Culture in The Reagan Era
"Morning in America"
1984 was a year of flag-waving patriotism in America. That summer, the Olympics were held on home soil for the first time in half a century, and American athletes at the Los Angeles Games dominated their international competitors. (A boycott of the games by the Soviet Union, in retaliation for the Americans' own boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, admittedly weakened the competition.) Team USA won four times as many gold medals as second-place Romania, and the exploits of charismatic athletes like gymnast Mary Lou Retton, sprinter Carl Lewis, and high-diver Greg Louganis inspired a new nationalistic fervor among adoring fans. At the same time, Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign rolled out a series of über-patriotic television ads that displayed idealized scenes of everyday American life while a soothing voice-over explained, "It's morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan our country is prouder and stronger and better."
"Born in the USA"
The red, white, and blue summer of 1984 found its perfect soundtrack in Born in the USA, a chart-topping new album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Released a month before the Olympics convened in LA, the record soon became an unavoidable presence on American radio; seven of the album's twelve tracks eventually became Top 10 singles. The title track, in particular, seemed to capture the nationalistic spirit of the moment in its anthemic chorus—"Born in the USA! / I was born in the USA!"—and in the star-spangled imagery of its cover art. Many listeners heard in the music a rock n' roll echo of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America." The program director of a major New York radio station called Springsteen "a spokesman for patriotism... the Ronald Reagan of rock n' roll."39 Conservative columnist George Will approvingly noted that in Springsteen's songs—as in Reagan's speeches—"the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the USA!'"40 And the president himself even got into the act, declaring on a campaign visit to Springsteen's home state that "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."41
Those who sought to cast Bruce Springsteen in the role of Ronald Reagan in tight blue jeans and a leather jacket only missed one small thing: "Born in the USA" was a protest record. Its patriotic chorus—the only lyrics most fans ever learned—stood as a bitterly ironic counterpoint to the song's verses, which told the heartbreaking story of a hopeless Vietnam vet. It's hard to imagine Ronald Reagan appreciating the song's full lyrics (reproduced here without the famous chorus):
Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up now
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says, 'Son, if it was up to me...'
Went down to see my VA man
He said, 'Son, don't you understand?'
I had a buddy at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go
This was hardly the stuff of "Morning in America." Springsteen rebuffed requests from the Reagan campaign to use "Born in the USA" as its official theme song, and responded to Reagan's New Jersey speech with a special dedication at his next concert: "The president mentioned my name the other day," Springsteen told the crowd, "and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must have been... I don't think he's been listening to this one." He then launched into "Johnny 99," a bleak song about an unemployed millworker who drunkenly shoots a night clerk and ends up sentenced to 99 years in jail.42
Springsteen later explained more directly his objections to his songs being heard as celebrations of Reagan-style nostalgic patriotism. "I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in," he said, "but what's happening, I think, is that that need—which is a good thing—is getting manipulated and exploited. You see in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, 'It's morning in America,' and you say, 'Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh.'"43 Many of the songs on Born in the USA—"My Hometown," "Glory Days," "Downbound Train," and "I'm Going Down," in addition to the title track—captured with great poignancy the misery of life in struggling small-town communities where the American Dream no longer seemed attainable. A record associated by many—or even most—listeners with simple flag-waving patriotism actually represented Springsteen's attempt to offer a moving and powerful critique of what he saw as the iniquities of American society in the 1980s.
"Don't Push Me Cause I'm Close to the Edge"
The decaying Rust Belt communities that figured prominently in Bruce Springsteen's songs were not the only parts of the country that had been in decline long before 1980 but continued to endure economic hardships, even through the boom times of the Reagan Recovery. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the predominantly African-American communities of many American inner cities endured serious economic disinvestment, resulting in crumbling infrastructure, endemic joblessness, and epidemics of crime and drugs. Even as structural forces in the American economy moved jobs and capital out of the inner cities, those left behind found themselves demonized by a prevailing ideology that suggested that poverty resulted mainly from individual laziness. Reagan's "Morning in America" never really dawned in the ghetto.
From the decaying inner cities emerged a new cultural movement, first dismissed by many as a mere fad but since established as an enduring force in American popular culture: hip-hop. In 1982, one of the pioneering acts in rap music—Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—produced "The Message," a record that captured, as well as any other cultural artifact of the 1980s, the raw desperation of black urban life in Ronald Reagan's America. Rapping over a heavily syncopated electronic rhythm—the same beat used a decade later to underpin Ice Cube's gangsta anthem "Check Yo Self"—Furious Five emcee Melle Mel delivered what would become one of the most famous rhymes in rap history:
Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge
I'm trying not to lose my head
It's like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under
That iconic chorus broke up what might be called a Springsteenesque series of verses that described, in vivid detail, the broken-down conditions of ghetto life:
Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care
I can't take the smell, can't take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away, but I couldn't get far
'Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car
The ultimate message of "The Message" could be found later, distilled into a single rhyme:
It's all about money, ain't a d--- thing funny
You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey
In "The Message," hip-hop offered up a radical dissent from the pro-market ideas that dominated American discourse during the Reagan Era. In the absence of real economic opportunity, survival for many urban youths meant hustling for cash, emulating (in Melle Mel's words) "smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers, pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers." In the mean streets of America's decaying inner cities, far from booming downtowns and suburbs, the grand promises of Reaganomics could seem like nothing more than another "con in this land of milk and honey."
"We Are Living in a Material World"
While "Born in the USA" and "The Message" demonstrated that American pop culture could generate powerful critiques of Ronald Reagan's vision for America, neither song, in truth, was very typical of its time. Popular American songs and movies of the 1980s—like most American people in the 1980s—were far more likely to celebrate Reagan's values than to challenge them. For most of his presidency, Reagan was quite popular, and pop culture, by and large, reflected the American public's admiration for the president and his worldview.
The socially conscious outlook of "The Message" never dominated hip-hop. (It didn't even dominate the Grandmaster Flash album The Message; the record's other tracks were mostly apolitical party music.) The dominant trend in hip-hop, even in its "old school" glory days, was not toward social activism as much as it was toward materialism; legendary '80s rhymes celebrated hot women, hot cars, big bling, and even cool sneakers. (Check Run-DMC's "My Adidas," from 1986: We travel on gravel, dirt road or street / I wear my Adidas when I rock the beat / On stage, front page, every show I go / It's Adidas on my feet, high top or low. The pioneering rap trio even signed an endorsement contract with the German footwear giant.) Ronald Reagan and his conservative supporters may not have appreciated the cultural aesthetics of hip-hop, but most rappers embraced an individualistic, competitive, and materialistic ethos that shared much in common with Reagan's own worldview.
Outside the world of hip-hop, American culture generated a wealth of other works seemingly simpatico with the prevailing ideologies of Reaganism. For example, one of the early hits that lifted Madonna to a career of pop superstardom was "Material Girl" (1985), an unapologetic ode to acquisitiveness:
They can beg and they can plead
But they can't see the light, that's right
'Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mr. Right
Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
Madonna's material values marked a sharp break from those that had predominated in the 1960s and '70s heyday of countercultural rock n' roll, when tunes like Loggins & Messina's "Danny's Song" (1971) preached a very different message: And even though we ain't got money / I'm so in love with you honey.
The shift in lyrical themes in pop music from the '60s to the '80s mirrored a distinct shift in values and priorities for many young Americans. It's always dangerous, of course, to make broad generalizations about entire generations of people; there were plenty of corporatist strivers around in the "hippie" '60s and plenty of countercultural dropouts on the scene through the "materialist" '80s. That said, young Americans who reached maturity during the Reagan Era were much more likely than their '60s predecessors to hold Reagan-like values. College campuses that had erupted in protest and anarchy during the '60s welcomed burgeoning Young Republican clubs in the '80s. Young grads sought law degrees and MBAs in record numbers. Today, Americans who came of age during Ronald Reagan's presidency remain, by far, the most conservative generational cohort within American society. While Americans who reached adulthood in the '60s, '70s, '90s, or '00s are now all more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans, the opposite is true for Americans who left childhood in the Reagan Era. The "Reagan Generation"—Americans born between about 1960 and 1970—is currently the only age cohort of the American population in which Republicans outnumber Democrats.44
Perhaps the iconic pop-culture representation of that cohort was Alex P. Keaton, the character played by Michael J. Fox on the hit '80s sitcom Family Ties. Alex P. Keaton was the perfect embodiment of the Reagan generation; the teenage son of aging hippie parents, he idolized Milton Friedman, kept a portrait of Richard Nixon at his bedside, subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, and never went anywhere without his briefcase. The huge generation gap between the ultra-capitalistic Alex and his parents provided Family Ties with comedy gold through seven primetime seasons on NBC. President Reagan himself once named the show as his favorite television program.
"Greed is Good"
Moving from television to the big screen, we can find perhaps the most enduring cinematic invocation of the principles of Reaganism in Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987), a movie that intended to satirize the free-market philosophies that dominated the 1980s but ended up, for many viewers, glorifying them instead. The film's most magnetic character is Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas), a monumentally successful if sometimes unscrupulous financier who makes hundreds of millions of dollars by buying up undervalued companies, dismembering them, and selling off the parts for profit. While Stone—an outspoken liberal who loathed Reagan and Reaganism—wrote a script that meant to cast Gekko as the film's villain, Douglas's riveting performance (which won him an Oscar) stole the show, transforming the character into a flawed but compelling hero.
In the film's most memorable scene, Gekko appears at a shareholder's meeting to justify his actions by invoking, unapologetically, the moral principle of self-interest. "The new law of evolution in corporate America," he says, "seems to be the survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book, you either do it right or you get eliminated... I am not a destroyer of companies, I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed—for lack of a better word—is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed—you mark my words—will not only save [this company], but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA!" The monologue, which Oliver Stone intended as satire of what he saw as ruling-class selfishness in the Reagan Era, instead frequently won raucous cheers and applause from cinema audiences. Much to Oliver Stone's dismay, Ronald Reagan had convinced most Americans that the principle of considered self-interest could, indeed, empower individuals, liberate companies, and restore the faded luster of the United States. While Reagan himself never would have used Gordon Gekko's overheated rhetoric (or the loaded word "greed"), the fictional financier's spirited defense of free-market principles found a receptive audience in the Reagan Era. "Greed is good" became a sort of de facto motto for America in the 1980s.
Just as Bruce Springsteen intended "Born in the USA" to be an ironic critique of a fading American Dream, Oliver Stone intended Wall Street to be a satirical skewering of free-market excess. But the two artists' audiences—who, by and large, held much more positive views of Reagan and Reaganism than did either Springsteen or Stone—mostly missed the irony and satire. They transformed "Born in the USA" into a nationalistic anthem by screaming along with Springsteen's proud chorus without hearing his tragic verses. They transformed Wall Street into a celebration of no-holds-barred capitalism by cheering for Stone's intended villain, Gordon Gekko. So powerful was the Reagan Revolution that many Americans interpreted cultural attacks against it to be exaltations of it. Bruce Springsteen is one of modern America's greatest songwriters, Oliver Stone one of its most talented filmmakers. As a cultural powerhouse, Ronald Reagan easily trumped them both.