I know what everyone has been thinking as we look gleefully forward to the end of 2016, with a desire to put the social and political turmoil behind us as well as say “good riddance” to the year that took several beloved artists from us.
We are thinking, “How did we lose so many of our treasured pop culture icons from the 80’s? Why them?” “Why now?” From Bowie to Prince to George Michael and Carrie Fisher and even (yes) the guy who played ALF!
Those of us whose lives have been touched by these so-much-more-human-than-human artists and the characters that were so near and dear to our hearts feel this deep sense of loss. However, at the same time as we have had to say goodbye to these incredible beacons of hope from the recent past, we have seen a resurgence of many other things from that same decade.
In pop culture: Zombies! (The 80’s did, after all, bring us a nearly un-countable number of zombie movies as paid homage to in the video hit Thriller) and Vinyl (because records are a “thing” again).
In fashion: Mom Jeans and thick eyebrows (Brooke Shields? Anyone?)
I know you’re thinking that I’m getting a little too trend-centric and pop-culture fluffy with it, but hang in there. I have a point, I promise….
In politics: Celebrity Presidents (in the 80’s, we had former actor Ronald Reagan. Now we have Reality TV star and bombastic businessman, Donald Trump) , what will soon be the resurgence of a new kind of Trickle-down-economics (which is the Economic Policy closest in to what Trump’s platform is based on) and Russia! (in the 80’s we loved to hate Mikhail Gorbachev and now we have Vladimir Putin to make fun of on our sketch comedy shows.
Culturally speaking, the 80s were a time of emerging conspicuous consumption and status-based classism – lots of nouveau riche boughie types flocking to the cities and the single life…wearing fur coats, driving porsches and ferraris and splashing around in the idea of a glamorous “Greed is Good” mentality toward American economic and cosmopolitain “progress.”
At the same time, Willy Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp organized the first concert that would turn in to a now 30 year-strong organization called Farm Aid to combat the suffering that middle America farm communities were going through due to rampant closing of family farms as corporations started taking over.
We saw a country ripped apart by fear caused by the AIDS epidemic – which initially targeted the Gay community, who was still living at the fringes and considered a somewhat alienated “unknown”. It took the story of Ryan White – a young boy who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion – to humanize the epidemic and begin vital conversations in our country about sexual orientation and fear and inclusion. Not to mention the idea of coming together to begin finding searching for treatments and cures for a disease that nobody deserves to die from.
The 80’s also brought us Cable television – revolutionizing pop culture as we know it – making it possible for us to see more and more of the America we thought we knew and beginning an era of overstimulation that would have us retreating back in to our shells of familiarity more than finding common ground because content was being pushed at us, but we didn’t have an internet to allow us to publicly react to what we are seeing.
These days we have replaced cable television with social media to maintain our echo-chambers. But fortunately we also have ways to have conversations – should we choose to – with people who don’t look like us or live like us or even live near us.
The point I’m actually trying to make here is that, in losing the 80’s pop stars that have so obviously and publicly fallen this year, we are actually reminding ourselves of the good things that came out of a time and a mentality we seem to be regressing back in to for a moment.
You see, I spend a good amount of time studying culture and sociology and reading up on topics like Spiral Dynamics and social science that focuses on Worldviews as well as topics like Generational Cycles Theory. In my work, I apply my understanding of the world and it’s nuances and patterns of change to helping my clients understand how to evolve their business and the ways they communicate with the humans that buy their products. And because I study this stuff and apply it to a consumer space all the time, I am also thinking about it constantly and looking at cues from pop culture to seek to understand our world.
This year – particularly toward the end – has had me wracking my brain trying to explain why all of this seemingly bizarre stuff is happening in our sociopolitical landscape; the populist ideals, the xenophobia and the generalized seemingly backwards progress (as many liberal, intellectual types like me and my peers might see it). In the end, I am able to say, “well sure I saw this coming” – for a number of reasons stemming from the ways in which we have chosen to engage with one another in our mainstreaming digital world to other factors related to cultural, environmental and economic factors.
But I end up left falling back on platitudes like “it’s always darkest before the dawn” or “it’s gonna get harder before it gets easier” – yet still full of hope that we will get to the “easy” part soon.
That being said, the scientific disciplines mentioned above that focus on social change all tell us (as does history) that wen tend to evolve in a spiral-type way.
But the thing about spirals is that you always have to go back a little bit in the direction you came from before you can move forward.
My point and hypothesis is that THIS time is the time for our slight backwards movement and I believe we have chosen the 80’s as our touch-point for this devolution of sorts. But ALSO per the loss of our 80’s icons like Prince and Bowie and Carrie Fisher, the actress behind the Iconic beacon-of-hope character Princess Leia) I think we are being given sacrificial lambs as reminders of the wonderful progress that was made during these times. In the article just linked to about Princess Leia, for example – the author reminds us that the real reason we love that character so much is because
It’s about creative thinking, keeping it together when it counts, and outclassing every pretentious pencil pusher the Empire can throw her way.
Artists like Bowie and Prince taught us to embrace our weird, to love ourselves for everything that we are and to let our true colors shine . George Michael, through his music and very public human journey also taught us (in particular, the Gay community) many life lessons about accepting who we are and not letting the world get us down.
Even ALF – who I reference as a HUGE fan, btw – taught us a good amount about how we see the world. This affably bizarre alien reminded us that we are not alone in seeing how ridiculous everyday life can be and that it’s okay to laugh it off sometimes.
Truth be told, I still have an ALF doll in my office. Whenever I feel like an Alien from another planet come to study humans and their ways, “he” reminds me about the humor in all of it and that I chose to keep my eyes open because I love my fellow humans and I believe we are on a very profound, fast-tracked evolutionary path.
So as many of you mourn what you see as a loss and start throwing Molotov Cocktails at 2016 so as to obliterate the memory of it as we move in to a new year, take a moment to honor the memories of those beacons of hope who have been brought back in to our public consciousness once more to let us know that even though it seems like we are fighting an uphill battle sometimes, we have the power of our light (and most likely The Force as well) to guide us forward.
Rest in Peace, 1980’s AND 2016. We will remember to learn our lessons from the past and keep them with us, along with the beauty and the joys that have propelled us forward.