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Michael Jackson, Nostalgia, and the 1980s

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on nostalgia for the 80’s. See his previous OUPblogs here.

Journalists are not usually in the habit of looking back. They are charged to deliver “breaking news” to us. Novelty is the coinage of the newsroom, not history. Yet this week, the media’s preponderant coverage of the life and death of Michael Jackson has been stridently nostalgic. It reveals a culture needing and ready to sing an ode to the 1980s.

We cannot turn back time, but we can mark its passing. Up till last week, popular culture hadn’t had the chance to address the passing of an 80s superstar and with that, the 1980s. We were given occasion to mourn and contemplate the passing of the 1950s with Elvis Presley’s untimely death, and the passing of the 1960s with John Lennon’s death. So we have sung an ode to the post-war consensus, as we have sung an ode to the cultural revolution.

But enough of the 80s has remained with us – MTV, Nintendo, Reaganomics – not defunct but writhing for relevance, that we have not dared sing its eulogy. Michael Jackson’s and Farrah Fawcett’s death has served us a dramatic notice that it may be time.

After all, it is unlikely that we will see another Michael Jackson. In our era where songs are downloaded one at a time, no one is likely to sell a 100 million records (of “Thriller” or any other album) again. The 80s are over, but it has taken us three decades to find a moment to collectively mark and mourn its passage.

Tragic deaths are compelling not only for human interest reasons, but for the decisive statement about our mortality they make. For if even iconic characters who once defined their age can be so suddenly ejected from the remorseless flow of history, then there is surely no stopping the march of time.

It is no surprise that Michael Jackson is more beloved posthumously than he was all of this decade. Elvis Presley too, had become more and more of a has-been as the 60s progressed. Time is never forgiving – our only feeble antidote is nostalgia. So wrote Joseph Conrad, “Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamor–of youth! … A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and–good-bye!–Night–Good-bye…!”

If the 1980s and whatever the decade repesented are indeed over, then businessmen, journalists, and especially politicians – take note! Nostalgia can only occur when the past has been rendered past.

Recent Comments

  1. Joe

    Media in the 80’s: the British Guardian ran an
    article some time ago by having a look at what
    papers were like in 1984: much calmer, no pundits, angry finger jabbing, no commentariat.
    And it could be that many people would like the media more like that than they are nowadays. And in that case it would not be a nostalgia but a consumer wish. (No critic at all the great article.)
    So much news but so little comment

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