Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties
(Oxford University Press)
US: Jul 2015
It’s funny how times are deemed simpler, happier and just overall better in the “good old days”. Regardless of the decade or generation, it seems we are always looking back on what was, mourning the loss of what we knew rather than exploring the possibilities of where we are. Turning a blind eye to the harsh realities of history in favor of a rose-colored view based on fictional tropes that have come to incorrectly define an era has long been the preferred method of viewing the past. Revisionism is far more palatable than realism.
By the end of the ‘60s, arguably one of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century for much of the world, American society as a whole seemed to be seeking a respite from the violence, civil and political unrest and a seemingly endless war in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, many sought comfort in what was perceived as an idyllic time well before the world began irreversibly changing. With a backwards, nostalgia-tinged glance, the post-war years were perceived more and more as the societal ideal, an almost impossible, utopian way of life that lived on in the revisionist memories of those most unsettled by the ‘60s.
As a reaction to what they had just experienced, filmmakers, musicians and television producers, to name but a few, began tapping into what would become something of a national zeitgeist in terms of longing for “the Fifties” that never were. It is here that Michael D. Dwyer, in his examination of this rewriting of history through popular culture, Back to the Fifties, makes a clear distinction between the ‘50s and “the Fifties”. To Dwyer, the former represents the years 1950-1959—a very specific span of time—while the latter represents an amorphous and impossibly idealized version of a time that never really existed. It’s an artificial world made up of wildly selective memories and a corrective pen taken to the nastier bits.
That the era in which “the Fifties” became the idealized new norm coincided with the rise of Ronald Reagan comes as no surprise. Reagan, who virtually embodied the perceived characteristics of these picture-perfect father figures from the decade that never was, stood in sharp contrast to the radicalized ‘60s ethos. His clean-cut, Hollywood-fashioned image made him an ideal candidate for those looking to restore America to its falsely perceived former glory (sound familiar?). It’s a deliberate falsification of history in order to return a sense of calm and orderliness to a society largely in shambles.
As Dwyer argues in his opening chapter on Robert Zemeckis’s film Back to the Future (1985), the Eighties themselves are projected as an approximation that strives to align with the Fifties, essentially a clear example of the Reagan-conceived perception of what “was” and what “should be”. Indeed, when Marty McFly travels back to 1955, he is met with the sparkling façade of a false era that never was. But to 1985 American film audiences, this version of the Fifties, with all its recognizable fashions, music, cars, language, and behaviors was meant to represent where we as a society had been and could conceivably return.
Through the help of Reagan’s (“The actor?” asks Doc Brown when told who becomes president in 1985) version of the Fifties, the ‘80s could correct the course of a country faced with a downward spiral. But the trouble with this falsification and glossing over of key historical events is that it creates an alternate reality that failed to exist in the first place and thus cannot be returned to no matter how hard we try.
In this, as Dwyer is quick to point out, times perceived as having been simpler ultimately prove, with just the slightest bit of research, to be anything but. Far from the idealized version of the Fifties presented in films like Back to the Future and American Graffiti, the actual ‘50s were riddled with post-war malaise, rampant racism, social inequality and the constant looming threat of nuclear annihilation. Not surprisingly, these films and similarly-themed television shows (Happy Days, et. al.) tended to literally and figuratively white-wash the idea of the Fifties and where the country had been.
Released during the height of the Vietnam War, American Graffiti in particular helped kick start a revisionist revolution that had those who grew up in the ‘50s and lived through the ‘60s longing for a return to their (inaccurate) recollections of the Fifties. Faced with endless possibility and carefree lifestyle based around racing cars and chasing girls, the world of American Graffiti showed none of the social and political tensions that boiled beneath the surface and more often than not boiled over in the ‘50s. By soundtracking the film with hits from the era, George Lucas and company in turn ushered in an era in which carefree simplicity was more often than not underscored by the newly-christened Golden Oldies. Dwyer argues that this then set a precedent that came to dominate ‘80s films and serve as a de facto shorthand for youthful innocence.
Similarly, Dwyer points out the posthumous lionization and idol worship of such comparatively minor celebrities as James Dean. With a scant film catalog to his name, Dean would have likely been little more than a trivial footnote were it not for the cult of personality and snowballing mythos associated with the Dean persona exemplified in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film, Rebel Without a Cause. This stock character trope came to represent the ‘80s loner/rebel archetype, tapping into the superficial elements of the character rather than the underlying complexities Dean was originally hailed for having embodied. This, too, functions as a revisionist take on history that serves to suit the times rather than be an accurate reflection of what was.
In one of his most insightful—and consequently controversial—chapters, Dwyer examines Michael Jackson’s redefinition of masculinity and racial perception following his MTV-sanctioned rise to pop stardom in the wake of Thriller (1982). Here he argues how Jackson achieved acceptance from a white audience by adopting the white ideals of Fifties teenagers (specifically his coy demeanor, varsity jacket and youthful exuberance in the “Thriller” video) in order to be perceived as a non-threatening, black pop star capable of appealing to a broader, racially inclusive demographic. By harkening back to Fifties simplicity and idealism through the landmark “Thriller” video, Jackson became a safe, appealing pop star capable of world domination.
Ultimately, Dwyer’s examination of the ‘70s and ‘80s re-appropriation of an idealized Fifties proves a fascinating read, one which finds a number of parallels between the political climate of the era and the pop cultural landscape. That these two were so intrinsically intertwined, while certainly fascinating, leaves the reader with a certain feeling of dread at just how effectively public perception can be controlled by those in position of power. Through the rose-colored glass of nostalgia—a concept Dwyer points out to have previously been a medical malady experienced by those longing for home—the way we were is nothing like the way it truly was.
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