February 17, 2014

Irreverence toward authority in music videos

The post below on the decline of subversive office culture reminded me how widespread the attitude of irreverence was in the '80s. It wasn't defiance or hostility -- it was that plus the feel-good vibe that was everywhere back then. Carefree defiance.

The best way to see this is to look for it where you wouldn't expect. Like, it wouldn't shock you to see defiance or mockery in a heavy metal video. But how about feel-good dance-pop?

Here's the video for "Who's Johnny" by El DeBarge (who you might remember from "Rhythm of the Night").

Casual disrespect is shown toward the judge, lawyers, and law enforcement officers, in the courtroom no less. But it also strikes a humorous tone and gets them involved in the shenanigans -- that feel-good vibe again, not straight-up hostility toward authority.

The song is from the movie Short Circuit, where good-meaning defiance of authority is a central theme. (A robot designed for warfare by the US military wanders off base and befriends a woman. She tries to foil the military's plans to disassemble it, convinced that it is sentient. And the robot's designers want to give it less belligerent goals, against the Cold War aims of the brass.)

Scenes like the ones in the video could not catch on with audiences today. Most people worship authority figures -- just look at all the TV shows in the top of the ratings that feature sober and sympathetic depictions of judges, lawyers, courts, and police departments. Compare to the '80s hit sit-com Night Court, which was irreverent.

The minority of youngish people who aren't so hot for that stuff are more likely to have a bratty hostile attitude. "Fuck the police!" While never saying that to one of their faces...

I remember during the turning point around the mid-'90s that us teenagers were still emboldened enough to say things like that when the cops were within earshot. "Hey guys, [sniff sniff], do you smell bacon around here?" "I sure could go for a DONUT!" Being a smartass requires you to be somewhat confrontational in real life, not just whine about it in your room or on the internet.

Things were turning more contemptuous and hostile at that point, though. Eighties irreverence was already shading into Nineties smartass, though not yet at 21st century emo brattiness.

I wouldn't expect to see mainstream irreverence for a long while -- it seems to mature during the end of a rising-crime period, by which time the authorities have proven themselves incapable of doing their most important job, i.e. halting the rising crime rate. So don't pay them any mind. It took awhile for this attitude to come out during the early 20th century crime wave. More during the Jazz Age, when the homicide rate was nearing its peak, and not so much in the first part of the wave, circa 1900 to WWI. It's more part of the Twenties.

Offbeat color combinations will be another way to recognize this attitude when it eventually comes back. Good-natured flouting of the rules that fashion authorities set for us. A staple of the look of the '80s, and of the '20s as well.


  1. you forget that youth culture of rebellion from the 50s-80s was all about the left's long march through the institutions. it was about rebelling again the old NONleft in power. now that thyve solidified their hold on the culture, no more rebellion permitted. it was never rebellion for rebellions sake, it was a power play

    bonus lesbian phrenology: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm929020672/nm0680983?ref_=nm_ov_ph ellen page trifecta, small close set eyes, thin upper lip, nascent puppet chin

  2. The 1960-1990 period wasn't necessarily liberal. Ever hear of Reagan?

    I agree with defiance against the police. In fact, I can remember doing that when my friends and I got pulled over for roaming around on mischief night (1994?) - I gave the finger to the cops, though I would never do that at my age now. But, I'd never make a remark about donuts, as I've struggled with my weight when I was younger and feel sympathy for those who do. That's a lowblow.

  3. The Left isn't in power. NAFTA, deregulation of telecommunications, concentration of power in the Executive branch, soaring incarceration rates for petty crimes (esp. pot possession), etc. Nothing about the past 20 years politically and economically has been Leftist. It's been Neoliberal.

    As for the "cultural Leftist" stuff, that's not something that young people are naturally drawn to. If anything, average kids groan when they have to pretend that a nobody culture is a trophy-winner too, that faggots are normal and you shouldn't use "that's gay" as a put-down, that any boy who touches any girl in kindergarten is just a hop skip and a jump away from date rape, etc.

    If anything, kids these days have more to rebel against than in the '70s or '80s. Authoritarianism is greater, corporate dominance more pervasive, pop culture has blandness enforced, and dating-and-mating norms have not been this prudish since the Victorians.

    Also remember who the Left was rebelling against -- Johnson and the Democrats (1968 Chicago National Convention). They saw the conservatives / Republicans as an obvious enemy and not worth taking on. It was the reformist liberals who the Left feared would deflate the potential revolution.

    And it's not as though we didn't have 8 years of a (pseudo-)conservative Republican as President, the War on Terror, surging patriotism, and other things that a young rebel might have felt like standing against.

    Young people these days just don't have that wariness toward authority. Helicopter parenting has stunted or robbed them of their sense of autonomy, so they cling to authorities and pray that it'll get them through life safely, as it did in childhood.

  4. People are less irreverent towards cops because cops are so much more brittle than they used to be. They'll stomp on any show of disrespect as they see it. Saying "I smell bacon" within earshot of a cop will get you arrested if not Tasered. It wasn't like that in the 80's.


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