really like the 80s. I don’t know why. For some reason lately my emotional tenor has been perfectly reflected by 80s music. To paraphrase Chuck Klosterman, there was never another period in history where the gap between extremely amazing and genuinely terrible was so close. And I know you’re silently judging me out there in meta-land, and I know Alec is probably shuddering while reading this, but I really want to write about the 80s, so here it goes.
The Rock of Ages trailer has been floating around the interwebs for some time now, and there’s one part near the beginning of the trailer that I find interesting. Alec Baldwin, the proprietor of a glam metal institution/bar I’m sure we’ll learn plenty about when the film actually opens, says to his bartender “Hey! I told you before, chicks get free drinks, dudes get regular price.” The dudes, wearing lion-esque manes, promptly turn around, with the bartender responding, “These are dudes!” Laughs follow, camera cuts to a shot of Tom Cruise in his dressing room snorting coke off of Poison’s Look What the Cat Dragged In, or something like that. Actually, I should probably go ahead and clarify that the Rock of Ages trailer didn’t necessarily inspire this post per say; I was in the shower this morning, the place where I do my best thinking, and I thought “Hey! Wouldn’t that be a neat way to start off this blog post?” So now that all the introductions and pleasantries are over and we are all acquainted with one another, let’s begin.
The essential question of the day is “Why were the 80s so weird?” Actually, let’s get more specific. “Why were people’s taste in the 80s so weird?” No, no. We can go deeper. We have the technology. “Why did everyone in the 80s look so weird? How could people find that attractive??” There we go.
I was thinking about this in relation to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to the Future, both of which I watched recently. Now, I don’t think that Ferris and Marty necessarily look weird; however, in the context of “Hollywood teen-targeted pictures,” they aren’t the typical protagonists. This is for several reasons. Let’s start with Ferris.
Ferris doesn’t exactly fit into the traditional mold, because it’s obvious that he is a popular guy, yet there is no explained reason for him being popular other than the natural charm he exudes. He is not “popular” in that he is a jock; he doesn’t appear to be athletic and there is no mention of him playing sports (although we know Sloan is a cheerleader). We know nothing of any activities he may be involved in, and we can’t speculate, so it’s really impossible to determine why exactly he is popular besides the charm factor. And second, when you look at him, Ferris is a pretty big jerk. He turns his charm on and off to get what he wants from people, he skips school, he makes things miserable for Ed Rooney (who is really just trying to do his job), he uses Cameron to have an enjoyable day at the risk of his friend’s livelihood, and he pretends to be sweet for his parents. However, because he lives in the Hughes-ian world where every adult figure is incompetent, even the drummer from Sonic Youth, his actions are seen as more than acceptable. Now this isn’t to say I don’t like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the character of Ferris, because I love them both; however, he is not your typical teen hero.
Similarly, Marty’s also a little weird when it comes to molds and archetypes and such. First off, he’s in a band that plays Huey Lewis and the News. Second, he doesn’t appear to be involved in any sports either, and like Ferris, he’s not “buff.” While he does have the ability to travel through time, etc., he’s not a conventionally attractive/popular fellow either, and he’s a tad nerdy. However, like Ferris, he is able to maintain a healthy relationship with an attractive female. And I think there are plenty more examples of this from the 80s.
The Indiana Jones franchise- While yes he fights Nazis and knows how to use a whip, you have to remember that this is a guy who spends about 70% of his time wearing tweed jackets and is also afraid of snakes. Yet he is still found attractive by a considerable amount of the female species.
Big Trouble in Little China- Jack Burton may have muscles of some sort, but he’s pretty dumb, and kind-of gross to boot. But somehow he manages to land a future mannequin/Sex and the City star.
And all of this is without even getting to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. However, I haven’t gotten to the real meat of my discussion. Basically what I want to know is why tastes changed so much in the 1980s, particularly when it came to male hero types. I’m sorry if this feels like another introduction, and in a way, it sort of is, because I’m not here to talk about why “nerds” were more attractive to women in the 1980s, although that’s part of it. I’m going to discuss why the 80s saw such an excess of men who appeared “weaker” when held up against the heroes of the 1970s- and this isn’t just action heroes or film stars, this is musical icons and other figures as well, although action films are going to serve as my launching pad.
There are two important things to keep in mind about the 1970s: a) when we’re talking about action heroes especially, this was an era of “cool,” of men who could do things with their own hands. b) In the real world, this was an era of heavy economic stagnation. The American economy barely grew during this decade, and events like the oil crisis helped to slow down consumer growth considerably. I find this interesting because the action heroes of the 70s weren’t like the action heroes of the 80s- they were considerably more self-sufficient and reliant on their own physical skills, as opposed to the heavy equipment of the 80s. Bullitt, Bond, and Shaft all had a unique sense of cool and didn’t necessarily need heavy weapons. Sure, Bond used gadgets, but he wasn’t absolutely dependent on them. Similarly, I think this economic stagnation is also reflected in the rise of kung-fu and blaxploitation films, as the characters in these movies didn’t necessarily need assistance from weapons in fighting. When you hold this up against the 80s this is particularly insightful, as the 80s (although I don’t want to get into attributing things to Ronald Reagan, because I don’t like him and this isn’t really a political post) was an era of muscle and machine guns. While Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Bruce Willis all may not necessarily fit into the Marty McFly/Ferris Bueller pseudo-nerd role I proposed earlier, I would go so far as to say that these stars in their films were “weaker” than 70s action heroes because they relied so much on weapons other than their hands. Similarly, their gargantuan muscle growth also represented changing ideals in beauty. Werner Herzog once spoke on how Wrestlemania and Anna Nicole Smith represent shifts in what we find attractive, and I think that adds to my point about how the 80s was a topsy-turvy time. However, I don’t think that extremely masculine heroes bred on a diet of human-growth steroids and Lou Ferigno’s Hulk are necessarily representative completely of the 80s. I don’t think many people would consciously admit to being attracted to Sylvester Stallone; however, I do think his over-masculinity shows up in a lot of the music of the 80s. And to be honest, I think that the musical heroes of an era may be important than the action heroes of that same era.
If popular culture operates in 20-year cycles, it’s definitely easy to see in the appearances of 80s rock stars. Basically what I’ve been trying to figure out through this post is why it become more fashionable for men, particularly those involved in music, to appear more conventionally “feminine” in the 80s despite playing misogynistic cock-rock. And I think the answer comes in two parts: first, it was a a reaction to a lot of the masculine appearances dominant in 70s rock, and second, it was part of the twenty-year cycle. While the heroes of the 60s (Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, John Lennon, etc.) may not have appeared the same as those of the 80s, both groups were definitely much softer-appearing individuals than the hyper-masculine rockers of the 50s. And the 70s definitely had hugely masculine rock “heroes,” although I’m using heroes liberally here. Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Ted Nugent, all of these male musicians defined both sexism and sexiness, to borrow another concept from Chuck Klosterman. I think that in the 80s, though, it became impossible to sing these songs while simultaneously keeping up the image. Although I don’t think that the “trickle-down” effect applies to economics, it most definitely applies to culture, and I think the 80s was the last great purge of disco. While disco was primarily a more A-list phenomenon in the 70s due to economic swamp-iness, Saturday Night Fever aside, it had definitely fused with glam rock by the early 80s, and it had become more democratic. All the sequins and hairspray and campiness of 80s groups like Poison is, in my personal opinion, a definite descendent of disco.
But by embodying the visual aesthetic of disco, these musicians attempted to re-define masculinity while Sylvester Stallone was simultaneously trying to do the same thing with his muscles. Part of this is I think a direct continuation of what was started by KISS- KISS being probably one of the greatest musical experiments ever conducted in rock history, whether it was done consciously or not. By choosing a look that conjured images of Satanism and Romanian jousting tournaments but playing music that was more in line with bubble-gum pop, KISS essentially defied people’s expectations of popular music. And essentially, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Poison, Whitesnake, Twisted Sister, and every other group that at one time or another embodied a glam metal feel was doing the same thing in reverse- sexy and sexist lyrics with an essentially harmless look. By doing this, the 80s was probably one of the greatest times of cultural redefinition and introspection, maybe even in league with the 60s. I have a distinct memory of Andre Gregory saying in My Dinner with Andre that the 60s was the last great gasp of air for humanity, or am I just imagining that? Well, if the 60s was the world struggling to breathe, the 80s was it throwing up.
So essentially what these groups were doing, even if they didn’t realize it, was try to re-establish what it meant to be a real “man.” You can argue that the rockers of the 80s were not “soft individuals” when compared to musicians of the 60s, but once you separate the look from the music, it’s hard to think of them as tough guys. I think that by mixing different looks with different music, they played with their identities, just like Chuck Norris and the like broke down what it meant to be an action hero. Again, though, I understand that many of these individuals may have not necessarily understood they were doing this.
While it may seem a little contradictory to put Sylvester Stallone and Steve Perry together, honestly, it makes sense, at least in my mind. Both of these groups, the physically tough guys and the verbally tough guys, tried to redefine masculinity and what it meant to be “tough,” what it really was to be a guy. I think one of the greatest pieces of evidence for this redefining would have to be Van Halen’s music video for “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” in which the band mates dress up like a samurai, a cowboy, Tarzan, and Napoleon respectively in order to rescue a woman being fondled by dwarves, only to realize that (s)he is a transvestite at the end. In my opinion, it’s just as important a cultural document as androgyny in telling the story of the era and the “changing male.”
Ultimately, however, I don’t think that anything changed. It’s very telling, in my opinion, that one of the greatest cultural touchstones of the era turned out to be This is Spinal Tap, and it’s important than many people remember Spinal Tap more than any actual bands. Spinal Tap so perfectly captured the ridiculousness of this “redefining” of modern masculinity by bringing together both the wild misogyny of the lyrics with the naive tameness of the musicians themselves, which is why it is spot on as a parody. However, because many people remember the parody more than the beast itself, their experiments ultimately failed. I also think it’s important to notice that on Sylvester’s end, things didn’t turn out very well either, because by the end of the decade, all buff roles not being played by, erm, Michael Keaton were being played by robots, representing the rejection of the artificiality of action films. By the 90s, things were back to their normal anti-hero ways, as dark and brooding figures like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Marilyn Manson took the helm of modern music and wise-cracking cynics like Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction became the predominant action heroes of the day.
However, I think the 20-year cycles still continue, as we’ve seen in the last decade. It goes without saying that the most popular form of actions film during this millennium have been superhero films, and there’s definitely been a little bit of a re-inventive struggle going on between light and dark superhero films. So the 80s still live on today, in my opinion. Even though we may not have the hair, the hamstrings and the hellfire, it still exists, if only in our hearts. *sheds a sequined tear*
And I barely even talked about androgyny. Darn. Oh well.
(By the way, has anyone else noticed that all posed pictures of bands from the 80s look like they were taken in the kind of photo studio in the mall where you take baby pictures?)