In 1977, punk rock was on the verge of an explosion in popularity in the United States. The music industry took note, already in a position to capitalize on the passion behind punk despite not fully understanding it. But even if industry executives thought the punk movement could be a huge moneymaker, they prepared for punk to fail. As music critic Robert Christgau for The Village Voice wrote of music industry executives, “they know … that the rock audience is as put off by the rough, the extreme, and the unfamiliar as they are. This rock audience is the one the execs created — more passive and cautious than that of a decade ago not just because kids have changed, although they have, but because it is now dominated statistically by different, and more passive, kids.” If this new, harsher, riskier music was going to fail — and it did about as quickly as it came to be in the late ’70s — it was not the listeners who were to blame, it was the big-money interests in the industry who had trained listeners not to engage with art outside of their comfort zone. Listeners were no longer trained to view this music as art at all, but rather as a product to be consumed.
And so punk failed, for a number of reasons, but not least of which was that it was an art form positioning itself politically as anti-consumerist as possible.
It’s no surprise that the lifespan of punk rock coincided with the moment the American left had an opportunity to push back and reclaim the power it gained in the 1960s. Coming out of the Nixon/Watergate era of conservatism, a struggling American economy meant that the door was open for the country’s left wing to cement itself as the leading political faction. But Jimmy Carter’s administration did little to stymie the country’s economic distress, and America shifted even further to the right with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Reagan Revolution sparked a wave of individualism and consumerism that, coupled with an eventually recovering economy, meant that there was more money to be made and more money to be spent by the average American, and people wanted more. “Greed is good,” as Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, “Ant-Man”) says in “Wall Street.” This was American culture in the 1980s: one obsessed with money and products over all else.
This is a culture that does not lend itself to the creation of great art. Great art takes risks, it tries to push its medium forward, tries to do something new and bold. Sometimes great art does become incredibly financially successful — e.g. the music of The Beatles, the films of Steven Spielberg — but these works are not typically radical. They do new things while playing into popular sensibilities. They push the boundaries of what popular art can be, but they don’t break them; often, groundbreaking art does not lend itself to financial success. When art challenges what audiences are used to, it can be off-putting, and a lot of times, people don’t want that. Audiences have to be receptive to something new for it to find success — like moviegoers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who desired more transgressive art to fit the counterculture of the times.
But heading into the 1980s, audiences were the kind that Christgau described in The Village Voice as put off by art that dared to be something they didn’t already like. The 1980s were all about how you, the individual, were the most important person on the planet, and how you, the individual, should have what you want when you want. Taking a narcissistic attitude towards the art you consume means you will only seek out the things that make you feel the way you want. Film critic Roger Ebert once said “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” but empathy and narcissism are contradictory. And so, film producers in the 1980s had to play to that narcissistic culture. If a movie wanted to be a major hit, it couldn’t make audiences feel too differently.
Given that many of the major producers of American art and culture are typically driven more by profits than artistic integrity — there’s a reason they’re called the film/music industry — producers were going to make decisions based on what was going to make them the most money, not what would produce a great work of art. As a result, the 1980s were a time when creators’ work aimed to be the most inoffensive, broadly appealing and marketable. It was an era in which boundaries were being created and constricted as opposed to being broken.
The ’80s saw the rise in popularity of intellectual property as a selling point for audiences. Books, plays and real stories had been adapted into films for decades, but the 1980s saw the boom of sequels, remakes and reboots that we still see to this day. In 1981, one in 10 highest-grossing films of the year was a sequel, remake or reboot. By the end of the decade, that number was up to five. Last year, it was all 10. These trends in 1980s Hollywood changed audiences’ expectations for the kinds of movies they could see in theaters, and now it seems that all they want is what they’ve had before. Studios haven’t done anything to change those expectations because these movies keep making money, and until they stop, studios have no reason to take a risk on something new.
The flow of American popular culture’s relationship to consumerism is cyclical. Plenty of art created in the ’90s was a response to the rampant consumerism of the ’80s — the explosion of alternative rock pushing back against the ’80s synthpop and metal scenes, the rapidly growing independent film movement thanks to festivals like Sundance giving bold young filmmakers a platform — and many art forms found great success. And the ’80s weren’t the first example of American consumerism leading to dull, broad, riskless art. In the ’50s, Hollywood went for bigger productions to try to combat the rising popularity of television. Because the productions were bigger, the grosses needed to be bigger, and movies needed to appeal to the widest possible audience to recoup the huge amounts of money spent.
But the culture of the 1980s is what the culture of today most closely resembles. ’80s nostalgia is big right now, and that can be seen in the amount of media that apes the pastiche of ’80s music, film and television. “Stranger Things” has been the biggest show on television for half a decade now. Synth-heavy electronic music is one of the biggest influences in pop music at the moment. “Top Gun: Maverick” was the biggest film in the U.S. last year. Two of the highest anticipated films of the upcoming year — “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” and “The Flash” — star actors reprising their famous roles from 1980s films.
If this fondness for the 1980s were a cynical moneymaking tactic, it’s likely that audiences would eventually tire of it, that a new wave of artists would come in to break the mold and that we would have moved past this phase of the 30-year nostalgia cycle. But the major artists of today are the ones that grew up on ’80s culture. They have a very sincere passion for it and are letting it influence their work in increasingly less creative ways. These artists aren’t doing what George Lucas or Spielberg did with “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” by taking the sci-fi and adventure serials from their childhoods and using them as bases to push the technological bounds of filmmaking.
They’re making pastiches of pastiches, copies of copies. They nail the aesthetics and tone of the work but lose the soul. When you copy works of art and fail to add anything new to them, the art will feel empty. Or maybe the art is trying to do something new, but the economic reality of being an artist in today’s world means that what the studio says goes. The “one for them, one for me” approach to filmmaking in the studio system has been replaced by an “all for them, none for me” model. It is a business after all, and unless you’ve got the wealth and power to do what you want, you better enjoy working in creatively stifling environments.
This era of vapid, safe, consumerist culture will end eventually, just as it always does, but it seems to be sticking around longer than it should. Despite apparent critic and audience exhaustion from franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this art is still making money. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” despite tepid reactions upon release, still made more than $225 million worldwide in its opening weekend.
When Hollywood does take a big risk on something new, like Paramount did with “Babylon” last year, studios often struggle to properly market these films because they don’t know what they have. The entire film marketing apparatus is built on selling consumers what they already know. That’s why famous characters keep being revealed at the end of trailers, why famous pop songs are overused in trailers and why every big-budget movie trailer is structured in the exact same way.
American audiences today are just like the ones Christgau described way back in the late ’70s — completely unwilling to step out of their comfort zone to experience something that challenges their sensibilities. The industry created this problem, and the advent of streaming has only rewarded this mindset. How can you be expected to get out of your artistic comfort zone when you don’t even have to leave your bed to watch something that you already know you like? Consumers won’t fix these industries, these industries need to fix themselves. Stop holding onto the trends of the 1980s — they may make you a lot of money, but they rob you of your soul.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at email@example.com.