POPULIST EXPRESSION IN AMERICAN CULTURE: 1980 - 2000
The last two decades of the twentieth century were full of populist artistic expression in literature, music, television, and film. American cultural identity grew simultaneously more diverse as well as more identitarian. Various ethnic groups expressed themselves in media and received attention at levels they hadn’t previously. There is a paradox in the populist expression of the 1980s and 1990s. Racial diversity was celebrated more than ever, yet as different demographics sought to define themselves more explicitly, the essence of a broader, general America gave way to a more splintered, balkanized form of art which tapped into and expressed specific traditions and cultures. Nevertheless, the common thread that often tied such cultures together was often found in themes about family, loss, and everyday life.
The literature world exploded in the 1980s and 1990s with writers from African American, Asian American, Hispanic, and American Indian backgrounds. This trend had begun with modest progress in the 1960s and grew exponentially through the 1970s, but achieved new levels of influence and recognition in the last twenty years of the twentieth century. The cultural divide was amplified in the 1980s with the conservative economic and cultural policies of the Reagan administration, increasing the cultural chasm between urban and rural, liberal and conservative Americans. Political conservatives pushed for economic deregulation of industry while college educated feminists, blacks, and Latinos voiced concerns about social justice. Something akin to a culture war had been arguably underway since the 1960s, but it found new champions on both sides during the era. In this setting, Asian American writers especially played an increasing role in American literature.
Hawaiian poet, Cathy Song, published her first book of poetry in 1983, called Picture Bride. The work places itself in the large tradition of populist expression through its presentation of family. The poem, “The White Porch,” offers a suitable example with its domestic imagery. “I wrap the blue towel/ after washing, around the damp/ weight of hair, bulky/ as a sleeping cat, and sit out on the porch. Still dripping water, it’ll be dry by supper.”
A common tension between acculturation to American life and the maintenance of ethnic cultural traditions and values are found in the literature of many works of Asian American, African American, Hispanic, and Native American writers. Amy Tan was the most successful Asian American literary figure of the 1980s and 1990s and her work is full of such tension. Tan’s 1991 work, The Kitchen God’s Wife, infuses Asian tradition into stories which retain a lightness about them in how they are told—even as such stories may delve into dark and deep topics. This combination of tradition and lightness of approach can be seen in The Kitchen God’s Wife’s first chapter, when the narrator describes her cousin, Bao-bao, whose real name is Roger. “Everyone in the family has been calling him Bao-bao ever since he was a baby, which is what bao-bao means, ‘precious baby.’ Later, we kept calling him that because he was a crybaby who always wailed the minute my aunt and uncle walked in the door, claiming we other kids had been picking on him. And even though he’s now thirty-one years old, we still think of him as Bao-bao—and we’re still picking on him.” Tan’s prose had a remarkable ability to explore the tension of ethnic tradition and American life with a deft touch and a relatable, family-oriented humor.
Hispanic writer, Judith Ortiz Cofer, explored a similar tension by examining the ironies of cross-cultural influence. Her poem, “Latin Women Pray,” from Reaching for the Mainland (1987), examined this irony to great effect. “Latin women pray/ in incense sweet churches; they pray in Spanish to an Anglo God/ with a Jewish heritage… before His image they kneel, Margarita, Josefina, Maria and Isabel, all fervently hoping/ that if not omnipotent, at least He be bilingual.” Cofer’s ability to seemingly lampoon and celebrate multicultural identity simultaneously is extraordinary.
African American poet, Rita Dove, who was the first black woman to earn the title of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in the United States, wrote poems which combined domestic imagery and a wanting of something more—especially for women. Her poem, “Daystar,” from Thomas and Beulah (1987) is an example of this domesticity/dissatisfied tension. “She wanted a little room for thinking: but she saw diapers streaming on the line, a doll behind the door… Later that night when Thomas rolled over and lurched into her, she would open her eyes and think of the place that was hers for an hour—where she was nothing, pure nothing, in the middle of the day.”
By the 1990s, Sherman Alexie became one of the most read Indian writers. Born in Spokane, Washington, he utilized a sort of comic style to illustrate how people cope in trying times. Alexie wrote often about the state of the American Indian over time, usually through the use of small, personal stories. The Toughest Indian in the World (2000) exemplifies this style. “Being a Spokane Indian, I only pick up Indian hitchhikers. I learned this particular ceremony from my father, a Coeur d’Alene, who always stopped for those twentieth-century aboriginal nomads who refused to believe the salmon were gone. I don’t know what they believed in exactly, but they wore hope like a bright shirt.” In one of the most moving passages of the work, Alexie observes, “If a distant figure happened to be white, my father would drive by without comment. That was how I learned to be silent in the presence of white people. The silence is not about hate or pain or fear. Indians just like to believe that white people will vanish, perhaps explode into smoke, if they are ignored enough times.”
In all of these examples, these writers married ethnic and cultural tradition with the centrality of familial relationships, for better and for worse. In doing so, they brought new forms of expression to American literature while simultaneously adding to the American tradition of populist expression by casting the family as an awesome and defining aspect of one’s life. This literary movement was particularly important for women. Women had a growing role in the writing and publishing of female-oriented stories and perspectives in the latter decades of the century.
Women also became more prominent, as creators and as characters, in Hollywood films and in television after 1980. The 1980s are often remembered for films which portrayed rugged, bootstrap-pulling tough guys who saved the world with guns and muscles. Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo franchise exemplifies the genre. More thoughtful works of film and television, however, portrayed women who struggled through adversity and fought back against abuse and misogyny. The Burning Bed (1984), starring Farah Fawcett, presented a mother of three who ultimately finds freedom from her abusive husband by burning the house down. The same year, Sally Field starred (and won the Academy Award for her role) in Places in the Heart, about a Depression-era widow who struggles to save her farm. Two works in the 1980s which starred Cher, Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask (1985) and Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987), revealed strong female lead characters struggling with motherhood and intimate relationships respectively. Dirty Dancing (1987) explores class tensions and a generational divide with the lead female character, “Baby,” (Jennifer Grey) falling in love with working class dancer/dance instructor, played by Patrick Swayze, during a summer in the Catskills in the early 1960s. The film’s soundtrack includes a somewhat bizarre and anachronistic collection of songs, made up of both 1960s and 1980s pop hits. The soundtrack shouldn’t work, due to the anachronistic nature of the compilation, yet is extremely effective in its expression of young love and emotional power. By the early 1990s, women were being portrayed with more agency than ever before. Action films had begun this trend with Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979, casting Sigourney Weaver as the film’s action hero. Scott would do something similar, but more grounded in realistic themes, with 1991’s Thelma and Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. The film is a celebration of female platonic love. It is able to capture this without delving into misandrist ideology. The final moment of the film, with the two characters clasping hands as they drive themselves off a cliff to avoid the authorities, is one of the most iconic endings in film history.
There was a similar evolution in the portrayal of women on television in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as films had begun to expand the scope of who could be defined as ordinary people in the era, including widows, the disabled, and poor blacks in Places in the Heart, middle class Jewish families in Dirty Dancing, working class bikers in Mask, and working class women in Thelma and Louise, television began to highlight professional women in the 1980s and 1990s as well. Though the controversy over what has been revealed about Bill Cosby makes any discussion which includes him difficult to have, it is a fact of history that The Cosby Show was not only the most successful program of the 1980s, it was also culturally impactful for its portrayal of a successful upper middle class African American family. No small part of its importance was the portrayal of Claire Huxtable, the wife and mother of the family who was successful in her own right as a prominent attorney. The portrayal of professional women was a key aspect of the show and presented itself as an important factor not merely to showcase a professionally successful wife and mother, but also a figure who could act as an important influence on a family which had almost all daughters. Again, the realities of Bill Cosby’s behavior obscure this history, but it must be remembered that in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Cosby Show demonstrated strong female professionals as an integral part of its story.
Another television program which began in the 80s and continued well into the 90s that presented and celebrated female professional life was Murphy Brown, starring Candace Bergen. The show did two things at once: it echoed the female-led workplace comedy of the 1970s’ Mary Tyler Moore Show while predicting and contributing to the popularity of workplace comedies in the 1990s. It also broke ground in casting forty-something Candace Bergen in the lead role. Older women had revolutionized the sitcom in the 1980s with programs like The Golden Girls, important in its own right. Murphy Brown, however, as a show about a television magazine program in the style of 60 Minutes, was also able to comment on topical matters as the characters were made up of journalists, newscasters, and producers. In a moment where fiction and reality blurred, which demonstrates the influence of Murphy Brown in the early 1990s, real Vice President Dan Quayle publicly commented on the fact that (fictional character) Murphy Brown was having a baby out of wedlock. He criticized that the move was being portrayed as merely another “lifestyle choice.” The program capably exploited the matter by writing an episode about Murphy Brown’s reaction to the Vice President’s comments.
The second half of the 90s saw another evolution in the portrayal of women on television, when Ellen Degeneres—who herself came out as gay in 1997—had her character on her self-titled Ellen sitcom do the same. This was the first instance in television history of a lesbian lead character. It expanded the sphere of what it was to be an ordinary person on television. Due to some backlash, constant schedule shifts by ABC parent company Disney, and accusations of over-politicizing a once-successful television program, the show was cancelled in 1998. The legacy of the show, however, was enormously successful, making others shows with prominent gay characters such as NBC’s Will and Grace possible. The impact of the show was so utterly influential, in fact, that twenty years later, television programs which include gay and lesbian characters are no longer newsworthy. That alone speaks volumes. American women from various backgrounds found exposure and prominence in the 1980s and 1990s that inform the much broader and varied portrayal of women in film and television today.
A tension persisted in films of the 1980s and 1990s. The 1980s specifically include a tension between a previously mentioned masculine conservatism and a progressive counterpoint. As films like Places in the Heart sought to bring stories about women, African Americans, and more, there was a simultaneous conservative impulse in other films. As mentioned above, the Rambofranchise played a significant role in such films. The first installment, First Blood, was a (comparatively speaking) more grounded films than its successors and was released in 1982. The story is of a Vietnam War veteran who finds himself in a conflict with authorities in a small town. The sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, includes a much more overt conservative inclination to re-debate, and even have the lead character essentially win, a reprise of the Vietnam conflict. Stallone’s film represented a conservative impulse in the Reagan era to recast the Vietnam issue in pro-American terms (though the setting is, in fact, Cambodia; a country bombed by the U.S. during the years of Vietnam conflict). The fact that the character wins the movie (and his return to war) single-handedly similarly underscores the individualism and American exceptionalism common to American conservative thought. With the success of Rambo, other movies that celebrated militaristic machismo, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando and the sci-fi Predator, followed.
Though not essentially conservative, the 1980s and 1990s also celebrated male bonding in buddy cop movies like 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon (and their sequels). Male bonding was a common feature in these films as well as others. Kevin Costner starred in a celebration of baseball and father/son relationships in Field of Dreams in 1989 and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Moneyimplies a mentor/student dynamic with father/son implications (with Tom Cruise) in 1986.
In stark contradiction in message and tone to the patriotic nationalism of Rambowas Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film, Platoon, in 1986. Stone had served in Vietnam. He began his movie career writing powerful screenplays in the late seventies and early eighties, including Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Stone’s Platoon included none of the celebration or fanfare that Rambowas known for. The film offered a sobering and unromanticized look at working- and middle-class American men caught up in war in southeast Asia. Unlike other films Stone would release in the years following Platoon, the message more class-based than it was overtly political. It nevertheless was inclined toward a more progressive perspective, denying notions of the greatness of war and armed conflict. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket in 1987 included similar themes but did so through urban warfare instead of the jungle fighting seen in Platoon. Stone released two more Vietnam-related films in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993). Born on the Fourth of July explores the true events in the life of Ron Kovic, a true-believing American kid who went to war. Injured in battle, he comes home to a changed nation and changes his views dramatically regarding American involvement in Vietnam. Heaven and Earthdelve into the true story of a Vietnamese woman, Le Ly Hayslip, based on her books, Child of War, Woman of Peace (1992) and When Heaven and Earth Switched Places (1989). The film traces events in her life including the invasion of the North Vietnamese into her village when she was young, marrying an American GI, and moving to the United States. These films could not be more different in tone or intention to those of Stallone’s Rambo and other jingoistic films of the 1980s. Rambo was a commercial success in the mid-eighties, though not without some controversy. Stone’s films, however, were both commercial and critical successes, winning a number of Academy Award nominations and winning Best Picture (Platoon) and Best Director (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July). If the conservative impulse of American film dominated the first half of the decade with films like Rambo (also, film Red Dawn (1984) is worthy of note for its depiction of American teenagers defending the U.S. against invading Russians), then more critical films from a progressive point of view, such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July helped to shape popular culture in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.
Ever since the end of the 1970s, American popular music has delved into life beyond the conventional middle class. If the 1970s can in many ways be defined by music that addressed middle class desires of returning to the land and exploring domestic happiness and working class themes of escaping one’s surroundings for something better elsewhere, music in the 1980s and 1990s went past such topics with songs about drugs, prostitution, sexual abuse, depression, sexism, politics, and even ambivalence. Bruce Springsteen, who may had done more than anyone to popularize working class motifs in popular music in the 1970s went in new directions a decade later. His most commercially successful and legend-making work was released in 1984, Born in the USA. The title track is not dissimilar to the story of Ron Kovic from Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. The song’s narrator speaks of finding himself in Vietnam where he is told to “go and kill the yellow man.” The beginning of the song is similar to previous working-class songs of Springsteen’s. The narrator was born “in a dead man’s town.” When the song turns to the chorus and the narrator yells he was “Born in the USA,” it carries an anthemic tone musically which belies the dark irony of the cynical lyrics. This aspect of the song was entirely lost on the Reagan administration who had initially sought to use the song for its re-election campaign in 1984. It is quite likely that the song’s somber meaning is lost to many a casual listener.
The most inventive and transformational musical genre of the later decades of the twentieth century was undoubtedly hip hop. The genre came out of the Bronx in the late 1970s and began as what many saw as a fad in the early 1980s. The genre began with party rapping. The first rap song which included social commentary was Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” The song, backed by the hip hop staples of drum machines, a thumping bass loop, and record scratching, included rap lyrics which spoke of “rats in the front room, roaches in the back/ Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat/ I tried to get away but I couldn't get far/ 'cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.” The song was indeed a message of the African American experience of the urban poor. It connected violent behavior with those in desperate circumstances, with the lyrics to the chorus: “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge. I am trying not to lose my head.”
Hip hop was the most culturally impactful genre of the 1980s and 1990s not merely for its musical influence, though that alone was deep. Indeed all genres of popular music were incorporating hip hop tropes by the 1990s, including pop, rock, punk, metal, and even country. Hip hop, however, was more than just rap music. It was an entire aesthetic and lifestyle. There were hip hop fashions (including bowler hats, sneakers, and gold jewelry), there was an entire genre of hip hop dance (most notably breakdancing), and there was a street-level form of visual artistry which had predated hip hop but became so associated with the genre in the late seventies and early eighties that it became a permanent fixture of hip hop culture: graffiti.
As early as 1980 pop groups tied into the New York punk and hip hop scenes were incorporating rap into some of their songs. Blondie’s “Rapture” both utilizes rap in the bridge of the song and name-drops important New York hip hop figures of the era, including Fab Five Freddie, who would late become even more famous as a host of Yo! MTV Raps in the later 1980s, the first rap-only music video program. By the early 1990s, Michael Jackson was adding rap sequences into his pop songs.
One of the most noteworthy evolution of rap music was the emergence of gangsta rap in the late eighties and early nineties. New York’s Public Enemy further popularized the use of social consciousness and politics in rap music and Los Angeles’s NWA brought a street-level edge which helped give birth to the gangsta rap genre. Members of the group, including Easy-E and Ice Cube popularized the genre with solo albums but the most important gangsta rap album of all time was from another former NWA member, Dr. Dre. Dr. Dre’s The Chronicdefined the genre, with slow beats, slinky basslines, and a laid-back feel that belied a violent atmosphere often discussed in the lyrics. The Chronicwas also a step forward in hip hop production. It is regarded as one of the best produced hip hop albums of all time and made Dr. Dre the most highly regarded producer of the genre. The Chronic also introduced Snoop Doggy Dogg to the hip hop world. Dre would make another introduction of a genre-changing rap artist before the nineties ended, producing and popularizing white rapper Eminem toward the end of the decade.
The gangsta rap genre cast itself far too seriously and the image of the violence and competition spilled into real life. An east coast/west coast feud erupted in the mid-1990s and by 1997 both Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggy Smalls) were shot dead. The subgenre never fully recovered from these events and the late nineties genre of hip hop generally tended toward lighter fare, emphasizing partying and good times the way early works of the genre had done. It also backed away from the laid back sound of gangsta rap with a more lively, swift performance. The dark blues and greys of gangsta rap aesthetics were similarly replaced with vibrant colors. Though the subgenre of gangsta rap mostly went away, the genre of hip hop was bigger than ever and became the genre of mainstream music by the end of the 1990s. Furthermore, rap artists, including those who had come to prominence as gangsta rappers, became successful as cultural figures in their own right and as actors, including Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Ice T. They became popular figures in everything from (ironically) cop shows (Ice T starred for years in a Law and Order spinoff), reality television (Calvin Broadus, aka Snoop Dogg had a reality show starring him and his family), and movies (Ice Cube has starred in many films, from action films (Triple X: State of the Union) to comedies (Are We There Yet?).
Country music had its own restoration and evolution in the eighties and nineties. The eighties were dominated by acts known as the new traditionalists, including Randy Travis, George Strait, and Dwight Yoakam. The genre also saw folk and rock inspired acts such as Steve Earle. In the early nineties, Garth Brooks mainstreamed the genre in a way not seen in decades and became one of the best-selling musical acts—of any genre—of all time. However, it was arguably women in country that brought something altogether new, especially to their genre. In the 1990s, Shania Twain brought a youthful sexiness and a bared midriff that modernized the aesthetics of the genre, and country singers like her and Martina McBride brought a level of feminism to country that was quite new. In “God-fearin’ Women Get the Blues,” McBride sings that there “ain’t no slap dab atellin’ what they’re gonna do… I’ve stirred the last batch of gravy/ You don’t have to be my baby.” The modernization of country in lyrical themes and musical direction—even as some held on to a level of traditionalism—was emblematic of the genre, and indeed of all music genres—in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Each category of popular music progressed toward more progressive lyrics and modern sensibilities. The success of the Dixie Chicks in the late nineties may exemplify this more than any other example. Their denunciation of President Bush in the early 2000s similarly reveals how much country music artists, if not always country music fans, changed in the late twentieth century.
The early 1990s were a fundamentally important music for hard rock. Both punk and metal had gone through various iterations since the 1970s but had fallen out of favor among mainstream music listeners by the 1990s. There were important exceptions to this. Perhaps the most important exception that proves the rule is Metallica. Formed in 1981 and with their first album, Kill’em All, released in 1983, the band remained an underground sensation throughout the eighties. They wrote music that was too heavy for mainstream rock of the era and refused to make music videos for most of the decade, finding the medium ill-suited for their genre. They changed their mind, however, and took a chance with a unique music video for their song, “One,” in 1989. The song was from their 1988 album, …And Justice for All and was inspired by the Dalton Trumble book, Johnny Got His Gun (1939), about a soldier who loses all of his limbs and senses (but not his life) in war. The music video utilized clips of the film version (from 1971) and there was nothing else like it on MTV.
Metallica’s “One,” again, was the exception. Punk music had stopped being relevant since the early eighties and metal had fallen into absurd and recycled tropes. Then, in the fall of 1991, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana was released as a single, along with the album it was featured on, Nevermind. Nirvana opened the floodgates of “Seattle bands” entering the mainstream of popular music, with other bands soon getting exposure as well, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been accused of being both a celebration of and rebellion against Generation X ambivalence. The opening lines are ominous. “Load up on guns, bring your friends.” Yet, the song—musically—is a shot of life. Like many lyrics penned by Nirvana’s singer/guitarist/songwriter, they are wide open to interpretation. Nirvana, like many bands from the Pacific Northwest, held a love for music that was beyond genre. They were influenced by seventies hard rock bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith, and they were also influenced by underground punk groups like Black Flag and the Germs. Additionally, they also loved pop music. They were especially fond of the music of The Beatles. This was true, in varying degrees of all of the so-called “Grunge” bands. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell was also a big Beatles fan. Pearl Jam’s guitarists were inspired by Jimi Hendrix and singer Eddie Vedder’s favorite band was The Who. Alice in Chains’ haunting vocal harmonies were influenced by, of all things, Gregorian chants. The rock music of the Seattle Alt-Rock movement in the nineties inspired a level of songwriting that dismissed the triviality and banal sexism of much of the rock of the eighties. Some songs were expressions of ambivalence while others, such as Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” were inspired by true tragic events. Some songs examined the fate of small town existence, like Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” which observes that the “small town predicts my fate” and that ultimately “life and thoughts, they fade… fade away.” Nirvana attacked the press and celebrated a hometown heroine with “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” Frances Farmer had been a successful movie actress in the 1930s and 1940s. Originally from Seattle and an avowed leftist, she made waves for her strident opinions. She was ultimately committed to a state hospital by her mother who then spent her wealth away. In the Nirvana song, Frances Farmer comes back to Seattle, in the form of fire, and burns the city down. “She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, leave a blanket of ash on the ground.” Kurt Cobain appeared to feel an affinity with Frances Farmer, her supposed mental health difficulties, her family problems, and her problems with fame. He brings her story and his together, implicitly, in the song’s chorus when he sings, “I miss the comfort in feeling sad.” The music of the grunge era, or whatever one may call it, merged punk, metal, and pop, it rejected misogynist tropes, and delved into topics dealing with drug addiction and depression as well as utilized imagery that is open to interpretation. Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box,” for example appears to be about a desire to return to the warmth and security of the womb, but that is merely one view. In the lyrics, the narrator sings, “Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet. Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath. Broken hymen of your highness, I’m left back. Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back.”
The literature, film, television, and music of the last twenty years of the twentieth century expanded genres and created new ones. Women and people of color found a voice they had not previously been able to utilize or employ and they had an impact on the decades that followed. American culture appeared to seek a resolution of feeling regarding divisive events such as the Vietnam War through the production of conservative films which celebrated American exceptionalism (and perhaps American imperialism) with films that criticized that view with war films that questioned the wisdom and actions of the United States government. Television expanded and brought a growing platform to the portrayal of women from various backgrounds. Music may have evolved the most, with the invention of a new genre, hip hop, that carried with it its own culture and aesthetic. Country music modernized and women continued to be a significant force in the genre. Rock music underwent a renaissance not seen since the late 1960s and early 1970s. When the century closed at the end of the 1990s, it was a world away from where it had been in 1980. Nearly every facet of populist expression had evolved and expanded almost beyond recognition. In that era, when the influence of entertainment culture was arguably at its peak and before the nation changed in fundamental ways in the wake of 9/11, American populist expression may have reached its zenith in the last decades of the century.