Here are some musings that are not very well organized or polished, are probably naive, and might seem silly to anyone else but me. But I want to get them down.
I was having weird thoughts the other day about television, popular culture, and the passage of time, and particularly, for some reason, the vast gulf between the years 1977 and 1983. This was triggered by these compilations of TV show openings that I discovered on Sunday morning, especially the ones from the early 80s.
Why 1977 and 1983? Perhaps because of the nice symmetry — three years on either side of 1980.
In 1977, we were in the Carter era. In 1983, we were in the Reagan era.
In 1977, “Star Wars” came out. In 1983, we had “Return of the Jedi.” (Side note: a long time ago I found an online list of pop-cultural touchstones – “you know you’re a child of the 80s if…”, or something like that. One of the touchstones: when you saw “Star Wars,” you noticed all the cool spaceships. By the time you saw “Return of the Jedi,” you noticed Princess Leia’s breasts or Han Solo’s tight black pants. I was a little too young for that, being just nine years old for most of 1983.)
It’s weird that most of the TV shows we associate with the ’70s were still on the air in the early ’80s, and aging: Three’s Company, The Jeffersons, Alice, One Day at a Time, Happy Days, Benson, The Love Boat. Inga Swenson’s ’70s bowl cut was replaced by a chic, short ’80s do, and she and Benson were still trading insults. I can’t think of many ’80s shows that lasted into the early ’90s, but for some reason there’s this big ’70s-’80s overlap.
In 1977 there was disco. In 1983, there were personal computers. Remember those Charlie-Chaplinesque commercials for the IBM PC? Disco and PCs seem to belong to totally different eras.
In 1977, gay people seemed to live in a paradise. I think of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.” But by 1983, AIDS had begun to destroy the gay community. On the other side of 1980 lay devastation. My fourth-grade mustachioed math teacher (1983-84) would one day die of AIDS.
In 1977, the big thing in television was jiggle TV. Sex abounded. By the early ’80s, the conservative Reagan era was beginning to take hold and kids and families were coming to dominate TV sitcoms again. Diff’rent Strokes, Silver Spoons, The Facts of Life, and Gimme a Break were essentially about blended or nontraditional families; soon the nuclear family would make a comeback with The Cosby Show and Growing Pains, and Family Ties, already on the air in 1982, would become a big hit. Early-80’s TV, with its kid-filled sitcoms, seemed tailor-made for my age group; what would kids have watched in the late ’70s? The Fonz? Laverne & Shirley? (My own kid-centric experience of the early ’80s is no doubt distorting things. There were probably shows of both eras that don’t fit this mold. See Cheers.)
All of these long transitional years led up to what is, for me, the quintessential ’80s year: 1985. In 1985, my friends and I were in fifth grade, the highest grade in the elementary school, so we were sort of the equivalent of high school seniors and felt cool. My favorite movie, “Back to the Future,” came out that year. I discovered comic books. “We are the World” was the big pop-cultural thing and made us all feel happy and uplifted because, if we put our minds together, we could end world hunger!
I think the greatest year of childhood is the final year before you hit puberty. You’ve come to know who you are as a kid; your brain has developed far enough along that you can understand things well; and hormones haven’t yet begun to mess with everything you’ve come to be. In 1977, when I was three years old, we’d moved to the suburbs and into our New Jersey house. By 1985, I was 11. I’d lived in that house in that idyllic suburban town for eight years. It was home, and familiar; I’d grown comfortable in my skin and my school; I’d come to know who I was.
Over the next 2-3-4 years, it all changed. The decade aged. I went on to middle school, I was forced to skip a grade, I started to have troubling sexual feelings. In 1986, Iran Contra would damage the Reagan image and I’d discover “Saturday Night Live,” with its cynical skewering of politicians. In 1987, the stock market would crash. The ’80s seemed to go on forever, but everything after, say, 1986 didn’t feel like the ’80s to me anymore. By 1987, the ’80s were past their prime, like Christmas lights on December 29th. The ’80s for me basically ended in 1985.
I love the idea of people living at the end of the ’70s, on the cusp of the ’80s, not knowing what was in store. Hedonism would be replaced by conservatism. Self-actualization would be replaced by money. Wide neckties would be replaced by skinny ties. Disco clubs would be replaced by clubs where Wall Street Masters-of-the-Universe types would order expensive bottles of champagne.
Every decade grows old and encrusted before the people who have lived it move en masse into the next era. The people of 1977 found themselves living in a different world six years later — just as the people of 1997 would barely recognize the mood of 2003 (with the intervening impeachment, election recount, dot-com crash, and massive terrorist attack).
Ah, the passage of time.