1980-1989: The Big Sleep

"It was the best of times, it was the best of times. Deregulation. Insider trading. Leveraged buyouts. Junk bonds. Black Monday. The country was broke, blissful­ly broke, chapter 11 broke, but it was all part of the plan. Reaganomix!"


A Decade of Just Saying ‘Dough’

What? Again?! There were other decades, you know, vintage ones. Take the 2030s, for exam­ple… But no, it’s always, “Oh, please Great-Grampy, tell us again about the incandescent 1980s, and spin doctors and deep doo-doo and the beautiful Shy Stallone.” Well, shoot, who’s to blame you — never was there an age its equal, grody maximus. So laser me up another toddy and gather round, and I’ll tell the stirring tale once more.

It was the best of times, it was the best of times. Deregulation. Insider trading. Leveraged buyouts. Junk bonds. Black Monday. The country was broke, blissful­ly broke, chapter 11 broke, but it was all part of the plan. Reaganomix! That was the beauty of it: prosperity through bankruptcy, the biodegradable economy! We were all material girls back then. Shop ’til you drop. “Order up another of them billion-dollar toilet seats for the B-1, boys.”

America was #1, indisputably and for­ever, and if not #1, then certainly #2, or tied for #2. Yo! Kinder and gentler? You must be kidding. Everyone carried a semiautomatic machine-gun — you never knew when a pheasant or Pee-wee Her­man might suddenly break cover. We were tough as pit bulls, and to prove it, we sold arms to the Ayatollah’s freedom fighters to buy arms for anyone in Cen­tral America who swore he wasn’t a com­mie. Better still, we dispatched 24,000 troops to dismember a nasty little Pana­manian who dared muss our hair — it seemed like fair odds. Yeah, some called us the Evil Empire, but no one messed with the red, white, and blue. We passed a constitutional amendment against burning copies of USA Today or mutilat­ing your cash machine card.

Okay, sure, you want to nitpick, we had our little vexations. A killer plague swept the land, crack too, and there was a best­selling book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which most students took literally. But then Mommy Reagan (a Cancer) conjured up the witch’s spell: we would just say “just say dough,” and puff, faster than you could say loan me a Givenchy, our prob­lems were gone. Poverty? There you go again. Some trickled down — people lived in the streets, just a few million — but the president assured us they were homeless by choice; so they’d take a drug test, visit a flag factory, and right away, don’t wor­ry, be happy, they felt rich in spirit.

It was morning in America. Couch po­tatoes all, we sat transfixed in our home entertainment centers, the 90-foot dish on the roof pulling in dozens of porn channels, hundreds of commercials a minute, tastes great, less filling, remind­ing us how young and beautiful we were in our shiny new four-wheel-drive Sushis, speeding down gorgeous coastal highways (BABY ON BOARD), never another car in sight. The road less traveled indeed! Tearing ourselves away from these tender visions, we would tap the remote control just in time for an instant replay of an instant replay of a long incompletion; though we had seen many millions of long incompletions already (all preserved on the VCR), each was compelling, in­complete unto itself. Tap again and we might view the golden mute, Vanish White, or the templed boudoirs of the rich and famous, which in those years nearly everyone was (except, of course, the poor by choice). Exalting, all this and more, but for us it was mere prelude to the Great Communicator in action.

The G.C. did not care about the idiotic questions (“What about the deficit, Mr. President?”) shouted by loutish reporters (“What about Oliver North, Mr. Presi­dent?”), and certainly we his subjects (“Why are we invading Grenada, Mr. President?”) didn’t care. But the G.C. was nothing if not gracious. So, striding toward the noisy chopper, Teflon coat resolute against the wind, he cocked his head and cupped his ear, trying in vain to hear the inane queries (“What about the Marines in Beirut/Poindexter/Bitburg/AIDS/ Watt/Wedtech/Deaver/Meese, Mr. President?”). And then the friendly shrug, the chipper Gipper what-me-worry grin, and he was skyward, gone to chop wood at the ranch, call the Super Bowl champs on the hot line, prepare the great space shield that would keep missiles coming in and ozone going out, or was it the other way around? Or both?

He was our virtuoso, but there were so many great communicators then. Phil. Oprah. Geraldo. Morton Jr. Moral equals of the Founding Fathers? At least. Was ever a civilization better informed? Tots who kill… Necrophilia, pro and con… Women who love men who loathe women who despise them… On and on it went, deep into the night, dialogues that belong to the ages.

But the ’80s weren’t only cerebral; sometimes girls just want to have fun. Saturday nights we’d hang around the corner nuclear waste dump getting high on the perfume ads in magazines, then head downtown on our mountain bikes to catch the fabulous Jackson brothers. Bo, let’s see, wasn’t he the delicate one? Talk about performance art: while playing the elephant-man bones, he would surgically renovate his face (always a thriller), then set his scalp on fire. Jesse wore a white glove to signal his abhorrence of publici­ty, but his primary showstoppers, “Hymietown,” “On the Slummy Side of the Street,” and “Somewhere Over the Rain­bow Coalition,” had us dancing in the aisles. Michael, as I recall, was all hunk, ran like the wind, hit for power — the son and daughter anyone would wish for.

Where was I? Kenneth, what is the frequency?

It was a deeply spiritual age. Or-I’ll Roberts set the evangelic tone: “Give me money or I’ll die.” We had our very own Madonna, and Saint Swagger, too, who out of his own pocket subsidized way­ward flocks he found in the back motels of New Orleans. A far Right Rev. Falwell was bugged by what he called the “gay plague”; it was, he said, God’s way of “spanking” us — a job, one sensed, he would have enjoyed buckling down to himself. Did I mention the miracle of Tammy Faye? “I can see! I can see!” she cried after an angel of the Lord told her to remove her false eyelashes. P.T.L.! There was a woman named Shirley Mac­Laine, who in a previous incarnation had been a famous wacko named Shirley MacLaine; this, understandably, was too embarrassing for her to admit, so instead she claimed to have been Max Head­room’s mother, at which point we summoned Ghostbusters.

What mysterious rites we had! When­ever a man named Murphy said “fuck” or “faggot,” everyone laughed and he got a million dollars. Whenever a man named Rambo slaughtered another hundred Asians, everyone cheered and he got a million dollars. Then there was Trumpet. He bought everything not yet owned by the Japanese, and plastered TRUMPET all over it in 10-story letters, lest someone forget his name at a power breakfast.

In the ’80s, every meal was a power meal: “Bonsoir, I’m Tex…” “…and I’m Mex…” “…and we’re your waiters tonight. Our specials this evening include blackened wheat bran smothered in pork rinds, the $50 Ralph Lauren Pizza served with antlers and a sepia photograph of George Bush, jelly beans flambé, tap water bottled in Alsace-Lorraine, plus any­thing labeled ‘Nature’s Bounty.’ Accom­panying all dishes is the chef’s complimentary microscope.”

Where’s the beef, you ask? Forget it. We glowed with health, like gods, then Jane Fonda invented aerobics to keep us that way. “Make a fist with those buns,” she commanded, so we would look delec­table for the sex we would be having if we were having any. But sex, which once helped people get born (this was before fax-conception) was now helping them die, so everyone stopped having it except TV evangelists, ghetto kids who couldn’t afford abortions, and a couple of sports named Garvey and Hartpence.

Celibacy didn’t mean we weren’t ro­mantic. We’d run outside in our $100 running shoes and laugh and sing in the acid rain. Or else snuggle up and watch music, you know, hot groups like Tipper Gore Raw. Alone, we might linger over centerfolds of Dr. Ruth or, in a less urgent temper, Federal Express an ad to the personals:

YOU LIKE ME! YOU LIKE ME! Moi: pre­-pubescent powerlifting TriF, like a virgin, double-cross-dresser, enjoys quiet winter walks through Bloomie’s. Thou: chaste, thirtysomething skinhead, CEO, BMW, insincere, enthralled by toxic waste, Jerry Falwell, and English riding gear. No weirdos please.

Oh, my dears, it was an altogether dif­ferent world. Pro-Lifers bombed medical clinics, Pro-Choicers chose to ignore the survival instincts of fetuses. Our answer­ing machines had answering machines, which could be paged by beeper (“E.T. phone home”) if they were busy recording more $300,000 grants from HUD. From state to state, barges brimming with col­orful garbage plied the great dead water­ways, while we stood on shore checking washed-up milk cartons for the missing Reagan children. Or we’d buy a lottery ticket from Pete Rose, make a quick mil­lion to buy something, anything, from Minolta-Toyota-Sanyo-Seiko-Sony so they could buy the rest of Manhattan, the Washington Monument, and the Missis­sippi River. Exciting days! Every moment was a photo op, and we videotaped them all: syringes on the beach, Sis’s first coke bust, Givens-Tyson bouts, farm foreclo­sures, burning vanities, condom ads, sur­rogate moms, the greenhouse defect, the harmonica convergence, Nancy R. nuz­zling Mr. T (so much for those who called us a racist society!), Granny popping the cyanide-laced Tylenol (we got amazing footage), the Statue of Liberty raising money for Lee Iacocca, the top 40 oil spills… Except for congressional ethics, which were erased, we got it all, set it to rap, showed it on MTV, and went right to work on the sequel.

By the end of a decade this dazzling, we were exhausted with great communi­cations, and ready for something rather more banal. We got it. One candidate asked voters to do nothing more than read his lips, which upon close inspection were seen to be panting, “I’ll say any­thing to be president.” Naturally, he was elected by a landslide. As it turned out, he was our next-to-last male president. A woman ran for vice-president in the 1980s, but her running mate admitted he was a liberal, which was like stomping yourself to death. Liberals had been re­placed by neoconservatives who, along with both major parties, were subsequently swept aside by the immortal Quayle. Orator. Sage. Poet. President. Today, when every schoolchild can recite his address to the United Negro College Fund (“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind… How true that is”), and pretenders can be destroyed by comparisons (“Senator, you’re no Dan Quayle”), it is hard to believe that in the ’80s he was an empty suit with 30 han­dlers and a lousy backswing, playing Nin­tendo in the White House war room.

Well, that was about it. Of course there was hell to pay in the ’90s. Bush was hit on the head with a horseshoe and in­stantly raised taxes. Gorbachev was granted asylum and bought a dacha in the Hamptons. Nancy Reagan checked into the Betty Ford Clinic. Nixon died and came back. Dan Rather finally went over the edge one night and gouged the CBS eye right out of its socket. (“The vision thing,” said Bush.) There was the steamy Teddy Kennedy–Marilyn Quayle scandal, Jesse Helms’s pardon, the war with Germany… But that’s another story… Hey, someone wake Elvis and let’s all go out and watch Halley’s comet. I haven’t seen it since 1986. ■


Fax Home: The ’80s According to Malcolm McLaren
By Malcolm McLaren, as told to Ariel Swartley

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 3, 2020