Friday, August 19, 2022

Book Review: 1980 - America's Pivotal Year

1980 was a turning point in American history. When the year began, it was still very much the 1970s, with Jimmy Carter in the White House, a sluggish economy marked by high inflation, and the disco still riding the airwaves. When it ended, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in a landslide, inaugurating a rightward turn in American politics and culture. We still feel the effects of this tectonic shift today, as even subsequent Democratic administrations have offered neoliberal economic and social policies that owe more to Reagan than to FDR or LBJ. To understand what the American public was thinking during this pivotal year, we need to examine what they were reading, listening to, and watching.

1980: America's Pivotal Year puts the news events of the era—everything from the Iran hostage crisis to the rise of televangelism—into conversation with the year’s popular culture. Separate chapters focus on the movies, television shows, songs, and books that Americans were talking about that year, including both the biggest hits and some notable flops that failed to capture the shifting zeitgeist. As he looks at the events that had Americans glued to their screens, from the Miracle on Ice to the mystery of Who Shot J.R., cultural historian Jim Cullen garners surprising insights about how Americans’ attitudes were changing as they entered the 1980s.

The latest look at this specific year comes out on October 14, 2022. Rutgers University Press provided an early galley for review.

For me, personally, 1980 marked a transition year. I had just entered high school the Fall before. I was broadening my musical tastes from Top 40 and disco into the sounds of new-wave and alternative as played on the local college radio station. While I was not yet driving, I was finding more personal freedom in exploring the world of my hometown and the village neighboring it. I'm certainly open to Cullen's argument about 1980's importance in the greater American history.

While I was aware of the changing political structure at the time, as a teenager who couldn't yet vote I really did not focus on that aspect of current events. Having the recap here was great refresher. And the focus on bestsellers was over my radar at the time (I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy for fun then). I did appreciate the evolution and marketing techniques of the big booksellers at the time though.

Now, the other areas covered were right in my wheelhouse. 1980 indeed had a number of cinematic highpoints with films that did change the direction of movies. I saw quite a few of those mentioned in the book either in theater or on HBO. The music industry also did go through a big shift in 1980. Many of the albums noted were part of or have since been added to my growing collection of music. And the TV shows discussed were very much part of the cultural framework (thanks to the not-yet exploded cable landscape).

So, the question is this: was 1980 the pivotal year for America? I would say it was "a pivotal year" - absolutely. Whether or not it was "the (most) pivotal year" is something I'll leave to the historians or other scholars to determine. Cullen certainly makes a good case for his candidate though.

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