“Why did Taylor Swift call her chart topping album 1989 after her birth year? Why are many of the shows on TV full of 1980s icons, like INXS, Molly and Ita? Are magazine wars more interesting than world wars?” These are questions posed by author and cultural historian Frank Bongiorno in his latest book, The Eighties: the decade that transformed Australia, when he spoke at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on May 19.
He was a teenager himself during the ’80s, and said there needs to be “some passage of time before the messiness of lived experience is set aside. Twenty-five years is about the right amount of time to allow nostalgia to kick in.” Dr Bongiorno, who lectures in history at the Australian National University, found a remarkable number of references to the period in the mainstream, from the programs and music on our TV’s and radio, to the famous and infamous, like Cliff Young, Alan Bond and Midnight Oil, who among others, provide “a soundtrack to the times”.
He observed that teenagers of that era are the 40-somethings of today and they are the ones making the decisions on what appears in mainstream media, in film, on TV, what’s heard on the radio and what gets published. This constant referencing of the decade is simply a “tribute to the memories of happier times, times when they were younger, thinner and felt less pressed than they do now”.
Nostalgia for better times extends to politics, too. “Gareth Evans, a minister in the Hawke Government, commented in his diaries that ‘the government of the 80’s is often held up as the gold standard, but it didn’t always feel that way on the inside at the time, the passage of time seems to clean up a somewhat messy past.’ Given the low quality of political debate today,” he said, “it’s no wonder the politics of the 80’s looked so good. Bill Shorten’s celebration of the Hawke / Keating government conveniently overlooks the fact it was an era of corporate greed and inequality, culminating in the ‘recession we had to have.’ Ironically, while championing the era, the Shorten government, if elected in a couple of weeks, will have to abandon some of the policies developed by the then Labor government, negative gearing being chief among them.”
He pointed out in America the ’80s are portrayed unflatteringly through films such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street or Tom Wolfe’s classic novel Bonfire of the Vanities, while Australia’s symbolic tribute to the era was Paul Hogan and Crocodile Dundee, itself a film about nostalgia, harking back to the time of bushmen and Saturday afternoon matinees.
“The teenagers of the 80’s are increasingly now our political masters,” he pointed out. “Julia Gillard, born in 1961, was our first Generation X Prime Minister. In NSW, Mike Baird also a child of the decade, had, a friend remarked, ‘shocking taste in music, embarrassingly dated and stuck in a time warp. It was bad then and dreadful still – all power ballads and bad pop’.
“And just as these ’80s teenagers are getting their hands on the levers of power they are witnessing the unravelling of those ’80s political solutions. Plans to secure the car and steel industries by the Hawke government have proved to be unsustainable by current politicians who now accept the logic and language of globalisation, a floating currency, free trade, efficiency and competition,” he said.
Another ’80s legacy is a preference for low taxes over spending as a principle and is crippling our capacity to meet the challenges of current times, he said. “In the ’80s the government worried about the duopoly of two airlines, 25 years later a similar duopoly is exercising a similar type of tyranny over our shopping trolleys.” Style-wise, the era wasn’t so hot either. He quotes Dr Edward Colless, the Australian art critic and academic: “The 1980’s was a decade possessed by the idea of style, although it had little style of its own.”
The decade deserves more respect than it receives from the nostalgia industry: “If we face it squarely as a historical episode, at least as untidy and complicated as any other, we may find something on offer to us of more enduring value and importance than big hair and synthesized pop. If we’re finding it hard to get over the ’80s it’s because it’s still with us, embedded securely in our economy, our politics and our culture. “
He referred to our feelings about the time as a ‘post-memory’; “you think it’s a memory, you think you recall it, but you weren’t actually there,” which he suspects is a term that may well apply to Taylor Swift.