May 21, 2011

Signs of the non-apocalypse

Along with everyone else who's posting sarcastic remarks / pictures about the rapture on their Facebook, I am sure the apocalypse will not come today. There are simply no signs: violent crime and property crime are way down, white people have taken back the cities -- even New York and DC -- and it's rare that you see a spooky figure stalking the area, whether a material one like a crazy bum shouting I'LL KILL THE BITCH! or an immaterial specter.

Still, this (rightly) dismissive view was not always mainstream; in fact, it would have seemed downright foolish. How did the apocalyptic mindset ever become widespread?

During the first half of rising-crime times, people get a little more anxious that the problem may only get worse, but overall they remain naively secure that once the men in white coats crunch the numbers with their computers, the optimal solution will be printed on on the screen, and then it's only a matter of diverting enough public funds to the project. Hence the Great Society.

Somewhere around halfway through a period of soaring violence, though, people realize that no matter what the efforts and no matter what the spending of the men with their hands on the levers and dials of society, nothing has worked and the problem is still getting worse. This shifts their mindset from one of naive optimism to a more apocalyptic form of optimism -- it looks like we're in some real pretty shit now, but if we all band together instead of relying on a tiny clueless bubble of experts, we can drive back the encroaching forces of evil ourselves. Hence the grassroots moral revolution of the mid-'70s through the early '90s.

As an illustration of this shift in attitudes, for those who didn't experience it first-hand, consider just one of signs of the coming endtimes -- the growing ranks of underage runaway prostitutes in urban areas. The runaway problem was not considered so bad throughout the '60s and the early '70s -- they were just free spirits striking out to blaze their own trail, march to the beat of a different drummer, and so on, while having a blast in a Summer of Love commune.

Not until the mid-'70s did cops on the beat and people in the neighborhood begin to notice that most of these kids were escaping a war-zone of a family environment -- sexual abuse from mom's new live-in boyfriend, parents who were drunk or high most of the time, beatings from foster parents who only took them in to collect checks from the government, and so on. Nor were they ending up in much better circumstances once they poured into the city, having to rely on pimps for protection against johns who felt little shame in roughing them up. The pimp at least had a financial incentive to keep her (or him) in decent health: otherwise she couldn't work and the flow of dollars would stop.

We can see the eyes of the elite first starting to stir awake in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver, where a 13 year-old Jodie Foster plays a runaway who supports her very unglamorous lifestyle in New York through prostitution. She does not look like a free untamed spirit at all, but rather a quasi-prisoner of her pimp and the faceless stream of johns. Even more bizarrely, she left behind a loving, at-least-getting-by family in Vermont, not an abusive household. What was the world coming to when even those families could lose their preteen daughter so suddenly to such a hellhole? *

Although the naive view was starting to really give way, even through late 1978 it was still possible for a #1 pop song, "Hot Child in the City," to portray underage runaway prostitutes as just part of these changing times, so why not just go along with it? That was before MTV, but here is a dance troupe interpreting the song in what might as well be considered a music video. The city does look like a dump -- whose first apartment does not? -- but the overall vibe is still one of free-spirited glamor. Notice the totally nonchalant way that the singer asks the girl to come back to his place, where "we'll make loooove!" The slow-ish tempo and upbeat, catchy sound likewise evoke a lazy summer night at the neighborhood pool, not the racing thoughts of a teenager trapped in a rotten urban hell.

By the early-mid-1980s, the residue of the naive perspective had vanished, and only the more apocalyptic view would prove popular. Bon Jovi's early hit "Runaway" now shows the background of clueless or dismissive parents, an image that today would only come off as attention-whoring by bratty children, but that was unlikely to be crying "wolf!" back during the peak of violent crime, drug wars, and sexual abuse (including by trusted authorities such as Catholic priests, whose abuses have roughly tracked the overall violent crime rate). Although the singer doesn't try to save or convert the girl as Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver, he still lacks the carefree and indulgent attitude of "Hot Child in the City." The pace is more frenetic and the instrumentation more overwhelming, reflecting the confusion that the girl must be going through, and the music video features the now mandatory nuclear fallout setting.

Around the same time we see and hear the same changes in the video for Pat Benatar's hit "Love is a Battlefield". Also worth noting here is the portrayal of urban blacks. Gone is the credulity of Great Society cheerleaders who saw their problems as only one of poverty. In 1983, even the liberal MTV producers pulled no punches in showing "disadvantaged urban youths" as lecherous and shameless monsters always primed to pounce. Pat had already explored the theme of unseen child abuse in "Hell Is for Children" in 1980, and would return to it in 1985 with "Invincible," from the soundtrack of a movie about a teenage female runaway.

The last major song and music video in this vein was "Janie's Got a Gun" by Aerosmith in 1989, which was more explicit about the abusive household that the young girl was running away from. Shortly afterward the TV show Twin Peaks debuted and would treat many of the same themes as these songs. It's almost as if they can sense the coming reversal of these problems, as this song is slower-paced and not so overwhelming of the senses.

Since the crime rate peaked in 1992, however, this one harbinger of the apocalypse has receded from view, and so too from production by the culture-makers. (I guess Soul Asylum's 1992 hit "Runaway Train" counts, but it doesn't go much into the troubled background or jungle-like atmosphere of wherever the singer ran away too; also it's not as moving musically.) During this period of emos and goths, the only messages that so-called neglected kids try to get across to their parents are that You're such a dumbass for not buying me the wireless controller along with that now-useless PS3 that you got me for Christmas, or Pay my phone bill you idiots or they're going to cut off my service, or You ruined my Super Sweet Sixteen and I'll never forgive you!

Not that the age of spoiled brats, gadget-worshipers, and self-satisfied snark is not in its own way a kind of Hell on Earth. Still, we would have preferred to witness a spectacle like Armageddon rather than wake up one morning to find ourselves slowly turning on a spit over the coals.

* Social science studies of teenage runaways, during their heyday at least, found that the income of their families did not vary much between runaways and the general population. So it was no melodramatic exaggeration to show middle-class kids running away back then. What did differ were two things: 1) a toxic life back home (abusive stepdad, drugged out parents, etc.), and 2) a somewhat anti-social personality of the runaway (well-behaved kids in such abusive households would stay there and try to cope or maybe block it all out instead).


  1. Great piece, I really enjoyed reading it. Nothing really to add. Well, except two things, to keep the comment from being boring:

    - "Janie's got a Gun" comes at the peak of the molester-dad hysteria. It was huge in the 80s, starting wiht the made-for-TV movie "Something about Emilia." The molester dad motif was de-rigeur in virtually all movies that dealt with troubled family back-stories. Remember Jenny's dad in Forrest Gump?

    I think this theme tailed off around that time, mid-90s. But it's plausible that it had less to do with crime rates, and more with anti-family interests among the cultural elite.

    At the peak of this hysteria, there were letters to the editor in my local paper expressing parents' angst at being afraid to hug their own children in public. Fathers were scared to tuck their toddler kids in at night.

    - The other thing I wanna add is a quibble about "Runaway Train." Isn't that song about child/infant abduction, not about teen runaways?

    Also, I disagree it's not a moving song. It's one of the few songs that can put a lump in my throat if I'm listening to it in a certain kind of mood.

    I saw Soul Asylum in concert, small college venue, in 1995. Thought I'd throw that one in.

  2. OK, just watched teh Runaway Train video. It does show teen runaways, and infant abduction.

  3. Funny how the world works -- a lot of the push to focus on incest came from hardcore feminists. It was the ultimate form of patriarchal domination.

    By "moving" I meant more like feeling fully possessed, where you have to get up and move to the music, like when Pat Benatar starts playing.

  4. Speaking of Runaway Train, remember when they used to show missing children's pictures on milk cartons? Looks like that was a local project that started sometime in the early-mid '80s, then someone who saw one of these figured why not make it national? That began in 1985.

    I couldn't find a specific year for when the program ended, but this article from 1996 says they stopped "several years ago" -- so maybe 1993, right when the crime rate started coming down.

    They gave some story about moving the pictures to the internet (on sites that no one in 1996 was visiting) or to airport kiosks (ditto). Then they started the junk mail pictures, but I think no one pays much attention to any kind of junk mail, and are irritated to receive it.

    It's strange how tolerant or respectful we used to be about seeing their pictures while pouring milk on our breakfast cereal. Whether or not they helped solve specific cases is not the main point: aside from causing us to reflect on the less fortunate, they also served to warn us and our parents.

    Now instead of info about the dairy company or the faces of missing kids, milk cartons have become yet another billboard for ads.


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