My father has, from time to time, grown wistful about that beautiful period between the invention of the birth control pill and the discovery of AIDS. I try not to think too hard about what this time meant for him specifically — he was, after all, married by 1965, when he was 19 years old — but certainly I see his point.
The time between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 was a kind of political equivalent to that earlier episode. The terrifying spectre of total war, which had grown ever more sinister since it first appeared in 1914, had at last given way, while the postmodern tribal warfare of distant peoples had not yet impinged upon our society in a way we couldn’t ignore.
Five years after 9/11, The Onion’s AV Club has inventoried 8 Musical Artifacts That Capture What Nuclear Paranoia Felt Like At The End Of The Cold War, and it’s a good reminder that though we are now afraid of finding ourselves in the middle of a terrorist bombing or abandoned by the government in the wake of a natural disaster, we are no longer terribly concerned that the end of all civilized existence is imminent (just as the arrival of AIDS didn’t spell the end of the sexual revolution).
When it comes to grandiose statements of late-Cold War paranoia, Sting’s paean to Russian child-loving is pretty much the cream of the crop, and I appreciate The Onion’s point that “this song had the odd effect of criticizing the policy of mutually assured destruction while explaining how it worked.”
A very different and much cleverer post-apocalyptic vision animates the classic Talking Heads song “(Nothing But) Flowers.” It’s a video that makes you keep hitting the pause button so you can read the little facts (which I suspect should be taken with a grain of salt), and it is, in Talking Heads fashion, a very clever little piece of art.
Bonus: New Wave Breakdancing
Along with paranoia, the 1980s gave us hip-hop, the pop music sound that in the 1990s took over the world. But back in the early days, before “rap” was a mainstream term for a kind of music, what first got people’s attention was a confluence of dance and visual art: graffiti and breakdancing.
And, curiously, it wasn’t mainstream black artists who embraced it at first — you will find no breakdancing in Prince or Lionel Ritchie videos of the era — but arty white New Wave groups. The two videos above are both from albums that came out in 1980 and both feature breakdancing. The Devo video is not much more than a goofy lark, but the Talking Heads video for “Crosseyed and Painless” is a breakdance ballet of sorts. The video effects are laughable, and the dance has little to do with the actual song, but the dancers are extraordinary. And, for the record, it exhibits significant quantities of moonwalking from well before Michael Jackson released Thriller in 1982.