The Other Eighties—A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan
By Bradford Martin (Hill and Wang, 2011; 242 pages)
According to the author’s preface, his “challenge” was to write a book about the ‘80s that wasn’t beholden to “the singular figure” who “dominated national life during the decade.” Pity, then that he couldn’t even keep Ronald Reagan’s name out of the book’s very subtitle.
Speaking as someone who was in their 20s in the 1980s and couldn’t have existed then without an active subculture to escape into, I can testify that alternatives to Reaganism were vast and endless. This was the decade of MTV, videocassettes, CDs, cable TV, public access television, underground newspapers, affordable computerized typesetting, Max Headroom and numerous other new ways to package and disseminate information . The Fairness Doctrine was still in effect until 1987, so talk-radio was legally obligated to offer balanced viewpoints. No, you couldn’t entirely ignore the president of the United States, but it was easy to not take him seriously.
I wish Bradford Martin wasn’t pegging his book on such a specious concept, and I wish he would address some of those new resources which leftists and radicals used to spread the word, rather than simply profile groups and individuals who were illustrative of iconic 1980s concerns. Cultural context is lacking, other than the obvious “a very popular Republican was president.”
Luckily, Martin is a good researcher and a fine storyteller, so his guided tour makes up for what it lacks in perspective by simply engaging the reader with the growth of
In each chapter, he tell an interesting, concise tale of a movement which fell outside the government’s purview. You don’t question his definition of what constitutes a non-mainstream movement; it’s easy to establish what the counterculture consists of when, as the Reagan administration did, the government pointedly ignores things they didn’t want people to make a fuss about. That includes the AIDs epidemic, punk rock, anti-apartheid activism, new feminist movements and covert military war-waging in Central America. All those areas are ably covered here.
His previous book was The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Public Performance in Sixties America, so you might expect Bradford Martin to A.) draw frequent comparisons with the Peace & Love generation and B.) discuss theater. The fact that he does neither is something I find admirable. In a book about the 1980s, he doesn’t mention Andrew Lloyd Webber once. Cool.
I particularly like how he deftly handles the chapter on “Noise from Underground: Post-Punk Music, Culture and Politics.” You can get a sense of his control from the chapters’ subheadings: “Defining Post-Punk,” “Post-Punk and Its Fans,” “Post-Punk and Antimilitarism,” “Race, Gender, and Proletarian Play: Indentity Politics in Post-Punk” and “1991: Nirvana’s Nevermind, Lollapalooza and the Politics of Co-optation.” If that all seems like so much grad-school-speak, Martin’s heart is clearly in it. He’s wary of deeming any particular bandsas too influential or popular, or to label them as something it’s not. He’s documenting a movement, and his concern is not who leads it but who gets swept up in it:
The Replacements and R.E.M. shed light on post-punk’s elasticity. Both came from the small club, independent label roots that epitomize post-punk, yet both achieved popular acclaim well before the genre’s commercial breakthrough in 1991. The Red Hot Chili Peppers shared similar underground roots but relied heavily on African American-inflected musical forms such as funk, rap, and hip-hop. What tied these disparate bands together was less a shared musical aesthetic than a set of influences from 1970s punk, including a do-it-yourself production ethos emphasizing authenticity rather than technological perfection; aural dissonance that consciously challenged mainstream popular music; transgressive subject matter in lyrics and associated visual imagery; and live performances that attempted to bridge the distance between the performers and the audience.
I can overlook all the big words and be thankful that he knows the difference between bands that drew from punk and bands that were punk.
Likewise, he doesn’t make his chapter on ACT-UP and the AIDS crisis all about a central figure like Larry Kramer, deserving as he might be. His interest is in the masses, and in the number of smaller gestures it took in order to achieve a breakthrough in mass consciousness. Martin’s take on the vice presidential candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro is more insightful than any of the obituaries which ran when she died last month, because he discusses the campaign and its symbolism rather than dwelling on her personal attributes.
This book deserves to be taught in classrooms. It reads at times like a textbook. I hope it isn’t relegated to preaching to the choir in courses already earmarked as alternative and countercultural. I’d like high schoolers, whose parents lived through this era, to get ahold of this book. Its thesis—this is not your Reagan America—may be weak, but The Other Eighties is a full-blown history tome nonetheless, creating its own workable priorities whether or not it’s consciously countering the “official” history of the times.