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Back tothe Fifties


Daniel Goldmark, SeriesEditor

Tuning In:American Narrative TelevisionMusic

Special Sound:The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Seeing Through Music:Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood FilmScores
Peter Franklin
An Eye for Music:Popular Music and the Audiovisual Surreal
John Richardson
Playing Along:Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance
Sounding the Gallery:Video and the Rise of Art-Music
Composing for the Red Screen:Prokofiev and SovietFilm
Saying It With Songs:Popular Music and the Coming
We ll Meet Again:Musical Design in the Films of Stanley Kubrick
Kate McQuiston
Occult Aesthetics:Synchronization in SoundFilm
K.J. Donnelly
Sound Play:Video Games and the Musical Imagination
Sounding American:Hollywood, Opera, andJazz
Jennifer Fleeger
Mismatched Women:The Sirens Song Through the Machine
Jennifer Fleeger
Robert Altmans Soundtracks:Film, Music and Sound from
M*A*S*HtoAPrairieHome Companion
Gayle SherwoodMagee
Back to the Fifties:Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and
PopularMusicoftheSeventiesand Eighties
Michael D.Dwyer

Back tothe Fifties

N O S TA L G I A , H O L LY W O O D F I L M , A N D P O P U L A R M U S I C

Michael D.Dwyer

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-PublicationData
Dwyer, MichaelD.
Back to the fifties :nostalgia, Hollywood film, and popular music of the seventies and
eighties / MichaelD.Dwyer.
pages cm.(The Oxford music/media series)
Includes bibliographical references andindex.
ISBN 9780199356843 (pbk. :alk. paper)ISBN 9780199356836 (cloth :alk. paper)
1. Popular cultureUnited StatesHistory20th century. 2. Nineteen fifties. 3. Nineteen eighties.
4. Motion picturesSocial aspectsUnited States. 5. Motion picture musicUnited StatesHistory and
criticism. 6.Reagan, RonaldInfluence. I.Title.

Printed in the United States of America
on acid-freepaper

For my friends and family, who got me whereIam,

For Rachel, who will be with me wherever Iwillgo.

Introduction 1
1. Fixing the Fifties:Reaganism, Nostalgia, and Back to the Future18
2. Rereading American Graffiti45
3. Old Time Rock and Roll on Re-Generation Soundtracks77
4. Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia112
5. Star Legacies:James Dean and Sandra Dee in the Re-Generation147
Epilogue:The Futures of Nostalgia179
Wor ks Cited and Consulted195



There have been many times while writing that Ihave felt that the challenge
was just too great, my skills as a writer too limited, my understanding of the material insufficient, my ideas too unfinished. One learns, as a writer, not to avoid these
feelings but to work through them. So it is perhaps fitting that those feelings of
inadequacy should return in my very last day of writing, when faced with the opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of all those who helped me to make this
book a reality. Once again, Iset myself against what seems to be an impossibletask.
I am certain that whatever thanks Ican offer here are woefully inadequate, even
to those whom Iam able to mention by name. To those that go unnamed, please
know that my heartfelt appreciation and deepest respect goes out to all who lent
their time, labor, intellectual energy, and emotional support to me in the process of
writing thisbook.
There were many experiences and strands of thought that influenced the formation of this book, but its origin as a coherent project came from my experiences as a
teacher and graduate student at Syracuse University (SU). Nearly everyone I came
into contact with at and around SUthe staff at The Graduate School, members of
the Writing Program, and office staff in 401 Hall of Languageswere supportive,
helpful, and encouraging. And the value of the instruction, guidance, and training I
received from the faculty in the English Department cannot be overstated.


x Acknowledgments

I can say with utter conviction that you would not be reading this right now
if it were not for the energy, insight, tenacity, and generosity of Steven Cohan.
Discussions with him informed my research, improved my writing, and prepared
me for every stage of producing this book. But Steves influence extends beyond this
projecthe has been both a mentor and a role model, showing me how to do the
work of a scholar and teacher of media with rigor, with intelligence, with professionalism, and with joy. Roger Hallas and Susan Edmunds offered perceptive feedback
and unflagging support throughout the early stages of the project, and the book is
better for their contributions. Still other teachers at Syracuse, Carnegie Mellon, the
University of Miami, and Ambridge sharpened my thinking and offered encouragement in important waysthanks to Amy Lang, Patty Roylance, Greg Thomas,
Adam Sitze, Gregg Lambert, Margaret Himley, Marian Aguiar, Kathy Newman,
Melissa Ragona, Frank Stringfellow, and Kris Leonardo.
Just as important to the development of the project was the support of colleagues at Syracuse and Carnegie Mellon, who challenged my thinking, helped me
to understand the value of intellectual community, and became trusted friends.
Special thanks to Sarah Barkin, Rachel Delphia, Steve Doles, Caly Doran, Brigitte
Fielder, Jessica Kuskey, Corinne Martin, Kevin Meegan, Jim Metcalf, Nate Mills,
Mike OConnor, Chuck Robinson, Jon Senchyne, Gohar Siddiqui, Tristan Sipley,
Chelsea Teale, John Trenz, and DominikWolff.
In 2010, Ijoined the faculty at Arcadia University, and have appreciated the collegial atmosphere in the Department of Media and Communication and indeed
across the entire campus. Iwould like to express my gratitude to Lisa Holderman,
Christine Kemp, Chris Mullin, Alan Powell, and especially Shekhar Deshpande
for welcoming me into the department, and to Janet Greenstreet and Anna Wagner
for logistical support. Ialso want to recognize the contributions of two graduate
assistants, Kaitlin Eubank and Jonathan Palumbo, for their research help. Finally,
all of my undergraduatesbut especially the team at Loco and my Spring 2014
Soundtracks studentshave been a source of inspiration. You are the ones that
make my work feel meaningful. Thankyou.
Outside of my home departments, I have benefited from the input and advice
of scholars in moments large and small. Jane Feuer graciously agreed to read early
versions of this project and offered valuable feedback. Theo Cateforis helped me
to understand the importance of AOR. Chris Cagle gave me the opportunity to
work through American Graffiti with the Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar.
Matt Thomas and Drew Morton volunteered their time to read and comment on
chapters. Meeting Amy Villarejo, Tim Dean, and Cecelia Ticchi early in my graduate career was an inspiration. Thank you to Ina Rae Hark and Josh Stenger, who
helped me feel like I belonged at SCMS. Richard Dyer, Mary Celeste Kearney,



Alan Nadel, and Jeff Smith all offered small moments of encouragementI do
not know if they even remember these meetings, but Icertainly do. In Media Res
and Alphaville provided venues to work through ideas and readings that eventually
made it in to this book. Ialso benefited from the opportunity to discuss this work
in conference panelsfor that Iowe thanks to Scott Balcerzak, Tony Bleach, Rene
Bruckner, Russ Kilbourn, and Katherine Spring. Iam also thankful for the day-today support, stimulation, and entertainment from the community of media studies
scholars on Twitter.
In 2012, I had the fortune of meeting Norm Hirschy, acquisitions editor at
Oxford University Press (OUP). Norm has been unceasingly enthusiastic, patient,
encouraging, and positive since that day. Icould not have asked for a better experience with a first book than the one Ihave had with Norm and the rest of the team
at OUP. Thanks to Daniel Goldmark, editor of the Oxford Music/Media series;
Lisbeth Redfield; and the insightful and thorough manuscript reviewers. Molly
Morrison expertly led me through the production process. Heather Hambleton
heroically tackled copyeditingan unenviable job. All of these people have made
this book significantly better, and Iam grateful for their labor, their professionalism, and their energy.
Even as a nostalgic teenager Iknew that Iwas extremely lucky to have the support of a strange and wonderful circle of family and friends. My mother, Lenore
Larsen-Dwyer, is a model of determination and intelligence and principle and generosity that Iappreciate more with every passing year. My father, Michael W.Dwyer,
may never read this, but his passion for movies and music had a profound influence
on me. My brothers, John and Matt, have cheered me on through this entire process,
as has my extended family of in-laws, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Friends like Tracey
Berg-Fulton, Emily Del Greco, Ahmad Douglas, Pat Fulton, Adam Hochstetter,
John Homich, Nicole Homich, Greg Kouvolo, Jason Lease, Lauren Ross, Hayley
Somerville, and Morgan Yates all encouraged my writing, but more importantly,
helped me grow up into the person Iam today. The Roboto Project and Pittpunk
taught me about community and possibility. Red Star and FC Chamounix showed
the value of teamwork. My grandmother, Rosemary Larsen, is a symbol of everything worth celebrating in humanity.
To Rachel Collins, my best and favorite, Iowe the greatest debts and most heartfelt thanks. For a decade she has been my most trusted editor, my most ardent supporter, my fiercest advocate, my keenest reader, my most reliable counselor, my most
loving partner, and my best friend. The extent of my gratitude and appreciation for
her patience, diligence, loyalty, and sacrifice as Iworked on this project is immeasurable. The future we pursue together, Iknow, will be one worth remembering.

Back tothe Fifties

March 1986 issue of Esquire. Authors personal collection.


Under the headline America on the Rerun, the cover of the March 1986
issue of Esquire asked, Why is Madonna pretending shes Marilyn? Why is Ralph
Kramden bigger than ever? Why is Ronald Reagan still our matinee idol? The
accompanying story penned by television critic Tom Shales argued that America
was in the midst of an era defined by cultural processes of replay, recycle, retrieve,
reprocess, and rerun (67). Considered in retrospect, Shaless observations ring quite
true. Given the industrial and technological changes in the entertainment industry (the circulation of syndicated television reruns, the growth of oldies radio and
revival concerts, the popularization of home video technology, etc.), it is easy to conclude that Americans had begun to utilize the practice of time-shifting with more
than just their newVCRs.
For Shales, this cultural phenomenon was most prominently symbolized by
aPresident made up of reprocessed bits and pieced of old movie heroes:Ronald
Reagan (70). The fortieth president served as a symbol of an age when America
seemed compelled to turn back the clock. As both a political and cultural figure,
the Gipper relied on his ability to evoke the mythic Fifties small-town America
depicted in film, television, and other forms of popular mediaan America that
featured a booming consumer economy, military strength, domestic stability, dominant family values, and national optimism and belief in the American Way.
Never mind that, as Stephanie Coontz demonstrates in The Way We Never Were,
this America did not actually exist. As media historian Daniel Marcus describes,
Reagans rise to power was coincident with the New Rights strategy in the late

Back to the Fifties

1970s and early 1980s of presenting an overarching sense of national return to an

earlier age after a period of American decline(37).
The nostalgic fascination with the Fifties in the United States, however, did not
begin with Ronald Reagan, nor was it wholly defined by neoconservatism. The cover
of another mass-market magazine evidences this. The June 16, 1972, issue of Life
announced the wacky revival of the Fifties on American college campuseshardly
strongholds of conservative cultural attitudes. Rather, the teenagers interviewed by

June 16, 1972, issue of Life. Authors personal collection.


Life drew lines of continuity between the Fifties and the Counterculture:Those
greasers were the first freaks, one teen said (4243). Outside of the pages of Life, the
Fifties appeared in Hollywood film (1971s The Last Picture Show), theater (Grease),
and popular music (Don MacLeans American Pie). In what follows, Iargue that
popular culture was a crucial site of contestation, debate, and exchange over the
cultural definition of the Fifties in the United States.
This is a book about the creation, circulation, and interaction of the competing
meanings for the Fifties in Hollywood film and popular music in a period roughly
defined by the fifteen years from 1973 to 1988. As the increasingly corporatized film
and music industries developed synergistic production and marketing practices,
they enthusiastically embraced the Fifties. Hollywood produced a slew of nostalgia
films (American Graffiti, Porkys, Back to the Future, Blue Velvet, and Hairspray,
among many more) and found new markets for films from the 1950s via cable television and home video. Simultaneously, popular music mined its own past through
the Golden Oldies radio format, revival concerts, and album reissues on cassette
and compact disc. Allusions to Fifties styles stretched from the top of the charts
(Bob Segers Old Time Rock and Roll) to punk rock clubs (The Stray Cats
rockabilly revival) and the jazz/folk scene (David Amrams The Fabulous 50s).
Working collaboratively, the film and music industries delivered Fifties nostalgia
through soundtrack albums (Diner, Dirty Dancing) and the emerging form of
music videos (Madonnas Material Girl, Morrisseys Suedehead).
While no single vision of the Fifties can be gleaned from the multiple invocations of the Fifties on record and in movie theaters, the persistent invocation of the
Fifties in film and pop music strongly suggests that it had become a vital signpost in
American cultural life. As Mary Caputi puts it in her book A Kinder, Gentler America,
persons of varying and often contrasting political opinions and professional interests
have engaged [the 1950s] varying connotations differently. But, importantly, they all
engage it (4). In film, Fifties-ness is often signaled through costume, hair, props,
and decor:letterman jackets and blue jeans, poodle skirts and saddle shoes, switchblades and hot rods, jukeboxes and soda shops. In music, the Fifties is invoked
through pop songs that predate the British InvasionBuddy Holly, doo-wop, rockabilly, bubblegum, and rhythm and blues. Along with many other symbols, these sonic
and visual markers communicated a prosperous, peaceful, and optimistic period in
American history after World War II but before the Kennedy assassination.
Taken as a whole, these invocations of the Fifties in film and pop music participated in a broad-ranging cultural formation that had immense influence on
American society. By using the term cultural formation, I mean something more
than just a style or aesthetic, but rather the networks of representational practices, historical developments, spaces, social groups, articulations, and effects that

Back to the Fifties

Lawrence Grossberg describes in his work. Equally indebted to Michel Foucaults

concept of discursive formations and Raymond Williamss notion of structures
of feeling, Grossbergs cultural formations are articulated across a range of activities and sensibilities in everyday life, but not unilaterally or consistentlydifferent
social groups, or different social locations, might engage with a cultural formations
more, or less, or in a different way (We Gotta Get Out of This Place 6974).
The specific cultural formation Iinvestigate in this book is a retrospective pop
cultural phenomenon that Icall pop nostalgia. Iidentify pop nostalgia by three
prominent features. First, its production, circulation, and reception are facilitated
by commercial media for mass audiences. While individuals might have their own
personal nostalgic attachments (bittersweet memories of their high school, wistful
recollections of social movements or music scenes, etc.), pop nostalgia operates on
a broader, cultural scale. Second, pop nostalgia can be prompted by tropes, symbols, or styles, even without claims for historical verisimilitude. Afilm set in the
present, for example, can still evoke nostalgic response through strategic use of
dialogue, soundtrack, or wardrobe. Finally, and most importantly, pop nostalgia
is not to be found exclusively within the formal or stylistic qualities of texts, or the
demographic qualities of audiences, but rather in the affective relationships between
audiences and texts. In other words, pop nostalgia does not describe a genre (like the
Western) or a reception practice (like queer readings) but rather the un-, semi-, or
extra-conscious intensity one experiences with a cultural text that produces meaning for the past and the present. Period films, historical archives, documentaries, or
other cultural forms that either do not generate or are not invested with affect cannot be understood as participating in pop nostalgia. Understanding pop nostalgia
as an affective cultural formation is crucial because it broadens our focus from the
texts themselves, or the biographies of audiences, and toward the historical, cultural, and political conditions that structure the way we collectively feel thepast.

Scope ofthe Project:Why 19731988? Why theFifties?

Attempts at periodization are inherently fragile and artificial. This is perhaps even
more the case when the periodization is applied to cultural phenomena. At the same
time, management of the scope and scale of any analysis requires the boundaries that
periodization offers. So here goes:my interest in this book is a period of American
cultural history in which the nation alternately attempted to reckon with and move
past a contentious and even frightening period of unrest, self-doubt, and upheaval
(the Sixties). This period is marked by reassessments of Great Society social reforms,
pitched battles over the permanency and character of civil rights movements, a


renewed emphasis on patriotism and optimism, and fierce debates over American
identity and American responsibility in everything from international conflict to
global environmental reform. This period of American history was also one in which
the New Right gained political and cultural momentum. An appropriate starting
point for this study is 1973, not only because it saw the end of the Vietnam War and
the beginning of the Watergate scandal, but also because it marked the arrival of
Ronald Reagan as a serious national political figure. Of course, it is important to
remember that Reagan was neither the original nor the most prototypical member of
the New Right. Nevertheless, his arrival on the national political stage still serves as
a marker of a new era in United States cultural history, as Reagan became the most
prominent symbol that embodied the shift away from the Sixties and toward a new
(or was it an old?) American future. In using the term the ReaganEra to signify the
period from 1973 to 1988, Ido so not to suggest that Reagan wholly defined the time
but only to acknowledge the massive influence he (and the backward-looking values
he embodied) had on American society. This influence, Iargue, extends beyond the
years that Reagan resided in the WhiteHouse.
Similarly, throughout the book Idifferentiate between the Fifties (as a concept)
and the 1950s (as the years 19501959). The Fifties operates as a key structuring
myth of American self-understanding. In the broadest terms, this Fifties begins with
the peace, prosperity, and blossoming consumer culture that followed the Second
World War and end with the assassination of President Kennedy. Articulating the
boundaries of a socio-historical period is always tricky business. Ido not mean to
argue that there is, or ever was, a singular Fifties. Rather, as Caputi explains, the
Fifties represents an array of ideological connotations, a swirl of aesthetic resonances, a battery of moral implications so highly charged and emotionally laden
that any mention of the decade in the current context far exceeds literal, historical
references (1). For some, the Fifties connotes a fantasy ideal of American peace
and prosperity that began with the close of World War II and stretched through the
Eisenhower years and into the optimism of the Kennedy administration. For others, the Fifties signals a repressive and conformist era to be left in the dustbin of
history. In any case, the idea of the Fifties has become a crucial point of reference for
Americas self-image. One of the enduring legacies of American culture and society
in the Reagan Era, Iargue, are these competing visions of the Fifties.
It is true, of course, that American popular culture has turned its attention
to other historical eras, and that Fifties nostalgia exceeds this particular span of
history. Films like Chinatown (1973), Star Wars (1977), and Raiders of the Lost
Ark (1981) all clearly reference 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, while audiences in
the 1990s were treated to a spate of films revisiting the SixtiesThe Doors (1991),
Malcolm X (1992), Apollo 13 (1995), and That Thing You Do! (1996), among others.

Back to the Fifties

However, both the scale and scope of the Fifties nostalgia wave (as sociologist
Fred Davis termed it in 1979) compel us to pay particular attention to Fifties nostalgia in the 1970s and 1980s. Alan Nadel points to Fifties nostalgia as one of
American cinemas hallmarks in the period. In terms of the sheer numbers, it is
difficult to dispute that. Ive counted over ninety Hollywood films that were set in,
represented, or recreated the Fifties, with even more prompting Fifties nostalgia
through soundtrack or narrative allusions. The amount of radio stations that
transitioned to the Golden Oldies radio format and the number of Fifties artists
who returned to the charts similarly suggest that the Fifties were in American
hearts and minds more than twenty years later. The aforementioned popular magazines and academic studies in sociology (Daviss Yearning for Yesterday), history
(Miller and Nowaks The Way We Really Were), and literary and cultural studies
(Fredric Jamesons Postmodernism) all, to varying degrees, interrogated the Fifties
nostalgia phenomenon. This is all to say that, while nostalgia for other eras in
American history surely exists, the Fifties occupy a privileged position in what
many scholars in cultural studies would refer to as the national popular of the
United States. The national popular refers to not only the shared cultural texts
and practices but alsoand cruciallythe shared identity of a nation. In other
words, the Fifties was not only important in American popular culture but central to American self-understanding in the Reagan Era.

The R e-Gener ation

In some very important ways, the American teenager is a product of the Fifties,
particularly the popular film and music that courted the American youth market
during that period. At the same time, the teenager became a symbol of American
national identity in the postwar years. Among scholars of youth in film and popular culture, Leerom Medovois work is noteworthy for its emphasis on the emergence of the teenager as an ideological as well as historical phenomenon. In Rebels:
Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity, Medovoi argues that postwar representations of the teen rebel, figures standing in stark opposition to established Cold
War society, were the foundation for identity politics of the mid- to late twentieth
century. The invention of the teenager (through marketing campaigns and psychiatric discourses) allowed postwar culture to both sanction and contain youthful
rebellion and thereby justify the conditions of American society. While Medovoi
does vital work in unearthing the 1950s emergence of the teenager as a matter of
sociopolitical importance, what remains undone is analysis of the repeated invocations of this Fifties teenager throughout the rest of the century. If the figure of the


teenager helped the nation understand itself in the Cold War era, then analyzing
the way that figure has been recreated, recontextualized, and revised will help us to
understand Americas sense of historical trajectory, its shifting conceptualizations
of then and now.
The almost exclusive focus on teenagers and youth culture in the Fifties nostalgia
boom of the Reagan Era draws connections between the youth of the characters
depicted in these texts and the youth of the American superpower. The retrospective invocation of the Fifties teen struggling to define her identity or trying to make
his way into the world often functioned as a synecdoche for a United States poised
on the verge of maturity, at a point in its national history when everything (for better
and for worse) began to change. But pop nostalgia didnt just represent teenagers; it
was directly sold to them as well. Many of the performers and texts that this book
considers were offering visions of the Fifties to audiences that had no living memory
of the 1950s. Fans of Back to the Future (1985) or The Ramones did not go to the
multiplex or the record store in order to relive their youth. Rather, their brushes
with Fifties nostalgia were part of a generational redefinition of America in its past,
present, and potential futures.
The title of Shaless 1986 Esquire cover story, The Re-Decade, is a reference
to Thomas Wolfes influential 1976 essay The Me Decade, which outlines the
way that Americans in the 1970s had abandoned communitarian values in favor
of an emphasis on the individual. Influenced by economic expansion, the rise of
self-help discourses, the rapid growth of the suburbs, the cultural politics of the
New Left, and LSD, Wolfe explains, American culture had become increasingly
self-enamored. Ten years later, Shales claims that Americans had elaborated on this
cultural navel-gazing by looking backward as a way of turning inward. With new
media and communications technology (home video, computer editing, cable television, the synthesizer, etc.) Americas relationship with time, and especially with its
past, had been fundamentally altered. [N]ever before have people, or a people, had
nearly unlimited access to what has gone before, been able to call it up and play it
back and relive it again and again, says Shales (68). And beyond accessing artifacts
of mass culture, this same technology allowed Americans of the 1970s and 1980s to
continually access personal media archives:No citizens of any other century have
ever been provided so many views of themselves as individuals or as a society (72).
Taken together, the conditions that Wolfe and Shales describe fostered a
Re-Generation of Americans that utilized an ever-expanding archive of media
texts, cultural practices of replay, recycle, and reinvention to remake themselves as
individuals and reimagine the nation itself. This generation, in other words, was
uniquely positioned politically and historically to recast nostalgia from a personal
to a popular experience.

Back to the Fifties

The History ofNostalgia

Partially as a result of the New Rights successful utilization of the Fifties in the
culture wars, nostalgia garners skepticism and disdain from many academics and
critics. This is so much the case that the term nostalgia is often used pejoratively to
describe ahistorical and manipulative conceptualizations of the past. Fifties nostalgias association with Reaganism has led many to assume that nostalgia in politics
is inherently regressive, an impulse to undo the reforms of the Great Society, or
to walk back the (still insufficient) gains in civil rights for marginalized peoples.
Noam Chomsky denounced the nostalgic tenor of American politics as creating a
period of organized forgetting, in which it was the responsibility of the system
of ideological control and propaganda to return the domestic population to a
proper state of apathy (4). In statements like these, the Fifties represent a period of
apathy and quietism, even though the historical record shows them to be anything
but. Similarly, critical theorists like David Harvey and Fredric Jameson position
nostalgia as a distortion or commodification of the past, a practice that mystifies
the material and historical realities of capitalist exploitation. Jameson specifically
contends that the emergence of the nostalgia film in the 1970s and 1980s stands
as a testament to American societys inability to represent its own historical conditions and its transformation of history into fashion and commodities. This diagnosis of the function of nostalgia in popular culture has become almost omnipresent
in scholarly work on the subject.1
It is somewhat peculiar that Jameson has had such an immense influence on the
topic of nostalgia, as he expresses considerable ambivalence over using the term
nostalgia at all. Describing the reappropriation of cinematic styles and cultural
signs of the past (specifically, the recreation of 1930s film serials in 1977s Star Wars),
Jameson explains that the word does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory
word for such fascination (66). Still, he argues, the nostalgia film participates in
a new depthlessness (58), a waning of affect (61), and a crisis of historicity in
which our authentic past is gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether(67).
When a film like Brian De Palmas The Untouchables (1987) recreates the famous
Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisensteins Battleship Potemkin (1925), in
Jamesons logic, the techniques of montage that were developed under specific historical and political conditions are replaced with blank parody. In other words,
Jamesons conceptualization of nostalgia/pastiche is that of a representational practice that flattens, evacuates, and eventually elides the authentic past. This, he argues,
is a cultural process that facilitates the perpetuation of late capitalism.
This is an argument with considerable merit. Surely, certain types of Fifties nostalgia generated in and around popular culture helped to clear cultural terrain for


the rise of neoconservatism in the latter part of the twentieth century in the United
States. In addition, there can be no question that representations of the Fifties in film
and pop music often obscure the actual historical conditions of American life for
many people from 1950 to 1959. However, it is also important to understand the origin and historical development of the concept of nostalgia itself. Recall that Jameson
expresses some trepidation over using the term. I would argue the other term he
considers employing, la mode retro, more accurately describes the phenomenon he
critiques. Retro, I contend, describes a representational practice that connotes historical eras through its use of cultural signifiers (in the case of the Fifties, poodle
skirts, motorcycle jackets, ducktail haircuts, etc.) without any claim for historical
truth. Retro, that is to say, is a quality of texts. Retro representations can prompt
nostalgia, and can be complex and interesting in their own right. Butand this is a
distinction on which I will insistretro is not the same as nostalgia.2 Nostalgia is,
and has been throughout its long and complex history, something else altogether.
The term nostalgia was first used by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student, in
the research for his 1688 dissertation (Anspach 376). Hofer constructed the neologism
by combining the Greek nostos, for homecoming, and algia, for suffering, and used
the term to describe clinical cases of extreme homesickness among Swiss mercenary
soldiers. Hofer speculated that the malady was due to a continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain (Anspach 384)and suggested
that the incessant sound of cowbells ringing would damage the brain and ears in such
a way that would result in nostalgia (seriously!). Over the next two hundred years,
nostalgia would be diagnosed across the globe, with recorded cases in the ranks of
the Russian Army in 1733 (Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country 11) and from
the crew of James Cooks HMS Endeavour expedition in 1768 (Bonnett 5). With the
rise of psychiatric discourses in the nineteenth century, nostalgia came to be understood as a mental disorder rather than cowbell-induced brain trauma, and diagnoses
for the disorder proliferated. There were so many cases of chronic nostalgia diagnosed
in the American Civil War, in fact, that many regiments were specifically prohibited
from playing songs like Home, Sweet Home or Dixieland that were understood
to produce nostalgic longing that might drive soldiers to desert (Matt). In the early
twentieth century, nostalgia was typically described as an immigrant psychosis that
reflected compulsive tendencies related to the condition of melancholia. It was not
until the mid- to late twentieth century that nostalgia became fully associated with
the temporal dimension, and removed from the sense of spatial dislocation.
Understanding the concept of nostalgiaand the cultural value we place on
itis fundamental to this project. So Iwant to pause here to draw specific attention to the conditions under which nostalgia emerges throughout its first 250years.
Before the mid-twentieth century, the primary victims of nostalgia were itinerant


Back to the Fifties

soldiers enduring the challenges of protracted combat; sailors on life-threateningly

long voyages; imprisoned and enslaved people forcibly removed from their homes;
and immigrants dislocated from their families, traditions, and local cultures. Let
us recognize here that nostalgia is not simply a romanticization or idealization of
the comforts of home. Rather, nostalgia arises when the desire for homecoming is
simultaneously coupled with a recognition of its impossibility. As such, it must be
understood as a kind of affective critique, a response generated by reflection upon
the conditions of its own emergence. Swiss pikemen fighting endless wars for a
crumbling European aristocracy in the seventeenth century, I would argue, were
not nostalgic because they had brain damage, a psychiatric disorder, or a perniciously romanticized notion of the beauty of the Alps. They were nostalgic because,
frankly, getting slaughtered in the service of the French crown was a pretty rough
gig. Similarly, we should understand the temporal nostalgia in contemporary culture as something more than just faulty historiography. Nostalgia is the product of
an affective engagement with the present that produces a sense of loss. Whether that
loss is real or perceived is not the point. The point is that we find something lacking
in our current conditions.
Scholars like Alastair Bonnett, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, Janelle
Wilson, Marcos Piason Natali, and Sean Scanlan have all used this history of nostalgia to inform their reconceptualizations of its cultural work. In their sociological
investigation of nostalgia, Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley remind us that
nostalgia can be seen as not only a search for ontologocial security in the past, but
also a means of taking ones bearings for the road ahead in the uncertainties of the
present (921). Nostalgic longing, in other words, can be used in efforts to remake
the present, or at least to imagine corrective alternatives to it. It is important to
draw the distinction between retro as a representational mode and nostalgia as a
critical affective response because this forces us to confront the contingencies that
shape our ever-changing responses to texts: history, culture, politics, intertextual
networks, even our subjectivity.

Fifties Nostalgia BeyondR eagan

Once we understand nostalgia to be an affective response, we can begin to appreciate that, like horror, grief, or laughter, nostalgia can be directed toward diverse,
overlapping, or competing interests. And in the case of Fifties nostalgia in the 1970s
and 1980s, itwas.
When media studies scholars have addressed Fifties nostalgia in the Reagan Era,
they have most often explained it as the simple product of blockbuster economics



in the entertainment industries and the rising tide of neoconservatism. Robin

Wood linked the reassurance offered by Reaganism to the eras films, which
attempted to reinstate uncomplicated and untroubled notions of home, family,
gender, nation, and morality (14448). William J. Palmer, in his history of 1980s
Hollywood, argued that the Fifties fascination in Hollywood was simply mirroring the fact that the decade itself, in its social history, was a sequel (ix). To
Palmer, the United States turned back to the Fifties in hopes of restoring supposedly traditional values and reinvigorating a faith in American progress. However,
it is important to recognize that pop nostalgia representations of the Fifties are
far from homogenous. Where American Graffiti (1973) presents the Fifties as a lost
ideal, Blue Velvet (1986) highlights the subterranean perversion and violence lurking underneath the surface of Fifties cultural fantasies. In music, pop nostalgia
was employed by platinum-selling musicians like Madonna and Michael Jackson,
but also popped up in new wave, punk, and rockabilly scenes, as evidenced by
The B-52s,The Clash, and The Stray Cats. One of the primary arguments I make
in Back to the Fifties is that Fifties nostalgia cannot be understood as a homogeneous concept with a discrete political and social import. It is not, in other
words, all about Reagan politics and blockbuster aesthetics. Close examination of
pop nostalgia in the Re-Generation reveals that the Fifties was an unstable and
contested concept, and its meanings were the subject of vigorous and continuous
Consequently, Back to the Fifties is directed toward three central aims. First, the
study of pop nostalgia in its varying contexts produces a more nuanced and accurate
understanding of the Reagan Era as a period of political and social struggle that
was not wholly defined, though certainly influenced, by the rise of the New Right.3
Whether one understands the New Right as a backlash to the political and cultural developments of the Sixties or an independent articulation of economic and
political policy, it undoubtedly had significant influence on US society of the 1970s
and 1980s. However, one must take care not to mistake the importance of the New
Right for total ubiquity. The 1970s and 1980s also saw the emergence of multiple
movements for social justice, the solidification of feminism and environmentalism
within mainstream US culture, mass demonstrations against nuclear proliferation
and apartheid in South Africa, advances for LGBT rights, direct action of groups
like ACT UP, and protests against US military interventions in Central America.4
That is not to argue that the Reagan Era was in any way a golden age for the American
left, but it is important to point out that the politics and cultural attitudes Reagan
embodied were neither universal nor unchallenged.
Second, and in the same vein, this study complicates existing accounts of the relationship between history and nostalgia. It might not be accurate historiography,


Back to the Fifties

but at base nostalgia has its own important historicity. As Sprengler puts it,
nostalgia tells us something about our own historical consciousness, about the
myths we construct and circulate and about our desire to make history meaningful on a personal and collective level (3). Taking Fifties nostalgia in the Reagan
Era as the object of serious analysis not only aids in understanding American historical consciousness in the period between the end of the Vietnam War and the
fall of the Berlin Wall but also recasts the contemporary notion of the Fifties
in America as a deeply historical construct embedded in the political and social
conditions of the 1970s and1980s.
Finally, this study addresses crucial emerging concerns in the fields of film and
media studies in an era of increasing access to, and manipulation of, films, music,
and other cultural texts from the past. As the proliferation of new technologies
allows greater access to ever-expanding archives of films, music, television shows,
advertisements, and other texts, it becomes vital for film and media scholars to
understand how texts travel through history, within history, and across different
delivery technologies. The remediation, translation, and circulation of films will
increasingly play a role in the formation of cultural memory and self-definition, and
future iterations of these filmsrepackaged, repositioned, and remixedwill continue to serve diverse and complex ideological functions.

Focus onFilm and PopMusic

My study of Fifties nostalgia focuses on Hollywood film and American pop music,
but Isituate those texts among parallel ones in television, advertising, the popular
press, and other forms of mass media. Working within the traditions of cultural
studies, I approach films and songs as texts made meaningful by their situation
within and among a vast network of cultural discourses. While Iam committed to
a media studies that is grounded in close textual analysis, my attention goes beyond
the formal qualities of music and film and into the relationships between popular
texts, audiences, and the adjacent texts that surround them.5 This book is especially
interested in the ways those relationships are continually remade in retrospect. One
cannot, for example, hear Bobby Vintons song Blue Velvet the same way after
watching David Lynchs film Blue Velvet.
My interest in Fifties nostalgia of the Re-Generation ranges across multiple
media forms. Fifties mania was present in film and popular music, yes, but
also in theater (Grease), broadcast television (Happy Days and its assorted
spin-offs), cable networks (Nick at Nite), art (Velvet Elvis paintings, Gottfried
Helnweins Boulevard of Broken Dreams), video games (Rampage), chain



restaurants (Johnny Rockets), exercise programs (Sweatin to the Oldies), and

popular fiction (Steven Kings Christine), among other things. In the course of
this book, Ido give attention to these kinds of developments; however, Ihave
committed to a primary focus on the interaction between Hollywood film and
popular music. These two industries, and the interaction between them, serve
as a particularly rich area for investigation because of the intense collaboration between them in this period. In fact, synergy, the defining buzzword in
media industries in the Reagan Era, was specifically coined to describe the relationship between film studios and record companies. Their cross-promotional
cooperation was enhanced and expanded by the emergence of MTV as a cultural dynamo, which provided opportunities for Hollywood films and record
companies to collaborate on a single text (the music video) as well as organize
a coordinated flow among videos, promotions, and interview segments on
cable television. 6 The economic interdependence between film and recording
companies in this period profoundly shaped film production and promotion,
radio broadcasting and record distribution, and the landscape of American
popular culture. At the same time, the complex interplay between image,
soundtrack, star texts, and ancillary materials provides rich ground for studying the way that different forms of nostalgic affect are prompted.
Film and popular music are both significant sites for the production of nostalgia.
From its origins in Hofers research, the link between hearing and nostalgia has
been noted. Among scholars of popular music, Tia DeNora and Simon Frith have
described the ways that music can act as a powerful generator of memory and marker
of generational belonging.7 Film and cultural studies scholars Dika, Grainge, and
Sprengler, to name just a fewhave often focused on the specific impact of visual
signifiers on the production of nostalgia. However, because the collaboration among
film and music companies aimed to target both aging Boomers and Re-Generation
teenagers with Golden Oldies stations, nostalgia films, revival tours, and cover
videos, there exists a valuable opportunity to uncover intense negotiations over the
cultural definition of youth, American identity, and culturalpower.
By following the multiple invocations of Fifties figures, styles, and narratives
throughout different historical and political moments, genres, exhibition spaces,
and media formats, we may get a more sophisticated sense not only of Fifties nostalgia but also of popular cultures relationship to history. In using this approach,
my intention is not to establish a definitive meanings of the Fifties, or to rescue pop
nostalgia from its critics. Rather, Iaim to offer a sufficient analysis of the diverse
ways the Fifties were mobilized for various political and ideological ends, and in so
doing, to complicate dominant understandings of the Reagan Era, nostalgia, and
the Fifties.


Back to the Fifties


I have structured this book in an attempt to gradually develop a more sophisticated

understanding of pop nostalgia. In the first chapter, I begin with an analysis of
how nostalgia works within a discrete text at a particular historical moment. In the
second and third chapters, Iconsider how the nostalgia generated by a particular
text evolves over time, and how pop nostalgic discourses proliferate across multiple
texts. In chapters four and five, Iconsider how pop nostalgia functions differently
within the same text for different audiences, and how those competing claims for
retrospective definition of Fifties figures represent a struggle over contemporary
social and cultural values. As Iargue that pop nostalgia is not located in texts but in
shifting networks between and among texts, audiences, and contexts, each chapter
of Back to the Fifties considers film or pop music of the Re-Generation in relation
to a different type of adjacent text (political speeches, video packaging, radio formats, music videos, and star texts). Ido not claim that any of these adjacent texts
have total influence upon the meaning of films or music considered here. Rather,
in isolating these coordinates, Iillustrate how the meaning of Fifties youth experience in these films and pop music is negotiated within overlapping and continually
shifting vectors, altering the conditions under which interpretations are produced.
Some chapters focus primarily on a single film or pop music performer, some on a
narrative scenario repeated across several texts, and still others on star texts across
film and music. As nostalgia itself is a phenomenon that resists simple chronology,
this study does not begin in 1973 and march directly toward 1988. Fifties nostalgia
did not evolve as a singular phenomenon, nor did it function consistently or universally across all contexts. The book attempts to show the way that Fifties nostalgia
functioned across a range of different texts, each with its own contestations, contingencies, and conflicts. The progression of chapters thus reflects that nonlinear
treatment oftime.
Chapter one, Fixing the Fifties, centers on Fifties nostalgia in the form we find
most recognizable today, wielded by Reagan in his 1984 re-election campaign and
narrativized in the blockbuster film Back to the Future (1985). While one of the
books primarily claims is that pop nostalgia for the Fifties cannot be explained solely
through Reaganism, it is nevertheless crucial to understand precisely how Reagan
and the New Right mobilized the idea of the Fifties in US culture. Beginning with
Reagans vision of the Fifties and Back to the Future has the additional benefit of
providing a baseline against which other, competing visions of the Fifties can be
productively compared in ensuing chapters. In chapter one, I specifically argue that
pop nostalgia, even in its most recognizable form, is considerably more complex
than commonsense explanations of it acknowledge. As I show with the example



of Back to the Future, nostalgia is a productive and historical response, not one
wholly defined by forgetting. Both the film and Reagans political rhetoric operate by fixing the Fifties in two respects. First, the Fifties is repaired by eliding
the historical tensions and controversies that characterized the 1950s (segregation,
the Kinsey reports, Cold War paranoia, etc.) and highlighting the bright, cheery
prosperity of small-town America. The Fifties is fixed again by freezing the era
in timecreating a monolithic idyll that is separated from the historical, cultural,
and political conditions of the decades that surrounded the 1950s, the 1940s and
the 1960s. Similarly, it is important to recall that Marty McFly in Back to the Future
does not simply return to the past; he actively transforms it in order to correct the
failures of history made manifest in his own time. In the same way, Reagans use of
nostalgia was not the result of an inaccurate sense of history but rather the product
of carefully constructed political and rhetorical strategy, designed to reject the cultural legacy of the Sixties by championing the Fifties. For this reason, it is misleading to characterize nostalgia as a reduction or erasure of history: nostalgia
actively constructs an image in response to a historical engagement with the present.
Stepping back in time, the second chapter, Rereading American Graffiti, uncovers the Countercultural origins of Fifties nostalgia. Attention to the early career
of Fifties revival band Sha Na Na (particularly their performance at Woodstock)
and the 1973 release of American Graffiti (produced by the New Hollywood collective American Zoetrope) reveals how Fifties nostalgia functioned before its association with Reagan. This history is rendered invisible by contemporary accounts of
the film. Though it was produced and originally understood as part of the New
Hollywood, with its attendant values of aesthetic experimentation and progressive
politics, George Lucass film is now considered to be a prelude to the blockbuster era,
with its associated values of commercialism and conservatism. The literal and figurative packaging of Fifties nostalgia is made visible in promotional materials that
accompanied the films multiple reissues and rereleases. Through examination of
promotional posters, trailers, and video packaging, as well as accounts of the films
place in Hollywood history, Ishow how the nostalgia generated by cultural texts is
shaped by the adjacent texts that surroundthem.
The ensuing chapters take a wider view, tracking the Fifties across several texts
from the mid-1970s to late 1980s and considering how issues of race, class, gender,
and sexuality intersect with pop nostalgia. The third chapter, The Same Old Songs,
charts the transformation of Fifties rock and roll into Golden Oldies through
radio station formatting and Hollywood soundtrack albums. The evolution of rock
and roll from race music to the safe alternative to new wave, punk, disco, and hip
hop for white bourgeois men in the late 1970s was reflected in the rise of Golden
Oldies radio formats and revival concerts. This process was aided and extended by


Back to the Fifties

the increasing use of oldies in Hollywood film soundtracks. Placing 1950s songs into
new contexts helped to revise the racial politics of their original production and
reception and helped to shape the cultural definition of the Fifties as a whole. This
process is demonstrated through the reoccurring trope of the teenager lip-synching
to the oldies in films like Risky Business (1983), Pretty in Pink (1986), Beetlejuice
(1986), and Adventures in Babysitting (1987). Like the cover versions of rhythm
and blues records popularized by white performers in the 1950s, these lip-synching
scenes feature white teenagers covering over the racial politics that characterized
rocks emergence. The chapter closes with readings of Lynchs Blue Velvet (1986) and
John Waterss Hairspray (1988), which feature characters embodying Fifties music
in order to invert the decontextualization that occurs in the teen films lip-synch
scenes, and to critique the institutions that obscure or actively exclude the raced and
classed origins of rock androll.
The growth of MTV from obscure cable channel to era-defining cultural juggernaut was one of the most important developments in film and music of the
Reagan Era. Chapter four, Crossover Nostalgia, focuses on the role of Fifties
nostalgia on MTV through the career of one of the eras biggest and most influential figures:Michael Jackson. Jackson was the first Black artist to receive major
airplay on MTV. 8 His music videos reveal a careful negotiation of his Black masculinity, using the logic of crossover generated by record companies and radio
stations. In Thriller and Smooth Criminal, Jackson embodies masculine
archetypes from the Fifties in order to present his own masculinity as safe, traditional, and normative. At the same time, viewers with knowledge of the references made in his videos (to midnight movies in Thriller and to 1953s The
Band Wagon in Smooth Criminal) can generate alternative readings, ones in
which Jacksons performance of masculinity works as a self-reflexive masquerade, or critical signification, of dominant norms. The multiplicity of meanings
surrounding Jackson, Ishow, is a product of record company strategies as well as
the cultural logic of crossover. Jackson drew on the Fifties to burnish his masculine image with Black audiences, while avoiding the forms of Black male sexuality
that might limit his commercial prospects in white-controlled venues, radio stations, and television networks.
The ways that gender and sexuality are indexed in pop nostalgia texts of the
Re-Generation is my focus in chapter five, Star Legacies. Iintroduce the concept of
star legacies to describe the way that figures from film and music in the Re-Generation
referenced the star texts of Fifties icons like James Dean and Sandra Dee.
The rebellion or conformity that these stars respectively represented to the
Re-Generation is a transformation of their screen images in the 1950s. Considering
claims on Deans star legacy in music and videos from John Cougar Mellencamp



and Morrissey, as well as in Re-Generation teen films like Reckless (1983), Footloose
(1984), and Heathers (1988), this chapter reveals how Dean served in the Reagan Era
as a symbol for various kinds of masculine eroticism, authenticity, and cool. While
Deans star text was continually lauded, Sandra Dees legacy was almost universally
rejected, as the song Look at Me, Im Sandra Dee illustrates. The chapter closes
with the emergence of girl-centric texts and the academic field of girl studies, which
sought to recover the girl-image that Dee signified in the Fifties.
Finally, the epilogue considers the persistence of the Fifties of the Re-Generation
in contemporary America, thanks to Eighties nostalgia films like Hot Tub Time
Machine (2010) and fan-created mashup videos like Brokeback to the Future.
These texts not only work as entertaining parodies of time-travel films and the
eccentricities of 1980s teen culture but also draw attention to the queer subtexts that
readers could tease out of Back to the Future, a film that stands in for neoconservative mobilizations of Fifties nostalgia. The film and the remix video allow for new
readings of Back to the Future, of course, but they also encourage viewers to look at
pop nostalgias construction of history with a criticaleye.
Clearly, these chapters do not attempt to provide an exhaustive account of Fifties
nostalgia of the Re-Generation, or representations of the Fifties in the Reagan Era.
The project instead looks to contribute to reconsiderations of what Ibelieve to be
an often misunderstood and overlooked historical period in American cultural
history, as well as a more sophisticated understanding of the social and political
functions of nostalgia. Far too often, scholars and critics of media have allowed this
chain of equivalencies to go unexamined: the 1980s = Reaganism = Fifties
nostalgia=loss of historical consciousness=regressive politics. At its most
basic level, this book is meant to challenge and complicate those too-simple equivalencies. Surely, Fifties nostalgia in film and pop music was part of the cultural project of members of the New Rightthis book acknowledges that. But my intention
is to encourage us all to recognize the ways that pop nostalgia for the Fifties was
mobilized by those across the sociopolitical spectrum for diverse and sometimes
Promoting the Fifties as the point at which the grand American progress narrative was interrupted was one crucial way of transforming the complex and controversial historical 1950s into the mythic Fifties that Americans still, in many ways,
make a part of their national identity. One cannot deny that this process was crucial
to the rise of neoconservatism in the United States, nor can one avoid the massive
impact that this process had on nostalgia in popular culture and the Re-Generation
as a whole. This happened in no more visible arena than the political rhetoric of
Reagan himself, so that seems like a good place to start. It is with Reagans back to
the future politics that Ibegin thisbook.


Reaganism, Nostalgia, and Back to the Future

Early in Back to the Future (1985), the films teenaged hero Marty McFly (Michael
J.Fox) wanders in shock through the main square of Hill Valley, California. Having
accidentally engaged a time machine built by his friend and mentor Doc Brown
(Christopher Lloyd), Marty has been transported thirty years into the past. Failing
to orient himself, he stumbles over curbs, is nearly struck by a car, and gapes at passersby. While Marty struggles to grasp the reality of his time travel (This has got
to be a dream, he repeatedly says), the films audiences faced no such troubles. The
film gets plenty of comedic mileage out of Martys inability to understand that he
has been transported to the 1950s, largely because it could presume that its viewers
wouldbe in on the joke. The films audiences, large portions of them teenagers, could
safely be expected to recognize the Fifties, even when Marty could not. Without any
direct cinematic prompting, Back to the Futures teen audiences were better prepared
for time travel than the films teen protagonist.
Of course, we could question whether the films teen audiences in 1985 had an
accurate understanding of the historical realities of 1955. For this book, however,
the salient point is that the knowledge the film presumes is not historical knowledge of the 1950s but rather cultural knowledge of the Fifties as a retrospectively
applied vision of American society. In this chapter Idiscuss American culture in
the mid-1980s, and its deep investment in a fantasy of return to the peaceful and
prosperous Fifties. This fantasy was circulated and recirculated through popular

Fixing the Fifties


music and Hollywood film. These two claims are hardly groundbreakingthe
notion that 1980s America romanticized the 1950s is as close to a consensus opinion
as one could imagine on the subject of twentieth-century American culture. So why
begin a book about the rich complexities of Fifties nostalgia in popular culture of
the Reagan Era with an example of a film that aligns so simply, and so neatly, with
our already-existing conceptions of nostalgias political and historical functions?
Reader, Iam glad youasked.
Back to the Future provides an important starting point for three reasons. First,
its generic status as a time-travel film provides a narrative backdrop to a broader cultural fantasy of return to a simpler time. In this way, Back to the Future is the most
convenient and logical place to begin. Second, the films dreamlike vision of Hill
Valley 1955 as an idyll of small-town, postwar America represents Fifties nostalgia
in its most recognizable form. This offers a point of reference against which other
forms of Fifties nostalgia that Idiscuss in later chapters can be contrasted. Finally,
close analysis of Back to the Future, and the conditions from whence it emerged,
reveals that even the seemingly simple, commonsense version of Fifties nostalgia
and Reaganism involved a sophisticated production of historical knowledge and
cultural values that belie any sense that nostalgia is merely historical forgetting
or erasure.
The Hill Valley that Marty stumbles through in 1955with its blue skies, stately
town hall, bustling sidewalks, and commercial prosperityis illustrative of the fantasy of the Fifties circulated through the imagery and rhetoric of the New Right. As
the name Hill Valley describes a material impossibility, the vision of small-town
America it represents is an impossible and appealing vision of the good old days.
Accordingly, Martys first exposure to the town square in 1955 is underscored by a
pop song that similarly connotes a simpler, cheerier, and more pleasant America:The
Four Aces rendition of Mister Sandman. The song is representative of the postwar pop vocal group tradition, with gentle, four-part harmonies backed by a small
orchestra (most notably a harp, upright bass, muted horns, bells, and a small woodwind ensemble). The Four Aces, a group founded by former Navy servicemen from
South Philadelphia, stand in for the white suburban pop mainstreamit is important to recognize what they are not:not jazz, not folk, not hillbilly or rock and
roll. The song Mister Sandman is also significant. The dreamlike qualities of
the scene are echoed by Martys dialogue (This has got to be a dream) and reinforced by the gentle harmonies in the songs refrain, (Mister Sandman, bring me a
dream). Taken together, sound and image suggest that the Fifties, at the time of the
films release, was something that the entire country was dreamingof.
Indeed, neither Back to the Futures promotion nor its narrative needed to clarify the particular vision of the Fifties the film would present (what a different film


Back to the Fifties

it would be if Marty traveled to Greenwich Village or Montgomery, Alabama, in

1955!). The film did not need to clarify its premise of 1980s teen travels back to
the Fifties because by 1985 the Hill Valley version of history it relied upon had
extended beyond the screenplay and into what, drawing on Lawrence Grossbergs
reading of Antonio Gramsci, we might call the national popular of the United
States. Grossberg describes the national popular as the arena in which social and
power relations are constructed, the realm of material cultural production (films,
books, art, music, etc.) that comes to constitute the common culture of the people,
and a national identity (We Gotta Get Out of This Place 25556).
Critics and commentators attempted to explain the Fifties fascination of the
1980s as it was happening. Even before the release of Back to the Future, a NewYork
Times editorial remarked upon the peculiar fascination that teen films had with
Fifties youth culture. The author of that editorial, famed critic Michiko Kakutani,
posits several possible explanations for the phenomenon: the narcissism of baby
boomers, the cynical recycling of teenpic conventions by risk-averse studios, and the
shrewd pragmatism of screenwriters seeking to sell scripts by avoiding politics. It
might be easier, in certain respects, Kakutani speculates, to look at the unchanging primal preoccupations of youthsex, popularity, identityagainst such a
neutral backdrop than against the more heightened tableau of the late 60s (22).
These comments are especially interesting for our purposes here, as they themselves
reinforce the notion of the Fifties as a neutral historical backdrop, less politically
heightened than the historical conditions of the 1960s (again, we might recall
Greenwich Village or Montgomery in 1955hardly neutral). Kakutani argues
that when films like Footloose (1984) and The Outsiders (1983) drew on Fifties classics like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) or The Wild One (1953), the former purvey
attitudes more conservative than those in the original films (22). For Kakutani,
the Fifties nostalgia boom was especially troubling because of what was forgotten
by the Reagan Erathe sense of alienation, discontent, and injustice that was legible in 1950s teen culture and led to the culture of the Sixties.
Just a few months after Kakutanis piece ran in the Times, another noted intellectual figure of the 1980s took on the Fifties nostalgia trend. Fredric Jamesons famous
essay Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism appeared in The
New Left Review in the summer of 1984. While Jamesons concern is certainly more
broad-ranging than Kakutanis (Jamesons aim is to describe how a new dominant
mode of aesthetic production has been integrated into late capitalist expansion), he is
also focused on the erasure of history through pop nostalgia. In this landmark work
of cultural theory, Jameson identifies postmodernism in terms of what is lost in the
transition from the previous era of modernism:the author, the distinction between
high art and mass culture, genuine historicity, and the connection between art and

Fixing the Fifties


productive material processes. Jameson finds a crystallization of postmodernist

characteristicsthe transformation of art into fashion and a new depthlessness
in the emergence of nostalgia films, which restructure the whole issue of pastiche
and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change (66).
Although he grants that nostalgia films can take any historical era as their source
(he discusses neo-noir films like Chinatown and Body Heat), Jameson contends that
for Americans at least, the 1950s remained the privileged lost object of desire (67).
Jameson argues that this predilection for nostalgia serves as a testament to societys
inability to represent its own material conditions, as well as its tendency to reduce
history to fashion, style, and commodities. The end result, he determines, is a crisis
of historicity in which the past as referent finds itself gradually bracketed, and
then effaced altogether (65). This cultural work facilitates the continuing expansion
of capitalism, and hinders our ability to adequately grapple with its effects.
Back to the Future can easily be understood as part of Jamesons crisis of historicity. The reason that the films nostalgic look at 1955 is so appealing (at least from
some political perspectives) is the complete absence of the Sixties. In 1955 Hill
Valley, there is no trace of feminism, civil rights for racial minorities, student demonstrations, or (until Martys impromptu guitar performance at the school dance)
rock and roll. While one might argue that these cultural and political movements
were not fully formed by 1955, at the very least one must acknowledge that they
(and the tensions to which they responded) were not completely absent.1 The notion
that Re-Generation teenagers would simply find these issues edited out of their
cultural representations seemed quite possible. Beyond being set in a pre-Sixties
America, Back to the Future simply does not allow for the possibility that the Sixties
might ever occur. As a result, the film has repeatedly been understood as essentially
Reaganist in its treatment of history.2
It is clear that Back to the Futures vision of the Fifties is highly selective. The film
excludes the social tensions and social movements that existed in the historical 1950s
in favor of a vision more in line with the Fifties America depicted in television reruns.
In this, Back to the Future can easily be understood as reflective of the New Right for
which Ronald Reagan served as champion. Reagans public persona in the 1970s and
1980s, Daniel Marcus argues, was an embodiment of a belief in and yearning for
a nation undisturbed by the social controversies and political traumas of post-1963
America (6263). That is, one way of understanding the Fifties nostalgia that gained
a dominant position in the national popular by 1985 is as a rejection of the conditions
of America in the 1980s, after years of social unrest, economic stagflation, and flagging national pride. The Fifties thus served as a fantasy alternative to an unsettling


Back to the Fifties

It is not my intention to rescue Back to the Future from its association with
Reaganism, nor will Iargue here (as Ido at other points in the book) that the nostalgia
it prompts was utilized for progressive or resistant political purposes. My aim in this
chapter is more modest. Iwant to challenge what we might call the amnesiac model
of nostalgia, a model which presumes that nostalgia is an inherently ahistorical process that is simply about loss, forgetting, and/or erasure. This notion, exemplified by otherwise valuable histories of the period with titles like Sleepwalking Through
History, not only misconstrues the operation of nostalgia but also flattens and negates
the complexities of the Reagan Era. In response, Iwould argue that nostalgia must
be understood not as a reduction or denial of history but as a fundamentally productive affective engagement that produces new historical meanings for the past as a way
of reckoning with the historical present. As Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley
persuasively argue, the amnesiac model bears more than a passing resemblance to
earlier forms of mass cultural criticism was homogenized and atomized at one and
the same time, so being stripped of active participation in everyday historical consciousness (924). By acknowledging the historical and productive qualities of even
the most straightforward and recognizable form of Fifties nostalgia in the Reagan Era,
we can begin to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how pop nostalgia
operates. With that understanding, we can recognize and imagine nostalgias effects,
and affects, operating differently than we typicallygrant.
So lets begin with this:Back to the Future does not simply champion the Fifties.
As a pop nostalgia text, it engages in a practice that Iterm double fixing. In the
films construction of a fantasy vision of the Fifties, the historical 1950s are not erased
but fixed, in two senses of the term. First, the historical 1950s are repaired, made to
more closely represent a vision of a bygone period that embodies particular values
perceived to be absent or under threat in the present. In the case of the New Rights
nostalgia for the Fifties, this means presenting images of small-town America in
which cheerful citizens, organized into traditional family structures and adhering
to conventional Christian codes of morality, peacefully go about their business.
Historical elements of the 1950s that do not fit this fantasythe Montgomery bus
boycotts, the House Un-American Activities hearings, furor over the obscenity of
the Beats or the hips of Elvis Presley, fear of juvenile delinquency or global nuclear
war, and sundry other cultural shocksare not erased but rather managed, presented as the result of personal or moral failures or diminished as fodder for humor
or trivia. The second order of fixing is a process of freezing or haltingthe fantasy
version of the Fifties cuts the historical 1950s off from the years that preceded and
followed, treating the era as if it existed in a historical, cultural, and political vacuum, wholly disconnected from the social and cultural potentials of the 1940s and

Fixing the Fifties


Back to the Future is particularly suited for an analysis of double fixing. Not only
does it rely on the New Rights hegemonic fantasy of the Fifties, but it also re-enacts
the double fixing of the Fifties within its own narrative. Martys return to 1985 is
predicated on his ability to rewrite the history of the 1950s, and then to preserve
those fixed conditions in perpetuity. In the process, his double fixing of the Fifties
allows him to rescue his family from hopelessness and helplessness in the 1980s, and
(crucially) restore a future they can productively and enthusiastically pursue. This
narrative arc parallels the arguments about the nations path to progress promoted
by the New Right in the 1970s and the 1980s. The ensuing sections of this chapter
examine how the process of double fixing was developed and gained influence in the
national popular in the ReaganEra.
This chapters analysis of double fixing begins with the repair of the Fifties at home
in Back to the Future. Marty fixes the 1950s by rehabilitating his father, encouraging
him to more closely align with the Reagan Era ideal of muscular masculinity at the
center of the nuclear family. Next, the chapter illustrates the second order of fixing
in the framing of an isolated and homogenous Fifties in Reagans political rhetoric.
The process of double fixing is enacted in the national popular through, and in some
cases for, the teenagers of the Re-Generation. The chapters third section explores
the rise of the Reagan Youth through the star text of Michael J.Fox, who rose to
fame playing the neoconservative teenager Alex P.Keaton on the television sitcom
Family Ties. The chapter comes to a close with a consideration of how Back to the
Future projects the familiar double fixing of the McFly family into the civic and
political sphere, just as Reagans rhetoric moved smoothly from the simple, personalized anecdote into broad visions of economic and military policy. Each section
in the chapter works to emphasize the productive and historical nature of pop nostalgia, and reminds us that the discursive and affective origins of the Fifties in the
Reagan Era exceed the conceptual models of amnesia and erasure.

Fixing Our Fathers, Fixing Ourselves

Before Marty crosses Hill Valleys town square in the Mister Sandman sequence, he
has spent several hours in 1955. Still, he can neither comprehend what has happened
to him nor fathom why the people he encounters regard him with befuddlement and
fear. It is not until Marty arrives in the town square that he begins to understand the
reality of his time travela moment that coincides with the first reference to Reagan
in the film. As he turns a corner, Martys gaze lands on a signboard advertising the
feature at the downtown movie house. The film is Cattle Queen of Montana, an
unremarkable 1954 Western starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. Marty


Back to the Fifties

Marty encounters Reagan in 1955.

responds to the sign with a double take, turning toward the theaters marquee to confirm that, indeed, Reagan is in Hollywood, not the White House. It is then, and only
then, that Marty is able to orient himself in time. The quintessential Re-Generation
teen can only locate his position in American history in reference to Reagan.
Since Reagans emergence as a mainstream political figure in the 1970s and his
rise to president and cultural icon in the 1980s were in large part made possible by
his ability to embody a fantasy version of the Fifties, Reagans appearance in Back
to the Future takes on a special resonance for this study. This small moment lets
us know that the film is not set in the 1950s, but Reagans Fifties. This realization
empowers Marty to utilize his Re-Generation knowledge and technological savvy
to not only safely navigate the past but ultimately to improve it, enriching his family
(and himself) in the process.
First, however, Marty must deal with the problems that result from his accidental displacement of his father, George (Crispin Glover), as the object of his mother
Lorraines (Lea Thompson) erotic desire. This mishap threatens Martys very existence. As a result, Marty spends much of his time in 1955 rebuffing his mothers
amorous advances and aiding his father in winning her affection. In order to save
himself, Marty must rewrite history and recreate his nuclear family at its very
inceptionthe meeting of his parents as Fifties teens. This proves difficult, as Marty
discovers that when it comes to manliness, his father does not knowbest.
Upon a chance meeting with his teenaged father at a local cafe, Marty is brought
face to face with his fathers shortcomings. As Marty watches, George is bullied by
the oafish Biff Tannen (Thomas F.Wilson) and forced to grovel in front of Biffs
obnoxious toadies. Georges inability to stand up to Biff, Marty knows, is not only

Fixing the Fifties


a boyhood foible but rather a generalized personality flaweveryone in Hill Valley

seems to push George around. Goldie, the diner busboy, tells George, If you let
people walk over you now, theyll be walkin over you for the rest of your life, and
the films viewers can confirm the prediction, as the film has already featured scenes
of Biffs bullying continuing into 1985. In the logic of the film, the elder McFlys
victimhood in 1955 sets the course for the rest of hislife.
Further still, Georges weakness appears to be a heritable trait. Though Marty is
frustrated by his fathers weakness in 1985, he exhibits many of the same cowardly
tendencies. The film suggests this connection early in the narrative, when the vice
principal at Martys school accosts him, saying, I noticed your band was on the roster for the dance auditions after school today. Why even bother, McFly? You dont
have a chance, youre too much like your old man. As viewers soon learn, in many
ways Marty is too much like his old man. When Marty discovers that George writes
science fiction stories but is afraid to let anyone read them, Georges rationale for
keeping them secret is an exact echo of the language Marty uses early in the film to
justify not sending an audition tape of his band to a record label:What if Isend it
in and they dont like it? What if they say Im no good? What if they say Get out
of here, kid, you got no future? Ijust dont think Icould take that kind of rejection. Hearing himself, Marty adds, Jesus, Im starting to sound like my old man!
More will be said on Martys fear of having no future, but for now let us focus on
Martys recognition of, and distaste for, the similarities he shares with his father.3
The film visually indicates that similarity in George and Martys first Fifties meeting, as they unconsciously strike the same pose, use the same nervous gestures, and
regard one another with the same tentative distrust.

Like father, like son: Marty and George McFly in 1955.


Back to the Fifties

In 1985, Vice Principal Strickland tells Marty that no McFly ever amounted to
anything in the history of Hill Valley. Marty spends the bulk of the film making
his then-feckless riposte, Historys gonna change, a reality. This, in many ways, is
not only the films thesis, but the promise of the New Right for the Re-Generation.
Remember, though, that Martys response to Strickland is not at all about rescuing
his father from self-doubt, for at that point in the film time travel is not yet a consideration. Marty is speaking entirely for, and of, himself. In this way Marty embodies
the Reagan-Era disaffection with an America that was not living up to its postwar
promise. Martys role in augmenting the insufficient masculinity of his father is
quite clear, and has been valuably explored by film scholars like Susan Jeffords and
Marsha Kinder. But it is important to recognize that, at the films outset, Martys
masculinity is also portrayed as insufficient. He too is unable to confront Biff or to
risk rejection, and he knows it. Martys goal in the Fifties, then, is not only to repair
his fathers masculinity but also to remake himself.
To do so, Marty must transform his father into the Fifties hero that he never was.
The story of George and Lorraines courtshipGeorge falls out of a tree from which
he was birdwatching (actually, clandestinely peeping into a womans window), is
struck by a car driven by Lorraines father, and is nursed back to health by the smitten
Lorraineis interrupted by Martys arrival in 1955. This is not only because Marty
is hit by the car instead of George but also because Marty provides Lorraine with a
1980s model of erotic masculinity, right down to his purple Calvin Klein underwear.
Prior to Martys intervention, Lorraine recalls being drawn to George because he
seemed so helpless, like a little lost puppy. After Martys arrival, she has a different
take on his father: George McFly? Well, hes kinda cute and all, but not ... well, I
think a man should be strong, so he can stand up for himself, and protect the woman
he loves. A more perfect articulation of the models of muscular masculinity for the
Reagan Era could not be found in 1980s teen film.
In response, Marty plans to force George to take a more active role in his relationship with Lorraine, as opposed to the passive, voyeuristic one he has played prior
to Martys 1955 arrival. In the films climax, Marty sets out to create a scene where
George can play the role of hero, rescuing Lorraine from Martys feigned sexual
advances. However, Martys plans go awry. First, Lorraine surprises Marty by having a libido of her ownshe is not only receptive to sexual advances, she initiates
them. Then, Biff and his cronies arrive and transform Martys staged sexual assault
on Lorraine into a real one. When George finally arrives, he cannot simply play the
part of the ideal Fifties man (and the ideal Reagan-Era father). He must instead
become the ideal man by standing up for himself, and protecting the woman he
loves, as Lorraine says. George does so, overcoming his fear and knocking out Biff
with one punch. The impact on Georges social standing is immediate. No longer

Fixing the Fifties


the butt of every prank, George is suddenly transformed into the big man on campus, garnering the praise of his peers and encouragement to run for class president.
With this, Georges future with Lorraine is secured, as if the two had no other fate
from this point but to live happily ever after. In the first order of what Ihave called
double fixing, Marty performs a reparative cleansing of his fathers insufficient
and deviant masculinity. After Marty has made the arrangement in 1955, it is, as if
by destiny, fixed there for the rest oftime.
As Marty promised Vice Principal Strickland, history does change. By the end of
the film, Marty has both safeguarded his familys existence and secured a new and
prosperous future for them. Upon his return to 1985, he discovers that George is no
longer a simpering weakling but a bestselling author and model yuppie parent. This
new George plays tennis in the mornings while Biff waxes his car. Lorraine, noticeably thinner, basks in the sexual attention she gets from George (a radical change
from an earlier parallel scene, in which the two rarely occupy the same frame).
Martys two older siblings, lonely and poor in the films opening, are social and
financial successes in this new 1985, arranging business meetings and romantic
dates over brunch. Marty also benefits from fixing the Fifties. In the new version of
1985, he has the confidence to send his bands demo to a record company, drives the
pickup truck hes always wanted, and has his mothers blessing to spend a romantic
weekend with his girlfriend.4

The McFlys: No future. Linda and Lorraine (left), George and Dave (right).

The McFlys, new and improved. Dave and Linda (left), George and Lorraine (right).


Back to the Fifties

Jeffords equates Martys manipulation of history with Reagans political

mythology, arguing that the New Rights political logic relied on a mobilization
of Fifties ideals of active, muscular masculinity:
As Marty coaches his father from a wimp to a rescuer, Reagan set out to coach
America from acting the part of the wimp of the Carter years, being the
doormat for communism and fundamentalist Islamic revolutions, to becoming the economically and socially successful international father of the Reagan
years. Form the man/country that gave his children/citizens only shame,
George McFly and the America he figures is turned into a father who can give
his children just what they wanta well-rounded family and material success.
The difference between a successful family and a hopeless one, the film argues,
lies in the strength of the Fifties father figure, a role Reagan played with aplomb.
But, when considering the links between the iconic pop-nostalgia film of the
Re-Generation and the preeminent avatar of the New Right, we must remember
that traveling back in time was never the point. Marty has no interest in staying
in 1955he rewrites the past in order to correct the failures made manifest in his
own time, transforming his father into the mythic hero lionized in the Fifties and
containing his mothers unruly appetites in order to pursue a gratifying and prosperous future. Similarly, Reagan never argued that America needed a return to
the social order of the Fiftiesundoing Brown v.Board of Education or Griswold
v.Connecticut was off the table in mainstream political discoursebut positioned
the Fifties as the storehouse of values through which America could regain its greatness. In both cases, the mediation of the Re-Generation was required to restore optimism and pride. By reaffirming traditional values in a fantasy vision of the Fifties,
both Marty and Reagan promised not only a return to the past but, crucially, a
pursuit of the future.

The R ise ofR eagan

Just as we cannot understand the version of the Fifties that Reagan and Back to the
Future present as singular or self-evident, we must also recognize that Reagan is a
product of shifting historical and political discourses. As Martin Anderson writes
in his history of the rise of the New Right, while Reagan was able to present himself
as the leader of a popular movement, neither he nor any other neoconservative acolytes created the Reagan Revolution. Rather, Anderson argues, it was the other

Fixing the Fifties


way around. They were part of the movement, they contributed mightily to the
movement, but the movement gave them political life, not the reverse (xix). Rather
than understanding him as the agent for socio-historical change, we might understand him as a figure uniquely suited to play the role history made available tohim.
Reagans rise to nationwide political prominence from the 1970s and 1980s, as
Lance Morrow argued in Time in 1986, owed much to his experience as an entertainer, which outfitted him with a charisma that played well on the stump, on
camera, and behind the podium.5 Others, like Ken Holden and J. Hoberman, have
highlighted the importance of Reagans all-American, trustworthy screen persona,
which bled into his campaign persona.6 However, just as important was the rise
of the Fifties as a counterpoint to a demoralized America in the 1970s and early
1980s. This version of the Fifties contained a veritable wish list for many Americans
in 1972: family values, a booming domestic economy, and strong stances against
communist forces at home and abroad. Whether those qualities actually existed in
the 1950s or were a retrospectively produced fantasy, Reagans ascendancy relied on
his ability to embody the vision of the Fifties that was represented in pop-nostalgia
texts like Back to the Future.7 This idea is so ingrained in Reagans legacy, in fact, that
the opening chapter of Lou Cannons 1991 biography President Reagan: The Role of
a Lifetime takes its title from Robert Zemeckiss film.
Reagan succeeded in lionizing the social order of the Fifties while simultaneously
rejecting his opponents politics as misguided, ineffective, and divisive. Certainly
the political sphere in this period was a complex one, with many competing and
overlapping interests involved. However, on the level of the national popular, the
arrival of Reagan on the political stage embodied a constellation of sociopolitical
attitudes and values that were broadly defined as the New Right. Reagans rise
to political prominence, as the popular phrase Reagan Revolution suggests, also
marks a new period in American history characterized by the waning of historical developments associated with the Sixties (the Vietnam conflict, the Watergate
scandal, the counterculture, and Great Society social reforms), and the rising prominence of a neoconservative age that would dominate American politics for at least
To understand the history of Reagans strategic mobilization of the Fifties, we
must recognize the crucial rhetorical turn in his early political careerafter which
he no longer defined himself solely in terms of rejection (of communism, of the New
Deal, of civil rights, of the Sixties) and instead began defining himself mostly in
terms of return (to prosperity, to traditional values, to global security, to the Fifties).
The pivot in Reagans rhetoric is especially notable since, as historian Toby Glenn
Bates writes in his book The Reagan Rhetoric, Reagans primary strength as a communicator came from a consistency of message and imagery (4). Presidential


Back to the Fifties

historians have also argued that Reagans triumph in the 1980 presidential election
was in large part due to his strategic mobilization of a narrative of national progress
identifying the Fifties as the high point of national strength and prosperity, the
stopping point of American historical progress, and repository of the accumulated
virtues and values of the past (Marcus, Happy Days and Wonder Years,61). This
shift in emphasis, then, is crucial to understanding how Reagan came to national
prominence, even while holding political positions not embraced by the majority
of Americans.
Reagans turn to the Fifties was also a turn away from an even nearer pastthe
political and social legacy of the Sixties, broadly defined as the social and political
upheaval lasting from the Kennedy assassination to the waning of the Vietnam War
and the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s. Reagans antipathy for the changes
the Sixties represented was most dramatically illustrated in 1969, with his decision
to send 791 state and city police officers to quell demonstrations on the University
of California, Berkeley, campus, which he had denounced in his 1966 gubernatorial campaign as a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants
(Rosenfeld F1). The ensuing struggle for Peoples Park resulted in violent clashes
between protesters and police; the death of bystander James Rector; and hundreds
of wounded students, police officers, and community members. Despite the notoriety of this incident, Marcus argues that Reagans Fifties-based persona helped him
avoid the negative associations his involvement in Sixties controversies could have
engendered (Happy Days and Wonder Years 7071). By the time Reagan began his
national political career, this rhetorical deployment of the Fifties not only enabled
him to go from a fringe position on the radical right to winning forty-nine states in
the landslide 1984 presidential election, but it also became the overarching political
strategy for the New Rights consolidation of political, social, and cultural power.
This rhetorical turn and its engagement with history are crucial to understanding
the role of the Fifties in Reagan-Era culture. The Fifties and the Sixties were presented to Americans as an absolute binary, which not only eliminated the continuum of historical events that connected the two periods but also flattened them so
as to fix one homogeneous meaning to the Fifties and another oppositional meaning
to the Sixties.
Let us consider two pivotal speeches from Reagans campaigning history. A
Time for Choosing, a speech given in support of Barry Goldwaters 1964 presidential campaign, reveals the rejection-based ethos of Reagans anti-communist fervor
at the beginning of his political career. On the other hand, Time to Recapture
Our Destiny, the address Reagan made to the Republican National Convention
upon accepting the presidential nomination in July 1980, illustrates the shift to a
rhetoric of return. My choice of these two public speeches, among the most famous

Fixing the Fifties


in his pre-presidential career, is not motivated merely by their shared titular focus
on time. Beyond that, a contrast between these two addresses reveals the development of Reagans political usage of the Fifties that would become celebrated and in
fact naturalized by the time Back to the Future became the top-grossing film of1985.
It bears remembering, after all, that Reagan was not a lifelong conservative
Republican. In the 1940s, Reagan was a registered Democrat who supported
Roosevelts New Deal programs, and in his (largely conciliatory) testimony to the
House Un-American Activities Committee, maintained, I never, as a citizen, want
to see our country become [so] urged, by either fear or resentment of this group, that
we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles (qtd. in Bentley and
Rich 14447; Kahn 59). Of course, Reagans public appeal, even in his days as president of the Screen Actors Guild, greatly relied on his acting personafootball hero,
good soldier, faithful cowboy, and all-American good Joe (Hoberman Return to
Normalcy 57). Stories abound of Reagan winning over both factory workers and
management with his natural charm while touring the nation as a spokesman for
General Electric. Michael Rogin goes so far as to argue that Reagan was increasingly
unable to differentiate between his real life and his screen life, and as a result merged
his on- and off-screen identities (3). Still, historian Matthew Dallek argues, by the
time Reagan rose to national notoriety politically, he was largely considered to be an
affable extremist, taken much less seriously than figures on the right like William
F.Buckley, Richard Nixon, or Barry Goldwater. Reagan became so contentious, in
fact, that General Electric terminated his spokesman position in 1962, deeming him
too extremist in his anti-communist politics (Dallek 40). A Time for Choosing is
illustrative of Reagans rhetoric at this point in his career.
A Time for Choosing was televised widely, first as part of the Republican
National Convention in San Francisco in July 1964, then as part of the Rendezvous
with Destiny program in October of the same year. Dallek identifies Reagans surprising emergence in mainstream politics in the mid-1960s as a turning point in
American political history, the opening salvo in conservative revolution that in
many ways still defines the terms of our political debates. While Reagans A Time
for Choosing speech was in support of Goldwaters campaign against the incumbent Lyndon B.Johnson, Reagan had given versions of it (he called it the Speech)
for years on the General Electric lecture circuit, and thus it can be understood as
apracticed articulation of Reagans political worldview in the 1960s. Reagan strikesa
critical tone at the outset, beginning with the line, I have spent most of my life as a
Democrat. Irecently have seen fit to follow another course. This opening not only
sets up the speech as a critique of Democratic policy but also foregrounds the image
of Reagan as a conscientious and independent thinker. The pursuit of another
course can be read as referring to his switch to Republican political affiliation as


Back to the Fifties

well as communicating the need for ordinary Joes to shift away from the New
Deal and Great Society programs that had defined the Democratic Party. Reagans
voice and tone in this speech is particularly interesting in retrospect. While his
presidential manner was often affable, charming, and avuncular, his demeanor in
A Time for Choosing is strident and often combative. More to the point, A Time
for Choosing is definitively not nostalgic. Asample paragraph will illustrate:
Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state
have told us they have a Utopian solution of peace without victory. They call
their policy accommodation. And they say if well only avoid any direct
confrontation with the enemy, hell forget his evil ways and learn to love us.
All who oppose them are indicted as warmongers. They say we offer simple
answers to complex problems. Well, perhaps there is a simple answernot an
easy answerbut simple:if you and Ihave the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based on what we know in our hearts is
(Reagan, A Time for Choosing)
The characteristic Reagan style is evident in this selection. He champions simple
answers, bases his convictions on common sense and shared codes of morality,
and aligns himself with the ordinary people and against the politicians. This
speech also includes Reagans signature invocation of the Founding Fathers and
sweeping narratives of American progress. But A Time for Choosing is much
more interested in the present and the future than it is in championing the values of the past. In 1984, Reagans morning in America was a vision of optimistic
new beginnings. In 1964, however, the morning that Reagan envisions is one of
apocalyptic catastrophe. He insists that socialism, in the guise of the Democratic
Party, has caused a perversion of American ideals:Our natural, inalienable rights
are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been
so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment. He condemns
the Democrats as taking the Party of Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland down the
road under the banners of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, and warns that the policies of
accommodation toward the Soviet Union will lead to disaster scenarios:defeat in
the Cold War, a thousand years of darkness, the chains of slavery, and, eventually, the atom bomb. This, for Rogin, is an example of Reagans demonology, the
inflation, stigmatization, and dehumanization of political foes that is at the center
of American politics (xiii). This rhetoric persists in Reagans presidential speeches,
but in this early stage in his political career he had not yet learned to temper it with
cheery visions of Fifties America.

Fixing the Fifties


Reagans A Time for Choosing speech may have been a high point in the
Goldwater campaign. This may also be damning with faint praise. Goldwater was
steamrolled in the general election, winning only fifty-two electoral votes. Reagans
stumping, according to Dallek, mainly deepened the impression that conservatives
were anti-communist paranoids who saw subversives under every rock and marginalized him among journalists, who dismissed him as a huffy simpleton with
strong ties to the Republican right (6465). Goldwaters landslide defeat in some
quarters signaled the end of American conservatism and inspired calls for a more
moderate Republican party. These calls were only intensified when Reagan opened
a Republican fundraiser with a sharp rebuke against moderate party members.
Good morning to all you irresponsible Republicans, he told the audience. Reagan
would go on in the same fundraiser to claim that there was a vast conspiracy in the
Eastern liberal press to portray Goldwater as a warmonger and a savage (Dallek
6566). While Reagans oratorical skill marked him as an up-and-comer on the
(bleak) Republican scene, his rhetoric, as shown here, was often seen as antagonistic, paranoid, oppositional, and divisivetoo caustic in its rejection of a particular
course of action. Acomparison with Reagans rhetoric in 1980 (while still opposing
an incumbent) will throw into sharp relief the way that the vision of the Fifties that
motivates Back to the Future would enable his transition from radical fringe to
Great Communicator.
More than sixteen years after giving A Time for Choosing for Goldwater,
Reagan prepared a speech with a similar name. Time to Recapture Our Destiny
served as Reagans formal acceptance of the nomination at the 1980 Republican
National Convention in Detroit. As its title suggests, the speech relies upon the
power of nostalgia to define an idyllic past, an insufficient present, and a promising future. Many of the hallmarks of A Time for Choosing persist in Time to
Recapture Our Destiny. Reagan evokes sparkling images of American history
(Three-hundred-and-sixty years ago, in 1620, a group of families dared to cross a
mighty ocean) and harshly condemns Democratic politicians (The major issue in
this campaign is the direct political, personal, and moral responsibility of Democratic
Party leadership for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us.).
Crucially, however, in Time to Recapture our Destiny Reagan positions the
post-Fifties political initiatives (more specifically, Great Society governmental
initiatives) as deviations from the plot, divergences from the national narrative of
progress that began with independence and would reach its summit in an impending defeat of communism. Reagan studiously avoided specific references to the
1950s, due to concerns over his advanced age (he would be seventy years old at inauguration, the oldest incoming president by far). Specifically mentioning the 1950s or
1950s policy could also spark controversy (as Bates chronicles, Reagan made a major


Back to the Fifties

gaffe in the 1980 campaign by stating his support of states rights in Philadelphia,
Mississippi, site of infamous murders of civil rights workers). Instead of directly
referencing the 1950s, Reagan indirectly alludes to the Fifties, as a point at which
the nation lost its way. Because of the traction that the New Rights pop-nostalgia
discourses already had in American culture by 1980, the mention of small-town
or traditional America drew on notions of the Fifties. In the speechs opening
lines, Reagan outlines his mission statement in terms of a return to the values of
those times:More than anything else, Iwant my candidacy to unify our country,
to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose. Iwant to carry our message to
every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community
of shared values.
Later, Reagan references the need to recover and renew American values that have
been lost along theway:
Some say that spirit no longer exists. But I have seen itI have felt itall
across the land, in the big cities, the small towns and in rural America. The
American spirit is still there, ready to blaze into life if you and Iare willing to
do what has to be done; the practical, down to earth things that will stimulate
our economy, increase productivity and put America back towork.
(Time to Recapture Our Destiny)
By implying that something must be recovered from our tradition, Reagan
implicitly condemns the Sixties and Seventies as divisive, misguided, and damaging. Reagan draws on his ability to embody the values of Fifties America (he is
a member of this community of shared values) and obscures his own participation in fractious (and indeed, violent and destructive) Sixties controversy. The
speechs repeated use of phrases like renew the American spirit, rebirth of the
American tradition, and recapture our destiny gesture backward in time to
the period (in the New Rights view) when America strongly embraced its values
of family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom. Furthermore, the speech
suggests that, for 1980s America, looking backward was intrinsically linked
with the potential for future progress. It is the promise of that future that drives
Time to Recapture Our Destiny:They say that the United States has had its
day in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith My fellow citizens, Iutterly
reject that view. In short, the speech presents the same vision of American prospects that Marty finds in Back to the Futureone must go back to the past in
order to move profitably to the future. Like the double fixing in the film, Time
to Recapture our Destiny promotes the Fifties as a repository of American values and detaches the period from the historical movements (associated with

Fixing the Fifties


theSixties) that followed it. The doubly fixed Fifties are thus presented as a stable and continually accessible site to which the nation can always return. Just as
Marty must intervene in his familys origins in the Fifties to attain the material
and social success that he desires, Reagan intimates that the nation must return
to its Fifties traditions in order to retain its position as a global superpower in the
twenty-first century.
While Reagans use of the Fifties remained implicit in his speeches (and campaign
materials like the famous Train television spot in 1984), some neoconservative
figures did explicitly link Reagan with the Fifties. The Reagan Revolution, penned
by conservative strategists Robert Novak and Rowland Evans just after the 1980
election, celebrates Reagans efforts to return the republic to an earlier day that
day might be fixed at 1955 (2). As Ihave argued, what is important about this is not
simply that Reagan is associated with a prior era. It is more important to recognize
that the 1955 that Novak and Evans reference stands in for an inflection point in a
particular narrative of American national progressa starting point for Americas
status as modern superpower, and the point to which the nation must return in
order to recapture its destiny. This is, of course, a narrative constructed in response
to the political interests of Novak and Evans (and their New Right contemporaries)
in the 1980s, an originstory.
For Americans who lived through the 1950s and 1960s, it was much easier to separate the fantasy of the Fifties from the lived experience of history. While Americans
may have become frustrated with ineffective government programs, foreign policy
embarrassments, and the leadership of the Ford and Carter administrations, few
were ready to forswear all the post-1950s policy advances (the Civil Rights Act,
Medicare, the establishment of public broadcasting, environmental legislation, etc.).
For the Re-Generation teenagers who did not live through those years, however,
the New Rights sunny portrayal of the Fifties held a different sort of influence.
Taking part in the Reagan Revolution was a new brand of politically engaged youth,
addressing a new sort of generationgap.

R eagan Youth:Michael J., AlexP.

Reagans Youth Movement, a 1984 article in The Washington Post, reported

on just how effectively the president had reached young voters. According to exit
polls,58percent of voters aged 1825 in the 1984 election cast their vote for Reagan,
and 38percent of those young voters identified as Republicans (as opposed to the only
29percent that identified as Democrats). This represented a gain of almost 20percent for Republicans since the mid-1970s, and owed much to the oldest president


Back to the Fifties

in American history. He makes me feel good, said one young Texan in The Posts
article, He says theres opportunity out theretake it and run (Peterson 5). Reagans
ability to make young people feel good was crucial to his cultural power and seemed
to be most strongly connected to the economic aspirations of Re-Generation teens.
Another youngster interviewed by the Post makes this explicit, as she recounts how
she changed from a liberal-leaning independent to a Reagan supporter:Its fun to
think you can save the world, but then you start working and look at that paycheck,
she says, you can change pretty fast (Peterson 5). While polls throughout the 1980s
indicated that young voters did not align themselves with right-wing social and cultural views (there was no coincident embrace of a figure like televangelist and activist
Jerry Falwell among American teenagers), economic pragmatism was the order of the
day, even in American high schools and universities.
Even before he starred in Back to the Future, Michael J.Fox had come to represent
a generation of aspiring yuppies. This was largely due to his performance as Alex
P.Keaton on the NBC sitcom Family Ties (198289). The Museum of Broadcast
Communications described the immensely successful and culturally prescient series
as a perfect demonstration of the resonance between collectively-held fictional
imagination and the structure of feeling of a historical moment (Saenz).
Creator Gary David Goldberg originally intended the show to focus on the family life of former hippies. Comedy was meant to emerge from the tensions between
Elyse (Meredith Baxter-Birney), a successful architect, her husband Steven (Michael
Gross), a public television station manager, and their three conservative children.
Their only son, Alex, a teenage supply-side economics advocate compulsively clad in
business attire, became the surprise focal point of the show after the first season. The
role made Fox a star and propelled the show into the top ten of the Nielsen ratings
for almost the entirety of its eight-year run onNBC.
While Family Ties was originally written to present Alex ironically (Alex has a
poster of William F.Buckley hanging over his bed and loses his virginity after attending a Milton Friedman lecture), viewers responded enthusiastically to Alex and his
tendency to mock his leftist parents. In many ways, Alex embodied the attitudes of
a new generation that was much more interested in scoring big on Wall Street than
supporting community television programming or designing eco-friendly homes.
The first scene in the shows pilot features the family watching a slide show of the
1969 National Mobilization to End the War demonstration in Washington, DC,
which Steven and Elyse attended together. These slides would serve as part of the
shows credit sequence for several seasons. Alexs response to the images is a mixture
of contempt and ridicule, as he offers sarcastic comments like, What were you protesting, good grooming? This dynamic is the source of the series humor but also
much of its pathos. In one early episode, Steven must apologize to Alex for refusing

Fixing the Fifties


to allow him to be himself by taking a date to a racially segregated country club.

The series, in other words, pits Steven and Elyses responsibilities as parents in the
1980s against their supposedly outdated political convictions.
Family Ties portrayal of the tensions between Alex and his parents positions
Sixties radicalism as the outdated establishment and conservatism as hip and rebellious. The transmission of conservative principles to the next generation was a key
part of the New Rights strategies, and the popular frenzy around the figure of Alex
testified to Reaganisms appeal to 1980s teens and the characters resonance for original viewers of Back to the Future. This association between Foxs television character in Family Ties and his Hollywood screen persona lingers even todayin the
2006 volume Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film, the author repeatedly
refers to Foxs character in Back to the Future as Alex.
Alex P.Keatons disdain for his parents vision of the world, and his animosity
for what he felt were the failures or betrayals of Sixties culture to secure American
prosperity and dominance, stood in for a larger cultural attitude among a segment
of young people in the 1980s. This was not primarily an issue of the 1950s or 1960s
but rather reflected the economic and social conditions of the early 1980s:slow economic growth, urban decay, and deindustrialization. This same sense of disappointment permeates Back to the Future and is suggested by the casting of Fox. He was
so vital to Zemeckis and Gales vision of Back to the Future, in fact, that he was cast
twice. Fox was the first choice to play Marty, but since Baxter-Birney was on maternity leave, Family Ties producers would not allow for a release. Consequently, the
Back to the Future production began with Eric Stoltz as the lead, and filming continued for several weeks before Stoltz was released from his contract. An agreement
between Fox and the Family Ties producers was eventually reached, and the entire
film was shot around Foxs Family Ties schedule, with the bulk of shooting occurring at night or during weekends. This also required recasting the role of Martys
girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells), as the actress originally cast (Melora Hardin)
was taller than the diminutive Fox. The lengths to which the production went to
secure Foxs performance suggests not only that he is a fine performer but also that
his star text brought an element to the film that other actors could not replicate.
While it is clear that Back to the Future creates a fantasy vision of the Fifties, it
also simultaneously constructs a fantasy of the Eighties. This vision comes from the
perspective of the Reagan-Era teen disaffected with the ways that baby boomers had
fouled up the country and jeopardized their future. If Hill Valley in 1955 is a dream,
Hill Valley in 1985 is something of a nightmare. The initial depiction of Martys
hometown is decidedly less cheery than the Fifties town square scene described in
this chapters opening lines. The carefully manicured lawn that stretched in front
of the courthouse in 1955 has been transformed into a crowded parking lot for


Back to the Fifties

the towns social services buildings. The two downtown movie houses that played
Reagan films in 1955 Hill Valley have been converted into a pornographic theater and
a low-rent church. Indeed, the square bears all the markings of a blighted neighborhood:adult bookstores, bail bond dealers, pawn shops, seedy hotels, and several
abandoned and boarded-up storefronts. Graffiti (in Spanish, presumably from the
dreaded Latin youth gangs of suburban California) covers both the courthouse and
school; trash litters the streets; and the houses in town are dingy and unkempt.
The city is falling into disrepair. That was always one of the major elements of the
story even in its earliest incarnation, screenwriter Bob Gale has said. Zemeckiss
intent was to take a place and show what happens to it over a period of thirty years.
What happened to everybodys home town is obviously the same thing. They built
the mall out in the boonies, and killed all the business downtown, and everything
changed (Mayfield). The flip side of the films Fifties idealism is the notion of a city
in decline in the1980s.
If the city is in decline, the McFly family is as well. In 1985, George is a doormat
working at a dead-end job, still doing all of Biffs work while receiving none of the
credit. Lorraine swills gin in resignation as she makes a cake for her incarcerated
brother, Joey (We all make mistakes in life, children, she says with a loaded look8
in Georges direction). Martys older brother lives at home and takes the bus to his
fast-food job, while his older sister is hopelessly loveless. It appears that there isnt
much hope for the future in the McFly household, or in Hill Valley at all. Reveling
in memories of the past is the only recourse Martys parents havetelling the story
of Lorraine and Georges courtship takes on ritual properties in the house. As the
children roll their eyes, Lorraine wistfully describes how she fell in love with George
after he was hit by her fathers car in a freak birdwatching accident, their first date at
the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, and their first kiss. It was then, Lorraine
says ruefully, I knew Iwas going to spend the rest of my life with him. George,
oblivious to his wifes despair, seems to take comfort only in reruns of 1950s episodes of The Honeymooners. The nostalgic past, for the McFlys, is a refuge from the
increasingly bleak present. Once Marty travels back in time, however, he will discover that much of what his parents have told him about the Fifties has been a lie, or
at least insufficient for creating the future that Marty desires.
One main source of Back to the Futures entertainment value stems from Martys
unmasking of his parents nostalgic memories of the Fifties as falsehoods. The birdwatching that resulted in Georges car accident in Lorraines version of the story is
revealed to be peeping Tomism. The restrictive morality that Lorraine espouses in
1985 (When Iwas your age Inever chased a boy, or called a boy, or sat in a parked car
with a boy) turns out to be revisionist history, as young Lorraine removes Martys
pants at their first meeting, drinks liquor, smokes cigarettes, and aggressively pursues

Fixing the Fifties


a sexual relationship with Marty. While these revelations unsettle Martyhe has
earlier expressed a belief that his mother was born a nunthey also provide a
rationale for his mothers latter-day conservatism. In no small part the film appears
to suggest that Lorraines fault was being too forward with George, and the price she
pays in 1985 is a life of disappointment and regret.9
Though Marty finds the untold secrets of his parents past unsettling, he does
take great pleasure in manipulating the circumstances of time travel to his own
advantage. Using his Reagan-Era knowledge and style, Marty masters Hill Valley
of 1955. The film thus suggests not only that Reagan-Era teenagers understand the
world of 1985 better than their parents, but also that teenagers of the 1980s know
more than anybody else who has ever livedthe past can be disregarded and conveniently changed to fit the modern adolescents view of the way things should be
(Kroll). It is Martys Re-Generation tools, tastes, and pop cultural savvy that allow
him to gain the respect and admiration of the entire 1950s community.
The film highlights this discrepancy in knowledge when Marty eats dinner with
Lorraines family and recognizes the episode of The Honeymooners (The Man
from Space) on television. When he exclaims that hes seen it before, Lorraines
little brother Milton expresses his bafflement:What do you mean youve seen it?
Its brand new. When Marty tries to explain that he saw it on a rerun, Miltons
response, Whats a rerun?, draws the differences between the generations into
sharp relief. 10 Marty soon learns to take advantage of his superior knowledge of
media texts and technologies. When he needs to explain to 1955s Doc Brown how
the time machine works, he shows him the video tape on the portable camcorder
that he has brought along with him (Martys ability to record, replay, and remix
audio and video is his secret weapon). Later in the film, Marty poses as Darth
Vader from the Planet Vulcan to strong-arm George into asking Lorraine to the
dance. Using a portable cassette player loaded with Eddie Van Halen guitar solos,
Marty convinces George that his brain will be melted by the sonic attack unless he
assents to Lord Vaders wishes. One is reminded of Biffs mocking salvo:Dont be
so gullible, McFly!
The ease with which Marty learns to navigate and master 1955 Hill Valley, both
geographically and interpersonally, suggests a belief in the superiority each successive generation has over the preceding one, and a faith in the ingenuity of American
youth to write their own future. The films most dramatic illustration of this comes
in Martys musical performance at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. Filling
in for the injured guitarist, Marty steps on stage with the band (Marvin Berry and
the Starlighters) to perform Earth Angel, a doo-wop staple that was among the
top hits of 1955. The song is significant because, as Timothy Taylor argues, doo-wops
stylistic and generic separation from contemporary popular music sonically suggests

40 Back to the Fifties

a bygone era. Doo-wops quick exit from the scene and its conversion from a living, meaningful music for youth to a powerful sign of that youth, Taylor explains,
make it a potent trigger for a structure of feeling of nostalgia (95). Earth Angel,
in other words, signifies past-ness more than a song from a different genre would.
Had the Starlighters played another song from 1955 (Bill Haleys Rock Around the
Clock, for example), the scene would not have the sonic connotation of a wholly
different era, since rock and roll has maintained a central position in popular music
since the 1950s. Doo-wop, on the other hand, had by 1985 been long relegated to the
oldies circuit.
Once his future is ensured, Marty celebrates by pushing the dance from doo-wop
into the sonic future. Telling the crowd that hes going to play an oldie well, its
an oldie where Icome from, he leads the band in a rollicking rendition of Johnny
B.Goode, which inspires the bandleader to call his cousin Chuck to exclaim, You
know that new sound you been looking for? Well listen to this! The film thus positions Marty as the inventor of rock and roll (he even reproduces some of Berrys
signature dance movements) and the white middle-class suburb of Hill Valley as its
birthplace. As with the function of Golden Oldies on airwaves and film soundtracks
of the Reagan Era, or the cover versions of soul, rock, or R&B songs that white performers churned out in the Fifties, Martys performance not only covers the racial
and sexual threats that early rock and roll presented to the Fifties social order, it also
transfers the credit for its invention.
Of course, Back to the Future is a comedy, and the transfer of rock innovation to Marty is played for laughs. Marty is unable to bask in the glory of his

Martys fingertapping recalls Eddie Van Halen.

Fixing the Fifties


Johnny B.Goode performance because in the process of playing it he is unable

to stay in time. Overcome by the music, Marty moves away from Chuck Berrys
signature guitar sound (crisp, staccato guitar notes, backbeat rhythms, inverted
fifths, and clave accents) to sounds from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, belying his
own love of synth-infused hard rock.11 Increasing the intensity of his solo while
reducing its emphasis on the Goode melody, Marty engages in a high-feedback,
legato guitar style that is associated with Jimi Hendrix, eventually transitioning
into the hard rock and heavy-metal sounds of the 1980s. Similarly, Martys movements on stage transition from Berrys duckwalk hops to the signature moves
of guitar heroes of later decades of the more recent past. Impersonating Hendrix,
Marty kicks his amp and plays the guitar behind his back and with his teeth. He
imitates the windmill downstrumming of The Whos Pete Townshend, slides
on his back like Angus Young of AC/DC, and engages in fretboard finger tapping a la Eddie Van Halen. When Marty finally looks up from the Hill Valley
stage, he finds the crowd staring at him in befuddlement and horror. I guess
you guys arent ready for that yet, he says sheepishly, but your kids are gonna
loveit. Again, Martys generational difference, and the inevitability of his tastes,
are reinforced.
Though he is carried away in this particular moment, Back to the Futures protagonist generally utilizes his technological and cultural knowledge to gain power and
respect in the past. In so doing, Back to the Future portrays the Fifties as simpler
in both senses of the wordadults and teenagers alike in 1955s Hill Valley (with
the exception of Doc Brown) are easily duped, frightened, and manipulated by
Marty. He leaves Hill Valley 1955 better off than he found it, and enthusiastically
returns to a much-improved future. In the terms of Reagans Time to Recapture
Our Destiny speech, the Fifties is not necessarily the best time that Hill Valley
will see. That time lies in the future, if only its residents will embrace their destiny.
In the world of Back to the Future, it is the 1980s teenager who spearheads that
In this logic, the country would be better off if history were simply changed
to match the fantasy of the Fifties. In the absence of actual time travel, history is
changed by the circulation of stories, myths, and fantasies of the Fifties as a better time. During the Reagan Era, some carefully calibrated a fantasy Fifties that
included some elements of 1950s America yet screened out other elementsfew
people were explicitly advocating for a return to segregation, or compulsory housework for women, or Cold War hysteria. The vision of the Fifties present in Back to
the Future is indicative of a constructed nostalgias allure. Regardless of historical
accuracy, the Reaganite fantasy of the Fifties was a pleasant, useful falsehood that
many Americans were inclined to believe.

42 Back to the Fifties

Fixing the(Civic) Fifties

As Alex P.Keaton chafes against what he understands to be the failures of his father,
so too does Marty McFly lament his fathers failure. By replacing his fathers credo,
I dont think Icould take that kind of rejection, with Docs mantra, If you put
your mind to it, you can accomplish anything, Marty is able to reverse his familys fortune. Until Martys intervention, the issues his parents faced in high school
(Georges weakness, Lorraines vice, the inability of either to stand up for themselves
against the domineering Biff) simply repeat themselves. Martys goal is to fix the
broken promise of the 1950s to better match the fantasy version of the decade that
gained prominence with Reagans rise. As he fixes his own familys shortcomings
in 1955, Marty simultaneously cleanses the Fifties of social agitation, racial oppression, and the other cultural anxieties that actually gripped the decade.
While the McFly family is the central focus of Back to the Future, the conditions
of Hill Valley as a civic entity are also subject to the process of historical transformations that allow Marty to remake his family. Take, for instance, the most
prominent piece of the Hill Valley setthe clock tower that adorns city hall and
serves as the backdrop for the films climactic scene. Marty gains his knowledge
of the clock in 1985 from a woman volunteering for the Hill Valley Preservation
Society who wishes to ensure that the clock remains correct exactly twice a day.
Like the clock, in the world of Back to the Future, whatever events occur in 1955 are
preserved in perpetuityif George allows Biff to bully him in 1955, Biff will always
bully George. If George and Lorraine kiss in 1955, they will be together forever. The
clock is the figurative site of the second order of fixing for which Ihave argued.
The town clock, rendered inoperable by a lightning strike in 1955, not only provides a power source for Martys time travel but also suggests that Hill Valley itself
has been frozen in time. When the lightning strikes, the clock hands stop at
10:04p.m. and for the next thirty years remain fixed to the time of Martys exit from
his reparative visit to 1955, perpetually pointing to the moment when the towns destiny was sealed. As Marty wanders through the idyllic 1955 Hill Valley, he struggles
to understand what has happened to his hometown. Simultaneously, the clock hovers behind his head onscreen, broadcasting precisely what has happened:the town
is bustling and prosperous because the march of time has not yet been impeded.
The chiming of the clock tower coincides with Martys realization of his travel, and
the countdown until lightning strikes the towerMartys only chance of getting
homeprovides dramatic tension. The stopped clock in 1985 is a symbol of Martys
mission:for both Hill Valley and his family to be fixed, or repaired, Marty must
return to the time before the clock struck ten. In other words, the film performs the
process of double fixing by allowing Marty to perfect, and then freeze, his family
and civic fortunes.

Fixing the Fifties


Marty and the Hill Valley clock tower.

The Back to the Future trilogy offers the Fifties unchallenged historical significance. Nobody has any ability to change the condition of their individual lives by
making changes in 1985the die is cast by that time. Further, Marty cannot change
history by returning to any other moment in American history. It is only by returning, again and again, to 1955, that Martys time traveling has any historical efficacy. This is the structuring logic of Back to the Future and its treatment of history.
The specific way that Back to the Future invokes the Fifties (as a time when if you
put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything, as the film repeatedly asserts)
aligns with the rhetoric of the New Right. But Martys success relies entirely on his
Reagan-Era knowledge that allows him to repair and protect the Fifties not as it was,
but as the era should havebeen.
In other words, the simple conceptualizations of Reagan-Era nostalgia to which
so many critics respond are only part of the story. The real ideological work of
pop nostalgia is not found in what is forgotten, left out, or elided, but rather in
the repairs that are enacted and then eternalized, because those are the meanings
that structure future actions, which can be directed toward conservative, or liberal,
or moderate, or radical agendas. Pickering and Keightley remind us that nostalgia
is often directed not toward the past but toward the future, representing a desire
for engagement with difference, with aspiration and critique, and with the identification of ways of living lacking in modernity. Nostalgia can be both melancholic
and utopian (921). Neither Back to the Future nor Reagan forget or erase history.
Rather, they foster nostalgic affect prompted by critical reflection on contemporary
historical conditions, and promote selective versions of the past to suit their visions
of the future. The New Right mobilized nostalgic affect in order to marginalize

44 Back to the Fifties

the activism and politics associated with the Sixties and promote neoconservative
values associated with the Fifties. But Fifties nostalgia is not inherently or necessarily linked to neoconservatism, and, as Iwill discuss in the next chapter, it definitively was not in its infancy.
Travel back in time withme.


While I make the case in this book that pop nostalgia became a particularly
powerful and influential cultural formation from 1973 to 1988, it is important to
recognize that Fifties nostalgia in popular culture is not confined to that fifteen-year
period. Reagan and the New Right were effective and persistent in utilizing Fifties
nostalgia in staking political or cultural territory, but they were neither the only nor
the first todoso.
Recognizing this is particularly important if we are to understand nostalgia as
affect emerging from relations between and among texts, audiences, and the contexts
in which they meet. These relations are, like the device that powers Doc Browns
DeLorean, constantly in flux. As a texts move through history, they encounter new
audiences, are placed in new contexts, or gather new historical and cultural resonances. Thus the political and social function of texts nostalgia inevitably change.
Once we understand nostalgia in this way, we can begin to see it work in alternative and complicated fashions, shaped by audiences, adjacent texts, and the contexts
from which it emerges. When we look beyond the considerable shadow of Reagan,
we find Fifties nostalgia in the places (and times) we might least expecteven down
on Yasgursfarm.
Jimi Hendrixs set at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on August 18, 1969,
stands as one of the defining performances of his legendary career, and perhaps the
most important cultural moment of the Sixties. This was not, however, immediately
apparent. Due to a lengthy rain delay and nagging technical issues that had pushed
the set to a Monday morning, not to mention the sheer exhaustion that accompanied

46 Back to the Fifties

the three-day Woodstock experience, the crowds that remained for Hendrix were
a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands that attended the festival. Further,
Hendrixs performance (with a newly formed backing band) left much to be desired
for the brave souls who did stay to watch him perform. His longtime producer and
recording engineer recalls a disregard for professionalism in the uneven and often
off-key performance (McDermott and Kramer 215). Hendrixs band (Gypsy Sun and
Rainbows) was relatively untested (the Jimi Hendrix Experience had parted ways
earlier that summer), and was out of sync for much of the two-hour set (Shadwick
19293). Watching the performance, Hendrix seems aware of how sub-par it is,
saying at one point, Thank you again. You can leave if you want to, were just jamming, thats all. Many did leave. According to musicologist Mike Daley, Hendrixs
set only gained cultural recognition after the festival was long over, when Michael
Wadleighs documentary Woodstock (1970) featuredit.
As Hendrixs band transitioned out of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)/Stepping
Stone and into the opening notes of the national anthem, Woodstock shows
Hendrix flashing a peace sign, and the crowd offering its most enthusiastic response
of the morning. Daley describes the performance:
Hendrix adorns the simple anthemic melody with scoops and articulations
like a lone gospel singer He follows the B section line and the rockets
red glare with the wail of a falling bomb and its subsequent explosion. Some
rolling confusion follows, screaming voices, machine gun rat-a-tats, unearthly
strangled cries, a mothers futile wails. Then the line the bombs bursting in
air, followed by a low-toned siren, some unplaceable sounds of unreality,
another bomb assault, twisted metal and bodies, a trickle of blood.
Much of the commentary that followed the festival, whether from Richard
OBriens dispatches for CBS News, the Woodstock documentary, Joni Mitchells
Woodstock, or Greil Marcuss coverage in Rolling Stone, presented Woodstock as
an alternative to twentieth-century American society. In this context, the reviews
held up Hendrixs interpretation of The Star-Spangled Banner as a piece of political critique. Amemorial written after his death in 1970 singled out the performance
as politically deep and significant a chillingly contemporary work, a vision of
cultural crisis, of structural breakdown and chaos, screeching to an almost unbearable tension which must, somehow, burst (Hicks 209). Charles Shaar Murray of
New Musical Express (NME) called it a sonic portrait of a land in turmoil, a nation
in danger of tumbling into the abyss cracked open by the contradictions between its
ideals and aspirations and its reality(54).

Rereading American Graffiti


Hendrix was far less emphatic (or perhaps, far more coy) about the political
message of his anthem. At a press conference shortly after the festival, Hendrix
refused to ascribe any critical motivation to the performance, simply saying, We
played it the way the air is in America today (Cross 271). He had, after all, made
the national anthem a regular part of his live repertoire for some time, but never
had it resonated so much (Johnson, Why Woodstock Belongs to Jimi Hendrix).
In his first television appearance after Woodstock (September 9, 1969, on The
Dick Cavett Show), Cavett asked Hendrix directly about the controversy that surrounded his performance.1 Hendrix replied, All Idid was play it. Im an American,
so Iplayed it. Iused to have to sing it in school so it was a flashback. When
Cavett jokes about how Hendrixs status as a military veteran of the 101st Airborne
Division should deflect angry letters about the unorthodox interpretation of the
national anthem, Hendrix quickly added, Thats not unorthodox. Ithought it was
Hendrixs comments here point to another reading of the famed Woodstock
performance. We might consider Hendrixs anthem as not merely a condemnation
of American politics at that moment but also a reclamation of a particular idea of
America from the (personal, affective) past. It is this dual rejection and reclamation,
Iwould argue, that gives the performance its immense resonance. Surely, Hendrixs
improvisations and adaptations are meant to invoke, as Daley poetically argues, US
military actions in southeast Asia, but this alone would not have distinguished it
from many other songs performed at Woodstock. In choosing the highly symbolic
national anthem, Hendrix is not only able to reclaim it as a text belonging to his own
personal history (as a kid who sang it in school, or as a soldier in the 101st Airborne
Division) but also to mobilize it within a very specific context, for a specific audience that could participate in its own kind of reclamationWere American, so we
claimed it. In so doing, it is not only Hendrix, but the entire Woodstock Festival
(and by extension, the Counterculture) that announces both its radical differences
from the American mainstream (in tastes, values, hairstyles, etc.) and its steadfast
belonging to and ownership of the United States. That is to say, the very concept of
the United States itself was a contested cultural ideal, which diverse populations
attempted to define (and redefine).
So what is a discussion of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock doing in a book about
Fifties nostalgia from 1973 to 1988? In light of Hendrixs performance of the national
anthem (and the complex relations of national shame and pride that it articulates),
it is interesting to noteas scholars of Fifties nostalgia like Elizabeth Guffey and
Daniel Marcus havethat the band that took the stage immediately before Gypsy
Sun and Rainbows was not one of Hendrixs famous contemporaries (Blood,
Sweat and Tears; The Band; and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young all played sets the

48 Back to the Fifties

Sha Na Na, 1972.

Photo for William Morris agency is in the public domain. More licensing information at http://commons.

previous night). Rather, the opening act for Hendrix was Sha NaNa, a Columbia
University a-cappella group turned Fifties revival act. Appearing in greaser hairdos
and cast-off costumes from a traveling production of Bye, Bye, Birdie, Sha Na Na
played a set of covers featuring The Coasters Yakety Yak, Elvis Presleys Jailhouse
Rock, and Danny and the Juniors At the Hop. The band had gained a reputation

Rereading American Graffiti 49

in NewYork for their wild Greaser revival shows, and had parlayed that into an
invitation to perform at Woodstock. Founding member Robert Leonard told The
NewYork Times in 2008, The Grateful Dead loved us, Janis loved us, Jimi loved
us (Finn 1). Judging by the reaction shots of the crowd in the documentary, Sha
Na Nas Woodstock performance was initially disorienting, but eventually received
warmly. More success was on the way. Sha Na Na would follow up Woodstock with
a feature in Rolling Stone, a performance on Carsons The Tonight Show, a tour with
Frank Zappa, an appearance in Grease (1978), and eventually, their own syndicated
television program that ran from 1977 to1981.

The History ofFifties Nostalgia

While Fifties nostalgia was well established as a recognizable and marketable

trend by the 1980s, the example of Sha Na Na at Woodstock reminds us that pop
nostalgia did not spring forth fully formed from the head of Robert Zemeckis
in 1985. Sha Na Nas Woodstock appearance evidences the almost immediate
re-emergence of the styles, symbols, and sounds of the Fifties (Yakety Yak was
barely a decade old in 1969)in the middle of a festival that positioned itself as
a rejection of the conformity and restrictive moral values that were popularly
ascribed to the Fifties. What is most fascinating and important about Sha Na
Nas performance is not, as Guffey argues in Retro, that they articulated a new
Fabricated Fifties that circulated in retro culture (10607). Neither is it, as
Marcus argues in Happy Days and Wonder Years, that Sha Na Na began the process of replacing the beatnik with the greaser as the dominant symbol of
Fifties youth culture (30). The work of both scholars is valuable and has been
immensely influential to me in thinking through this chapter and this book as
a whole, and Ido not wish to dismiss their contributions out of hand. However,
my particular interest in Sha Na Na at Woodstock, and the pre-history of Fifties
nostalgia for which they stand in, is less in how they represented the Fifties
than when and where they did so. Sha Na Na offered nostalgic visions of the
Fifties in the context of the Woodstock Festival, within very specific historical,
cultural, and demographic conditions. The reason the bands juxtaposition with
Hendrix makes for such a delightful piece of trivia, after all, is because it is so
unexpectedwe associate Fifties nostalgia with the 1980s and the Reagan Right,
not with the Flower Children of Woodstock Nation. This is the case because the
Fifties have come to serve as the symbol of everything that the Sixties, at least in
theory, were set againstracism, sexual repression, quietism, and so on. But just
as Hendrixs Star-Spangled Banner can be understood as a simultaneous reclamation and critique of American-ness for the Counterculture, Sha Na Nas


Back to the Fifties

performance in that specific time and place functions as another sort of reclamation and critique, of a different sort of Fifties.
In the last chapter, Iargued that despite its reputation, the pop nostalgia in Back
to the Future and Reagans political rhetoric was fundamentally historical, reflecting political and social debates of the 1980s. Imade the case that the Fifties nostalgia the New Right wielded was only one of many potential visions of the Fifties,
each with its own political or social agenda. Fifties nostalgia must not be understood as a necessarily pernicious quality contained within bad ideological objects.
Rather, as Linda Hutcheon argues, nostalgia is what you feel when two different
temporal moments, past and present, come together for you it is an element of
responseof active participation, both intellectual and affectivethat makes for
the power (199). Nostalgia is, in other words, influenced by discourses that surround the text at the moment of the encounter.
The Fifties nostalgia prompted by Sha Na Na at Woodstock operated differently
than the nostalgic visions of the Fifties woven into Reagans speeches. Sha Na Nas
countercultural audiences were encouraged to participate in the reshaping, revision, and reconsideration of the Fifties. Part of the fun of Sha Na Na came from
audiences reclaiming the Fifties that existed in their own memories, and reconciling those memories to their current political, cultural, and aesthetic valuesjust as
Hendrix could use the national anthem to both affirm his American-ness (Im an
American, so Iplayed it) and comment on the current political and cultural state
of affairs in the United States (We play it the way the air is in America today). For
fans of Sha Na Na, the recontextualization of Fifties rock and roll into avant-garde
performance (Zappa called Sha Na Na the freakiest group around) produced nostalgic pleasures, even as it acknowledged the excesses and limitations of the era from
which the bands material sprung.
Sha Na Na was not, it should be said, alone in mining this cultural territory. In
Colorado, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids began playing fraternity parties
with Fifties rock sets. Blues guitarist Johnny Winter recorded songs by B.B. King,
Howlin Wolf, and Chuck Berry, while The Flamin Groovies put a proto-punk spin
on the Fifties on their debut record, Supersnazz. This was not just a matter of music.
Rolling Stone ran Fifties style and slang guides in 1969, followed by a pair of cover
stories in Life and Newsweek on the re-emergence of the Fifties in the 1970s. 2 In 1971,
Peter Bogdanovichs major directorial debut The Last Picture Show (an adaptation
of a 1966 noel by Larry McMurtry), a somber portrait of small-town America on the
wane, won massive political acclaim. In the same year, Don MacLeans American
Pie, a song that chronicled ten turbulent years in rock from the death of Buddy
Holly to the tragedy at Altamont, spent four weeks atop the Billboard charts.

Rereading American Graffiti


Meanwhile, the original version of Greasenot yet a musicalwas produced at a

small Chicago theater.
If these were among the first instances of Fifties pop nostalgia, George Lucass cinematic elegy for Fifties youth culture, American Graffiti (1973), represents the point
at which it leapt into the mainstream. Lucass film touched off what sociologist Fred
Davis called a nostalgia wave, one in which the styles, images, icons, and sounds of
the Fifties became not only reliably marketable but culturally powerful. Beginning
with American Graffiti, Americans used the Fifties to redefine the United States in
its recent past, contested present, and potential futures. Rather than a precursor to
texts like Back to the Future, we must understand that, in 1973 at least, American
Graffitis nostalgia was of an entirely differentsort.
Rereading American Graffiti offers us the opportunity to uncover the ways
in which Fifties nostalgia was (and indeed, is) utilized to serve diverse and often
competing political, social, and cultural ends. These uses of nostalgia exceed the
models of Fifties nostalgia with which we are most familiar, and are linked to the
specific circumstances (historical, aesthetic, commercial) that surrounded the films
original production and distribution. This chapters first goal is to situate American
Graffiti within those contexts. This is especially important for this film, because
retrospective categorization and periodization has sometimes resulted in American
Graffiti being positioned as a precursor to the Blockbuster Era in Hollywood and
the rising conservatism of the New Right. There is, however, considerable reason to
argue that American Graffiti was understood as part of the American New Wave
in Hollywood, along with films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Five Easy Pieces
(1970). As Ishow in this section, audiences in 1973 understood Graffitis nostalgia
not as a retreat to the past, but rather as a rumination on the Fifties held in cultural
Of course, films do not stay in the year they are released. Scholars like Janet
Staiger and Barbara Klinger have emphasized the importance of analyzing the ways
that films acquire new meanings and associations as they move through time.3 As
American Graffiti was recut and rereleased in multiple theatrical and home video
formats, its nostalgia was literally repackaged, placing it in contact with other political and social values. This chapter concludes by considering the way that the film
self-critically reflects upon the very nature of nostalgia. The affective pull of the
films forms of memory creates a pastiche of the Fifties, in Richard Dyers sense of
the terma form of knowing imitation that allows for critical reflection on the
imitated form. The films nostalgia draws attention to the consequences of being
seduced by nostalgic visions of the past, and also emphasizes the historical conditions that motivate the longing for the good old days in the first place. Dyers


Back to the Fifties

framework offers us an opportunity to consider the historicity of nostalgic affect,

and the complex modes in which audiences indulged init.

Cr itiquing Gr affiti

In Back to the Future, 1955 serves as the pivot point for Hill Valleys entire history. Similarly, at the end of the night depicted in American Graffiti, the fates of
its seven young protagonists are sealed. The teenagers in Lucass film seem keenly
aware of the weight of their futures on their present. Throughout the night, the
main charactersSteve (Ron Howard), Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Laurie (Cindy
Williams), John (Paul Le Mat), Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), Deb (Candy Clark),
and Toad (Charles Martin Smith)approach the issues that they know will define
their lives, with romanticism, trepidation, and some exuberance. Upon gaining
stewardship of Steves car, Toad assures himself, Tonight is going to be different.
The magic of the night allows him to transform from Terry the Toad, loveless nerd,
to Terry the Tiger, the guy who can pick up the Connie Stevens look-alike, Deb. For
Toad (as well as the rest of the gang), this night will be the last one in which such
a transformation is possible. Some film critics and commentators might make the
same argument about the function of Fifties nostalgia after American Graffitithat
it set the mold for a reductive, reactionary vision of the Fifties, one that Back to the
Future could presuppose.
American Graffitis immense commercial success and influence on pop nostalgia over the last thirty years has prompted some to locate the film as a turning
point in Hollywood history and in cultural attitudes toward the Fifties. With its
enormous box-office success (grossing over $115million in North America alone),
cross-platform exploitation, merchandising, spin-offs, and sequels, Graffiti can be
positioned as one of the first modern summer blockbusters (Kilday). The pursuit of
these box-office successes that could serve as the source for merchandising opportunities ushered in the era of high-concept multimedia film properties that would
define American filmmaking in the 1980s. Justin Wyatt defines this era of filmmaking as dominated by film products shaped by industrial and economic imperatives, and characterized by an emphasis on style within the films, and through an
integration with marketing and merchandising (7). David A.Cook, in his history
of 1970s Hollywood titled Lost Illusions, places American Graffiti in the chapter
titled Manufacturing the Blockbuster, which chronicles the evolution of postclassical Hollywoods reliance on mega-hit pictures (37). The rise of blockbuster filmmaking that followed American Graffiti as the beginning of the end for quality in
Hollywood. As a 2003 book review in Cineaste blithely states, American Graffiti is

Rereading American Graffiti


a key film of the Seventies because it launched the career of George Lucas. His
bankroll and adolescent sensibility helped to make Hollywood the teenage wasteland it is today (Rafael83).
Aside from decrying its aesthetic consequences, commentators have also critiqued
American Graffiti as a cultural symbol of the emergent New Right. Pauline Kael, for
example, argues that Graffiti presents a history that marginalizes and/or ignores the
Fifties experience of women, African-Americans, homosexuals, and others, leaving
huge swaths of the population out of its vision, and lionizes their invisibility (The
Current Cinema 153). In Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson specifically names
American Graffiti as the first nostalgia film, a cycle of representation which participates in the commodification of history, representing culturally the logic of late
capitalism (6667). For both critics and theorists, then, American Graffiti marks a
turning point in the transformation of the Hollywood film from art to commodity.
In this (flawed) understanding of Hollywood history, the films of New Hollywood
are aligned with the politics of the New Left and deemed progressive, whereas
nostalgia films of the 1970s and 1980s are presented as equivalent to the soulless
blockbusters in Hollywood and corporate-driven politics of Reaganism.
I want to be very clear on this point:my intention in this chapter is not to defend
the marginalization of women and minorities in American Graffiti that Kael rightly
critiques, nor is it to take issue with Jamesons ultimate diagnosis that global capital
transforms and manipulates cultural knowledge of history to perpetuate existing
relations of production. Ido, however, want to offer the reminder that our reactions
to popular texts are always rife with complexities and contradictions. Just because
an affective response operates one way in one instance does not mean it will do so
in another, or that it has always done so. As we have already seen in the example of
Sha Na Na at Woodstock, Fifties nostalgiaparticularly as it emerged in the early
1970swas not understood as fundamentally retrograde.
Clearly, the economic success of American Graffiti paved the way for more
pop-nostalgia films and records to enter the mainstream, and the New Right strategically utilized this nostalgia wave. Surely, in some cases this led to an understanding of history shaped more by retro stylings than material or historical realities.
However, in recognizing these facts we must also resist the impulse to consider
any single version of nostalgia as the natural or inherent one simply because it has
become dominant. Pop nostalgia, like any other cultural formation, is capable of
containing multiple and contradictory politics and values. Jane Feuer reminds us
that, when analyzing popular media of the Reagan Era, it is the contradictions that
enable us to see what Stuart Hall and others mean when they characterize hegemony as a struggle over meanings, a process that is always ongoing even when (as
during the mid-eighties) it seems as if one side has won a decisive victory (Seeing


Back to the Fifties

Through the Eighties 16). The dominant political meanings of Fifties nostalgia
attained a hegemonic status not on account of their inherent truth but rather as the
result of complex networks of discourses that are historically and culturally contingent. In other words, the particular kind of nostalgia that Jameson critiques is not
necessarily a product of the nostalgia films themselves. Rather, it is the product of
a conditioned response to those films, a set of interpretive practices that emerged as
the result of struggles over the cultural definition of the Fifties as a whole, and of
Fifties teens in particular. As such, alternative readings of American Graffiti are not
only possible but were widely available at the time of the films release.
Jamesons analysis citing American Graffiti as evidence of the incompatibility
of postmodern aesthetics with genuine historicity is, after all, a reading framed by
the discourses of nostalgia that surrounded the text in 1984, when Jameson first
pointed to itdiscourses that are not inherent to the film but historically and
politically contingent. Many aspects of 1980s culture retrospectively influenced the
way we read American Graffiti:the massive success of Star Wars, Reagans landslide
re-election, the persistence of Happy Days after it had (literally) jumped the shark,
Richard Dreyfusss performance as a writer (a grown-up Curt?) wistfully looking
back to the Fifties in Stand By Me (1986), and countless other shifts in contextual
ground.4 If nostalgia is more about the present than it is about the past, and if the
present from which nostalgia is launched is ever shifting, the meaning of any particular nostalgia can never be a fixed one. That is to say, the historical and ideological conditions that influenced the watching of American Graffiti in 1973 were
vastly different from those in 1984, when Jamesons Postmodernism was originally
published. Jamesons 1984 analysis, in fact, has become part of the constellation of
discourses that guides our own reading of the film today and directs our understanding of how Fifties nostalgia operates ideologically. The conditions of watching
will continue to shift as new texts are brought into contact with the film, and as a
result, our readings of it (and the history it presents) will continue to change. This
does not mean that we cannot identify political and social values endorsed, transmitted, or circulating through particular texts. It simply means that the politics are
not inherent or universal.
The nostalgia that is present in American Graffiti can beand has beeninvoked
to serve diverse and competing ideological purposes, whether it be the subject of celebration for Reaganites of the New Right, offered as the subject of critique over the
phallocentrism of Hollywood by Kael, or reveled in by viewers who share a sense
of loss of the Fiftieswhatever form that loss might take. Still further, the assignment of any rigid ideological operation to American Graffiti (letalone to an entire
body of nostalgia films) enacts new types of historical effacement. In particular,
it elides the historically specific contextual discourses that surrounded American

Rereading American Graffiti


Graffitis production and reception in the early 1970s. Playing the national anthem
at Woodstock is different than playing it before a ball game. Sha Na Na opening
for Hendrix is different than Sha Na Nas syndicated variety show leading into the
In this chapter, Iwant to challenge the assumption that American Graffiti can
be read as belonging exclusively to either the Blockbuster Era in Hollywood or the
Reagan Era in American culture or politics, and to focus on the years 1962 (the
time of the films diegetic action) and 1973 (the year of the films initial release) as
points of transition and transformation. Focusing on these particular years undoes
the second order of fixing articulated in the first chapter, denying the presumed
ontological differences between Fifties, Sixties, and Reagan Era, and focusing
on the continuities and linkages among them. The second reason this chapter recontextualizes the film historically is in order to reconsider the nostalgia it prompted
upon its original release compared to reissues and rereleases.

The New Holly wood Blockbuster

The late 1960s were a period in which significant industrial and cultural changes
in American filmmaking allowed space for new ideas about what commercial
American narrative film could be. The shifts in economic, technological, ideological, and aesthetic aspects of Hollywood film from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s
have been termed, in varying quarters, the American New Wave, the Hollywood
renaissance, or the New Hollywood. Placing American Graffiti into the context
of the New Hollywood, with all the ambiguities and complexities of that term,
is important for understanding the degree to which the film (and the nostalgia it
prompts) has been transformed through its various iterations in its theatrical and
aftermarket releases.
What does it really mean to call a film a product of the New Hollywood? Film
studies has yet to reach any consensus on its definition. As Geoff King argues,
there is no agreement on an unambiguous definition of New Hollywood, or even
that it exists (1). Thomas Schatz uses the term to describe industrial conditions of
the postclassical period that relied increasingly on the blockbuster; Robert Kolker
focuses on the generation of American directors that moved into Hollywood from
film schools in the 1960s and 1970s; and Todd Berliner focuses on narrative style of
the period. Film critics and commentators, on the other hand, seemingly are more
united in celebrating and romanticizing the period. Peter Biskind, in his bestselling
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, presents the New Hollywood as the last time the community as a whole encouraged good work, the last time there was an audience that


Back to the Fifties

could sustain it (17). Such a depiction should not be accepted uncritically. Just as
Reagans positioning of the Fifties provided a lens through which 1980s America
might see itself, the lionization of New Hollywood also works to guide our understanding of contemporary Hollywood film as degraded or inauthentic, championing the good old days of Hollywood that (perhaps coincidentally) line up with the
tastes and preferences of baby boomer critics and scholars.
Alternatively, the term New Hollywood has been used to define the changing industrial conditions in American filmmaking, a new set of production and
marketing practices that created what King describes as the Hollywood of giant
media conglomerates and expensive blockbuster attractions (New Hollywood
Cinema3). Increasingly, precipitated by growing corporate ownership of film studios that brought a more rigid business structure to an industry that had aspirations
of artistry and auteurism throughout the previous two decades, producers relied
on saturation releases to maximize profits from a smaller output of films. Kael, the
critic who most prominently championed the American New Wave, famously lambasted this Hollywood business practice in a 1980 column, arguing that the new
managerial structure in Hollywood was not only threatening to the aesthetic value
of Hollywood films but also to the public interest (The Numbers 274). Film historians have largely characterized the Blockbuster Era along the same lines, explaining that it led to films that were increasingly fantastic (and thus apolitical)
(Schatz29)and linked historically with a reactionary backlash in American culture, especially in the years leading up to and during the Reagan administrations
(King, New Hollywood Cinema 8). Such assessments roughly align with accounts
from film scholars like Justin Wyatt, Richard Maltby, and others.5
As the statements from Kael, Schatz, and King demonstrate, critics often consider the emergence of the Blockbuster Era in political terms. The same can be said
for the New Hollywood. King describes the American New Wave or Hollywood
Renaissance version of New Hollywood as offering some degree of radical political potential, in both content and departures from classical style, and understands
those films as a reflection of some of the radical currents in American culture in
the period (8). Clearly, these general associations are insufficient to understand the
full complexity of both periods in Hollywood filmmaking. The style and substance
of the American New Wave films can be linked just as legitimately to industrial
changes and economic pressures (bulging youth demographics, fierce competition
from television, the erosion of the Production Code, etc.) as it can be to the politics
of thetime.
Similarly, the perceived social conservatism of the blockbuster can be understood
as driven not merely by ideological commitment but also by economic prudence in
a time when the single-screen arthouse was disappearing, requiring films to court

Rereading American Graffiti


wider audiences and take fewer risks. One could argue all day over whether it is
possible to politically characterize eras of commercial filmmaking, but regardless
of the accuracy of such political associations (New Wave = progressive, blockbuster = reactionary), the efficacy of these distinctions on our understanding
of films political and social meaning is immense. Because this sort of political
shorthand is so prevalent in popular and critical discourses, cultural perceptions
of American Graffitis artistic merit and (more importantly, for this study) the
political function of its Fifties nostalgia are influenced as much by its placement in
Hollywood history as by any reading of the film itself.
Today, George Lucas is known as the emperor of the Star Wars galaxy, presiding
over billions of dollars worth of films, spin-off television programs, animated specials, cartoon specials, breakfast cereals, playground equipment, video games, action
figures, apparel, and countless other merchandising tie-ins. But in 1971, after his initial feature flopped, Lucas was just the stinky kid who tagged along with Francis
Ford Coppola. Their rise from the rival graduate film schools of USC and UCLA to
the heights of mainstream success was the result of a host of dramatic changes in the
process and product of Hollywood filmmaking during the American New Wave in
the 1960s and 1970s. The collaboration of Coppola and Lucas in forming American
Zoetrope served as a symbolic and material attempt to establish a new mode of
American filmmaking that would radically alter the Hollywood landscape and create artist-centered spaces free from the interference of the executives and managers
that Kael would famously excoriate. American Graffiti, born out of the partnership between the two filmmakers, must be understood as part of this moment in
Hollywood history. This is not an argument made arbitrarily. There is considerable
evidence that at least some filmgoers in 1973 conceived of the film as part of a renaissance in Hollywood. A 1973 review in The New York Times, for example, called
the film the most important American movie since Five Easy Pieces, maybe since
Bonnie and Clyde, tying the film in with landmark films in the American New
Wave. The review further pronounced it a lasting work of art, granting the film a
legitimacy that might not be presumed today (Farber, Graffiti1).
Lucas first met Coppola on the Warner lot. He had originally intended to study
animation, but when he arrived the animation division had been shuttered, leaving him to hang around the set of Coppolas project, Finians Rainbow (1968). The
two collaborated on Coppolas next film, The Rain People (1969), a production
of mostly film students with little financing or budget support. The crew set up
an impromptu studio in an abandoned Nebraska grain siloa space for collaborative filmmaking. In that spirit, Coppola, Lucas, and independent filmmaker
John Korty would form American Zoetrope in San Francisco the autumn of 1969.
The collaborative spirit upon which Zoetrope was founded was one of the driving


Back to the Fifties

factors behind American Graffiti. In promotion for the film, Lucas said, Francis
is involved on all my pictures, and Im involved on all his pictures. We more or less
work together as collaborators. What we do is look at each others scripts, look at
the casting, then at the dailies, at the rough cut and the fine cut, and make suggestions we complement each other, and we trust each other (Farber, George
Lucas 4). Surely, linking Coppolas name to the project on the heels of the massive
success of Patton (1971) and The Godfather (1972) was partly promotion. But Lucass
emphasis on the collaborative spirit of their relationship also portrays Graffiti as
the product of a new kind of filmmaking.
The vision of American Zoetrope (and of the New Hollywood in general) was to
create new visions of American film. Speaking about the impulses behind American
Graffiti, Lucas positioned himself largely as an anthropologist:When Iwas in junior
college, my primary major was in social sciences. Im very interested in America and
why it is what it is Its really more interesting than primitive Africa or ancient New
Guineaand much, much weirder (Farber, George Lucas 6). His unimpressive
anthropological assessments aside, the very fact that Lucas would make such an argument in an interview designed to promote the film says something about how films
(and filmmakers) positioned themselves at this historical moment. This emphasis is
echoed in what is perhaps a films most important marketing device:its title. Studio
officials wished to call the film Another Slow Night in Modesto, but the films production team held firm. As a title, American Graffiti not only highlights the centrality
of the films American-ness but also frames the story as the trace of a lost civilization,
the graffiti that is left behind and deciphered later. For Lucas and Coppola (as well
as many of their audiences), the films that were part of the New Hollywood both
functioned as artistically and commercially viable objects and told their audiences
something about what it meant to be American. Just as Hendrix looked to reclaim
and redefine the national anthem, or as Sha Na Na reclaimed and redefined music
from the 1950s, American Graffiti works to reclaim and redefine the American Fifties.

The Wr iting onthe Wall in1973

By the time American Zoetrope began production on American Graffiti, the

Countercultures energy had waned, and the countrys self-image had taken significant damage. Many of the films of the New Hollywood reflected this, suggesting that the American dream had lost its promise, or worse, had become a
nightmare. American Graffiti, in its debut, was initially understood as part of this
cultural moment. A1973 review in Film Quarterly is illustrative of this, suggesting
that American Graffitis Fifties nostalgia was not understood as a celebration of an

Rereading American Graffiti


idealized era but a lament for the loss of American innocence:American Graffiti
is not just a checklist of Fifties memorabilia; it uses them to recapture the attitudes of the period, particularly the innocence that Vietnam, Oswald, hard drugs,
birth-control pills, Nixonthe whole spectrum of Sixties shake-upswould alter,
perhaps destroy, forever (Dempsey 58). In an interview, Lucas describes his intent
in writing the film in similar terms:I wanted to document the end of an era, how
things change and parallel that with what was going on in the United States at
that time, in terms of the loss of innocence (Bouzerau). We are accustomed to
thinking about Fifties nostalgia as characterized by a romanticized vision of the
Fifties, but Lucass film is no celebration. Its mourning in America.
Innocence is a peculiar term to append to the Fifties, particularly when it comes
from a film that emerged out of the aesthetic and political atmosphere of the Bay
Area in the 1960s. After all, the political upheavals of the Sixties, and the dominant
themes of the cinematic output of the New Hollywood, were in many ways oriented
toward uncovering the injustices and inauthenticities at the heart of the American
experience, and debunking the values commonly associated with the Fifties. Yet,
this sense of innocence may have less to do with an idealized social and moral
order and more with recognizing 1962 as a moment when the fantasy of innocence
was traumatically, but necessarily, shattered. This is made most plain in the development of the films primary figure of audience identification.
About halfway through the film, Curt hitches a ride with his ex-girlfriend Wendy
and her friend Bobbie. Curt is in search of the dream girlwho may or may not be
imaginaryhe spotted earlier in the evening. Wendy, needling Curt, announces
loudly to Bobbie, Did you know that my ex is going to become a presidential aide?
Its a secret, so dont tell anybody, but his big ambition in life is to shake hands
with President Kennedy. Narratively, the line serves to reveal Curts desire to leave
Modesto, the loftiness of his career aspirations, and perhaps a childish hopefulness
that Curt wishes to conceal. For the films audiences, particularly those watching
in 1973, the line operates on an additional register. They know all too well what
Bobbie, Wendy, and Curt do notthat Kennedy will be assassinated the following year, which will usher the United States into a series of cultural and political
upheavals. The 1973 audience knows precisely whats in store for them:Vietnam, the
Nixon presidency, Watergate and COINTELPRO, Kent State and Attica, tensions
in the Middle East, and economic stagflation at home. The emotional impact of this
realization for the audience is not only an appreciation of the charming idealism
that Curt represents but also a painful recognition that, for them, those times are
gone forever. This, more than the idealization of a fantasy version of history, is nostalgia in action. The pang of loss that is part of its affective impact can be directed
toward many pursuits in the present.

60 Back to the Fifties

For Curt, Wendys teasing simply represents a confrontation with his perhaps-naive
optimism, and he is embarrassed enough to deny it. Maybe Ive grown up, maybe
Ive changed my mind, he tells Bobby coolly. But his repeated maybes hint that
Curt is less certain of his future than he was at the beginning of the night, when he
had decided he would eschew his scholarship from an East-Coast coast college and
stay in Modesto. Curt doesnt know whether his fantasies of leaving his hometown
to pursue his dreams are just kids stuff, or whether it is his relationship with Wendy
that he really needs to grow out of. Significantly, the choice is still open to him.
For audiences in 1973, immersed in news of Vietnam and Watergate, such choices
seemed closed off, and ambition and optimism seemed much harder to comeby.
The decision of whether he will leave Modesto for college or stay at home is, in
many ways, the films center. At the films outset, Curt insists he just needs a little more time with his beloved hometown, and it is easy to understand why. As
Steven Farber writes in a 1973 review of the film, Curts hometown has an undeniable appeal: Cruising through town one summer night, a boy can see his old
friends, meet glamorous or dangerous new people, experience just about everything [] from the sublime to the ridiculous. Why would anyone want to leave?
(Graffiti8). The conflict in the narrative is coded as a problem of space. But it also
functions as a question of timewill Curt seek to hold on to his (Fifties) past or
boldly embrace his (Sixties) future? This temporal coding of space plays out in the
films visual signifiers (roller-skating waitresses, hot rods, etc.) as well as its wall-towall rock soundtrack (which opens with 1955s Rock Around the Clock and is
dominated by songs released before 1959). For this tension to operate, however, the
audience needs to understand why Curt would want to stay as well as why he must
leave Modesto (and the Fifties) behind. The film is, in some ways, a story of Curt
learning to let go of the past. This largely occurs through two key scenes in thefilm.
The first is with his high school English teacher Mr. Wolfe, whom Curt finds surrounded by starry-eyed girls at the high school hop. Curt smiles when he sees him,
and seems to feel a connection to Mr. Wolfeas if he were the kind of intellectual
figure that Curt idealized as a student. The two share physical similarities, and it is
clear that they have a certain affection for one another. Mr. Wolfe slaps Curt on the
back as he pulls him outside, and Curt takes great pleasure in being treated as an
equal. The two steal a smoke outside the school gym, where Mr. Wolfe recounts his
own experience leaving for Middlebury College after graduating high school.
Curt: Only stayed a semester?
Mr. Wolfe: One semester. After all that, Icame backhere.
Curt: Why did you comeback?
Mr. Wolfe: I decided Iwasnt the competitive type. Idont know, maybe Iwas scared.
Curt: Well, IuhI think Imay find that Im not the competitive type myself.

Rereading American Graffiti


The sympathetic bond between Curt and Mr. Wolfe is quickly shattered, however.
Immediately after this exchange, someone interrupts the two. Someone calls out,
Bill?, only to be revealed as a classmate of Lauries named Jane. Noticing her own
breach in formality, Jane quickly adds, Um, Mr. Wolfe? Can Ispeak with you a
minute? The exchange reveals to Curt that Mr. Wolfes relationship with girls
at the dance has gone much further than flirting. Curt is taken aback and mutters a hasty goodbye, glancing back to see Mr. Wolfe speaking softly to Jane while
strains of the 1959 hit See You in September become audible (chorus:Will Isee
you in September / Or lose you to a summer love?). This scene is significant not
only because Curts esteem for a role model (a Wolfe in sheeps clothing?) crumbles
before his eyes but also because Curt glimpses a potential future for himselfand
finds the prospect jarring. This scene provides one of the first indications that Curts
Fifties youth was perhaps not so innocent (with lecherous teachers preying on high
school girls) and gives the audience a hint that Curt might decide to leave (The last
strains of the song incant Bye bye, so long, farewell.).
Curts decision to leave is cinched in another scene, in which he meets iconic radio
DJ Wolfman Jack, who is a sort of spiritual guide to the youth of Modesto. Local
legends about the Wolfman abound in American Graffiti (as they did in Wolfmans
real-life role as a jockey for XERB). But what Curt finds in the radio station is not
the hero of his imagination but a portly station manager plugging tapes into a control panel and eating Popsicles from a busted icebox. As the soundtrack plays the
1960 single A Thousand Miles Away (which might refer to the Wolfmans real
location, the whereabouts of Curts dream girl, or where Curts future lies), the station manager recommends that Curt get his ass in gear and go see the great big
beautiful world out there rather than waste his youth in Modesto. Though the
Wolfman is a hero to thousands, including Curt, meeting the station manager reinforces Curts understanding that there is no way for him to stay. After the meeting,

Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti.


Back to the Fifties

Curt no longer views Wolfman as a god but, at best, an ordinary man trapped in a
tiny mundane radio booth. Curts rebellious hero of Fifties rock is either a fraud or
a prisoner.
In these scenes, Curt experiences the pain of realizing that perhaps his Fifties
paradise isnt quite so perfect. If American Graffiti takes great care to not revel in
its vision of the Fifties, what is the point of its nostalgia? Is it a nostalgic film at all?
Considered in the context of its original production and reception, it becomes clear
that the film is less about the Fifties than the consequences of the end of the Fifties,
felt in1973.
Audience members watching Lucass idealistic teenagers in 1973 could not ignore
what a generation of young Americans had endured since 1962. The films famous
epilogue delivers yet another reminder. Just before the credits, the film presents a
series of yearbook photos, each accompanied by text describing the fates of the four
male main characters:John Milner was killed by a drunk driver in December 1964.
Terry Fields was reported missing in action near An Loc in December 1965. Steve
Bolander is an insurance agent in Modesto, California. Curt Henderson is a writer
living in Canada. In other words, all of the young men that the narrative follows
are destroyed, contained, or exiledJohn by a car accident, Toad in Vietnam, Steve
by the spiritual death of suburban conformity, and Curt banished to Canada, presumably as a draft dodger. Nearly everyone involved in the films production reviled
the epilogue, but Lucas insisted it was necessary because, as he later said, it puts the
entire film in context (Bouzereau). The context it provides makes a historical reading of the film not only possible but necessary. Cutting through the enchantment
of the films presentation of Fifties teen culture, the epilogue reminds audiences of
the costs that the class of 62 had paid for the nations actions in the years between
1962 and1973.
In a 1974 Film Quarterly interview, Lucas reflects on American Graffiti as both a
response to the stagnation of the New Left as well as a potential recuperation of the
American idealism that existed prior to Kennedys assassination. The sense of an
innocence lost that may be regained is clear in Lucass language:
Its too easy to make films about Watergate. And its hard to be optimistic
when everything tells you to be pessimistic and cynical. Im a very bad cynic.
But weve got to regenerate optimism. Maybe kids will walk out of the film and
for a second theyll feel, We could really make something out of this country,
or we could really make something out of our lives. Its all that hokey stuff
about being a good neighbor, and the American spirit and all that crap. There
is somethinginit.
(Farber, George Lucas8)

Rereading American Graffiti


It might be tempting to read this sentiment as being in line with the current rhetoric
coalescing around a need for a return to American values. That might be accurate,
but perhaps not in the way Ronald Reagan would frame it. Sociologist and former
Students for a Democratic Society president Todd Gitlin has recently argued that
the New Lefts loss of momentum may have come from the its disengagement with
national identity. Gitlin writes that far too often the political movements that grew
out of the 1960s relinquished any title to patriotism without much sense of loss (135).
In Lucass perspective, political burnout was inevitable when kids in the last ten years
have been beating their heads against the wall, and their brains and their blood are
all over the pavement (Farber, George Lucas 8). While it may be difficult today to
characterize George Lucas as a politically engaged filmmaker, Iargue that by linking
the Fifties in particular, and the American spirit and all that crap generally, with the
New Left/New Hollywood, American Graffiti allows its viewers a memory of where
the Sixties came fromthe Fifties ambition and idealism that Curt embodies. In this
way, nostalgic responses to American Graffiti un-fix the Fifties, defining it not as
a counterpoint but rather a prelude to the Sixties. The film complicates the popular
understandingwhich would become dominant in the Re-Generationthat the
two decades were polar opposites. Everybody looks at the fifties as complacent,
Lucas says in Farbers interview, but Ilook at the fifties as an era of optimism, not
complacency. It was the era of Martin Luther King (George Lucas8).
After years of Star Wars prequels and special editions, we might resist taking Lucas
at his word. This is, after all, the same person who cannot decide whether Han or
Greedo shot first at Mos Eisley. We might be understandably skeptical of his assessments of civil rights movements in the United States. But the very fact that Lucas
would make rhetorical gestures toward reclaiming the protest spirit of the Fifties
while promoting a film from the New Hollywood is significant. Most importantly,
it reveals that the cultural meaning of the Fifties at the time of Graffitis release
was up for discussion and not wholly defined by neoconservative politics. Lucass
American Graffiti did not need to invent a new image of the Fiftiesit needed only
to call on the memories that already existed in its audiencesminds.
To wit:in his Chicago Sun-Times review of American Graffiti, Roger Ebert chose
not to reflect on the film so much as his own memories. The legendary critic recalls
specific details of his teenage life (cruising in his 54 Ford, hamburgers at Steak n
Shake, radio tuned to WLS), finally using those memories to ruminate on the condition of America in1973:
When I went to see George Lucass American Graffiti that whole
worlda world that now seems incomparably distant and innocentwas
brought back with a rush of feeling that wasnt so much nostalgia as culture

64 Back to the Fifties

shock. Remembering my high school generation, I can only wonder at how

unprepared we were for the loss of innocence that took place in America with
the series of hammer blows beginning with the assassination of President
Eberts encounter with the past in American Graffiti offers him the opportunity to
ruminate on the conditions of American society in the years after the films final scene.
As Ihave argued, this was the dominant reading of American Graffiti upon its release
and the meaning explicitly presented in promotional interviews. But Eberts response
(which was typical of many of the films initial reviews) reveals the way the film produces
emotional experiences (a rush of feeling) via the personal memories of its viewers.

The WolfmansCall

The memories that American Graffiti prompts may arise from its wall-to-wall rock
soundtrack. These songs dont merely provide setting and atmosphere (though they
do of course feature the classic Fifties soundspre-British Invasion rock, R&B, and
doo-wopthat help set a mood for the film of carefree, innocent youth). As Jeff
Smith points out in The Sounds of Commerce, American Graffitis nearly nonstop use
of pop music also utilizes a system of extramusical allusions and associations activated
by the scores referentiality (155). These extramusical associations, held in the memories of Graffitis audiences, open up interpretive possibilities that the films visual elements do not provide. For example, when Curt first spots his dream woman (Suzanne
Somers), the 1956 hit Why Do Fools Fall in Love? plays in the background. The
selection of this particular song, rather than any of the innumerable songs from the
era about falling in love, might suggest that Curt is the songs titular fool, providing
commentary on the scenes action and Curt as a character. Further familiarity with the
soundtrack might link Curts foolishness with his youthWhy Do Fools Fall in
Love? was recorded by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the doo-wop outfit made
famous by Alan Freed. In their early days, The Teenagers relied heavily on Lymons
soprano vocals, which communicated an innocence, precociousness, enthusiasm, and
immaturity. These same qualities could be read onto Curt in this scene, and help to
suggest that his dream girl is a figment of his romantic imagination. Smith argues that
in Graffiti, musical allusions serve to underline the subtext of a scene, offer critical
commentary on a dramatic situation, or even foreshadow later developments in the
narrative (172) as well as help to provide a convenient interpretive schema for the
journalists and magazine critics who reviewed the film(174).

Rereading American Graffiti


Smith expertly analyzes the allusionary functions of many of Graffitis songs, and
Iwill not attempt to recreate his work here. But Iwill point out that the extramusical associations and interpretive schema to which he refers are not limited to
knowledge regarding the performers, albums, and genres of popular music. They
also include the distribution methods of popular music. It is significant, Ithink, that
American Graffiti begins with the sounds of radio. Before any images hit the screen,
we hear someone surfing through the dial, finally landing on a clear channel just
in time to hear the station identification XERB! Su-per Gol-den! Similarly, the
soundtrack album for the film is constructed as a radio broadcast, with commentary
by Wolfman Jack scattered throughout the double LP set. In this way, American
Graffiti might draw on extramusical memories of a teenage radio monoculture, in
which all the kids in town would hop into their cars and tune in to the same radio
station. The fantasy of a singular, coherent, national teen culture became all the
more appealing as proliferating FM radio, cable television, and decentralized suburban commercial development created more dispersed niche youth programming
and youth (sub)cultures throughout the 1970s and1980s.
However, audiences with more specific memories of Fifties radio (particularly in
California) might bring different extramusical associations to bear on the films radio
opening. XERB, the radio station identified before the films soundtrack kicks in,
is a vitally important institution in the history of American rock music. Locatedin
Rosarita Beach on the Baja peninsula, XERB was one of the most important and
influential border blaster radio stations in US history. These powerful AM stations based their operations in Mexico in order to circumvent US regulations while
still targeting the US youth market. These stations were among the first to broadcast R&B records, and as such were enormously important to the popularization of
rock and roll in the 1950s and 1960s. Outside the jurisdiction of American regulators, these stations often pushed the envelope in dealing with taboo sexual, political,
or social issues, and thus laid the groundwork for some of the challenges to those
taboos in the 1960s.6 XERB made Wolfman Jack a legend, partially because he represented an escape (spatially, aesthetically, and ideologically) from the restrictions of
small towns like Modesto, and partially because XERBs continental broadcasting
radius tied far-flung fans together.
These extramusical associations and their attendant interpretive schema are not
fixedthey too move through time, and in the process new meanings for the film
emerge. Iconfess that when Ifirst saw American Graffiti (on VHS sometime in the
1980s) and heard its opening radio sound effects, Ipresumed that Super Golden
was meant to suggest the Golden Oldies radio format that had gained significant
market share a decade after the films release. I watched the film presuming that
the radio tuning was a narrative frame, as if tuning the radio to an oldies station


Back to the Fifties

had touched off memories for some invisible narrator who would be revealed at the
films closing, as in a film like Stand By Me (1986). The reliance on personal memory,
association, and allusion makes pop-nostalgia texts especially interesting subjects
for diachronic reception study. As the associations (whether personal memories or
textual points of contact) change around a pop-nostalgia text, the function of its
nostalgia will change aswell.

Pack aging Nostalgia

The films original promotional materials explicitly appeal to audiences personal

memories of the Fifties. The direct address in the films tagline, Where were you
in62?, for example, presumes that the audience has memories that go back that
far. More significant than the tags assumptions, however, are its implicit instructions. It directs the audience to enter into the province of memory in preparation for
the film. Unlike history, memory has no pretensions of comprehensive or objective
truth. Memory is personal, affective, and impressionistic. Understood as memory,
American Graffitis depiction of the past becomes legible as more than just bad
history. Its self-reflexive evocation of the feelings of 1962 serves not as an escape
or retreat but rather provides a context against which the present (and potential
futures) can be understood.
The nature of the memories that American Graffiti presupposes is reflected in
the poster artwork by Mad Magazines legendary cartoonist Mort Drucker. Mad
reveled in political satire through the 1950s and 1960s, and Druckers distinctive
cartoon style would suggest that the film was not a simple celebration of the Fifties.
Still further, the illustration and design of the poster suggest neither a linear narrative progression nor a single narrative center, but rather a deluge of memories in
response to the question that the tagline asks. Each image from the film that the
poster presents (Steve and Laurie embracing, the parking lot at Mels Drive-in, or
the band at the high school hop) is taken out of its original context, as if the background to the memory has faded away. Like memories, the vignettes pile on top of
one another and flow into and through one another, all working together to create a
composite image. Moreover, the function of music in binding these images together,
as represented graphically along the edges of the illustration, suggests the degree to
which the disparate images are intertwined in memory.
The poster brings to life the memories evoked by the question Where were you
in62? Moreover, the films theatrical trailer literally positions the viewers memories as activating the films action. The trailer begins with a first-person shot, looking down at a class of 1962yearbook. AWolfman Jack voice-over announces the

American Graffiti theatrical poster.


Back to the Fifties

films title. Immediately a hand (with a conspicuous wedding bandsuggesting

an adult viewer returning to the yearbook, not a kid taking it to the cafeteria)
moves into the frame and opens the book to an image of a high school dance. As
the tagline is displayed on screen, the image of the high school hop is reinforced
by the song At the Hop, performed by Fifties revival act Flash Cadillac and the
Continental Kids. As Wolfman Jack asks, Where were you in62?, the camera
tilts to the right (as if it were a tilt of the viewers head that accompanies an encounter with a long-forgotten photograph), then quickly zooms into the picture as if the
viewer were irresistibly and suddenly drawn toward the images in the yearbook.
This zoom is broken by a match cut to a shot of the dance, making it appear that
the picture has suddenly sprung to life. The cinematography, as well as the repeated
tagline (four times in the first forty seconds of the trailer), reinforces the role of
viewer memory in the film. The trailer does not introduce viewers to the characters or plot but implores them to search their own memories and (as the yearbook
suggests) their own historical archives in order to muster the affective power that
enables the films operation. Ones engagement with the film is thus meant to be
both personal and emotional.
What American Graffiti offers, these promotional materials seem to suggest, is
not what it was like to be in the Fifties. Where Back to the Future offers its viewers the opportunity to see what it would be like to travel in time, American Graffiti
asked its original audiences to do their own personal time traveling, bringing with
them their own personal memories of the moment of historical transition, from a

American Graffiti trailer: 62 yearbook, opening the vault, encountering the past, and activating

Rereading American Graffiti


position once removed. Prompted by the film, audiences in 1973 could indulge in
their own personal recollections of the Fifties, but they could not recapture that
time. It was, and remains, irrecoverably lost. This is nostalgia:a productive, critical
affective response to text and context.
To be clear, it is not my intention to suggest that American Graffiti does not draw
upon the same commonplace shorthand cues that Back to the Future and other
pop-nostalgia texts rely on. Recognizable signs of Fifties-ness pepper Lucass film
from the very first shot with its neon-sign style title card underscored by Rock
Around the Clock. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall 1950s rock (as David Shumway
points out, many of the songs chosen would likely not have appeared on radio
in 1962), and the cars invoke the 1950sSteve drives a58 Chevy Impala, Falfa
(Harrison Ford) a55 Chevy 150, Laurie a laughable58 Edsel Corsair, and Curts
dream girl a 56 Thunderbird. The films usage of Fifties signifiers (even those out of
fashion by 1962)is readily apparent. However, we must also understand those signifiers meanings as culturally and historically contingent. In 1973, American Graffiti
was presented as a personal, affective engagement with an America that seemed
to have been lost. This was as much a function of the texts and contexts that surrounded the film in 1973 as it was a product of the films cars, songs, or visualstyle.
Consider a text that literally surrounds the film more recently:the packaging of
the American Graffiti/More American Graffiti Drive-In Double Feature DVD set.
The box that contains the film is designed to evoke the Wurlitzer 1015bubble-dome
jukebox, a classic Fifties symbol. Without changing the text of the film itself, the
packagings recontextualization of the film both disengages it from the particular
historical moment of 1962 and alters the prescription for audience engagement with
the film, erasing reference to affective memory and replacing it with a commodity
of retro style. The jukebox packaging has little historical connection to the 1950s
(The Wurlitzer 1015 was a product of the 1940s and was unable to play the 45 rpm
records released in the 1950s without modification.). While the original poster art
(featured on all previous video releases) evokes images from the film itself, the double feature boxed set reduces the films meaning (not to mention the sequel) to a
symbol of Fifties-ness that is not even a product of the decade at all. The literal and
figurative repackaging of the film no longer positions the film as an experience of
personal memory but rather as an artifact of what Elizabeth Guffey calls retro culture. Describing how retro is distinguished from nostalgia, Guffey writes, Where
nostalgia is linked to a romantic sensibility that resonates with ideas of exile and
longing, retro tempers these associations with a heavy dose of cynicism or detachment (20). The jukebox in this case figures as an abstract symbol of Fifties-ness.
Additionally, the imagery of a jukebox places the films music in a radically different
context than the radio-centric presentation offered in 1973. Coin-operated jukeboxes


Back to the Fifties

Jukebox style: American Graffiti boxed set (left) and Wurlitzer 1015 (right).
Credits: Image on right used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.01 license, http://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Photo originally taken by Peter Dewit, available at http://flickr.com/people/faceme.

(Wurlitzer 1015 or otherwise) were stuffed with 45 rpm discs manufactured for the
more pop-oriented singles marketa market that was more risk averse; less likely to
feature Black artists in R&B, soul, and rock; and contained none of the banter or commentary that disc jockeys could provide (Garofalo 334). The radio, particularly border
blaster stations like XERB, could push aesthetic, cultural, and political boundaries,
and local disc jockeys largely determined the playlists. That is to say, for music fans in
the Fifties, border blaster radio and jukeboxes represented radically different (and
perhaps diametrically opposed) elements of popular music culture. American Graffitis
initial release relied on the specificity of these distinctions, but the jukebox DVD packaging does not acknowledge them. In many ways, American Graffiti premiered as a New
Hollywood film, but in its post-1973 circulation (along with its soundtrack albums,
official and unofficial merchandising, sequel, and association with other pop-nostalgia
texts) American Graffiti was repositioned as high concept.
As the jukebox on American Graffitis DVD packaging has no diegetic referent
(there are no jukeboxes of any kind in American Graffiti), the box appears to link
the film to the ABC sitcom Happy Days, which prominently featured a jukebox in
its opening title sequence and primary set. Bizarrely, the film that Jameson calls
the founding document of the nostalgia film cycle requires quite a bit of translation and intertextual reference to fit into the category it has been reputed to have

Rereading American Graffiti


created! The process of dislocation and relocation that the DVD box performs is
not remarkable because it violates the original or true meaning of the film, or the
Fifties that it invokes. Instead, the changing box art illustrates the power of extradiegetic materials in positioning the film (and the forms of Fifties nostalgia that it
prompts) within historically contingent patterns of representation. As Dyer argues,
when a texts meaning changes through time, the text does not itself change the
words are what they are, but the perception of their significance and affect changes.
Different periods and cultures see and hear different things in texts (Pastiche 54).
Those different things are selected and emphasized in American Graffiti to create
a self-reflexive, and self-critical, form of nostalgia.

Pastiche:Being JohnMilner

However much these promotional materials might encourage us to remember the

Fifties, the film explicitly warns viewers against attempts to recapture or relive the
glory days. It is important, after all, that the film specifically positions itself in 1962,
at the end of the Fifties. While the film might ask us to remember the Fifties, it has
no illusions of going backthat time, the film very clearly shows us, has passed.
Narratively, the film affirms Curts decision to leave the past behind. But his decision
is not easy, nor is it meant to bethe Fifties in American Graffiti is not presented as
a set of retro signifiers easily consumed and tossed aside. Instead, American Graffiti
encourages a self-reflexive form of nostalgic affect, highlighting both the seductive
appeal and dangerous consequences of living in thepast.
Richard Dyers pastiche is a useful concept in this context. Dyer argues that
pastiche is a form of knowing imitation that selects and combines elements of
culturally and historically recognizable texts styles, or symbols. Pastiches do so not
to pass themselves off as the original, but rather to afford audiences the opportunity
to engage in the affective experience of the object that is being imitated while also
critically reflecting upon it. This understanding of pastiche breaks from other uses
of the term in academic and cultural discourse, which have treated pastiche as
something approximating a dirty word. Genette uses pastiche to signify simple
and unreflective stylistic imitation (27). Jameson more forcefully denounces it as a
neutral practice of mimicry, without any of parodys ulterior motives, amputated
of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction (Postmodernism 65).
By contrast, Dyer argues that pastiche represents a very specific kind of imitation,
one that, unlike duplication or forgery, does not attempt to mechanically or deceptively slip by the audience. Instead, pastiche signals its own process of imitation and
highlights its relationship to that which it imitates.


Back to the Fifties

The rhetorical value of pastiche is in its ability to engage in historically and culturally constructed emotional practices while simultaneously, and consciously,
uncovering the machinery of their operation, revealing the ways that our affective
responses to the world are contingent on historical, cultural, and political processes
that often operate outside our field of vision. This concept is a valuable one for a
rereading of American Graffiti, because it gives us a framework through which to
think about the films use of nostalgia as neither a misreading of its narrative message nor mindless indulgence in maudlin emotion. The film does, in some ways,
romanticize the Fifties, but it is clearly cognizant of the dangers of nostalgia. In fact,
its bittersweet portrait of Fifties life may serve to illustrate the seductive pull, and
destructive consequences, of always looking backward.
American Graffiti inspires nostalgia by representing the alleged end of innocence
(for both its characters waning childhoods and the countrys post-WWII consensus).
These feelings should not be dismissed as mere sentimentalism but rather understood
as shaped by the social reality of the early 1970s. The primary function of pastiche,
according to Dyer, is rhetoricalit mobilizes a given feeling from the past in order
to apply it to the present. Lucass stated intent to regenerate optimism with the film
provides the motivation for Graffitis pastiche. Viewed as pastiche, Graffiti may not
necessarily be only an exercise in forgetting (the material conditions of the Fifties; the
exploitation of women, minorities, and working classes), as Kael or Jameson might
argue. Those readings are certainly worth taking seriously. However, the film also
might be understood as an exercise in remembering (the hope, idealism, and feeling
of an America that has long since been lost). The formulation of memory, science
has shown, is always engaged with the conditions of the present. Just as the civilizations represented in Utopian fiction are less about practical possibilities than they are
about imagining correctives to social problems, so too might pop-nostalgia texts help
us feel the loss, and inspire the return, of particular values in the present.
Dyer argues that pastiche allows us to experience the fiction and the response to
it while simultaneously indicating its shallowness and showing its illusoriness and
that it is precisely by drawing close to what it critiques that it is able to convey more
forcefully why that needs to be critiqued, namely, because it works (Pastiche 163).
Though American Graffiti has been fairly criticized for the form its nostalgia takes,
its value as pastiche opens up a reading that is decidedly more complicated than
simple yearning for yesterday. Graffiti highlights the danger of overindulgence in
nostalgia by dramatizing nostalgias emotional appeal. The embedded critique of
nostalgia can be found throughout the film, but is most dramatically embodied in
the character of John Milner (Paul LeMat).
While trying to convince Curt of the wisdom of leaving Modesto, Steve blurts
out, Do you want to be like John? You cant stay seventeen forever. This is a line

Rereading American Graffiti


John Milner, Fifties style.

highlighted in the trailer, suggesting its importance to the film as a whole, and
the importance of John as a point of reference for the rest of the films characters.
Though he is only twenty-two years old, he seems to be of an entirely different generation than the rest of the kids in the film. His costume and hair reinforce this. He
is made up entirely in the Fifties moldducktail haircut, pack of cigarettes rolled
up in the sleeve of his white t-shirt, and a souped-up 32 Deuce coupe. Though he is
older than the rest of the gang, he shows no real interest in growing up. You go on
ahead! he yells to Curt. Im stayin right here. Havin fun! As usual! But from his
sullen demeanor it seems clear that John is having less fun than he usedto.
Everything about John, from his clothes and his hair to his car, seems a little out
of place among the class of 1962. Apack of girls thinks his Fifties style is a joke, and
they trick him into taking kid sister Carol (Mackenzie Philips) as a surprise babysitting assignment. When Carol enthusiastically takes charge of the radio (Dontcha
think The Beach Boys are boss?), John again reveals his dissatisfaction with the
changes that are surrounding him: I dont like that surfin shit. Rock and rolls
been goin downhill ever since Buddy Holly died. In this exchange, which echoes
the aforementioned scene with Curt and Wendy, the audience knows something
that John does notthat The Beach Boys (and eventually The Beatles) are set to
transform popular culture and usher in the Sixties.
John blames his sense of decline on his environment:The whole strip is shrinking! Of course, John knows that it is not the strip but his tastes, values, influence,
and efficacy that are on the wane. While he is something of a Modesto legend, the
envy of all the drag racers, he also knows that his time as king of the road is running
short. Like Curt confronting a possible future in Mr. Wolfe, Milner takes Carol
to the junkyard, visiting the former hot rod champs that were destroyed by drag
races. Thats Freddy Bensons vette. He had a head on collision with a drunk, he
tells Carol. Its pretty grim when a guy gets it and hes not even his own fault.


Back to the Fifties

Mortality is clearly on Milners mind throughout the film. Falfa, the stranger in the
black 55 Chevy with a skull hanging from his rear view mirror, clearly functions as
a harbinger of Johns death. In the films climactic drag race, Milner wins, but only
because Falfa rolls his car. Milner lives to race another day, but he knows his time is
limited. I was losin, he solemnly tells Toad. Yet Milner seems incapable of moving on. While he knows that racing will lead to his destruction he seems to have
nothing else to look forward to, and no other options but to relive his high school
adventures. So he keeps racing, and as we learn from the epilogues, hell die behind
the wheel. His nostalgia is rendered as almost classically tragic.
John is perhaps the most appealing character in the film precisely because he
exemplifies many of the iconic virtues of heroes of his era. His looks, hair, car, and
clothes all reference the teen rebels that came to serve as Americas vision of itself in
the 1950s as anti-authoritarian, self-made, honest, principled, and free from creeping conformity. But despite Johns genuine appeal, his waning influence and assured
destruction certainly show the psychic and material danger of living in the past. The
sympathetic connection the audience has for John is precisely why his inability to
move into the future is so heart-wrenching, and why the films critique of nostalgia
is rendered so important.
The films depiction of the Fifties as represented in the idyllic small town of Modesto
works in precisely the same way as its compassionate critique of John Milner. True,
the real material history of 1962 was never innocent, as Kael and others have argued.
And one could, of course, critique nostalgia by simply showing that its idealized version of the past does not stand up to rigorous historical scrutiny. But, as Dyer argues,
if we dont get inside the feelings of culture and values that we find problematic, we
risk not understanding them and alienating ourselves from those who do respond to
them. Then critical cultural politics runs the risk of being irrelevant and impotent
(Pastiche 168). In order to honestly engage with the social and political implications
of Fifties nostalgia in 1973, American Graffiti must acknowledge the allure of Fifties
nostalgia, even as soon as 1962. The way the film pastiches the Fifties forces viewers
to experience the longing for that simpler time (even as it depicts that time as lost
forever, if it ever existed at all). In the end, the film acknowledges the appeal and
value of nostalgia, while simultaneously warning of the dangers of overindulgence in
it. The only way out, as the films ending shows, is forward.

Forwar d totheFutur e

American Graffiti is an example of pop nostalgia that utilizes the past to critically engage with the present. It also reflects on the dangers of overindulging in

Rereading American Graffiti


Curt turns away from his high school past.

retrospection. This is perhaps best articulated by a single, silent shot from the films
first act. Just before his conversation with Mr. Wolfe, Curt wanders the hallways of
his old high school aimlessly, on one last trip down memory lane. Then, as if out of
habit, Curt turns to a locker and smilesits his old locker. He turns the dial right,
left, then right again, giving it a confident pull. But when he tries to lift the handle,
Curt finds that the combination has been reset. He smiles, shrugs, and moves down
the hallway.
Cinematically, this scene is rather inconspicuous. The camera movement is minimal, and the sparse action occurs in one unbroken shot. There is no dialogue, and it
is one of the only scenes in the film without audible pop music on the soundtrack. In
short, not much happens. But it is also a scene in which Graffiti reminds its viewers
that there is simply no way back to the Fifties. Curt cant stay seventeen forever
because the locks have already been changed, the locker reassigned to a new student
who will take his place. But with those doors no longer open to him, new opportunities await. That doesnt mean the walk down the hall was uselessCurt needs to
deal with the emotional challenge of leaving but also face up to the painful reality
of the impossibility of staying. American Graffitis treatment of the past works in a
similar way. The film turns back to the Fifties for comfort during troubling times,
takes stock of the values and spirit that may have been lost along the way, and stoically affirms the necessity of movingon.
Every other character in the film remains in Modesto. Curt is the one to leave,
and we, the audience, leave with him. The film closes with Curt leaving his friends
and climbing on a plane emblazoned Magic Carpet Airlines (suggesting that Curt
is about to take a ride on the Counterculture). The plane ascends into the sky with
Curt watching out the window as the white56 Thunderbird cruises out of town.
The epilogue appears with only the drones of the engines as accompaniment. The


Back to the Fifties

epilogue holds for a moment and finally gives way to the end credits cued to the
sound of The Beach Boys All Summer Long. Interestingly, this song is the only
anachronistic one that appears on the soundtrack, as it was released in 1964. The
songs appearance at the end of the films visual text pushes the films viewers out
of 1962 and further into the Sixties. As the only song in the soundtrack that does
not have to compete with dialogue or visual action, the lyrics are allowed an extra
emphasis. The songs refrain, Every now and then we hear our song / Weve been
having fun all summer long / Wont be long til summer time is through, not only
comments on the end of Curts final summer of his childhood but also serves as a
fitting summary for the films attitude toward the Fiftiesfun while it lasted, but
ultimately a time that must end. Like the film that precedes it, the lyrics of All
Summer Long enjoy the pleasures of nostalgia while recognizing its limits (Wont
be long until summer time is through).
American Graffiti warrants the attention of anyone attempting to understand
how nostalgia operates in popular culture, and not only because it represents a
point of origin for the Fifties nostalgia wave. More importantly, the films production, circulation, and reception reveal that the ideological and cultural work
of nostalgia is not inherent to the text, is subject to change over time and in new
contexts, can be critical and self-reflexive, and can be directed toward progressive
social change. Prompted by both filmic and musical elements, American Graffitis
nostalgia is enriched by extratextual knowledge and associations that the industrial
and technological conditions of the Re-Generation made possible.
The relationship between popular music and Hollywood film would only become
more intertwined as the 1970s moved on, and the evolution of that relationship further complicated the cultural fascination with the Fifties that American Graffiti
heralded. The use of the songs, artists, and production styles of Fifties rock and roll
in the films of the Reagan Era, and the influence of Hollywoods Fifties nostalgia on
the shifting meanings of pop music (of both the 1950s and the 1980s) are the focus
of the next chapter.


In addition to enjoying massive success with critics and at the box office,
American Graffiti also served as a prototype for mobilizing and marketing previously
recorded popular music in, and through, Hollywood film. The double LP soundtrack
American Graffiti, released in August 1973 by MCA (Universals parent company)
spent forty-one weeks on the Billboard charts, and was eventually certified triple
platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). MCA went
back to the well in 1975 with another double LP soundtrack, More American Graffiti
(not to be confused with the 1979 film sequel of the same name). In addition, there
were multiple reissues on 8-track, cassette tape, and compact disc, as well as a slew of
unofficial spin-off compilation albums. Graffitis soundtrack albums exemplify the
changing status of the soundtrack album in the economic and industrial practices
of high-concept Hollywood, even as it had originally emerged as a product of the
earlier New Hollywood era. Pauline Reay points out that high-concept Hollywood
was essentially a mix of music, marketing and cinema (93), and American Graffitis
circulation throughout the 1970s and 1980s shows the extent to which that mix
could provide long-term commercial success for an unproven directors low-budget
film with no stars and an odd narrative structure. As corporate media conglomerates took control of film studios throughout the 1970s and 1980s, they began to
leverage their holdings in the music, publishing, merchandising, and broadcasting
industries to transform films into highly profitable cross-platform properties. As a


Back to the Fifties

result, film soundtracks with previously recorded pop music, once considered innovative in the context of the New Hollywood, became an integral commercial element of Reagan-Era filmmaking practices.
In his important account of high-concept film production, Justin Wyatt suggests that filmmaking in this period was defined by an integration with marketing and merchandising (7). Collaboration between the film and music industries
was particularly vital in high-concept Hollywood, as it could serve as both marketing strategy and merchandising product. In fact, synergy, one of the prime
buzzwords in corporate board rooms of the 1980s, was specifically coined to
describe the relationship between film studios and record companies in a multimedia marketing campaign that benefits all the players (Denisoff and Plasketes
25758). Asoundtrack album generates interest in its associated film, and the film
reciprocates by promoting the soundtrack album and the artists featured on it.
The 1980s emergence of MTV (Music Television), the cable television channel that
rescued the record industry from a protracted swoon in sales, also offered another
platform for media conglomerates cross-promotional strategies. The synergistic practices became so dominant that Marianne Meyer reduced it to the simple
mathematical equation:movie + soundtrack + video=$$$ (168). Accompanied
by popular music videos, compilation soundtrack albums for Flashdance (1983),
Footloose (1984), and Top Gun (1986) became some of the best-selling records of
the decade.
The next chapter has more to say about the rise of MTV, but this chapter centers on
the persistence of Fifties music in the pop soundtracks of Re-Generation teen films.
The rise of the soundtrack album, presaged by the massive success of soundtracks
for American Graffiti, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever (1977) not only represented
cross-promotional achievements for media conglomerates but also provided opportunities for audiences to make intertextual connections between and among sounds
and images, singers and actors, and album and film narratives. These kinds of connections generated extra layers of meaning to both the film and musical experience.
Jeff Smith argues that the Fifties sounds on American Graffitis soundtrack allow it to
utilize vast associational networks of spectatorial memory and affect (The Sounds
of Commerce 176). These memories and affects are unpredictablefor example, an
audience members negative personal memories associated with The Flamingos
I Only Have Eyes for You can affect how that person experiences the scene in
which Terry and Debbie kiss. As a result, that individual might have a different read
onTerry and Debbies relationship, the characters themselves, or the film as a whole
than other viewers have. Film soundtracks can add information, set atmosphere, or
offer commentary on the narrative action of each scene by triggering meanings that
can be wholly inaccessible and even unimaginable to a films production team. At

Re-Generation Soundtracks


the same time, soundtracks can also play on the cultural meanings associated with
particular songs, albums, artists, genres, or periods of pop music history. The sound
of so-called girl groups can, in some cases, suggest a pre-rock cultural moment, even
though girl groups like The Supremes existed alongside iconic rock acts like The
A soundtrack thus might operate as what Smith calls a hermeneutic filter that
allows audiences with knowledge of popular music to extract additional or alternative meanings from a film. Smith explains:
On one level, an audience of uninformed viewers may interpret the song as
background music pure and simple. As such, they may make judgments regarding the overall style and its appropriateness to considerations of setting, character, and mood. However, an audience of informed viewers will recognize the
songs title, lyrics, or performer, and will apply this knowledge to the dramatic
context depicted onscreen. In such a way, musical allusion also serves as an
expressive device to either comment on the action or suggest the directors attitude toward the characters, settings, and themes of thefilm.
(Smith Sounds of Commerce 16869)
Such insider knowledge requires not only familiarity with the artists, genres,
styles, and history of popular music, but also an understanding of the cultural significance of the music in relation to the onscreen action. These meanings hinge on
the way popular music is situated among other texts in popular media (music videos,
compilation albums, album art, other adjacent texts, etc.). The songs on American
Graffitis soundtrack were also transformed by their appearance in the film and on
the soundtrack album. Consequently, the 1950s music packaged as oldies appearing on Re-Generation soundtracks participated in the redefinition of the meaning
of Fifties pop music, and by extension, the Fifties as awhole.
An instance of this redefinition occurs in a joke in Back to the Future, when
Marty performs Johnny B.Goode at a high school dance. The punchline occurs
when we discover that Martys performance rewrites history, as the bandleader
Marvin Berry calls his cousin Chuck to relay to him that new sound youve been
looking for. The Re-Generation reinvents rock and roll in Back to the Future,
placing the white suburban teenage male at the forefront of rock (and relegating
the Black musicians and social conditions that actually produced it to the background). Martys bodily performance of Chuck Berrys signature dance movies
is especially important here, as Martys body becomes the site at which a radical recontextualization of rock music is accomplished. Of course, the humor in
this scene depends on the viewer knowing that Chuck Berry was an important


Back to the Fifties

innovator in the history of rock and roll. At the same time, the history of Golden
Oldies had at its core precisely this form of racial substitution. The Re-Generation
in this way ventriloquizes Fifties forms using the body of the white bourgeois teen
to contain, and reframe, forms of rock and roll (and its powers of racial contagion)
that were considered dangerous and potentially revolutionary in their original
Many teen-centric films of the Re-Generation that engage in pop nostalgia are
diegetically located in the FiftiesPorkys (1982), The Outsiders (1983), and Stand By
Me (1986), just to name a few. But in many other teen films, the Fifties is invoked
not within the narrative but on the soundtrack. These films enable nostalgic affect
even without visually representing the past. This chapter analyzes the nostalgia
prompted by these films and their soundtracks. In contrast to previous chapters in
which I have structured my analysis around one central film, here I consider the
varying ways that oldiesas a radio format, genre, and cultural categoryserved
as a crucial pop-nostalgia intertext for several teen films of the Re-Generation, and
how these films used their soundtracks to mobilize, invoke, or draw on nostalgic
visions of the Fifties.
Analysis of pop nostalgia on Re-Generation film soundtracks and radio formats reveals the proliferation of multiple and competing meanings of the Fifties
in the Reagan Era. These films and their soundtracks revised the cultural understanding of Fifties pop, R&B, and rock and roll, recontextualized in the form of
Golden Oldies. In particular, I give close attention to the placement (and displacement) of racial and sexual politics on these soundtracks, and within the
discourses that repackaged Fifties music. Afterand becauseoldies became
pop-nostalgia texts of a particularly potent cultural status, they were mobilized
in Re-Generation film soundtracks to multiple and sometimes contradictory
This chapter first charts the rise of oldies as a term and Golden Oldies as
a radio format in the context of historical and industrial changes to the recording and broadcasting industries in the twentieth century. When broadcasting
began the transition to narrowcasting, and mass culture morphed into niche
programming, oldies became a way of targeting a very specific market demographic. As disco, glam, new wave, and hip-hop all challenged the hegemony
of the rock form and the privileged position of the white bourgeois male, pop
music of the Fifties (taken outside its original historical and cultural context)
was repurposed as Golden Oldies, music of simpler times. The struggle to
defend rocks dominant position in the pop music landscape and the effort to
concentrate political and cultural authority in the body of the white male were

Re-Generation Soundtracks



The term oldie, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was rare until the
twentieth century. It seems to have originally referred primarily to aged people,
but the word gained an association with the dated but still-beloved cultural
artifact (the oldie-but-goodie) in the 1930s. By mid-century, oldies was a popular but loose term that was applied to all manner of referents at different stages
in their cultural circulation. In one 1943 issue of Billboard, for example, oldies was used to refer to audience members at a Ted Lewis nightclub performance
(Lindy Seers Wrong), the Hollywood films available to Soviet moviegoers (Jive
on Up-Beat), segments of a vaudeville performance (Vaudeville Review), and
a sheet music collection (Warner Pubs). Jokes, books, dances, films, dramatic
performances, songs, and the people that performed or enjoyed them could all be
called oldies.
Today, we think of oldies primarily as referring to music. This is largely a result
of the internal logic, and resultant lingo, of the radio broadcasting business, which
Iwill attempt to briefly (and crudely) summarize here.1 Music has, of course, been
a feature of commercial radio broadcasting since its inception. The rise of television in the 1940s and 1950s as the dominant news and entertainment medium in
the United States, however, dramatically increased the radios reliance on music.
As producers, performers, and programs fled radio broadcasting for the exploding
field of television, radio turned increasingly to prerecorded music rather than live
Reebee Garofalo points to the moment when WINS in NewYork announced
in 1950, over the strong objection of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM),
that it would be programming records exclusively from then on as a turning point
for both the radio and record industry (336). In the wake of this, the music industry,
slowly shifting from an emphasis on sheet music publishing to the sale of records,
found common purpose with radio. Columbia and RCA had in the late 1940s transitioned into the production of 33 1/3- and 45-rpm records on vinyl, which were more
durable and easier to ship than shellac 78 rpm records. This provided the opportunity for a more vibrant consumer market for recordsif they could get adequate
promotion. To encourage the rise of recorded music on radio, record companies
routinely supplied free copies of new releases to DJs in the hope that they could
turn them into hits. Record companies would provide radio stations with material
for their broadcast (for fees negotiated by copyright holders). In return, radio stations would provide the record companies with promotion, breaking new artists
to increase album sales and performance royalties for jukebox plays on the 45-rpm
singles market.


Back to the Fifties

Faced with increasing competition from other broadcasters, an explosion in

recorded music available for broadcast, and hours of dead air to fill, radio stations
had to decide how to choose what music to play. Record companies and radio broadcasters both had an incentive to privilege new records and new artists. This emphasis increased in the early 1950s. According to industry legend, radio station operator
Todd Storz observed patrons in an Omaha diner play the same songs on the jukebox
again and again, then noticed that the waitresses happily selected the same songs
after their shifts were over (Fong-Torres 38). Inspired by this, Storz pioneered the
Top 40 radio format, in which DJs presided over a regimented playlist of the
most popular songs, interspersed with new records that the station would integrate
into the list or quickly jettison. Storzs stations in Nebraska and later New Orleans
became wildly successful, and the format became the standard on AM radio (Hall,
FM Protects). Top 40 was particularly effective at capturing the teenage market
and provided a space for certain forms of doo-wop, R&B, and rock and roll to flourish on the radio. Unlike the highly specialized radio formats with which we are now
familiar, Top 40 was not segmented by genre or style. As E.Alvin Davis explains,
Top 40 offered an amalgam of tastes and styles and represented a variety of music
from Fats Domino to Dean Martin to the Singing Nun (1750).
In the age of Top 40, oldies was used as a term within the radio broadcasting industry for any record that was not categorized as a new release. In this way,
oldies have been a fixture on commercial radio for longer than rock and roll has
been. Porky Chedwick, legendary DJ on Pittsburghs WAMO, began spinning his
dusty discs on the airwaves in the late 1940s, which gained him the title of the
first bona fide oldies DJ in America (Weigle 48). Oldies in this context did not
signify any indulgence in nostalgia but rather a specialization in particular musical eras, genres, or styles outside of the Top 40 singlesin Chedwicks case, R&B
records. The fact that individual programs like Chedwicks stood out by providing
space for older records illustrates how radio programming privileged new releases.
Innovations in market research, as well as modifications from influential station
managers like Gordon McLendon in Texas, Rick Sklar in New York City, and Bill
Drake in California, only intensified the rationalization and disciplining of pop
music on the radio.
In the 1960s the association of oldies with pop music of a prior era began to
solidify. Decca released a compilation album in 1960 called Golden Oldies that featured songs by Bill Haley, Bobby Darin, and The Crickets. Los Angeles doo-wop
group Little Caesar and the Romans had a hit single with Those Oldies (but
Goodies) Remind Me of You in 1961. In 1964, Scepter released The Shirelles Sing
the Golden Oldies, featuring several doo-wop standards from the 1950s. In the following year the Howard Theater in Washington, DC, hosted a Golden Oldies

Re-Generation Soundtracks


Cavalcade featuring groups like The Orioles, The Five Keys, and Screamin Jay
Hawkins. Major radio stations (like WGN in Chicago and WOR in NewYork)
began programming Golden Oldies radio hours in the mid-1960s, and radio stations transitioning to a full oldies format soon followed.
Golden Oldies emerged as radio format in response to industrial and technological changes in radio broadcasting, in response to the dominance of Top 40
programming, and as a reaction to the transformation in the sound of rock music.
Beginning in 1967, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began
enforcing regulations that severely limited the practice of simultaneous broadcasting of the same programming on AM and FM stations. Just as the proliferation
of available channels on ultra high frequency (UHF), cable, and satellite television allowed for more and more narrowly defined TV channels, the opening of
the FM dial encouraged station managers to use market research and demographic
targeting to specialize in particular musical styles or genres. This was especially
true for smaller stations that could not compete with the larger and better established AM stations in major markets. Oldies was but one response to this push
to specializesmall FM stations tried jazz, classical, or Caribbean music, or
attempted to distinguish themselves from their AM counterparts by employing
all women DJs before moving to the oldies format (Gent 39). Oldies became a reliable strategy to target an older, more affluent audience, however (Davis 1749). Bill
Weaver, then of Santa Anas KWIZ, told Billboard that his inspiration for innovating the oldies format was that in Top 40 radio Isaw all of the business we were losing, that Icouldnt touch, because our programming didnt fit. Or we didnt reach
the right demographics. The beauty of an oldies format is that we get the important
age groups and almost nothing below 18years old and very little above 49years
old (Hall, Weaver to Consult 27). Weavers oldies format worked on a strict
rotation process:a DJ would play a song from 19501955, one from 19561960, and
one from 19611965, followed by a new record. Smaller record labels and publishing houses began to see the benefits of oldies as wellby providing free or cheap
oldies records (or in some cases sending syndicated oldies programming) to radio
stations, publishing houses and labels could goose back-catalogue sales, drive performance royalties, and encourage new mechanical royalties through rerecordings
and cover versions (A-R Giving DJs 1st-Class Servicing32).
By the early 1970swith the success of Richard Naders revival tours, bands
like Sha Na Na, and soundtrack albums like American Graffitisentire stations began converting to a Fifties format. In 1972, The NewYork Times identified Golden Oldies as the hot new programming trend in radio, with stations
like WCAS in Boston, WCAU in Philadelphia, WIND in Chicago, WCBS in
NewYork, and KUUU in Seattle increasing their market share with the help of


Back to the Fifties

music from the Fifties. The Times attributed the change to oldies being a rejection of the heavy social messages in many modern lyrics, a signal of another
cyclical dry spell in popular music creativity, and a business practice designed to
help an aging rock audience to forget its problems and return or at least recall
those happy high school timesthe prom, no wars, no riots, no protests, the convertibles at the drive-in (Malcolm 21). There were also considerable economic
incentives driving the expansion of the oldies format. The 1971 Sound Recording
Amendment passed by the US Congress left records released prior to 1972 outside of federal copyright law. This meant that stations playing oldies records did
not need to pay royalties to performers, only music publishers.
By 1979, even punk rock icons The Ramones were waxing nostalgic, recording
with Phil Spector for their album End of the Century and releasing a single, Do
You Remember Rock n Roll Radio?, that paid tribute to girl groups and Alan
Freed.2 By the early 1980s, many stations had transitioned to all-oldies formats, with
a particular emphasis on Fifties music, as well as Motown, surf-rock, pre-leisure-suit
Elvis, and pre-psychedelic Beatlesin other words, records that reinforced the
good times sensibilities of the Fifties Hill Valley fantasy, even if they were produced in the1960s.

Cross-Gener ational Affiliations

Popular music scholars have long identified the formation of group identity as one
of rocks primary functions. Much of this work is premised on the notion that consumption of rock music precipitates subcultural formations, wherein rock rests on
an ideology of the peer group as both the ideal and the reality of rock communion
(Frith, Music for Pleasure 213). This, as entertainment executives well know, makes
rock music an especially potent tool for the purposes of directed and targeted marketing. Similarly, David Shumway argues that in the first Hollywood films to utilize
wall-to-wall rock soundtracks, the most important effect of the music is not to
provide commentary but to foster generational solidarity (38). Contemporary
audiences of films like The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), claims Shumway,
were encouraged by the soundtrack to identify with the films protagonists and
with our generation, whom they are supposed to represent (3839). If, as Shumway
suggests, rock music in Hollywood films creates a sense of generational identity,
it follows that soundtracks might direct that generational identification within a
films narrative borders (encouraging viewers to identify with particular characters, for example) or within a system of intertextual social and cultural meanings
(e.g.,marking a film as Countercultural or GenX).

Re-Generation Soundtracks


In the Reagan Era, courting the generational affiliations of the MTV Generation
became a lucrative business. This is the era when Pepsi branded itself the choice of
a new generation, after all. The multimedia conglomerates that controlled most US
film and music production used every tool at their disposal to appeal to the valuable
youth market. Soundtracks were one of these tools. As Stephen Prince describes
it, during the eighties, the majors targeted a core audience that could be reached
simultaneously through film and pop music (133). While Prince (and others)
have illuminated the way new music was sold to Re-Generation teens through film
soundtracks, its important to note that old (or oldies) music was sold through these
same channels. Soundtracks from pop-nostalgia films like Animal House (1978),
Diner (1982), and Stand By Me (1986), as well as rock biopics like American Hot
Wax (1978), The Buddy Holly Story (1980), and La Bamba (1987), featured music
that directly appealed to the listeners of oldies radio. As Iargue in Chapter Two, a
significant portion of the audiences for these films wereand areable to draw on
their personal memories of the 1950s and bring them to bear on their response to
both film and soundtrack.
However, oldies do not appear exclusively in films that are easily identifiable as nostalgia films. Rock music from before the British Invasion played
on soundtracks of science-fiction offerings like Weird Science (1985) and Teen
Wolf (1985), mainstream comedies like Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981),
and action blockbusters like Top Gun (1986). Oldies even inspired the titles
of Hollywood films in the Reagan Era: Sixteen Candles (1984), Peggy Sue Got
Married (1986), Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), Walk Like a Man (1987), and
Johnny Be Good (1988), to name only a few. The persistence of oldies in films
primarily marketed to youth challenges the notion that rock soundtracks only
(or primarily) produce feelings of generational belonging. Clearly, the nostalgic
meanings for the Fifties conjured by oldies in a teen film like Sixteen Candles are
different than those invoked by the soundtrack of Diner. Oldies music in these
soundtracks is not exclusively tied to personal memory or a shared generational
past, nor is it wholly defined by a single discrete vision of the Fifties. Rather, nostalgic meanings for the Fifties proliferated across these films, each articulating a
complex relationship between a fantasy of the past and the 1980s teenager of the
day. Writing about the use of classical music in Raging Bull, Mike Cormack has
argued that the proliferation of possible meanings for filmic music (cinematic,
cultural, and historical) creates pleasures of ambiguity for different film audiences (26). I maintain a similar phenomenon is at play in the use of oldies music
in Re-Generation teen films. We might think of this ambiguity over the cultural
meaning of oldies on these soundtracks as a result of the redefinition of popular
music in general during the Reagan Era. However, we must also consider how the


Back to the Fifties

ambiguity over the meaning of oldies also stems from struggle and negotiation
between competing demographic groups claiming ownership of rock and roll in
the 1970s and 1980s. These claims work to stake out privileged cultural territory
for groups with starkly different senses of generational, racial, class, and sexual
Before Marty plays Johnny B.Goode at the end of Back to the Future, he introduces the song by saying, Okay, this is an oldie Well, its an oldie where Icome
from. Marty thus positions the song as one that belongs distinctly to another generation, and forecloses upon the possibility that the song will produce a generational
affiliation between himself and his audience. The identification between Marty and
the teens who listen to his song, as well as the connection between oldies music and
consumers of 1980s teen films, is instead made on the ground of youth. Marty
does not know the song because it speaks for his generation, rather, he knows the
song because it is a foundational text for rock and roll, which had established itself
as inherently linked to youth itself. Lawrence Grossberg holds that youth identity
produced by the cultural formation of rock does not correspond to chronological
or biological notions of age but rather to youth as an affective category. Seen in this
light, the function of oldies in Reagan-Era teen films is to articulate youth as a
recognizable cultural and political affiliation. According to Grossberg, by the 1980s,
youth was becoming an ever more contested signifier:
Youth itself has become a battlefield on which the current generations of adolescents, baby boomers, parents and corporate media are fighting for control of
its meanings, investments and powers Youth today is caught in the contradiction between those who experience the powerlessness of their age and
the generations of baby boomers who have attached the category of youth to
their life trajectory, in part by redefining it as an attitude (Youre only as old as
you feel). For the baby boomers, youth is something to be held on by cultural
and physical effort.
(We Gotta Get Out of This Place183)
In this context, the competing claims over the cultural definition and ownership
of rock and roll in popular music are also claims over the cultural power of youth.
Baby Boomers vociferously rejected new forms of pop music developments in favor
of oldies as a way of claiming cultural power and authority over the symbols of
youth (freedom, vibrancy, energy, cool, etc.). At the same time, Re-Generation
teens could reinscribe oldies with new meanings, teasing out new values and tensions from established culturaltexts.

Re-Generation Soundtracks


I R eminisce about theDaysofOld

The cultural and physical effort described by Grossberg is especially visible in the
rise of roots rock in the mid- to late-1970s. As the first rock-and-roll generation
entered middle age, a strain of American rock attempted to direct the genre back
to its roots, often through the country and southern rock traditions. Bob Seger, a
Detroit-area rocker who leapt into rock stardom with his 1976 album Night Moves,
is emblematic of this movement. His album was lauded as rock and roll in the classic mold:bold, aggressive and grandiloquent and praised for its songs of reminiscence like Night Moves and Mainstreet (Rachlis). The opening track, Rock
and Roll Never Forgets, uses the language of memory to encourage audiences to
reinvigorate rock, imploring aging listeners to return to the pleasures of rock fandom with the refrain, Come back, baby/rock and roll never forgets. Night Moves
seems to suggest that audiences in the 1970s are the ones that have forgotten the
simple bodily pleasures of rock consumption.
Two years later, Seger returned to champion traditional rock music in song. Old
Time Rock and Roll was originally released on the 1978 album Stranger in Town,
but it became a smash hit after its appearance in Risky Business (1983). The songs
sing-along chorus growls, Still like that old time rock and roll/That kind of music
just soothes the soul/I reminisce about the days of old/with that old time rock and
roll. This, to a large degree, matches descriptions of the appeal of oldies from 1970s
radio station managers who championed oldies as a great memory jogger. All of a
sudden the words or an incident come flooding back (Malcolm 21). Sentiments like
these lead Shumway to argue that the convention that popular songs call up for us
memories of earlier periods in our lives is so powerful that we might be inclined
to call oldies the tea-soaked madeleine of the masses (40). The sonic qualities of
Segers song are interesting in this regard. Though Segers image radiated blue-collar
white masculinity, Old Time Rock and Roll was written by George Jackson
(amember of the R&B outfit The Ovations and songwriter for Clarence Carter and
Wilson Pickett) and recorded by the team at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, who had
spent years cultivating an association with legendary R&B and soul performers like
Aretha Franklin, The Staples Singers, and Etta James. The jangly, honky-tonk piano
sounds in the recorded version of the song (absent from live performances) combine
with the blues riffs that adorn the verses to position Seger as the 1970s inheritor of
the authentic (Black) tradition of rock. But Old Time Rock and Roll does not
just revel in the pastit also directly critiques contemporary music in the present.
While Rock and Roll Never Forgets encourages listeners for whom sweet sixteens turned thirty-one to go down to the concert or the local bar where the
crowd will be swaying to the music, in Old Time Rock and Roll Seger insists on


Back to the Fifties

staying at home. In the opening lines Seger practically tells you kids to get off his
lawn, saying just take them old records off the shelf / Ill sit and listen to them by
myself. As opposed to the exhortation to reinvigorate public spaces of rock culture in Rock and Roll Never Forgets, Segers later song has him cloistered in his
living room, because todays music aint got the same soul. When Seger critiques
todays music, it is not rock and roll that he dismissesrock has retained its soul,
its authenticity rooted in its (raced and classed) forms of masculinity. Rather, it is
emerging forms of music that threaten to displace rocks dominant position and
destabilize white heterosexual males cultural authority. In the second verse, Seger
defiantly sneers, Dont try to take me to no disco / Youll never even get me out on
the floor. The fact that Seger would proclaim his unwavering dedication to rock is
not particularly notable. His loyalty to rock was, of course, in his own self-interest
as a rock musician and songwriter. However, it is revealing that Segers pledge of
allegiance to rock takes the form of an explicit rejection of disco.3
Popular music historians describe the seemingly overnight explosion in popularity of disco in the late 1970s as instantly polarizing, especially to numerous rock
fans who saw discos orchestrated and synthesized style of dance music as the antithesis to rock musics naturalized mode of authentic expression (Cateforis, The Rock
History Reader 181). Beyond the commercial threat discos success represented, it
also destabilized white heterosexual masculinity as the locus of power in American
popular music. As one article in The Village Voice argued:
The real animosity between rock and disco lay in the position of the straight
white male. In the rock world, he was the undisputed top, while in disco, he
was subject to a radical decentering Examined in light of the ensuing political backlash, its clear that the slogan of this movementDisco Sucks!
was the first cry of the angry whitemale.
The politics of disco in many ways worked against the established traditions of
rock performance in the 1970s. Alice Echols has called disco an explicitly political space, where sexually empowered women and gay men (especially those from
predominantly Black and Latin urban communities) could reclaim the body as
an instrument of pleasure rather than an instrument of labor (Shaky Ground 161).
When discos acceptance and celebration of these figures went mainstream, Echols
argues, it resulted in an atmosphere in which white men felt themselves shoved to
the sidelines by women, ethnic minorities, and gays, and many rock fans believed
disco was taking over, possibly even supplanting, rock (Shaky Ground161). The
backlash against disco (or, more accurately, the visibility and prominence of

Re-Generation Soundtracks


discos gay and minority audiences) evident in events like Comiskey Parks Disco
Demolition Night, took the form of a defense of rock.4 Thus, Old Time Rock and
Roll appeared in Reagan-Era soundtracks not just as a song but as a rallying cry.
Rock and roll in this formulation did not represent the soundtrack of difference
but a resistance to difference. This insider rebellion, as Icall it, combined popular
notions of resistant youth cultures and marginalized populations (outsiders, we
could say) and grafted it onto reactionary cultural politics that sought to secure
the hegemonic position of the white male in US society, and rock and roll in the
entertainment industry.
Perhaps no Re-Generation teen film dramatizes this insider rebellion more
explicitly than the film that made Tom Cruise a star: Risky Business (1983). Cruise
plays the affluent goody two-shoes teenager Joel Goodsen (hes a good son, get
it?), a sheepish high school senior and Future Enterpriser who embraces his entrepreneurial spirit by opening a brothel in his parents suburban home. But the films
narrative is largely ancillary to a few iconic momentsit is a film remembered most
for a scene in which Joel dances sans pants to Old Time Rock and Roll. While
Segers song is certainly not an oldie per se (at least not in 1983), it does rely on a popnostalgia conceptualization of rocks origins in the Fifties. A question worth asking
is: of all the songs a 1980s teen might choose to blast through a home stereo system,
why does Joel select a five-year-old song that celebrates the music of the even more
distant past while trashing the cultural forms of the present? It seems to me that the
packaging of Fifties music as oldies produced a cultural notion of old time rock
that worked to affirm and celebrate the desires of white, middle-class heterosexual
males like Joel, in a time when their economic, sexual, and cultural power seemed
to be eroding.5
The sequence begins with a close-up of Joels fingers manipulating the dials on
his fathers expensive home stereo equipment. In the next shot, Joel slides on his
parents polished hardwood floor, indicating his residual childish impulses as well as
the absence of his parents from the space. The iconic costume suggests his unleashed
boyish sexuality (tight white briefs) as well as the loosened upper-middle-class
morality (unbuttoned dress shirt.) Using domestic items to aid in his fantasy
(heemploys a tall brass candlestick as a make-believe microphone), Joel takes pleasure in strutting about like a rock star (highlighted by the cheering crowd noise
inserted into the sound design). He punctuates his lip-synching with high steps, hip
jiggles, and fist-pumps in the tradition of rock and roll figures like Mick Jagger or
David Lee Roth. Joel then swaggers into the tidy living room, exchanges the candlestick for fireplace broom, and transforms into an air-guitar god. Finally, his energy
seems to puncture the fantasy of coolJoel ultimately flings himself down on the
couch and wiggles uncontrollably.

The famous dance sequence in Risky Business.

Re-Generation Soundtracks


Gaylyn Studlar has convincingly argued that Hollywood in the 1980s functioned
to hegemonically secure male subjectivity [that] depends on the fundamental display of the male body, especially the youthful or youthful-looking male star (173).
Surely, we can see this dynamic at play in Risky Businesss dance scene. However,
the dance scene also emphasizes the way that Joels body (and his sexual power) is
contained within and by the domestic space of his empty middle-class home. It is
only through the fantasy of rock performance (the kind of fantasy Seger championed, it should be said) that the shy, insecure Joel is able to temporarily loose himself
from restrictive modern codes of behavior for an ambitious Future Enterpriser
and be a man by expressing his unruly masculine desires. As such, the sequence
presents old time rock and roll as a commodity that offers the pleasurable fantasy of outsider rebellion delivered to safe insider cultural spaces of privilege like
Joels Chicagoland suburban palace. Simultaneously, the scene points backward to
a racially and sexually decontextualized politics of fun that is located in rocks
mythic Fifties origins and absent in Joels Reagan-Era existence (Grossberg, Is
Anyone Listening51).
Aside from its enormous influence and unquestioned status as an instance of
soundtrack, film, and music video effectively coalescing in Hollywood, the dance
sequence in Risky Business reveals how a particular framing of the class and racial
politics of rock inherited from aging Boomers was reinscribed in the body of the
idealized Reagan-Era teen. This is legible both in the scenes visual elements and in
what Anahid Kassabian calls the affiliating identifications of the hit Seger song
playing on the stereo. Unlike the classical Hollywood score, which aims to draw
perceivers into socially and historically unfamiliar positions, Kassabian argues that
film soundtracks that feature previously released music allow filmgoers to bring
external associations with the songs into their engagements with the film (23).
The affiliating identifications at play in this scene, Iargue, are the pop-nostalgia
discourses of oldies. This shared point of reference aligns Segers reactionary cultural politics with those of Re-Generation teens like Joel Goodsen. But other
teens in the Re-Generation heard different things in oldies, and embodied them in

The Same Old Songs? Oldies Speaking

throughtheR e-Gener ation

One of the benefits of thinking seriously about the function of oldies music on
1980s teen film soundtracks is seeing the different values that Fifties music stood in
for throughout the Reagan Era. Close attention to these invocations of Fifties music


Back to the Fifties

illuminates the ways that the Re-Generation transformed the cultural meaning of
the songs, artists, genres, and styles that re-emerged in popular culture decades after
their original production and circulation. It is important to understand that these
songs are not simply repeated on pop-nostalgia soundtracks. When Marty performs Johnny B.Goode in Back to the Future, it is neither a forgery nor a copy. It
is a repetition with a difference, a transparent cover that layers new meanings on top
of existingones.
Similarly, Marty is transformed by the Fifties music that is channeled through
himby singing Johnny B. Goode, a song about a humble but immensely talented guitar-playing youngster destined to be the leader of a big ol band, Marty
gains the confidence and swagger of a rock star that he lacked in the films opening. The bodies of Re-Generation teens served as one of the primary sites and most
prominent registers of Fifties music redefinition. The body could serve as a vehicle
for spectacular expression of resistance (as in Dick Hebdiges analysis of subculture),
or display the persistence of the forms of Fifties youth culture (as in the return of the
Loco-Motion dance craze in 1987). In a more specific case, a series of films, including Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Buellers Day Off (1986), Adventures in Babysitting
(1987), The Lost Boys (1987), and Beetlejuice (1987), feature scenes in which teenagers
mouth the words to oldies songs. By performatively inhabiting an established musical form (as in karaoke), these characters open up oldies to new and alternative readings. At the same time, 1980s teenagers in these films are transformed as the music
of an earlier generation speaks through their bodies (as in ventriloquism). Freya
Jarman-Ivens, following the work of Kevin Connor on ventriloquism, argues that

Pretty in Pink: Duckie (Jon Cryer) tries a little tenderness.

Re-Generation Soundtracks


the body-voice relationship is a looped one, a matrix in which body and voice each
produce the other (8).6 Beyond providing a rationale for the inclusion of oldies
on the films soundtracks, these scenes are remarkable because of the diverse ways
in which the sounds of the Fifties are channeled through the Re-Generation, and
the ways the Reagan-Era teen can perform new meanings for well-traveled musical forms. Theyre the same old songs, to paraphrase The Four Tops, but they have
different meanings as time goeson.
Theo Cateforis writes about one such scene from Pretty in Pink, in which the
lovelorn teenage boy Duckie (Jon Cryer) passionately impersonates Otis Reddings
rendition of Try a Little Tenderness. Cateforis argues that Duckies lip-synching
constitutes a gender performance that he dubs karaoke masculinity, in which the
decidedly un-macho Duckie reproduces the traditional gender binary in popular
music wherein men serve as active, energetic performers, and women are relegated
to the role of passive audience member. Such performances are prevalent among
teen films, Cateforis claims, because an established popular song communicates
through its history and genre associations an accepted form of masculine identity.
In a sense it has already articulated what the teen male wishes to say or become, in a
way immediately recognizable to the audience (Rebel Girls and Singing Boys186).
While this scene does not neatly fit into this chapters analysis (Reddings Try a
Little Tenderness is not from the 1950s; it was recorded in 1966), the song did occasionally circulate on oldies radio, and its sonic and genre characteristics encouraged
an association with an era that predates Sixties rock. At any rate, Cateforis argues
that Duckies attempts to embody Reddings song largely because he feels his own
masculinity is too insufficient, juvenile, or unreliable. This is a convincing reading,
but Iwould expand it by noting not only what song and artist Duckie chooses to
perform but also where he performs it. The scene begins when Duckie dramatically
enters TRAX, an independent/New Wave record store,7 to visit the stores two
employees:Andie (Molly Ringwald), the object of his romantic affection, and Iona
(Annie Potts), the store manager and hip older sister figure to Andie. As much as
Duckies embodiment of Reddings legendary soul performance works to augment
his masculinity in front of the two women, it also/alternatively functions as a display of cultural capital within the context of an edgy independent record store, a
sign that his musical knowledge of (and passionate attachment to) genres like soul
extends beyond MTV and Top 40fare.
This karaoke masculinity can be found in the teen vampire film The Lost
Boys, in which the pubescent Sam (Cory Haim) gleefully sings along to Clarence
Frogman Henrys 1956 hit Aint Got No Home in the bath. Like Duckie, Sam
is an ineffective adolescent, a lonely boy whose father has abandoned him. Sams
lack of a father figure not only makes his family vulnerable to attacks by marauding

94 Back to the Fifties

Sam, the lonely boy of The Lost Boys.

teenage vampire gangs, it also results in a gender indeterminacy reflected in shifting

registers in the songs vocals, from lonely boy to lonely girl to lonely frog.8 Jack
Halberstam has observed this tendency in the history of rhythm and blues as a sort
of queer performanceone that unsettles the traditional gender binary that rock
music so often works to reinforce (185). In The Lost Boys, Sam is not the only adolescent facing domestic instabilityevery teenage character in the film aint got
no home, at least in the sense of the traditional two-parent, single-family household. Even the titular Lost Boys vampire gang are motivated by their search for a
mother to accompany their leader and father figure Max (Edward Hermann). In
its lyrical content and vocal style, Sams performance of Henrys song thus articulates a longing for the patriarchal nuclear family ascribed to the Fifties, and demonstrates the consequences of its breakdown.
In Ferris Buellers Day Off and Adventures in Babysitting, on the other hand,
Ferris (Matthew Broderick) and Chris (Elisabeth Shue) do not perform oldies hits
to compensate for inadequate sexual efficacy and power. Rather, their lip-synching
draws on the established authority of dominant codes of sexuality to celebrate and
reaffirm their adherence to them. In Babysitting, The Crystals Then He Kissed
Me is heard before the first frame of the film is shownthe opening strains of the
song play over the production credits. In the films first shot, Chris appears on camera lip-synching to the girl-group classic just as the vocals begin. The song tells the
story of a girl who meets a boy at a dance, falls in love, gets married, and lives happily
ever after. Chris enthusiastically lip-synchs and dances to the song while preparing
for her anniversary date with her boyfriend, aligning the fairytale love story of the
song with her own personal fantasies. When the song concludes, the film reveals
that her boyfriend is anyone but Prince Charminghe breaks the date with Chris
and eventually turns out to be a liar and a cheat. The song replays during the credits,
after Chris has successfully secured a new love interest. When Chriss fantasy of

Re-Generation Soundtracks


And Then He Kissed Me in Adventures in Babysitting (left) and Ferris (Matthew Broderick) lipsynchs in Ferris Bueller (right).

a Fifties-style romance returns, so too does the song. And Then He Kissed Me
thus represents Chriss desire not only to be located in a heterosexual coupling but
to be the passive object of romantic lovethe one who is kissed, is wooed, is married. However, considering the degree to which the film reveals that Chriss initial
boyfriend did not match up to her fantasy image, it is worth wondering whether the
song might be considered less of celebration and more of foreboding (an oldies version of the Jaws theme, perhaps?). Its possible, in other words, to think of the films
use of And Then He Kissed Me as a commentary on the seductive, and destructive, power of patriarchal fantasies of romanticbliss.
Ferris Bueller is not only an active sexual presence in his lip-synching scene, he
is the center of the universe. Ferris hijacks a float in Chicagos Von Steuben Day
parade, transitioning from a crooning faux-performance of Wayne Newtons Danke
Schoen to The Beatles cover of the Fifties single Twist and Shout. Surrounded
by leggy blondes, Ferris plays the part of rock star, provoking the crowd of spectators to twist and shout themselves, as they erupt into spontaneous choreography.
Men and women, young and old, all races and creeds are united in celebration by
the oldies hit. The scene became so iconic that Twist and Shout recharted in 1986,
spending seven weeks on the Billboard singles chart. Ferris Bueller, in other words,
inspired 1980s teenagers to listen to The Beatles homage to Fifties rock with new
ears, creating new affiliating identifications with a song at a generations remove. The
Beatles original courtship of rock authenticity came from their embrace of Fifties
R&BFerris Bueller wins approval from a multicultural city by embodying the
pre-political Beatles.
Tim Burtons Beetlejuice provides an interesting point of comparison to these
scenes, because its use of 1950s pop music comes from outside the traditions of rock
or R&B.9 The film centers on Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec
Baldwin), a young couple who die in an automobile accident. The Maitlands return
as ghosts, only to discover that their charming Connecticut home has been sold to
Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), a yuppie real-estate developer from NewYork City.
Under the direction of his would-be sculptor wife Delia (Catherine OHara) and


Back to the Fifties

interior decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix), Charles begins renovating the Maitlands
home into a nightmare caricature of 1980s modern art. Aided by Charless teen
daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), the Maitlands resolve to frighten Charles and Delia
away from the house. Their first serious attempt to do so comes at a dinner party that
Delia is hosting for some NewYork art-world socialites that she wishes to impress.
One by one, each of the guests is possessed by the Maitlands, who force them to perform Harry Belafontes 1956 calypso hit Day-O/The Banana Boat Song. While the
Maitlands mean for this experience to be terrifying (perhaps playing on the themes
of brutal agricultural labor and racialized subjugation suggested by the songs lyrics),
the Deetzes and their guests immediately see the haunting as a potential commodity. Together, the Maitlands and Otho begin to imagine ways that they can charge
Manhattanites to experience the haunting as another sort of decontextualized experience of fun detached from the songs historical and cultural originsDay-O is,
for all intents and purposes, a plantation song that expresses the misery of subjugated
peoples. The Deetzes want to turn it into an amusement park ride.10
Later, when the Deetz and Maitland families learn to live in harmony, Lydia
requests calypso ventriloquism for herself, and gives a performance of Belafontes
1961 cover of Trinidadian Carnival song Jump in the Line. However, when Lydia
(who is sympathetic to the origins of the house and resistant to her parents commodifying impulses) ventriloquizes the song, she uses it to integrate the experiences
of past and presentthe Deetzes and the Maitlands, the living and the dead. Jump
in the Line is (lyrically, at least) less tied to the subjugation of Caribbean and West
Indian peoplethis song simply celebrates the pleasures of dance. In this way,
Beetlejuice uses Belafontes calypso both to indulge in the pleasures of decontextualized oldies but also to point out the violence of the commodifying impulse that can
radically transform ones experience of someone elsessong.
Whether it is giddy play-acting in the privacy of the bedroom or the bath (Babysitting,
The Lost Boys), an intimate performance among friends (Pretty in Pink), or a choreographed production that literally stops traffic in Chicago (Ferris Bueller), the spectacular display of teen bodies in these scenes draw on the sexual and gender politics of the

Possessed by Calypso: Day-O (left) and Jump in the Line (right).

Re-Generation Soundtracks


oldies music on the soundtracks. But these sexual and gender politics are not necessarily the politics of the music itself, nor do they highlight the only or even the most
prominent political meanings associated with those songs. The teen bodies in these
films are white bodies, and as such they also revise the racial politics of the Fifties rock
and roll songs that they delight in performing. But this transformation should not be
understood as just another example of the white establishments co-optation of Black
musical forms, if for no other reason than the music represented by oldies had been
co-opted from the moment that Porky Chedwick started spinning records in 1948.
Moreover, white middle-class youth in the Fifties embraced the traditions of Black
music and culture, rock historians argue, at least in part as a rejection of the conformity
and containment of postwar bourgeois suburban life. Even in the early Fifties, pioneering rock artists like Chuck Berry and Ray Charles were drawing substantial numbers of
white suburban fans. Facing a choice between the sterile and homogeneous suburban
cultures of their parents or the dynamic street cultures alive among groups excluded
from middle-class consensus, George Lipsitz explains, a large body of youths found
themselves captivated and persuaded by the voices of difference(122).
When Fifties music re-emerges in the radio, records, and film soundtracks of the
1980s, it still operates as an alternative to sterility and homogeneityFerris Buellers
Twist and Shout, for example, serves as a testament to Ferriss exuberant spontaneity and infectious charisma. In this scene, oldies work to define, in Grossbergs
terms, a politics of fun that is defined by its rejection of boredom and its celebration of movement, change, energy lived out in and inscribed upon the body
(Is Anyone Listening? 114). The lip-synching performances of these songs work as
a kind of evidence of this musics power and the legitimacy of these teens celebratory enjoyment. However, it seems clear that oldies in these scenes do not represent
a radical or emancipatory form of difference. Ferriss jubilant lip-synching is, after
all, an imitation of an imitationhe is impersonating a white group (The Beatles)
covering a song originally recorded by Black R&B musicians (The Top Notes in
1961, The Isley Brothers more famously in 1962). In most cases, the combination of
oldies music and teen films in the 1980s, as with the rejection of disco in favor of
rock, represented a defense against difference, an affirmation of cultural insiders like
Ferris Bueller and their ability, or privilege, to transcend race and just havefun.
The development of oldies on FM radio, the rejection of disco by figures
like Bob Seger, and the ventriloquizing of Fifties rock on 1980s soundtracks
are intertwined. The racially and sexually destabilizing potential of genres like
disco, glam, punk, new wave, and hip-hop are rejected in favor of a notion of
old time rock and roll in which white bourgeois males occupy the privileged
center. Oldies attribute an Edenic innocence to American popular music in
which rock had no political or social agenda but simply served as fun for (white,


Back to the Fifties

heterosexual) teenagers. The lip-synching scenes in Reagan-Era teen films depict,

and confront, the way in which Hollywood soundtracks often transformed oldies racial and sexual politics. To frame rock and roll in this way, eliminating the
very real racial and sexual politics that were inseparable from its emergence in
the Fifties, results in oldies that are doubly fixed. Hollywood film soundtracks
of the Reagan Era presented the body of the 1980s teenager as a space that
could resolve the inherent contradictions that such a framing of rock produced.
However, as Ihave argued for the range of pop-nostalgia texts, the political and
cultural function of oldies was neither homogenous nor static. If films like Risky
Business and Ferris Bueller enacted a radical decontextualization of rock, other
film soundtracks, as in Beetlejuice, recontexualized and reconceptualized oldies
in critical ways. Another film, Blue Velvet (1986), recasts the sweet oldies love
songs on its soundtrack into haunting ballads of sexual violence and trauma. The
uncanny elements of the film that critics have long located in its narrative are
also present in its soundtrack. It invests the songs with new affiliational meanings through a process of familiarization, estrangement, and disembodiment.

Blue V elv et throughOurEars

Though it is better known for its disturbing depiction of voyeurism, in which the
teenage protagonist Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) witnesses primal scenes of sexual
violence between lounge singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and sociopathic villain Frank (Dennis Hopper), Blue Velvet also features a lip-synching scene. At the
hideout of local drug dealer Ben (Dean Stockwell), Frank turns on a stereo and
cues Ben to lip-synch the first verse of Roy Orbisons In Dreams. With an arch
overhead and curtains framing Bens performance, this scene in Blue Velvet approximates the staging of Joels lip-synching scene in Risky Business. However, Bens manner in this scene (so fucking suave, in Franks words) clashes dramatically with the
juvenile expression of karaoke masculinity on display in the other lip-synching
scenes discussed earlier in this chapter. This difference is underscored (literally
and figuratively!) by the melodramatic lyrical style of In Dreams, characteristic
of what Peter Lehman describes as Orbisons rock aesthetic that challenges conventional, normative masculinity (118). Bens visible stage makeup illustrates the
songs peculiar reference to a candy-colored clown and highlights Bens eroticism
as distinctly performed. In Risky Business we are to understand Joels performance as
revealing something authentic and hidden that is repressed within him, but in Blue
Velvet the lip-synching is disturbingthe songs contemplative and tender-hearted
sonic qualities contrast with the violent and dangerous figures that performit.

Re-Generation Soundtracks


In Dreams in Blue Velvet.

Blue Velvet is a valuable case to include in our analysis of the function of oldies
on Reagan-Era soundtracks because it demonstrates the ways that the meaning of
individual musical texts can fluctuate and evolve, even within a film. In Dreams
reappears in Blue Velvet in the scene immediately following Bens lip-synching act.
After leaving Bens residence, Jeffrey arouses Franks wrath. In response, Frank
has his henchmen hold Jeffrey at knifepoint. Furious, Frank grotesquely applies
lipstick, huffs nitrous oxide, and roughly kisses Jeffrey before demanding the
Candy-Colored Clown be played on the cars tape deck. Then, as a strange woman
incongruously dances on the roof of a car, Frank menacingly repeats Orbisons chorus before savagely beating Jeffrey. For Mark Mazullo, these scenes emphasize the
films fascination with performance, drawing the viewer even more deeply into
the haunting quality of the recordings sound, and its connection to the mysterious
events on screen (508). Mazullo makes a connection between the manufactured
unnatural sound of early 1960s studio recordings (in which studio producers like
Phil Spector radically altered the authentic delivery of live music) with the unreliability of the films dream-visions. Let us carry that line of thought forward in
time to think about the manufactured associations that Fifties music gathered in its
positioning as oldies. As Ihave argued throughout this book, the recontextualization of Fifties signifiers in the Reagan Era does not necessarily equate to the erasure
of historical meaning. In Blue Velvet, the contrast between the innocuous-sounding
music and the violent and perverse images allows the film to undermine the supposed innocence of oldies and write new meanings into the same oldsongs.
The use of In Dreams in Blue Velvet created a wealth of new musical
meaningsnot only for the song, but for Orbisons catalogue and career. The song
was rerecorded (Lynch received a co-producer credit) and released on an album of
Orbisons greatest hits (titled In Dreams) shortly after the release of the film. That

100 Back to the Fifties

recording of In Dreams charted in 1987, largely on the strength of its appearance

on the Blue Velvet soundtrack and a music video featuring footage from the film.
In the wake of this success, Orbison took on a new image as a melancholic, mysterious elder statesman of American popular music, a musical connection back to
the Fifties untainted by sellout commercialism (Orbison never hosted a variety
show, released a disco record, or featured in a major scandal). He began working on
a variety of projects with a diverse group of musicians and producers (Rick Rubin,
Glenn Danzig, Bob Dylan, k.d. lang, T Bone Burnett, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis
Costello, and Bonnie Raitt, among others) on a concert film, collaborative album
(The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1), and solo record (Mystery Girl). This resurgence
relied on a retrospective (and, after his death in 1988, posthumous) redefinition
of Orbisons music and persona. Lynch acknowledges that these transformations
were the object of some concern for Orbison, who originally did not want his song
associated with a story of drugs and violence:It is a beautiful song it just so
happened that a song in a certain situation could mean something else (qtd. in
Lehman 62). That something else came to define much of Orbisons resurgence,
popularly and critically, in the 1980s. Lehman argues that it was Lynchs shocking
use of the song in the context of true perversity that sparked the critical discourse
of darkness that has come to occupy such a central place in interpreting Orbisons
music Lynchs use of In Dreams changed forever the way in which Orbisons
music would be received (117). In this way, Kassabians affiliating identifications
in film soundtracks work in reversethe film creates new historical meanings for
music. These new meanings are only possible because of the historical development
and affective power of pop nostalgia in the ReaganEra.
The use of oldies on the soundtrack of Blue Velvet, then, goes beyond simple irony.
It is not, or perhaps not only, that oldies function as treacly deceptions. Rather, the
films soundtrack subverts, and perverts, the affiliating identifications and external
associations with oldies music that audiences bring with them into the film. The
resulting discomfort is produced not only because a familiar soundtrack is applied
to a dark or violent scene but also because of the realization that perhaps such sinister elements were present in the seemingly innocent songs all along, a thought
that can transform listeners experiences of the entire corpus of oldies. It is this process of estrangement at work in the soundtrack that Iargue is key to understanding
Blue Velvets engagement with oldies.
This process of estrangement or defamiliarization of oldies begins with Blue
Velvets opening titles. Bobby Vintons chart-topping version of the Fifties pop
standard Blue Velvet plays over a billowing blue velvet curtainthere is a perfect
alignment, in other words, of the sound, image, and film as a whole. After the titles,
audiences are treated to a series of fantasy Fifties images:red roses under a blue sky

Re-Generation Soundtracks 101

and white picket fence, local firemen cheerfully waving from their truck, schoolchildren being guided across the street by a kindly crossing guard, and an old man
watering a well-tended suburban lawn. These pop-nostalgia images of small-town
Americana underscored by Vintons crooning are dramatically undercut when the
old man watering his lawn suffers a sudden stroke. The camera moves from the
mans still-convulsing body on the ground to the subterranean insect world beneath
the neatly manicured lawn. This sequence has long been examined for its transition
from the familiar to the grotesque (a dynamic that continues throughout the film),
but few have acknowledged the parallel transformation of the song Blue Velvet,
both in the diegetic space of the film and in its extra-diegetic life on compilation
albums and oldies radio. The macabre turn in the opening sequence begins to disentangle the song from the fantasy Fifties images with which oldies radio had
associated it. Torn from its pop-nostalgia context within minutes of the films opening, Blue Velvets use of Blue Velvet on its soundtrack irrecoverably transforms the
song, leaving it a fundamentally different cultural object than it was before.11
After the opening sequence, the song returns with the first appearance of Dorothy,
and serves as the impetus of Jeffreys obsession with her. Bathed in blue light and
wearing heavy blue eye shadow, Dorothy captivates the onlooking Jeffrey with a
breathy lounge-jazz performance of the song in a dingy nightclub. As Dorothy
delivers lines like She wore blue velvet / Bluer than velvet were her eyes, reaction
shots of the smitten Jeffrey signal his growing interest in her and register a contextual revision of the songs meaning. At this point, the song gains a second function as the theme for Jeffreys burgeoning infatuation with Dorothy. Jeffrey stands
in for the songs lovelorn narrator; conversely, the songs narrator is aligned with
Jeffrey, an unsuspecting young man about to enter a world of sexual obsession and
sadomasochistic desire. Like the camera tracking underground to reveal the swarms
of cockroaches living below the manicured lawn, Jeffrey and the audience enter a
world that was always hidden. Describing the films subversion of apple-pie normalcy, J.Hoberman argues that the film ruthlessly defamiliarizes a comfortable,
picture-postcard facade of malt shoppes, football fields and rec-room basements
(Vulgar Modernism 154). The same could be said, Iargue, for the films redefinition
of Blue Velvet and the oldies genre to which it belongs.
The song undergoes a third, fourth, and fifth revision as a result of Blue Velvets
infamous scene of Freudian voyeurism, in which Jeffrey sneaks into Dorothys
apartment, hides in her closet, and watches her undress and change into a blue velvet dressing gown (She wore blue velvet). At this point the song becomes associated with Jeffreys sexual titillationbut that association is broken when Dorothy
discovers Jeffrey in the closet, threatens him with a knife, and demands that he
remove his clothes. In a matter of moments Dorothy changes from the object of

102 Back to the Fifties

Jeffreys erotic gaze to a potential castrator threatening him with a knife, then again
to a seductress who begins to caress Jeffreys naked body. Blue Velvet then might
suggest the humiliation, fear, and confusion that Jeffrey experiences. This does not
last long, however, as Jeffrey is forced back into the closet when Frank arrives at
Dorothys door. As Jeffrey watches, Frank then enacts a bizarre ritualized sexual
assault of Dorothy. Baby wants blue velvet, Frank murmurs, taking a bit of the
fabric from Dorothys robe into his mouth before sexually and physically assaulting
her. By the end of the scene, Blue Velvet becomes aligned with Franks perverse
sexual desire, as blue velvet literally serves as his fetish. Jeffreys disorientation at the
unexpected horrors he witnesses in Dorothys apartment is recreated in our disorientation over the meaning of Blue Velvet.
Two of the songs contextual meanings come into direct conflict the next time
we hear Blue Velvet. Desperate to contact Dorothy again, Jeffrey returns to the
night club to see her sing. He quickly realizes that Frank is also in the audience,
clutching a piece of the blue velvet robe and weeping softly to himself. As Dorothy
sings the lines, Then when she left / gone was the glow of blue velvet, the camera
lingers on Franks emotional reaction to Dorothys performance. In this moment
the songs meaning within the film becomes unanchored from Jeffreyunlike
the Re-Generation teens discussed earlier in the chapter, Jeffrey is unable to fully
embody the song. Even as the song is linked to Jeffreys growing infatuation with
Dorothy, it also clearly references Franks perverse and violent, yet deeply emotional sexual obsession with the same woman. This may suggest that Frank and
Jeffrey are two points on the same continuumFrank later tells Jeffrey, Youre like
me.. However, Frank and Jeffrey are not the only ones who embody Blue Velvet.
Dorothy also takes ownership of the song in the films closing moments.
The end of the film repeats the idyllic sequence of pop-nostalgia images featured
in the opening, accompanied by a final shot of Dorothy reunited with her son. As
she clutches her boy, the camera captures her looking mournfully into the distance,
and the soundtrack changes to Dorothys semidiegetic delivery of the songs final
line:And Istill can see blue velvet through my tears. In this moment, Blue Velvet
becomes a haunting refrain for Dorothy, a testament to the effects of the physical
and emotional abuse that has been heaped upon her. The film thus mobilizes the
song in radically different and sometimes contradictory ways. Blue Velvet variously operates as a marker of the films small-town all-American setting, as a leitmotif for Jeffreys fascination with Dorothy, as an anthem for Franks fetishistic
perversion, and as a memorial for Dorothys personal trauma.
Regardless of ones understanding of Vintons song before seeing Blue Velvet,
the song becomes un-fixed, opened to multiple new readings and interpretations, in the course of watching the film.One could argue that Blue Velvets use of

Re-Generation Soundtracks 103

oldies works as a sort of sonic critique. Mazullo argues that the films use of oldies
displaces them as unproblematic objects of nostalgic desire and creates the
opportunity for a reimagining of their history, or at least an interrogation of the
desires and states of mind ... that cause us to writeas individuals, as a culture
more broadly conceived, even as subculturesour histories in the way that we do
(495). For the films audiences, the situation of Blue Velvet in particular and oldies
in general as innocent or safe is undermined, both within the space of the film and
in the world of commercial radio and record sales. Like Jeffrey discovering that his
pristine small town has a dark underworld lurking just below the surface, listeners
of Blue Velvets soundtrack are forced to confront the possibility that the saccharine,
safe, and non-threatening reputation of oldies are actually a cover story for more
sinister subtextual meanings. Now viewers must also treat the use of oldies in films
like Adventures in Babysitting with extreme suspicion.
Glenn Altschuler has argued that, although first and foremost a commercial
product, rock in the Fifties continued to resist and unsettle mainstream values(34). But conventional wisdom held that the rise of the very same music in the
1980s, gathered under the umbrella of oldies, represented a movement away from
the screaming of the disk jockeys and more recent popular music to the simpler
rock and roll and softer, more romantic tunes (Malcolm 21). Such a position presumes that oldies music represented values in line with neoconservatism. In Blue
Velvet, oldies are subverted as a form of critique, revealing them to be a facade masking individual violence, perversion, and obsession. By comparison, John Waterss
Hairspray (1988) treats oldies not as something to be critiqued but something to be
rescued. Through its own process of double fixing, Hairspray attempts to position
the softer, romantic tunes and novelty dances of the late 1950s and early 1960s as
imbued with a significant social and political meaning. In Waterss film, the white
teenager who participates in rock fandom is reimagined as political dissident, committed to a new collective politics of race and sexuality in the United States.

R econtextualizing Oldies:The Case ofHair spr ay

Hairspray, John Waterss biggest commercial success, centers on the transformation

of the pleasantly plump Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) from
East Side hair hopper to student activist. The transformation is precipitated by her
participation in the dance program The Corny Collins Show, a fictionalized version
of the actual Baltimore television program The Buddy Deane Show. Like American
Graffiti, Hairspray is set in 1962, a point of immense historical transition for teenagers poised on the verge of maturity. Unlike American Graffiti, however, the Fifties

104 Back to the Fifties

in Hairspray is not an era to be left behind reluctantly. When Tracys working-class

mother, Edna (Divine), chastises her daughter for her hairdo, Tracy dismisses the
criticism by wailing, Mother, youre so Fifties. As Ihave argued, Graffitis style,
sound, and imagery continually invoke the Fifties as an idyllic era lamentably, yet
irreversibly, coming to an end. Simultaneously, the film critically reflects upon the
historical moment of its own release. In contrast, Waterss film repeatedly invokes
the Sixties as an ideal to be pursued with conviction and joy, rejecting the fantasy
version of the Fifties as gauche, restrictive, and unjust. This is just as perceptible
in the films soundtrack as in any of the films visual elementswhere American
Graffiti utilizes several songs of the early to mid-1950s to evoke the rapidly disappearing Fifties, Hairsprays several anachronistic songs, released after the spring of
1962, pull the audience forward into Sixties movements for social justice.
While the film does differ from the others discussed in this chapter in significant
ways (it is diegetically located in the Fifties and is more recognizable as a nostalgia
film), its soundtrack directly responds to the use of Fifties music in films like Ferris
Buellers Day Off and in the oldies radio format. Hairsprays soundtrack is primarily
stocked with seemingly innocent songs from artists like The Ray Bryant Combo,
Gene Pitney, The Five Du-Tones, and Little Peggy March, with nary a civil rights
anthem or explicitly political lyric among them. Yet, in line with Altschulers characterization of Fifties rock as revolutionary, the film portrays this music as anything
but safe and innocent. The films antagonists stigmatize it as colored music,
and this wakens the protagonists political consciousness. Fifties rock and roll serves
as the vehicle for the radicalization of Tracy and her comrades. In All Shook Up,
Altschuler argues:
Enmeshed in the racial politics of the 1950s, rock and roll was credited with
and criticized for promoting integration and economic opportunity for
blacks while bringing to mainstream culture black styles and values. In the
South, rock and roll became a lightning rod for die-hard segregationists who
associated the musicand African Americanswith depraved beliefs and
The films portrayal of the popular music of the Fifties thus casts the songs and artists on its soundtrack in a new light for those who might only have heard the music
on oldies radio, commemorative albums, or pop-nostalgia soundtracks. By blending
Waterss infamous trash sensibilities, conventions from previous pop-nostalgia
texts, and direct allusions to the institutional policies of white supremacy that
helped to cultivate early rock and roll, Hairspray offers new meaning within its
own narrative border, as well as for nostalgia films, oldies radio, and retro culture

Re-Generation Soundtracks 105

writ large. The film recontextualizes oldies by investing the music with meanings
that link the sexual and racial politics of rocks origin to the conditions of 1980s
America. In Hairspray, oldies thus serve as a palimpsest in which new meanings are
layered over faded past ones, never entirely eclipsing older layers but rather drawing
them into a new composite historicaltext.
While there are no lip-synching scenes in Hairspray, the numerous dance scenes
allow oldies to speak through white teenage bodies in a roughly analogous way.
Tracys growing interest in and participation with rock music by way of dance registers her growing political consciousness. At the films outset, Tracys only exposure
to rock and roll is in her own living room, dancing along to the all-white Corny
Collins Show every day after school. But when Tracy and Penny sneak out of the
house to attend the Corny Collins Record Hop, Tracy personally witnesses the
enforced segregation of rock consumption, as uniformed security guards turn Black
teenagers away from the record hop. Tracy notes the injustice right away, but her
desire to get down with the in-crowd overcomes her principles. The disciplining and
regimentation of rock saturates the experience, even in the first dance that Tracy
gets to participate in, the Madison. While the Its Madison Time sequence partially operates to display Tracys enthusiasm and dancing panache, the form of the
dance also begins to characterize the social meaning of The Corny Collins Show as a
whole, both in its charming (yet outdated) appeal and its ruthless and constricting
structure. Tracys positioning in the frame, as well as her interactions with other
characters (Amber and Link, particularly) highlights her as a symbol of difference
who nonetheless is able to fully integrate herself into the performance.
Symbolically, the Madison illustrates the appeal of the white conformist Fifties
against which Tracy eventually rebels. The Madison is a line dance that requires
dancers to repeat a single basic step multiple times, adapting the step in response
to calls that reference popular culture of the era (The Rifleman or The Jackie
Gleason, for example). The dancers never break formation, freelance, or face one
another. Even the camera movement and editing in this scene work in smooth,
clean lines, with orderly cuts at right angles timed to match neatly with the songs
4/4 rhythm. The scene thus presents the Madison as a dance that can only be successfully performed with a structured and synchronized conformity. The scene is
among the films most charming, as Tracys exuberance at finally being accepted
into the in-crowd radiates from her every step. However, while Tracys dancing ability allows her to participate flawlessly with her teen idols, her aberrant and unruly
body marks her as an outsider.
Though she is adjudged by Motormouth Maybelle (played by real-life soul music
legend Ruth Brown) to be one of the best dancers at the hop, and she easily maneuvers
the steps of the dance at her audition, the members of the Corny Collins Council

106 Back to the Fifties

Tracy does the Madison at the Corny Collins record hop.

(the board of teenagers that votes to include new featured dancers on the show)
are not so appreciative. Council members berate and harangue applicants over their
class status (Exactly how many sweaters do you have?), their sexual activity (Are
you now, or have you ever, gone steady?), their politics (Would you ever swim in an
integrated swimming pool?), and their bodies (Arent you a little fat for the show?).
This series of comments link the derisive attitude of the council to the repressive
political practices of the Fifties that sought to reject difference and concentrate cultural power in the hands of traditional Americans. In this way, Hairspray represents The Corny Collins Show as participating in the same decontextualization of
rocks racial and sexual politics that is repeatedly discussed by rock historians and
critics:seeking the spoils from a white, suburban mass market, recording and broadcasting institutions in the Fifties shunned controversy, exploited black performers, bleached the music, and promoted white rock (Altschuler 35). Renee R.Curry
has argued that Hairspray dramatizes this process. According to Curry, the films
dance scenes work as a revolutionary communication vehicle in which certain
dances, like the Madison, are coded as white and conformist while others are
coded Black and revolutionary (16667). In opposition to the Corny Collins
caste, Tracy symbolizes the liberating potential of rock consumption. Her movement from white to Black dancing embodies the transgression of rock fandom
and the origins of the struggle for civil rights. Tracys embodiment of Fifties rock
directly opposes the location of real Fifties music in the bodies of white men (as
with Bob Seger or Risky Business), and refuses to portray the appeal of oldies as
residing only in a politics of fun (as Ferris Bueller does) or as compensation for
personal insecurity (Pretty in Pink). As opposed to the haunting estrangement of

Re-Generation Soundtracks 107

oldies in Blue Velvet, the difference registered in Hairspray is a source of both personal pleasure and collective political liberation.
The rigidity of the Madison and the repression of The Corny Collins Show can
be productively compared to a later scene, in which Tracy, Link, and Penny go to
a dance in Motormouth Maybelles record shop. Tracy and Penny pair off with
their respective partners (Tracy with the hunky Link, Penny with Motormouth
Maybelles son, Seaweed) and dance the dirty boogie. In comparison to the staid,
disciplined Madison, the dirty boogie suggests an unleashed sexual energy. The
libidinal power of the dancing is accentuated by the diegetic music in the scene. The
song, Bunker Hills Hide n Go Seek, utilizes offbeat syncopation, a technique
present in African polyrhythm tradition as well as early rock and roll music. The lyrics are rife with sexual innuendo (Whats say, lets get together / And play some hide
and go seek? / Lets go, lets play!). The vocals are punctuated by backbeat hand-claps
as well as yelps, hoots, and wails in call-and-response patterns, again recalling rocks
roots in African musical traditions. In the Madison scene, the footsteps and finger
snaps of the dancers are easily discernible, but at Motormouth Maybelles all other
sounds are drowned out by the music, delivering the impression that Tracy, Link,
and Penny are overwhelmed by the music and its energy. This sense is further supported by the visual composition of the scene, in which Tracy, Penny, and Link
are surrounded not only by Black dancers but also by Black music (in the form of
records, photographs, and concert flyers from artists like Etta James, Ray Charles,
Little Anthony, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Mary Wells). The taboo of miscegenation is suggested by the pairing of Seaweed and checkerboard chick Penny,
as they confirm their sexual interest in one another on the dance floor. This pairing
is temporarily blocked by Mrs. Pingleton, who barrels into the record shop maniacally wielding a knife, bent on rescuing her daughter from Motormouths voodoo
spells and Seaweeds sexual advances. The racism of Pennys mother in this scene
is played for laughs, but it also suggests the degree to which rock and roll was the
source of considerable white fear and potential violence. Though it is enacted with
fewer histrionics, the steadfast institution of segregation on The Corny Collins Show
is, at base, no different than Mrs. Pingletons crazed rescue mission.
In addition to the politics of race suggested by the scene, Tracy and Links dancing indicates another form of transgression elicited by the teens exposure to Black
Baltimore. In her engagement with rock music and dance, Tracy becomes not a
sexualized object of desire (as Prudence Pingleton might fear) but rather a sexual
subject. Tracy asserts her sexual agency and pursues her own erotic desires through
the dirty boogie. This sequence stands in stark contrast to an earlier scene depicting
Link and Amber making out in a convertible. Link takes a stereotypically dominant
sexual position in that scene, climbing on top of the submissive Amber as she giggles

108 Back to the Fifties

Tracey and Link play Hide and Go Seek.

girlishly. In opposition, Tracys pleasure in the Hide n Go Seek scene comes from
her newfound sexual confidence and power, which has been facilitated by her status
as the baddest white dancer in Baltimore. One particular two shot of the couple
is suggestively underscored by the songs lines, Aw, man, will you put down / That
thing you got in your hand / Find your hole and get in it. As Link and Tracy dance
together, it is clear that Tracy takes the lead and that Links body is directed to best
serve Tracys visual and physical pleasure. The dance opens with Tracy first miming
a lasso that she uses to snare Link, then a fishing rod she uses to pull him inthese
movements are significant because they suggest that Links body is an object Tracy
can actively pursue and obtain. Link theatrically removes his jacket and moves closer
to Tracy, producing his tongue to her very apparent satisfaction. By the time the
appropriately named Prudence Pingleton interrupts, the substantially taller Link
is situated well below Tracy, visually suggesting her as sexually dominant and their
coupling as choreographed around Tracys sexual pleasure.
Of all the Fifties nostalgia texts of the Reagan Era, Hairspray is one of only a few
that explicitly acknowledge the existence of segregation, and it is certainly the only
one that makes the violence and intimidation that enforced segregation an integral
part of its narrative. Hairspray reminds its viewers that segregation was not simply a
holdover from less enlightened times but a deeply institutionalized commitment to
subjugate racial minorities in perpetuity. Toying with conventions of the teen film,
Hairspray overlays the traditional female teen film narrative with a story of Tracys
political radicalization. Once Tracy becomes conscious of the systematized injustice
at play in her beloved hometown, she works to build coalitions with her friends and
family, as well as with strangers across boundaries of gender, class, and race. In this

Re-Generation Soundtracks 109

way, the film depicts the transition from the Fifties to the Sixties as the product of
collective political conviction and struggle. Innocence is not lost in Hairspray but
rather unmasked as a refusal to confront the injustices that structure everyday life.
The heroes of the film, whether by choice or not, reject innocence in favor of the
social and political consciousness popularly aligned with the Sixties.
Of course, as a Waters film, there is a winking quality to nearly all of Hairsprays
scenes. After Tracy, Link, Penny, and Seaweed attend a Motormouth Maybelle Soul
Revue that turns into an anti-segregation rally, they sneak into the alley behind the
hall to make out. As a rat crawls over her foot, the wide-eyed Tracy moons, Oh
Link, Iwish Iwas dark-skinned, to which her paramour replies with a paraphrase
of William Blake:Tracy, our souls are black, even though our skin is white. Penny,
for her part, can scarcely wait for Seaweed to answer her question, Will integration
ever come?, before gushing, Go to second! Go to second! Though Tracy, Link,
Seaweed, and Penny are unquestionably the heroes of Waterss story, this is an element of critique in the scenes absurd humor. In an essay exploring the camp stylistics of Hairspray, Caetlin Benson-Allott argues that in this scene the film implies
that the students do not understand the stakes of U.S.racism, even that their very
desire for integration might be premised on their failure to recognize racial injustice (148). Thus, in scenes like this one, the film critiques the white ethnocentrism
of its viewers and encourages nostalgic memories of the past in order to commodify
and profit fromthem.
Indeed, Hairsprays focus on the white teenager Tracy as the agent of social
change (the mostly Black crowd at the films climactic race riot chants Free Tracy
Turnblad!) does not present the history of violence and struggle over racial justice
before, during, and after 1962, thus allowing its mostly white bourgeois audience
to commodify and consume the civil rights movement as a nostalgic pleasure centering on the contributions of a white teenager. Like Back to the Future, Waterss
film attempts to fix history by correcting the failures of the historical 1950s made
manifest in the Reagan Era. However, Hairsprays notions of what constitutes the
failure of the past, and problems of the present, are dramatically different from
those described in Chapter One of this book. For Hairspray, the failure of the
past was not the disruption of the Fifties social order but rather that the disruption didnt go far enough. While Hairsprays happy ending has The Corny Collins
Show declaring itself integrated, the real-life inspiration for the program, The Buddy
Deane Show, was canceled in 1964 rather than allow mixed-race dancing. Curry
argues that Hairspray represents the longing perhaps of Waters himself for a redesigned history, one that vivifies its black and white issues (166). In other words,
Hairspray represents a different sort of fantasy Fiftiesone that seeks to restore
the pleasures of nonconformity and re-energize the belief in public activism and

110 Back to the Fifties

civil disobedience. Waterss film might be understood as an attempt to regenerate

optimism, as George Lucas claimed as motivation for American Graffiti, but it is
also an endorsement of the commitment it takes to enact social change in the face
of irrational and indeed violent opposition.
The constant invocation of the Fifties in the films mise en scne (with outlandish
hairdos, outfits, and cars) as outdated and gauche works, in Benson-Allots view, to
mitigate its own participation in a Jamesonian nostalgia culture. Because Hairspray
promotes integration as a nostalgic moment, and thus creates commodity from a
political movement, it also codes its commodity-ridden mise-en-scene as a symptom
of the films camp sensibility:the very commodification of integration also becomes
a critique of that impulse (145). In other words, the camp stylistics present in the
films mise en scne draw attention to, and critique, the depoliticizing impulses of
the nostalgia film, throwing the films happy ending into question.
While Ifind this argument compelling, its exclusive focus on the films visual
elements neglects to consider the films soundtrack. Certainly the novelty songs
on the soundtrack, like Little Peggy Marchs I Wish IWere a Princess or Gene
and Wendells The Roach, function as examples of bad taste in the way that
Benson-Allott describes. However, the majority of songs are of the style popular
on oldies radio and revival tours during the 1980s, including Chubby Checkers
Pony Time, The Five Du-Tones Shake a Tail Feather and Dee Dee Sharps
Gravy. Songs like these are not sonic equivalents of outdated beehive hairdos.
They are commodities that are decidedly in fashion and up to date for the Reagan
Era (which saw Kylie Minogue cover The Loco-Motion and The Fat Boys cover
The Twist). Hairsprays narrative directly critiques The Corny Collins Show for
stripping rock and rhythm and blues of its original racial and sexual politics.
The same criticisms the film makes of The Corny Collins Show can be extended
outside the narrative border of the film and into radio formats, record labels, and
television networks of the Reagan Era, rendering the films critiques immediate and pressing. After watching the writhing teenagers in Hairspray, Sharps
Gravy becomes legible not as a bubblegum novelty song but a thinly coded
affirmation of female sexual desire and authority. Sharp can both admit I want
to ride the gravy train with you and insist that her partner treat me right.
Knowing that, audiences can reflect upon the effects of oldies radio, compilation albums, or commercial jingles that hold up oldies as innocent in contrast
to depraved artists of the 1980s like Madonna or 2 Live Crew. The Hairspray
soundtrack in this way alters the interpretive networks that surround Fifties rock
and roll. In the process, it challenges the Golden Oldies conceptualization of
popular music and the culture and historical era that producedit.

Re-Generation Soundtracks 111

The rise of oldies, the emergence of Hollywood soundtrack albums as synergistic keystones, and the cultural redefinition of rock as the province of figures like Bob Seger and Ferris Bueller were symptoms of broader changes in the
marketing and distribution of pop music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These
processes are not separate from or exterior to popular music but constitutive of it.
Twentieth century popular music means the twentieth-century popular record;
not the record of something (a song? a singer? a performance?) which exists independently of the music industry, Simon Frith explains, but a form of communication which determines what songs, singers, and performances are and can be
(Music for Pleasure 12). After a brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s in
which popular music styles and genres were presented side by side at music festivals, on free-form radio, and in jukeboxes, changes in radio broadcasting in the
1970s saw pop music become organized into more thinly sliced genres, formats,
and targeted demographics. The result was the racial segregation of pop music
(and, to some extent, pop music audiences) that reflected the white flight of
middle-class white families from racially diverse American cities into suburban
cloisters. The efforts of one artist to break through this format segregation, on
radio stations and the new outlet of Music Television (MTV), are the subjects of
the next chapter.


While the recycling and repackaging of Fifties music described in the last
chapter are significant culturally, economically oldies largely exist on the margins of the popular music business. More central were the radical shifts in music
distribution (particularly on FM radio and cable TV) in this period. The opening
of the FM radio dial and the strategy of targeting more narrowly defined demographics facilitated the growth of Golden Oldies, along with other highly specialized and segmented radio formats. Establishing a format, argues Jody Berland,
ensures that a station is clearly distinguishable from other stations ... through
a clear musical identity constructed in harmony with the precise demographics
and researched common tastes of the targeted audience (Radio Space 181).
But programming and formatting must be understood as political and cultural
processes as well as sound business practices. David Brackett reminds us that the
act of dividing and hierarchizing musical styles and audiences is never innocent or
natural []:some stand to benefit from the way the hierarchy is constructed while
others will lose out (Politics and Practice 777). As Hairsprays Tracy Turnblad
could attest, the segmentation of pop music audiences often works to reinforce
structural and societal inequities. Changes in radio broadcasting in the 1970s saw
pop music become more rigidly organized into more thinly sliced genres, formats,
and targeted demographics that reinforced discursive and ideological constructs of
generation, gender, sexuality, andrace.
Partially in response to these transformations in radio, record companies adjusted
their development and production strategies. In the early 1970s, CBS Records

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 113

commissioned a study from a group of graduate students at the Harvard Business

School. The product of the students labors, A Study of the Soul Music Environment
Prepared for Columbia Records Group, became famous in the music industries as
The Harvard Report. Noting the growing success of independent soul labels like
Motown and Stax, as well as the effective segregation of the record and radio industries
through a process of rationalization and market research, the report recommended
that CBSs music divisions actively seek to find artists, albums, and songs that could
cross over from the Black-oriented soul, funk, and R&B charts to the white-oriented
Top 40 and AOR (album-oriented rock) charts (George, Death 150; Sanjek 65). The
crossover hit became the brass ring for record companies. It also became the subject
of intense controversy and debate, as critics like Nelson George in Billboard considered the consequences of the loss of economic control and aesthetic autonomy within
Black-owned record labels, management firms, and record stores.1 The pursuit of crossover hits in the Reagan Era was an enormous influence on the development of the new
pop sound featured on the blockbuster albums from Madonna, Whitney Houston,
Prince, and George Michael. Crossover fever also fueled the expansion of a relatively
new cultural formthe music video aired onMTV.2
All of these industrial changes in popular musicthe segmentation of radio formats, the pursuit of crossover hits, the increasing importance of blockbuster albums,
and the growing influence of MTVare observable in the meteoric rise of Michael
Jackson.3 Jackson was, of course, a mainstream success before the Reagan Era. He
spent his childhood fronting The Jackson 5, who scored platinum records for Motown
and CBS and were featured in short-lived stints on television with a Saturday morning cartoon show (The Jackson 5ive, 197173) and a CBS variety show (The Jacksons,
197677). As a solo performer, Jackson secured a supporting role in a Hollywood
soul musical (1978s The Wiz) and a multiplatinum solo record (Off the Wall, 1978).
Still, as the 1970s wore on, Jackson struggled to cross over the ever more intensely
fortified boundaries of format and genre. His time with the Jackson 5 was defined by
his status as a precocious child star, and his solo output in the late 1970s, while commercially successful, was circumscribed by the racialized boundaries of soul and
disco. However, with the astronomical success of Jacksons solo albums in the 1980s
(Thriller in 1983 followed by Bad in 1987), Jackson crossed over the racialized borders
of popular music and became perhaps the worlds biggest entertainmenticon.
Reaching those heights was no easy feat. Jackson experienced resistance from
powerful media institutions that sought to preserve the effective segregation of
Black performers to radio stations, concert tours, and record labels on the margins
of the mainstream before Thriller, and dealt with skepticism from some influential
Black cultural figures who suspected Jackson had lost touch with his working-class
Black roots after Thriller. In both cases, Jackson partially responded through

114 Back to the Fifties

pop-nostalgia representations of the Fifties in his music videos. Jacksons use of

the Fifties, however, did not operate in the same way for all audiences. Just as the
logic of crossover encouraged record labels and music producers to blend different
elements to simultaneously appeal to racialized formats, genres, and demographic
groups, Jacksons mobilization of Fifties nostalgia sent different messages to his fans
in middle-class white suburbs and working-class Black communities.4 Jacksons
1980s career reveals the way that nostalgia can change over time and vary across
texts, as well as simultaneously serve different semantic and cultural functions,
within the same texts, for different audiences.
We can see this at work in the opening moments of the video for Thriller.
Immediately after the titles, Michael drives with his nameless girlfriend (Ola Ray)
down a quiet secluded road. The car sputters, slows, and finally stops. His girlfriend
gives him a suspicious look, to which he responds defensively:Honestly, were out
of gas! When his girlfriend asks, So what are we going to do now?, there
is a quick reaction shot of Michael, then another cut, this one to the couples feet
walking down the road. The sequence is presented as comedy, but it is also the first
indication of the videos complex use of the Fifties and its ways of establishing that
Jackson is, as he says later, not like otherguys.
The video presents a veritable greatest hits of pop-nostalgia Fifties signifiers.
Michael wears a varsity lettermans jacket and blue jeans while his ponytailed paramour is clad in a poodle skirt and saddle shoes. They drive down peaceful smalltown streets in a powder blue 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air convertiblethe iconic 57
Chevy of Hot Wheels and Matchbox fame. The video presents Jackson and Ray, in
other words, as the most recognizable archetypes of Fifties teenagers that circulated
in the Re-Generation. But how does the video treat these archetypes? We might
begin to answer that by choosing how to read the two shotsor, perhaps more
specifically, the space between the two shotsthat follow the cars breakdown: the
reaction shot of Jackson and the close up of the couples feet.

Thriller: Reaction shot (left) and cut to feet (right).

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 115

If we take the girls question as sincere, we read Michaels look as innocent or

perhaps even nave. His defensiveness (Honestly, were out of gas) is a testament
to both his innocence and his dismay at his girlfriends suspicion. In this reading,
Michael adheres to his morality and honorhe understands what his girlfriend
is apprehensive about, but holds fast to his principles. In this case, the cut to the
feet might be celebrated as a triumph of traditional values. If, alternately, we take
her question as an attempt at seduction, we can read into Jacksons reaction a bit
of shyness, anxiety, or perhaps fear. He is not like other guys because he is not
driven by his sexual desires, or is too juvenile or repressed to even consider taking
advantage of the situation. In either case, the cut to the couples feet works to comic
effectwhile they might not be capable of imagining alternatives for what they
might do in this situation, we certainly can. In either case, these readings position
Jackson as the kind of safe, innocent all-American boy of the Fifties that was
lionized in pop nostalgia of the 1970s and 1980s. As Iwill show, Jacksons crossover
potential with white audiences was predicated on his eschewal of overt expressions
of sexuality that were associated with many funk, soul, and R&B performers of
Yet his girlfriends implied suspicion that Michael might be manufacturing the
cars breakdown hints that Michael might not be so innocent, after all. In this
reading, the reaction shot of Michael (see image 4.1) is suggestive, flirtatious, even
conniving. Kobena Mercers oft-cited essay on the video suggests that the videos
innocent representation is unsettled by Michaels statement: Im not like other
guys. The statement implies a question posed on the terrain of gender, and masculinity in particular:why is he different from other guys? (36). Mercer endeavors
to answer this question with reference to the tabloid rumors that swirled around
Jacksons sexuality in the late 1970s and early 1980s:Inasmuch as the video audience is conscious of the gossip which circulates around the star, the statement of
difference provokes other meanings: is he homosexual, transsexual or somehow
presexual? (39). But Mercer leaves out another possibility. If we follow an alternative interpretation of this scene wherein Jacksons difference from other guys is an
inability to suppress his sexual urges like a good boy of the Fifties, then the cut
to the couples feet is not a smash cut for comic effect but rather an ellipsis suggesting that the teens have taken the opportunity to thrill themselves in the parked
car. Linda Williams reminds us that in the era of the Motion Picture Production
Code (the era that is being represented and recreated by the videos replication of
Fifties teen horror conventions), ellipses in editing were especially frequent and felt
as ellipses when they elide sex acts (40). In this case, we are forced to look at the
innocent, all-American boy image as a performance, and one that Jackson utilizes
strategically for his own purposes.

116 Back to the Fifties

The ambivalence suggested by this sequence in the video parallels the crossover
commercial strategy of Jacksons solo career. For white, mainstream pop music
audiences, Jacksons invocation of the Fifties was meant to signal a safe, apolitical,
nonsexual form of entertainment to be distinguished from Black performers in
funk, disco, or hip-hop. For Black audiences, Jacksons use of the Fifties does not
simply recreate the pop-nostalgia images that proliferated across popular culture
with a Black man at their center, though that was certainly important. In his forays into pop nostalgia, Jackson also highlights the artifice of mainstream Fifties
images, portraying them as just a stage trick, or a bit of show business. Henry Louis
Gates has identified such critical signification as a strain of African-American cultural production in which forms of dominant culture are reproduced, often with
a wink or tongue planted firmly in cheek. This kind of vernacular signifyin(g)
highlights the performative nature of dominant codes and in the process inverts
and subtly critiques the social structures that produce themthough it can also
work as a form of homage or respect, in which the repetition of established cultural
forms is meant as tribute (5253).
As Iargued in Chapter Three, nostalgia for the Fifties was prompted by a multitude of texts scattered across the pop culture landscape of the Reagan Era, each
working toward its own political and social ends, and each engaged in a cultural
process of negotiation and struggle over the meaning of the Fifties. In this chapter,
Iwant to show how pop nostalgia can simultaneously work to different ends, within
the same text, for different audiences. The treatment of the Fifties in Jacksons pop
nostalgia music videos draws on both forms of critical significationcelebration
and critiqueoutlined by Gates. In accordance with the logic of crossover, Jackson
utilizes different conceptualizations of the Fifties in order to position himself in
relation to his Black and white audiences. Jackson draws on the Fifties to burnish
his masculine image as well as to contain it, and he celebrates figures from the Fifties
as much as he deflates them. In the process, Jackson is able to succeed within the
boundaries of commercial culture while also enacting, as Mercer puts it, resistance
to his own formulaic social construction within it(12).
Much of the important scholarly work on Jacksons career has focused on his fluidity, his ability to morph, to moonwalk between contradictions, or otherwise
trouble the seemingly stable categories of race, gender, and sexuality.5 Mercers essay
on the Thriller video, for example, casts Jackson as a spectacle of racial and sexual
indeterminacy. But if Jacksons race or sexuality are indeterminate in his videos
it is not because they are wholly fluid or indiscernible; rather, it is because they are
irreducible to any singular vision. Throughout the 1980s, different audiences made
different determinations regarding Jacksons cultural significance and meaning,
especially in terms of race and masculine sexuality. This was not a process that was

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 117

imposed on Jacksons work from the outside; it was part of the commercial strategy surrounding Jacksons media productions. In order to contextualize Jacksons
music and video output, this chapter first covers the major changes in the business
of radio broadcasting and album sales that led to the calcification of racially segregated genres and formats in the 1970s, and eventually the rise of MTV in 1981. It
then concentrates on the innovation of crossover logic in the recording industry
and considers the ways that logic impacted the early part of Jacksons career as a solo
artist. The chapter then turns to two of Jacksons most influential videos1983s
Thriller and 1988s Smooth Criminaland explores the way that they utilize
Fifties tropes and iconography. These videos represent subtly different pitches to
Black and mainstream audiences (and correspondingly, subtly different visions of
the Fifties). They also reflect the shifting cultural concerns around Jackson himself.

For mat Segr egation and theFoundingofMTV

MTVs influence on the culture and aesthetics of the Re-Generation is almost

universally recognized, and Jacksons impact on the form of music video and the
programming strategies of MTV simply cannot be overstated. In order to fully
appreciate and comprehend Jacksons impact, however, one must first understand the
structural reorganization of radio broadcasting after the opening of the FM band,
as these conditions shaped MTVs industrial and commercial strategies.
While the technological capability to broadcast in FM existed as far back as
the 1930s, it didnt begin to flourish commercially or culturally until the late
1960s. In an effort to increase competition and diversity among radio stations, the
FCC ruled in 1964 that station owners must program different material on their
AMand FM stations in large markets. Coupled with the inclusion of FM radios
in American cars, these regulations helped radio stations brand their audiences,
increase their advertising rates, and ultimately expand their revenue (Keith and
Sterling 30105).
With an influx of advertising dollars making FM broadcasting commercially viable for the first time, and FCC regulations making enormous chunks of programming time available, a vast new space for experimentation opened up at the same
historical moment when a thriving Counterculture was exploring new political,
social, and aesthetic values in music. In Chapter Three I discuss how the dominance of Top 40 on AM stations allowed for the rise of more targeted formats like
Golden Oldies. But Golden Oldies was only one of the new formats to emerge in
this era. Where AM music stations generally kept their focus more narrowly on
Top 40 pop hits, DJs on new free formor later, progressiveFM stations

118 Back to the Fifties

had more freedom to expand their playlists, discuss culture and politics, or test
the formal limits of commercial radio broadcasting. This period of FM broadcasting has been described as reflecting sharper divisions in American society of the
1960s, responding by incorporating alternative and counterculture content as well
as increasingly mainstream music and talk (Keith and Sterling 129). Former Top
40 DJ Tom Donahue expressed his frustration with traditional Top-40 radio formats in an article in the November 23, 1967, issue of Rolling Stone titled AM Radio
Is Dead and Its Stinking Corpse is Rotting Up the Airwaves. Breaking from the
Top-40 mold, influential free-form DJs like Bill Rosko Mercer at WOR-FM in
New York City and Donahue in San Francisco aired deep cuts from artists like
Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Janis Joplin,
interspersed with social and political commentary. Eschewing the singles released
on 45 rpm records, these stations focused on the 33 1/3 LP albums, sometimes playing records in their entirety.6
Within years, market research analysts began to see the revenue potentials of the
college-aged audiences tuning in to progressive FM. (Top-40 AM radio stations
had the reputation of drawing the less-prized teenage girl marketthose who were
listening to The Monkees or Sonny & Cher rather than the Stones or the Grateful
Dead.) Soon commercial radio was adapting the successes of progressive radio into
a more regimented, and more commercially oriented, radio format. Speaking to the
Cleveland Plain-Dealer in 1975, WMMS DJ Kid Leo described this as the end of an
era:The emphasis is shifting back to entertainment instead of being relevant
Thats Album-Oriented Rock. Thats a name for the 70s (Olszewski 119). AOR took
its name from the emphasis on deep cuts from LP albums rather than the singles
distributed on EP and featured on AM Top-40 radio. AOR took the album cuts
but left the political and musical experimentation behind, in order to maximize ratings and, by extension, appeal to advertisers.
In AOR, the playlist was removed from the DJs control and was instead determined by extensive market research conducted by radio programming consultants. Promising higher ratings and advertising revenue, these consultants, argues
Joseph Piasek, turned thematic sets into music sweeps designed for Arbitrons
ratings methodology, and handed FM station owners a homogenous and more
manageable format (23). Much like the impact of hundreds of new channels
on cable and satellite television making niche programming possible, music
on American radio in the mid-1970s became hyper-specialized. Using enhanced
techniques in audience research and market analysis, station programmers
designed playlists to target specific demographics. One of the most influential
forces in this movement was the partnership between consultants Lee Abrams
and Kent Burkhart. Burkharts research team would distribute in-store surveys

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 119

to record store customers and would follow up with phone interviews:We call
them about a week later and ask them how they like the album and which cuts
they like best, Burkhart told Billboard in 1978, We call about 5,000 a week
(King 22). Burkhart also conducted multiple focus group sessions in which participants would discuss music. The sessions were videotaped and then analyzed by
psychologists. Far from the freewheeling experimentation of Donahue, this new
form of FM broadcasting was relentlessly rationalized in order to appeal to audiences from a key demographicwhite males ages seventeen to thirty-five. The
effect of the rationalization of FM broadcasting in the 1970s, Berland argues, was
to demonstrate that demographics, not music, was radios real commodity to
be sold to advertisers in exchange for revenue to the broadcaster (Berland Radio
Space and Industrial Time183).
This transformation occurred at the very same time that Golden Oldies emerged,
and for many of the same reasons. The emphasis on entertainment, rather than
being relevant, as Kid Leo said, or the celebration of apolitical tunes, as the Oldies
backers had it, must be understood not only as a reaction against the politics or
aesthetic experimentation in popular music of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but
also of the radical, satirical, or just off-color commentary wrapped around that
rock music on progressive radio stations. As a result, AOR and the institutions that
would build on its innovations participated in a cultural revision of popular music
in the United States. Piasek argues that AOR radio, by stripping rock and roll of
its rhythm and blues heritage and rejecting its subversive possibilities, significantly
contributed to branding rock as a marketable commodity (23). In practice this
meant, as Burkhart told Billboard, taking superstars like Fleetwood Mac and the
Eagles and playing them over and over (King 22). The benefits to radio station owners and record companies were immediate but short-lived. By the decades end, the
music industry would be in disarray, mired in a great depression and turning to
new media technologies to save it. Theo Cateforis describes the conditions of the
industry in 1979 thusly:
An industry accustomed to yearly upward profits was sent reeling, and, faced
with a sea of abnormally large overstock returns and sharply declining sales,
the major record labels panicked. Companies began to lay off employees at an
alarming rate. In August, Business Week reported that the music industry had
cut one thousand employees in a workforce of only fourteen thousand. Five
months later Rolling Stone estimated that the number had increased to two
thousand. The result was a bloodletting that had decimated a significant portion of the industrys workforce.
(Are We Not New Wave?36)

120 Back to the Fifties

Faced with these circumstances, the recording industry and radio broadcasters
could have initiated an across-the-board re-examination of their marketing and distribution practices in the United States, giving particular attention to their increasingly narrow focus on young white middle-class males and the attendant cultural
redefinition of rock and roll. Examination of the trade and popular press from the
years around the so-called great depression of 79 suggests that station owners and
record executives took another approach. The problem, the industry concluded,
was not that their formats were too narrow or restrictive but rather that they had
allowed themselves to be seduced by fads like disco, new wave, and punk, and had
strayed too far from rock as AOR defined it. Their challenge, they decided, was
to find new ways to promote and market AOR music more effectively, and to reach
their target demographics on more platforms.
MTV was originally an effort to achieve both of those goals, as Denisoff describes
in his invaluable history of the companys early years, Inside MTV.7 The company
was one product of a 1979 merger between American Express and Warner Cable,
forming Warner Amex Cable Communications (WACC, or Wamex). Warner
Cable had some possibly profitable channels (the Star Channel, later renamed The
Movie Channel, and the newly formed Nickelodeon). But American Express was
particularly interested in Warner Cable because of the potential for expanding market research. Warner Cable had developed the innovative QUBE service, operating in Columbus, Ohio, which had interactive capabilities that allowed viewers to
respond to multiple-choice prompts during programming (casting votes, registering opinions, etc.). American Express thought that QUBE might be a way to sell
financial services through cable television, as well as be a site for advanced market
researchparticularly of highly targeted demographics.
The prospect of using cable television to target middle-class white males from
eighteen to thirty-five years old was part of the Wamex plan from the very beginning. John Lack, one of Wamexs first hires as executive vice president of programming and marketing, explicitly aimed to capture the youth market for television in
the same way that AOR did for FM radio. Two more of Lacks hiresBob Pittman,
hired from WNBC in NewYork, and John Sykes, brought in from CBS Records
in Chicagoreflected this commitment to relentless demographic targeting and
AOR format discipline. Additionally, Les Garland, influential pioneer of the AOR
format, was hired as a programming consultant.
Lack saw rock music videos as a key to capturing young viewers in a cost-effective
way for a few reasons:record companies were desperate and still in the throes of
a depressed market in album sales; advertisers had no television avenue outside of
Saturday Night Live to target the age twelve to thirty-four demographic; and cable
television, while poised to rapidly expand, was only providing news, sports, and old

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 121

movies (Denisoff 2627). However, there was still the matter of acquiring the videos
from the record labels without paying for their production. The labels were hoping
that music videos (which were originally produced to promote artists globally in the
absence of a world tour) would be an additional source of revenue, not an additional
promotional expense. Still nervous about home audiotaping and wary of the practice extending to new video recorders, record companies were not keen on the idea
of paying for the production of music videos then handing them over to a brand new
cable channel for free.8 MTVs pitch to record companies was that, at a time when
AOR stations were shortening their playlists, music videos could break new artists
and promote new records. Breaking new artists is vital to the record industry, as
unproven artists most often signed contracts more favorable to the record company,
with smaller production costs and higher potential earnings for thelabel.
While MTV was telling record companies that the channel would be a way to
escape the restrictions of radio formats, Wamex was assuring advertisers and cable
operators that MTV would be a station committed to the principles of AOR programming (market research, demographic targeting, regimented playlists, etc.)
Using psychographic studies and mining data from test music video programming,
John Lack worked to convince advertisers and cable operators that MTV would
deliver the right audienceswhite suburban male viewers with disposable income.
Under the direction of Lack and Pittman, Wamex commissioned a market segmentation study that surveyed almost a thousand people, then sliced that information into demographic segments. The result was a musical playlist designed to target
middle-class white males from ages twelve to thirty-four. In a recent oral history of
MTV, Lack described the intentions of thestudy:
See, the whole pitch to the board of directors at WASEC had nothing to do
with music videos. It had to do with demographics We said, If this music
channel reaches twelve to thirty-four year olds, we can deliver an audience for
advertisers they cant get through broadcast television. Cable providers would
sign up new subscribers, because this would be available only oncable.
(Marks and Tannenbaum21)
Lack promised a group of cable operators that the channel would reach out for
target audiences that are not traditional, high-profile TV viewers, meaning teenage and upscale adult white suburbanites (Denisoff 4647). Responding to questions from television advertisers about the possibilities for programming, Pittman
explained, This is an AOR music channelwere not playing all kinds of music
(Loftus 302). The market dataand the continuing slump in record saleswas
enough to convince a small group of investors to sign on to the MTV experiment.

122 Back to the Fifties

But even as MTV celebrated its premiere in August of 1981, there were rumblings
of discontent about the channels connection to AOR. Industry insiders and critics alike had noted the absence of Black artists from MTVs early rotation. Danny
Bramson, president of Backstreet Records, worried at the premiere party, I only
hope that they dont end up with a bland, homogenized approach that duplicates
what has happened to so much radio (Hilburn, Music TV G3). Internally, some
members of the MTV staff were concerned with the exclusion of Black artists.
MTVs director of acquisitions claimed to have fought to include more artists of
color on the station, only to be rebuffed:I voiced my opinion to Bob [Pittmann]
we all talked about it. Bob comes from radio He knew what they wanted was
an AOR channel (Denisoff 46). Responding to the same concerns in the press,
Pittman insisted over and over again that MTVs programming choices were motivated by cold, hard data, not racial animus. From a demographic-analysis perspective, this made a certain degree of sense. Cable television was not yet nationwideit
was more concentrated in rural communities and small, mid-American markets
more invested in the white-dominated field of rockmusic.
But what MTVs executives never seemed to grasp was that resentment had been
growing over the racial implications of the AOR formats influence, even without
explicitly racist intentions on the part of program directors. Black artists and record
companies began to chafe against the format, arguing that their album sales were
damaged by their inability to appear on the biggest radio stations through discriminatory programming practices. The newly organized trade group the Black
Music Association had taken their dissatisfaction with AOR practitioners to the
press as early as 1979 (A Marriage of Mind and Music 10). By the time the first
Billboard Video Music Conference was held in Los Angeles in November 1981, just
two months after MTVs debut, MTV executives found themselves in a full-fledged
media controversy. One of the most-anticipated panels of the conference, Record
Companies:An Expanding Role in Video Entertainment, featured representatives
from several record companies:A&M, Warner Bros., Chrysalis, Atlantic, Polygram,
and CBS. While MTVs John Sykes was not listed as a participant in the panel in
Billboards pre-conference preview (Agenda), according to Denisoff, Sykes became
the center of attention when the panel was convened. Label reps peppered Sykes
with criticism regarding the absence of Black performers on the channel. It was a
mark of MTVs early success that the controversy gained so much traction. The
central argument the channel made to record labels was that if they would finance
the production of videos and provide them to MTV for free, they would recoup
their expenses in increased album sales. Within six weeks of the August premiere
of MTV there was data to show that new artists who were getting no radio airplay (Squeeze, Adam Ant, The Stray Cats, and Duran Duran) were still doing brisk

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 123

album sales in MTV-serviced markets. You could almost make a tactical map of
the country, darken the MTV areas and see the sales of certain records increasing
in those areas, wrote Steven Levy. A Nielsen survey commissioned by MTV early
this year quantified this effectsixty-three percent of MTV viewers averaged nine
album buys a year, and four of those purchases were influenced by what they had
seen on the channel (129). This made the exclusion of non-AOR artists not only a
cultural issue but a financialone.
Into this controversy stepped the talented and bombastic Motown artist Rick
James, who had built a strong following in the late 1970s. His 1981 LP, Street Songs,
which featured the hits Give It to Me Baby and Super Freak, went triple platinum and peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts. James had sold nearly ten million
records, but both he and his label, Motown, were frustrated by his inability to get
airplay on MTV. In a 1983 interview with the Los Angeles Times, James became the
first major recording artist to publicly criticize MTVs format segregation, calling
the lack of Black performers on the channel an obvious case of discrimination
(Goldstein 88). In the following weeks, James continued his public-relations assault
on MTVs format, telling Billboard a week later, Im hoping my speaking out in
public about MTVs discriminatory policy will make other acts go on the record
about it (George, Slick Rick Says MTV Is Sick). He later appeared on ABCs
Nightline calling attention to the format segregation and claiming he had been personally blackballed by the channel for speaking out, then told Rolling Stone that
MTVs programming was like taking black people back 400years (Connelly 47).
James was indeed a threat to MTV, as he represented the potential for a cultural
backlash to the channel just as it was attempting to gain credibility with investors,
cable operators, and advertisers.
To Wamexs dismay, artists and critics alike took Jamess cue and began to speak
out against MTV. Even Bob Seger, an artist who had benefited from AOR as much
as anyone, asked in the pages of Musician, Where are Marvin Gaye and the rappers? (White Bob Seger 60). During an on-air interview on MTV, David Bowie
pressed VJ Mark Goodman to answer the question, Why are there practically no
Blacks on the network? Rock critics, particularly those that harbored resentment
over the death of progressive radio, intensified their critiques of MTV. Rock and
Roll Confidentials Dave Marsh drew the connection between MTV and AOR
explicitly: MTVs programmersBob Pittman, Les Garland, and Lee Abrams
all learned their tricks at AOR, a true school for scandal (Denisoff 11920). The
NewYork Times John J.OConnor didnt pull his punches, either, observing that
MTV executives, for their part, have insisted, not a little arrogantly, that their
product is focused on rock-and-roll, an area of music that supposedly is not frequented by black performers. Roll over, Chuck Berry (OConnor23).

124 Back to the Fifties

Crossing Over withThr iller

While MTV faced criticism over the racial implications of its AOR programming
principles, Michael Jackson and his record label were planning the biggest crossover record in history. To be sure, Jackson was a major star and a household name.
His contract with Epic Records (a subsidiary of industry giant CBS) was among
the most lucrative in the business. But despite his fame, notoriety, and commercial
success, Jackson was constrained by the perception of him as a pop performer (as
opposed to a serious artist in rock, soul, or folk). Even though Jacksons debut solo
record, Off the Wall, sold over eight million copies in the middle of the record industrys calamitous depressionRolling Stone rebuffed CBSs attempts to get Michael
on the cover. Jackson and CBS would again be stung when Off the Wall only garnered three Grammy nominations, despite being the top-selling record in history
for a Black artist. Far worse, Jackson dealt with coded and explicit racism from
within the entertainment industry. One particularly loathsome instance involved
Jacksons friendship with another former child star, Tatum ONeal. When Jackson
invited her to accompany him to the NewYork premiere of The Wiz, her management forbade her from going. In her autobiography, ONeal remembers, I was told,
in exactly these words:You cant go to a premiere with a nigger(101).
In the run-up to Thriller, both Jackson and his team at Epic/CBS were heavily
invested in breaking through the restrictions of radio formatting and reaching not
just mainstream but blockbuster success. The label approved production costs for
the album up to the million-dollar mark. The album was slated for a late November
release to hit the holiday gift-giving season. While Quincy Jones tried to temper
expectations about the albums commercial prospects in the depressed pop music
marketplace, Jackson cheerfully told Ebony, I think well have at least seven hit singles off this one (Sanders 130). With Thriller, he didnt just want a hithe wanted
the biggest record of all time. CBS was onboard.
It is important to remember that CBS did not sign Jackson away from Motown
simply because he had been a child star. He was also recognized as the heir apparent
to a Black musical tradition that stretched back to the Fifties (and beyond). Some
of the best writing on Michael Jacksons music from scholars and critics like Marc
Anthony Neal, Nelson George, Sylvia Martin, Joseph Vogel, and Tour have begun
to reveal the ways that Jackson was always in conversation with his influences
(Neal, Sampling Michael). As a youngster, Jackson honed his craft working on
the so-called Chitlin Circuitthe nightclubs, theaters, and other venues that had
been hospitable to Black performers dating back to the era of Jim Crow. Many of
The Jackson 5s earliest performances were in clubs opening for seasoned soul performers. As Neal points out, young Jackson would studiously watch James Brown,

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 125

learning to imitate his movements and aggressive vocal techniques. When Motown
songwriters were working on the song that would eventually become the smash hit
I Want You Back, Barry Gordy suggested they channel Frankie Lymon and the
Teenagers 1955 hit Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, a song that paired precocious
young voices with romantic themes beyond their performers years (George, Thriller
3435). Perhaps the most influential Fifties performer from the Chitlin Circuit to
Jacksons career, however, was Jackie Wilson, to whom Jackson paid tribute at the
1983 Grammys (Cocks and Worrell 56). Nelson George lists the links between the
The way Michael holds the microphone. The way he holds his upper body as he
spins. His hand gestures with his non-microphone-holding hand. How he tilts
his head and isolates his body parts as he dances. Theres a bit of Wilson in all
of these MJ moves . There are beautiful echoes of this old master in young
Michael, a performer just defining his adultstyle.
Throughout his career Jackson drew on the vocal styles and movements of Black performers from the 1950s in an attempt to display his Chitlin Circuit bona fides and
claim his space in the tradition of Black entertainers that stretched from Motown
and James Brown back to the Black Vaudeville circuit. Jackson is often held up as a
musician of the crossover pop genre, which Tamara Roberts describes as a hybrid
sound that transcends race, (20) while David Brackett suggests Jacksons pop is
genre play that mixes or blends genres in ways that evoke a kind of racial integration (Black or White? 172). But as Susan Fast points out, while Jackson did
work to incorporate other sounds and musical traditions into his music, the writing,
recording, and production of his music was always rooted in Black traditions. Fast
reminds us, Jackson always worked with black producers and almost exclusively
with black musicians, and his songwriting was always grounded first in Black popular music, whether it was produced with Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam or
R. Kelly (29697).
In the early 1980s, in other words, Jackson operated within the context of Black
genres, Black artists and producers, and Black record labels. But with Thriller, CBS,
Quincy Jones, and Jackson all actively pursued crossover success, from the conceptual to the recording and post-production stages. In pursuit of that goal, the songs
penned for the album were written with both Black and white audiences in mind.
The album spans boundaries of genre and formatthere are ballads (Human
Nature), funk (P.Y.T.), disco (Wanna Be Startin Somethin), R&B (Billie
Jean), and adult-contemporary offerings (The Girl is Mine). The songwriters and

126 Back to the Fifties

studio musicians who worked on the albums production also reflected the commitment to crossover. Steve Porcaro of the multicultural rock band Toto wrote the
ballad Human Nature. Other members of Toto participated in the recording of
Human Nature, as well as Baby Be Mine. Wanna Be Startin Somethin features percussion work from Brazilian session specialist Paulinho da Costa. Beat It
includes a scorching guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen, which was meant to appeal
to hard rock audiences. CBS also went for older AOR fans as wellthe albums
lead single for the album was not the legendary Billie Jean but rather The Girl
is Mine, an adult contemporary duet with Paul McCartney. Thrillers composition not only blended existing styles and genres, it also created something new. In
his musicological analysis of Jacksons crossover style, Brackett argues that in Beat
It, Jackson takes two genres believed to lie on opposite ends of the affective and
associative spectrum, heavy metal and electro-funk, and did not so much fuse them
as create a generic montage (Brackett Black or White? 172). It bears mentioning
here that crossover was not just about including rock soundselements of rock,
pop, and jazz (and eventually hip-hop) are always blended with Jacksons roots in
funk and R&B to create a new notion of mainstream pop. Pop music itself was
remade in Thrillers image, blending elements of white and Black popularmusic.
CBSs crossover strategy paid immediate dividends. The Girl is Mine raced
up the Billboard charts, reaching #5 on the Hot 100 within two weeksa strong
indication that the song was receiving airplay on mainstream white radio formats
(AOR, adult contemporary, MOR, etc.), and Billboard began predicting big sales
for the record as a whole (Top Album Picks). By December 18, 1982, a cover story
in Billboard celebrated Thrillers success in breaking into AOR playlists, largely on
the strength of The Girl is Mine and Beat It. Billboard reported that close to
50 of the nations 500 AOR stations are playing the record, including such generally
mainstream AOR outlets as WRKI Danbury Conn, WSLQ Roanoke and WQDR
Raleighall Lee Abrams stations, adding that it was the first time in recent memory that a Black artist had infiltrated AOR so completely (Green 1). The fact that
the trade press was so struck by Thrillers ability to break through on AOR reveals
the degree to which the racial borders of popular music were considered impassable.
By February of 1983, Thriller was reaching untold heights in record sales and
crossing over all boundaries on radio. It was certified platinum by the RIAA on
January 31, had reached #1 on the Billboard album charts, and had two singles on
the Hot 100 singles charts (Billie Jean was in the top five; The Girl is Mine in the
top twenty-five). And yet, CBS and Epic were being stonewalled by MTV. Denisoff
describes the outcome of a CBS/Epic strategy session: One executive suggested
having Michael Jackson appear on the CBS Morning News and repeat [Rick] James
charges of racism. [] Finally, the ultimate weapon was introduced:curtail MTVs

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 127

supply of free videos (103). There are conflicting accounts over how the dispute
between CBS and MTV over playing Jacksons videos was ultimately resolved. The
story that appears most often in print involves CBS invoking the nuclear option of
pulling their videos from MTV. David Benjamin, vice president of business affairs
at CBS, told Vanity Fair, I call Sykes; he picks up. John, Isay, the fickle finger of
fate is pointed at you. Iam now invoking the 24-hour kill clause in our contract. By
tomorrow at this time Iwant every CBS video off MTV (Anson). CBS president
Walter Yetnikoff recalls, I called Pittman and said, You have to play this video. He
said, Were a rock station, Walter, we dont play black music. Isaid, Thats great,
Im pulling all my stuff. Then Im gonna tell the whole world what your attitude
is towards black people (Marks and Tannenbaum 178). MTV executives have
repeatedly denied this version of events, but the circulation of this story at the very
least reveals a popular association of MTV in the period with a stubborn insistence
on the AOR format and a lack of interest in racial or musical diversity.
Whatever negotiations occurred behind the scenes, Jacksons videos did make it
to air, and almost immediately became some of the most important pieces in the
history of the music video form. In an environment where his Black masculinity
caused industrial and cultural anxiety, Jacksons videos apply the logic of crossover
to significations of the Fifties. Jacksons use of the Fifties appealed to Black and
mainstream audiences in strategic ways, both honoring the legacy of Fifties entertainers and critically reflecting on idealized versions of the Fifties. In particular,
Jackson drew on Fifties Hollywood, with its values of glamour and spectacle, to
legitimize new media forms (like music video) and to establish his dominant place
within them.
While Jacksons singing, dancing, and stage manner drew on the legacies of performers like Frankie Lymon, James Brown, and Jackie Wilson, Jacksons appearances on television were often influenced by the conventions and tropes of Fifties
Hollywood. This is apparent in many of the skits on The Jacksons. Each episode
featured short comedic sketches along with a special guest host, interspersed by
musical interludes. In one episode, Jackson, clad in a leather motorcycle jacket and
a truly awful ducktail wig, led his siblings in a number called Do the Fonz. The
song was a deservedly unreleased novelty track from The Heyettes album of Happy
Days-inspired tracks for London Records. The Jacksons performance of Do the
Fonz has largely been forgotten. But years later, Jackson reused portions of the choreography (specifically, the greaser hair-combing moves) in his legendary television
performance of Billie Jean at the Motown 25th Anniversary Concert.
Jackson continued his reliance on Fifties Hollywood in the production of his
music videos. The first two videos from Thrillerthe ones that Walter Yetnikoff
fought so hard to get on MTVboth utilized images associated with the Fifties.

128 Back to the Fifties

Billie Jean drew on the private-eye figures of the postwar noir tradition in its
visual style and, as Amir Khan has argued, invoked and negotiated with figures
from Fifties Hollywood in its costume and iconography (192). Beat It was widely
understood as a modern-day reimagination of West Side Story, despite director Bob Giraldis claims that he had never seen it (Marks and Tannenbaum 180).
Despite Giraldis denials, the sight of rival street gangs dancing their way through
a knife fight is sure to draw comparisons to the Sharks and the Jets. The greatest
use of Fifties Hollywood tropes in Jacksons videography, however, comes from
Thrillerwhich might be the most important music video in MTVs history.
As a song, Thriller was almost an afterthought. It was not expected to be one
of the albums hits. Neither Quincy Jones nor Walter Yetnikoff rated the song. Few
critics isolated Thriller as a standout on the album, treating it as a fairly standard dance track with a novelty twista 1980s version of Bobby Boris Picketts
Monster Mash. The Village Voice predicted that listeners would much prefer the
song on the dancefloor than in [the] living room (Christgau Consumer Guide).
Six other tracks on the album were chosen as singles before Thriller was released
in November 1983, nearly a full year after The Girl is Mine. By that time, it looked
like the albums remarkable reign at the top of the charts would come to anend.
Jackson and his close advisor Frankie DiLeo, head of production at Epic Records,
saw a Thriller video as an opportunity to reinvigorate sales for the album and raise
the bar for music videos. With CBS not particularly interested in producing a video
(the record had already sold millions upon millions, why pay to continue promoting
it?), Jackson underwrote the project with his own money. He signed Hollywood
director John Landis, who had recently directed An American Werewolf in London
(1981). Hatching a plan to revitalize the theatrical film short, Landis and Jackson
submitted a proposed budget for Thriller of nearly a million dollars (four times
the cost of Billie Jean, which had an unusually large budget as it was) to Yetnikoff
at CBS. Yetnikoff adamantly (and according to Landis, profanely) refused to fund
the project beyond $100,000. But Jacksons commercial success with Thriller and
his favorable contract afforded him a level of creative autonomy most recording artists never attain. Jackson, his lawyer (John Branca), and Landiss producer (George
Folsey) came up with a plan to finance the production:they sold exclusive broadcast windows to Showtime and MTV for the video (and, nominally, the featurette
The Making of Thriller) for a combined $550,000. Effectively, Jacksons team forced
MTV to do for Jackson the one thing that it had vowed to never do for record
companiespay for the production of a music videoonly a year after refusing to
play his videos at all! Jacksons team continued to break new ground in the industry, signing an innovative agreement with Vestron Video to distribute the Thriller
video on VHSan agreement that helped to establish the home video-rental

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 129

business (N. Griffin 6768). The video boosted album sales by over half a million
Whats more, Jackson radically broke from the established form of music videos, submitting a cinematically ambitious short film with a runtime of almost
fourteen minutes.9 As opposed to videos that existed to promote a song or album,
Thriller represents one of the first times a video existed for itself. In fact, the
song Thriller had to be entirely remixed for the video, exchanging the traditional
verse-chorus-verse structure of the album version for a more narratively oriented
musical structure. Mercer argues that with the promotional imperative for selling
albums lifted, the video celebrates the success that the LP has brought Michael
Jackson (30). This might be overstating things; Thriller was still very much a
promotional vehicle, though it promoted the home video rather than the album.
More than that, however, Thriller helped to promote Jackson by repositioning
and reforming his public image, both as an artist and asman.
Thriller marked the first time that Jackson interacted with a woman in his
video career. Developing Jacksons masculine sexuality was an explicit goal for
the videos producers from the start. The big thing was to give him a girl, said
Landis in a 2010 Thriller retrospective in Vanity Fair (N. Griffin 68). Landiss
direction specifically emphasized Jacksons role as a sexual one, not just a romantic
one. Griffin recalls Landis encouraging Jackson to repeat a scene, saying Make it
sexy this time as if you want to fuck her (60). The promotion for the video
also played up Jacksons sexual appeal. In the opening segment of the Making of
Thriller documentary, fans lining the streets of East Los Angeles are asked why they
have come out to watch the filming. The responses from women of color (Hes the
sexiest man Ive ever met in my whole entire life; Hes exciting!) and white Valley
Girls (Hes so sexy and so gorgeous; Hes cute and he sings!) all position Michael
as an object of multicultural desire. At the same time, men in the crowd appreciate
Jackson because of his talent and class, as well as his connection to authentic
street performanceMexican-American boys in the crowd pay Jackson high praise
by calling him bad for his ability to pop (a style of street dancing). Both the
video and its promotional materials, in other words, worked to establish Jacksons
masculine credibility among audiences across races and genders. But they did so
carefully, with an assist from the Fifties.
The early exclusion of Rick James (for whom Black male sexuality was an explicit
part of his image) from MTV shows how difficult it was for even massively successful artists to cross over to mainstream [white] musical arenas. Ever sensitive to
and savvy of commercial dynamics, Jackson and his team at CBS employed crossover strategies in his videos treatment of race and sexuality. In middle-class Black
publications, Jacksons sexuality was consistently a subject of curiosity, concern, and

130 Back to the Fifties

rumor:a 1977 issue of Jet, for example, featured an item headlined Michael Denies
Sex Change; Says He Is Not Gay and Did Not Swim Nude with Tatum (The
Sexes46). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ebony almost constantly asked Jackson
about his desire to get married and his relationship with Diana Ross, and emphatically denounced the speculations of the gossip magazines regarding Jacksons sexuality. In Thriller, Jacksons appearance with a former Playboy model Ola Ray
worked to address those anxieties. And though Thriller was designed to emphasize Jacksons sexuality, the use of Fifties imagery in Thriller also communicated
to mainstream white audiences that Jackson was indeed not like the other [Black]
guysJackson could never be said to be explicit or raunchy. Instead, for white
audiences in the Reagan Era, Jackson represented a safe and politically neutral
form of Black masculinity that we might now call postracial. Part of Jacksons
appeal to mainstream white audiences in the 1980s was the absence of the kinds of
overt sexuality or explicit political consciousness that were so intrinsic to the images
of Prince, Rick James, or soul icons like Marvin Gaye or IsaacHayes.
Sonically, Thriller is a fairly standard example of late 1970s/early 1980s disco
and funk, utilizing guitars, synthesizers, and horns. This standard approach is coupled with stock sound effects (and a closing monologue) from the midnight movies
that were marketed to the burgeoning teen market in the 1950s. In this way, the song
itself blends the style of the Re-Generation with forms associated with the Fifties.
The funk bass in Thriller recalls (or nearly steals, to be less generous) the bassline
from Rick Jamess Give It to Me Baby, and the surging synths in the songs opening are reminiscent of Princes 1999 (Lyle). But the wolf howls, creaking doors, the
hint of theremin from the Juno 106 synthesizer, and the spoken rap performance
by Vincent Price all gesture toward Fifties horror film (the terror on the screen, as
the lyrics go). Jacksons combination of Black musical conventions (drawing from
the legacies of Jackie Wilson and James Brown and borrowing from contemporaries
Rick James and Prince) and white filmic conventions (that of the teen horror flick)
gave him the ability to assert a sexually mature Black masculinity and still appear
safe, innocent, and marketable to white audiences.
Just like they did for teens at 1950s drive-ins, horror films in Jacksons Thriller
provide a justification and a mask for playing with sexuality. The songs lyrics present a menace in several monstrous forms (the beast about to strike; the thing
with forty eyes; night creatures; and assorted aliens, ghouls, and demons). The
first three verses of the song address the dangers the monsters represent, but the
fourth verse reveals that these monsters can be escaped when you change the number on the dial. Coupled with the obviously dated monster-movie effects, the song
conjures the midnight movies of UHF televisionlow budget films, often from
the horror genre, that were shown repeatedly. The monsters are, in other words,

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 131

programmed reruns. The horrific encounter thus becomes the rationale for the
potentially pleasurable sexual encounter. Jacksons sexual attention is presented as
both protection from these rerun specters (Now is the time for you and Ito cuddle
close together/All through the night / Ill save you from the terror on the screen) as
well as an experience akin to their hauntings (I can thrill you more than any ghost
would ever dare try). This dichotomy serves the means by which the song becomes
self-referential, metaphorically about the very taboo thrills that have made young
white people seek out black music, and their parents fear for the consequences
(Oyola, Thrills, Chills). In this way, Thriller confronts the same racial, sexual,
and political anxieties that fueled the segregation of The Buddy Deane Show and
American Bandstand in the 1950s, and lurked in the background of the institutionalization of AOR and format segregation of the1970s.
In the Thriller video, Michaels wholesome Fifties image literally hides the beast
that lurks inside him. This is revealed after he offers his girlfriend a promise ring, then
a warning:Im not like other guys, he says nervously, ... Imean, Im different.
At this point the video recycles several horror film conventions. There is a shot of a
full moon emerging from behind dark clouds, an orchestral score blares, and Michael
undergoes a transformation from a baby-faced sweetheart to bloodthirsty werewolf.
Shots of his teeth, ears, hands, and face changing forms are interspersed with his girlfriend, terrified and screaming, which indicates both Jacksons uncontrollable animality as well as the position of the woman as a potential victim to the monstrous appetite
of the creature that asked her to go steady just moments before. The horror!
Mercer characterizes this segment of Thriller as parody, and it is easy to understand why. The video lays on the conventions of the teen horror film so thickly it
is difficult to take it seriously. The hyperdramatic musical score, the canned sound
effects, and the utterly nonsensical behavior of the characters (If Michael knows he is
a werewolf, why does he decide to take his steady out on a date during a full moon
unless thats the plan all along?) seem overdone. Landiss previous films often poke
fun at the Fifties (he directed Animal House [1978] and The Blues Brothers [1980]),
and he lampooned the horror genre in both American Werewolf and his directorial
debut Schlock (1973). However, close attention to the treatment of the Fifties in the
video suggests that we might instead consider the video what Gates calls a critical
signification of the Fifties. Rather than simply ridiculing the absurdity of Fifties
horror conventions, Jacksons video presents these conventions as artificial and silly
while showing how their effects can still be thrilling, in a variety ofways.
We are reminded of the pleasures of outmoded Fifties conventions just as
Werewolf-Michael closes in on his helpless girlfriend. As the beast prepares to strike,
we cut to a 1980s movie theater, where a 1980s Michael sits next to his 1980s girlfriend,
watching the fictional Fifties horror film Thriller. While his girlfriend (still played

132 Back to the Fifties

Jackson and Ray, with Fifties movies in the background.

by Ray) and the rest of the audience cringe at the terror on the screen (which we
never see), Jackson happily munches popcorn, impervious to the films horror. When
Ray pathetically asks, Can we get out of here?, Jackson is first emphatic (No! Im
enjoying this!), then annoyed (as she storms out of the theater), and finally amused
(You were scared, werent you?). For Michael, his dates fear is laughable because the
Fifties horror film is so outmoded and clichd as to be obviously artificial (Its only
a movie!). The theater, which serves as the backdrop for Michael and his girlfriends
argument, is similarly out of timeit is the Palace Theater in Los Angeles, a former
movie palace that had become a second-run and grindhouse theater by the 1980s.
Fittingly, the horror movie posters hanging outside the theater gesture backwards to
Fifties horror:the films advertised are House of Wax (1953) and The Mad Magician
(1954), both Fifties horror films starring Vincent Price, and Schlock, John Landiss
homage to, and send-up of, monster movies of the1950s.
Although Michael is able to resist the horror effects of these Fifties films, he realizes that his girlfriend cannotand that realization is appealing to him. As the
synths from Thriller make their first appearance, Michael notes that his girlfriends
susceptibility to fear can draw her closer to him. Just as in the opening sequence, we
viewers are left to wonder:is Michael honorably and innocently accompanying his
girlfriend home, or has he just manufactured an opportunity for sex? In the long
tracking shot that follows, Michael teases, flirts, and embraces Ray as he sings the
songs three verses (The videos version of the song strings the three verses together at
the beginning, shifts the rap spoken word to the middle, bumps the chorus to the
end, and omits the bridge entirely) (Wiley 10608). This rearrangement not only

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 133

clears space for the videos famous dance number but also emphasizes a narrative in
which the addressees attention is turned from the external fear of demons, ghouls,
and sundry creatures to the prospect of cuddling close all through the night.
Thriller focuses on Jacksons sexual agency and masculine powerhis powers of
seduction and ability to best any rival (be it man or beast). But the video cannot (or
will not) address Jacksons sexual agency directly; it prefers to dance aroundit.
The videos famous dance segment begins with a return to Fifties monster-movie
conventions. The two lovebirds skip past a graveyard and out of the frame. At that
point, Prices rap (itself a blend of the Fifties voice of Price and the 1980s conventions of hip-hop) plays over images of zombies rising from the grave, shuffling down
the street, and eventually surrounding the happy couple. The bass groove of the song
stops and is replaced by the score that accompanied the werewolf movie seen earlier in
the video. The camera movementsa whirling pan, followed by a dolly zoomalso
approximate Fifties film conventions and presage another monstrous transformation. In the next shot, Michael morphs into a zombie, leading the other ghouls in
a rousing bit of choreography before changing back into human form to deliver the
chorus (I could thrill you more than any ghost would ever dare try). This portion
of the video thus combines the two elements of Jacksons masculine appeal that were
highlighted by the fan reactions in The Making of Thriller:his sex appeal and his
dancing talent, which are both presented as authentically Black, filtered through the
white form of Fifties popular culture. Jacksons sexuality is thus emphasized both by
its animal ferocity and his ability to channel it into virtuosic talent as an entertainer.
At its close, the video offers one last bit of ambiguity. Michael leads the ghouls
in the closing choreography and his girlfriend escapes, taking refuge in an abandoned house (of course). The Thriller beat fades away, replaced again by swelling
monster-movie music. Predictably, the monsters break through the windows, door,
and floor of the abandoned house, led by Zombie Michael. In an echo of the werewolf movie from the beginning of the video, the transformed Michael looms over
the screaming girl. Suddenly, the film cuts away. Michael, returned to human form,
innocently asks, What the problem? As a wave of relief passes over the girls face,
Michael offers to take her home. It is morning. It was only adream.
But what was the dream, exactly? Again, we have experienced an ellipsis of indeterminate length. Both Michael and his girlfriend are wearing the same clothes they
were wearing at the movie theater the night before. Even if we assume that Michael
is not a monster, was Michael really so innocent, or was it an act deployed to seduce?
The videos final shot emphasizes this question. As he walks his girlfriend toward
the door, Michael turns back to the camera and smiles. His eyes are glowing an
inhuman yellow, and Vincent Prices haunting laugh plays in voice-over. Jacksons
final look back at the camera suggests a wink or a nod to audiences in the know, an

134 Back to the Fifties

Thriller: The animal within.

assurance that even though he might look safe enough for mainstream audiences, he
is truly an animal on the inside.
A common thread throughout press coverage of Jackson was that his shy, timid,
and often peculiar behavior would stop the moment he stepped onstage. There he
would come alive, becoming an unstoppable dynamo. Jacksons ability to transform himself, in his affect as well as his physiognomy, became a central part of his
public persona. This, argues Victoria Johnson, makes Jacksons star text function
in a unique way. Whereas Richard Dyers important conceptualization of stardom
suggests that stars are able to negotiate and reconcile diametrically opposed values through a central core identity, Jacksons constant shape-shifting and active
flight from a core identity resists this model of the ultimately knowable individual (Johnson A New Look 58). This might have made Jackson the perfect crossover artistone whom different audiences could interpret in different ways. After
Thriller, however, this same quality also represented a threat to Jacksons credibility
with some Black audiences, who began to suspect that Jackson was not authentically
masculine, not authentically Black, and not connected to urban Black audiences.

Is Michael Jackson forR eal?

While tabloids had picked at Jacksons eccentricities and hunted for scandals
for years, significant concerns with Jacksons Blackness started with the Victory
Tour. After reuniting with his brothers at the Motown 25th Anniversary show

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 135

in 1983, Michael Jackson reluctantly agreed to record one last album with them,
performing under the name The Jacksons (the name The Jackson 5 remained
the property of Motown). They recorded the album Victory and planned for a stadium tour in the summer of 1984. John Branca told Rolling Stone in March 1984,
Im not sure the tour was Michaels first choice. He might have preferred to do
other things. But he found it important to tour at his brothers request and his
familys request (Goldberg and Connelly 27). Tensions among the Jackson family
had long been the subject of rumor, but with the Victory Tour, the strain became
increasingly public.
The tour drew tremendous crowds and was a windfall for the Jackson family, but
in public relations terms it was a catastrophe. Produced by boxing promoter Don
King and Chuck Sullivan (son of the owner of the New England Patriots), the tour
was beset by troubles. Amail-order lottery system for selling blocks of four tickets,
which required an outlay of $130 for the chance at tickets, drew sharp criticism. In
a syndicated piece that ran in newspapers nationwide, two critics argued that the
Jackson tour has not been about music. Its been about greed and arrogance (Glen
and Shearer 24). Questions about managements competence continued, so much so
that promoters were predicting in the pages of People that the tour would be canceled (Carlson 4546). The public relations nightmare would only intensify when
Ladonna Jones, an eleven-year-old girl from Texas penned an open letter to the
Dallas Morning News expressing her shock and betrayal that she could not afford
the requisite block of four tickets. Ive always believed you to be a person of feeling up until now. Im so disappointed in you, wrote Jones. How could you of all
people be so selfish? Is your appearance here in Texas Stadium only for the rich?
(Aasen). Joness letter fed a narrative that Jackson was abandoning his most faithful
fans. Jackson quickly called a press conference, acknowledging Lewiss letter and
announcing that the lottery ticket system would be suspended and that his share of
tour revenues would be donated to charities including the United Negro College
Fund (Taraborrelli315).
By that point, however, the damage had been done. James Brown allegedly refused
to appear on stage with The Jacksons at Madison Square Garden (Taraborrelli 317).
Animosity among the brothers seeped into the press until the tour reached its
unhappy end at Dodger Stadium, where Michael Jackson unexpectedly announced
that he would no longer tour with his brothers. A1987 profile in Spin by Quincy
Troupe summarizes the difficulties Jackson faced in this period:
Since Thriller and the Jacksons disastrous Victory tour, he has managed to
generate the most powerful backlash in the history of popular entertainment.
There have been bitter family feuds, an acrimonious rift with the Jehovahs

136 Back to the Fifties

Witnesses, broken friendships with Diana Ross and Paul McCartney, and the
burden of a celebrity so unmanageable that it drove him into isolation. Even in
seclusion, reports of his plastic surgery, his private menagerie, and his hyperbaric chamber conspire to make him a national jokea joke repeated each
time another line of irrelevant Michael Jackson merchandise hits the stores. In
record time, he has gone from being one of the most admired of celebrities to
one of the most absurd.(44)
To some degree, this backlash was led by music critics who championed the grittiness, supposed authenticity, and white heterocentrist sexuality of rock. Troupe
points out the discrepancy in how the press treated Jackson and other rock performers:Bruce Springsteen plays the guitar, writes songs that are subject to literary
criticism, and dances like a white guy. Whereas Michael Jackson represents a black
cultural heritage that white rock critics either dont know about or would rather
appreciate nostalgically from someone whos dead (48). Considering some of the
prominent voices in rock criticism at the time, its hard not to agree that the very
same critics who were calling for Jacksons inclusion on AOR and MTV were now
lambasting him for being little more than a revenue generator. David Fricke argued
that Victory was a timid and cynical rehash of previous Jacksons albums (167). Greil
Marcus critiqued Jacksons concerts as pure commodification. Robert Christgau
called the Victory Tour a mass culture spectacle that had excluded young Black
audiences. Just three years after Rolling Stone took out a full page ad in Billboard
apologizing to Michael Jackson for refusing to put him on the cover, the magazine
ran a Mickey Mouse caricature of Jackson on the cover of the September 24, 1987,
issue for its story, Is Michael Jackson forReal?
The skepticism of white rock critics was accompanied by something much more
worryingthe slow erosion of Jacksons Black fan base. The logic of crossover, after
all, required artists to solidify their position in Black-oriented radio before climbing
up the charts on AOR and Top 40. But by the time Jacksons next album was slated
to be releasedBad, in late 1987Black-oriented radio had undergone significant changes. Partially as a result of Jacksons success, artists like Prince, Whitney
Houston, and New Edition emerged as crossover rivals. At the same time, hip-hops
climb into the mainstream provided a new pathway to musical success. These shifting commercial and cultural values among Black Americans are registered in a 1987
Village Voice piece, which asks New Yorkers about their impressions of Jackson.
Asubway rider offers that Michael went too far in the white direction; aspiring
actors in Central Park speculate that Janet Jackson might just be Michael in drag;
and Def Jam rappers Whodini mock Jackson in front of thousands at Madison
Square Garden. These remarks, however outlandish or absurd, also register the

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 137

growing sense that Michael Jackson was not who he said he was (Trebay 1517).
Suspicions regarding Jacksons racial identity slid into questions of his gender and
sexuality, in the tabloids as well as in everyday conversations. It was as if the critical
element of Jacksons performance of Gatess critical signification had fallen by the
wayside, leaving fans with the impression of a mass media spectacle that pretended
to be white, that pretended to be innocent, and that pretended to be masculine, but
did so with neither efficacy norirony.
This shift in Black audiences attitudes toward Jackson is visible in the work of
another crossover success story of the 1980s:comedian Eddie Murphy. In Murphys
1983 stand-up film Delirious, Murphy concedes that Jackson aint the most masculine fellow in the world, but then jokes that his innocent, sensitive demeanor is just
a performance, a hook to seduce women. This joke is consistent with the readings
of the Thriller video that play on Jacksons ability to critically signify the innocent,
all-American boy. Andreana Clay elucidates how, in Murphys 1987 stand-up film
Raw, the jokes on Jackson come from a different angle. Murphy mocks Jacksons
lack of physical prowess (Ill fuck Mike up Mike dont weigh but a buck-ohfive!) and his religion and sexuality ([Jackson] went on television and said I dont
have sex because of my religious beliefs Brothers were like Get the fuck outta
here!) Murphy is no longer presenting Jacksons manner as a ploy to get women
but as a mask for deficient masculinity or closeted homosexuality. Murphys bit
continues, mocking white audiences for their sincere belief in Jacksons innocent
public persona. Affecting a square, nasal voice, Murphy jokes, White people were
like, That Michael, hes a special kind of guy! Hes good, clean and wholesome!
In Murphys material in Raw, Clay argues, as Jackson fails to secure an acceptable Black masculinity, he lands at the other end of the spectrum by making white
people believe he is exceptional (1011). Murphys changing Jackson jokes suggest
that in the Thriller-era, Jacksons all-American boy image was recognized among at
least some Black audiences as a critical signification upon the national archetype of
morality and masculinity, but by the late 1980s, those same Black audiences laughed
at Jacksons persona as a sham that only white people could fallfor.
This crisis of credibility led rock critic Dave Marsh to describe Jacksons position in the late 1980s as being caught in a crossover trap engineered by his family
and the music industry: he had crossed over to the realm of white, mass culture
superstardom, and in the process forfeited the chance to return to Black culture.
Anxiety over Jacksons crossing over was at the root of tabloid coverage of Jacksons
alleged skin bleaching (it was later revealed and subsequently confirmed by autopsy
that Jackson lived with vitiligo, a skin condition which causes depigmentation).
In the years immediately after Thriller, however, a significant portion of America
believed that Michael Jackson wished to be white, and that his cosmetic surgery,

138 Back to the Fifties

changing hairstyles, and celebrity friends were all signs of black self-hatred become
self-mutilation, as Greg Tate wrote in an editorial entitled Im White! Whats
Wrong with Michael Jackson (15). Jacksons detachment from urban Black youth
was highlighted again in the pages of Spin, which presented the brief attempt for a
collaboration between Jackson and Run-DMC in 1986 as less a clash of personalities
and more a cultural divide (Troupe 48). The increasing public suspicion regarding
Jacksons Blackness threatened his viability with all audiences.
This brings us back to the question that Rolling Stone asked in September 1987:Is
Michael Jackson for real? That question, in many ways, was the central one during the
first decade of Jacksons solo career. At first, the music industry had to be convinced that
Jackson could reach the commercial heights of white superstar performers like Elvis
Presley and The Beatles, that he had sufficient viability as a crossover entertainer. But
when Jackson finally did achieve superstardom, fans and critics remained suspicious of
Jacksons authenticity. This emphasis on authenticity reveals the cultural expectations
that came along with stardom in American popular music in the twentieth century.
These cultural expectations are significantly different than those we have for stars
in film, television, theater, or sports. We assume these performers embody roles as
part of their craft, and value their ability to transform themselves to suit the needs
of a particular narrative, season, cast, or team. It is difficult to imagine, for example,
a film critic asking Is Meryl Streep for real? because her roles do not neatly map on
to our limited understanding of her private life. Similarly, one can hardly imagine
Sports Illustrated condemning Larry Bird for being a brash and ruthless competitor
on the basketball court, but a reserved and unassuming person in his private life.
And yet, we understand stars in the realm of popular music slightly differently.
Bruce Springsteen is celebrated as much for his honesty as he is for his technical
skill as a musician. Artists like Notorious B.I.G. or Kurt Cobain are lauded for their
use of music to capture their idiosyncratic inner lives and particular life experiences.
Since Robert Pattisons The Triumph of Vulgarity, scholars of popular music have
noted the connections between rock and nineteenth-century Romanticism, as well
as rocks reliance on myths of primitivism, its emphasis on emotion over intellect,
and its investment in masculine sexual power. Building on Pattisons work, Andrew
Goodwin notes the distinction between rock, which is locked into an essentially
Romantic discourse of self-expression, even where mimesis, truth, and faithfulness
to reality are stressed, and the culturally devalued genre of pop, denigrated for its
supposed manipulation, self-consciousness, and artifice (104). Jacksons status as
a crossover pop artist after Thriller thus made him suspect to rock critics, especially
when compared to artists like Bruce Springsteen. These same rock critics became
even more skeptical through Jacksons association with MTV. The channel became
a lightning rod for rock critics, Simon Frith argues, because it seemed to mean the

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 139

replacement of rock values (sincerity, musical dexterity, live performance) with old
pop conceits (visual style, gimmickry, hype) (Frith210).
Jacksons 1987 album, Bad, can easily be seen as a conscious response to questions about his authenticity, both as a Black man in America and as a musical artist. These questions were quite different than those he faced in the early 1980s. In
the run-up to Thriller, Jackson needed to convince mainstream audiences that his
Blackness was not to be understood as sexually or politically threatening. Prior to
Bad, Jackson needed to convince both Black and white audiences that he was not
a fraud. Beginning with the albums title and cover art, Bad attempted to bolster
Jacksons street credentials and masculine power. Sonically, the album replicates
some of Thrillers crossover strategies. The opening single, I Just Cant Stop Loving
You, is a sweet, inoffensive adult contemporary duet; Bad is a hard-driving funk
number; Dirty Diana features a complex heavy-metal guitar solo; and Man
in the Mirror features a gospel choir. At the same time, however, Bad explicitly
tackles sexuality (I Just Cant Stop Loving You, Dirty Diana), urban poverty
(Man in the Mirror), and even violence (Bad, Smooth Criminal) in ways that
Thriller does not. Jackson attempted to bring a sense of grittiness and authenticity to his music videos as well. The Bad video, directed by Martin Scorcese, was
loosely based on the real-life story of Edmund Perry, a Harlem native and Exeter
honors student who was shot by a plainclothes policeman in June 1985 during an
alleged mugging attempt. Scorceses reputation as an auteur, the location shooting
in Brooklyn and Harlem, and the real-life subject matter all aided Jacksons attempt
to show solidarity with and connection to urban Black audiences.
Ever in Jacksons corner, Ebony lauded the video, saying, A mature Michael delivers a social message with a cast of Black actors and dancers, and Motivated by pride
of race and prodded by his concern over gang violence, Michael filmed the video in
Harlem (Johnson, Michael Jackson is Back 144). But both the videos narrative
and reception suggest that there were some chasms that Jackson could not cross over
twice. The video is structured around the prep-school student Darryl (Jackson) who
returns home to NewYork City to find his neighborhood friend Mini Max (Snipes)
disdainful of his education and questioning his blackness (Max repeatedly calls
Darryl Dobie Gillis). Afew attempted robberies, some spectacular dance moves,
and some soulful call-and-response singing later, the two agree to go their separate
waysDarryl back to prep school, Max back to the streets. For audiences in 1987, the
problem was not imagining Jackson as an entitled prep-school kid, but imagining
him in the context of urban Black life. This aligns with comments like this one, from
a NewYork bike messenger interviewed by the Village Voice:Michael just looked
too much like a woman to strut around like a homeboy in chains (Trebay15). Again,
Jackson navigated a tricky crossover situation through the Fifties.

140 Back to the Fifties

Smooth Cr iminal

Smooth Criminal, the fourth music video from Bad, premiered in late 1988. The
video addresses the challenges toward the authenticity of Jacksons Blackness and
masculinity through a stylized representation of the Fifties. The song was not highly
valued by Quincy Jones, and six other singles from the album were released before it.
Still, there is significant reason to believe that the song was conceptually important
to the album. Preparations for filming the video began years before the album was
released, suggesting that Jackson saw the video as this albums version of Thriller
another undistinguished single made iconic by its video. In fact, Bad was originally
slated to be called Smooth Criminal before CBS objected at the prospect of putting
Jacksons photograph under the label criminal. If we understand Bad as Jacksons
attempt to present a new authentic image of Black masculinity, putting Jackson
closer to urban environments, the importance of Smooth Criminal suggests that
Jackson was interested in projecting a very specific kind of streetimage.
At first blush, the Smooth Criminal video seems less about the Fifties than it is
about the hardboiled tradition. The video is set in a nightclub featuring a retinue of
gangsters, gun molls, jazz musicians, and dancers from many races and ethnicities.
Meanwhile, the lighting, composition, and cinematography are all reminiscent of
film noirdirector Collin Chilvers showed Jackson The Third Man (1949) to give
him a sense of style for the shoot. Accordingly, the video is rife with high-contrast,
low-key lighting, canted frames, and crowded interiors. The noir visual style resonates with the songs narrative, which centers on a crime scene. The songs narrator
(a detective, perhaps) arrives in an apartment too late to rescue the woman who lives
there, and he begins to piece together the mystery (He came into her apartment /
He left the bloodstains on the carpet). In the ensuing verses, the narrator pursues
the murderer in vain (Every time Itried to find him/Hes leaving no clues behind
him), while the structural return to the chorus suggests that the detective figure
has become obsessed, continuously replaying the discovery of the body over and
over again in his head (Annie are you okay? / Are you okay, Annie?). However, as
the Bad video proved, having Jackson play a hypermasculine hardboiled detective
presented its own set of problems.
Accompanying the 1980s neo-noir cycle (featuring films like Blade Runner and
Body Heat, among many others), urban Black culture in the 1980s demonstrated
an increasing fascination with gangster imagery. Films like Brian De Palmas
Scarface (1983) gained cult status partially due to this fascination, which influenced the styles and themes of Black music in the period. The rap duo Double
Trouble often performed in matching gangster suits and hats (most famously
in the 1983 film Wild Style), and gangster narratives proliferated in hip-hop lyrics

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 141

Jackson in Smooth Criminalgangster chic.

from Schoolly D, N. W. A., and the Geto Boys (Prince 88). This was the same
period when Walter Mosley was writing the first of his Easy Rawlins detective
novels, Devil in a Blue Dress (itself named after the oldie Devil with a Blue Dress
by Shortie Long). Mosleys Easy Rawlins stories adapted the Phillip Marlowe or
Sam Spade figure for the Black communities of Southern California. Smooth
Criminal, in other words, did not arbitrarily draw on the figure of the gangster.
Rather, it participated in a broader Black cultural trend that merged Hollywood
gangster imagery with traditional Black baaadman narratives.
While Jacksons hardboiled character in the video is tough enough when he needs
to be (he snatches the pot from a craps game, brawls with bullies, and shoots a baddie brandishing a knife), he is just as often bewitching and cunning, turning foes to
his side by strength of his charisma, or cleverly evading them. There is smoothness
to his criminality. Repeatedly in the video, men and women approach Jackson with
menace, only to be charmed into dancing with him. Other times, Jackson appears
to be cornered by foes that are much bigger and stronger, only to spin away, leaving
the lunks dumbfounded. He seduces women on the dance floor but knows when a
femme fatale is laying a trap. More than just a tough guy, the Jackson in the video
performs a stylish, sophisticated navigation of the criminal underworld associated
with the American gangster tradition. Despite this smoothness, however, Jacksons
claim on a criminal image risked alienating mass audiences and betraying his own
personal beliefs by appearing to endorse or glorify criminality. This anxiety is something Jackson himself acknowledges in a 1987 interview at the Ebony/Jet Showcase in
Brooklyn, trying to clarify that the album title Bad is like a way of saying youre cool,

142 Back to the Fifties

youre alright, youre tough Im not saying Im like criminally bad.10 Both
commercially and culturally, Jackson was forced to walk a very fine line, distancing
himself from actual criminality while defending against criticisms that would treat
his badnesswhich was meant to communicate his solidarity and sympathy with
Black urban communitiesas inauthentic or artificial. The resolution to this challenge lay in Jacksons homages to and significations of Fifties Hollywood.
In the wake of Victory, Jackson worked to reorient his star text away from
the realm of rock or soul stardomwith its reliance on authenticityand
toward the stardom of Hollywood musicals. This was intentional and strategic.
In November 1979, before Jacksons Off the Wall, Jackson wrote a letter to himself on the back of a tour schedule. Jackson was twenty-one years old at the time
and attempting to chart a course for his career away from his child-star image
and toward a new, stand-alone star persona. Jackson wrote:I should be a new,
incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. To do this, he vowed
to study and look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it
(Logan). Jacksons videos certainly evidence that commitment to studying the
history of American popular culture, particularly the musical. In his preparation
for Smooth Criminal, Jackson studied the history of Hollywood musicals, from
the Freed unit to Flashdance. Reflecting on Jacksons death, Paula Abdul remembered that he could tell you in detail about every M.G.M.musical there was. He
once told me that he wanted to incorporate the classic overall entertainer that
existed during that era and mix it with a new, fresh, cutting-edge style (qtd.in
Fast 288). Jackson made that mix a fundamental part of the choreography of
Smooth Criminal. Jackson worked with Vincent Patersonwho had danced in
the Beat It video and choreographed The Way You Make Me Feelto implement moves from the Broadway tradition, and with Jeffrey Danielmember of
the R&B duo Shalamar and a dancer on Soul Trainto provide dance moves
inspired by street and nightclub dance styles.
Just as Jackson sampled from Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Mavis Staples,
Frankie Lymon, and Smokey Robinson, he also paid explicit tribute to some of
Hollywoods most celebrated musicals and musical performers. Streaming video
websites are crowded with comparison videos of Jacksons dancing with greats like
Eleanor Powell, John Sublett, Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly, and Bob Fosse. Those
legends recognized and appreciated Michaels dancing skill and his references to
their work. In 1984, Bob Fosse told Time:I think hes terrific . Maybe hes more
a synthesizer than an innovator, but its never the steps that are most important. Its
the style. Thats what Michael has (Cocks 59). In the Smooth Criminal video,
references to Hollywood musicals abound:the choreography in the craps game section is a nod to Guys and Dolls; the two-tone whistle in the breakdown comes from

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 143

West Side Story; and Jacksons leg movements and hat tilts are reminiscent of Fosses
choreography. But most of all, Smooth Criminal is indebted to Fred Astaires performance in The Band Wagon (1953).

Fr eddy Ar e You OK?:Jackson, Astair e, and

theLegacyofR ealShowmen

Most obviously, the Smooth Criminal video references Astaire in The Girl
Hunt segment of The Band Wagon. Jacksons costumewhite hat with a black
band, white suit, blue shirt, blue socks, spats, and a white tiematches Astaires.
In addition, sets and props echo those in the Dem Bones Cafe sequence in The
Band Wagon, with its corner stage, small bar, and central dance floor crowded by
tables. There are small choreographic allusions to the Girl Hunt: the crouched
movements of gangsters in the foreground, the sway of the jazz band in the background, and the way Jackson dances with the woman in a red dress and long black
gloves (recalling Cyd Charisses femme fatale).
It is tempting to view Smooth Criminal as a generic tribute to Astaire or as
an example of postmodernist aesthetics that plucked images from their original

Astaire in The Girl Hunt.

144 Back to the Fifties

contexts and reduced them to style. In closing and by contrast, Iwant to argue
that Jackson specifically and deliberately mobilized Astaires star text, specifically
The Girl Hunt, as part of a commercial strategy of crossover and a cultural strategy of critical signification. Jackson drew on the Fifties image of Astaire in The Band
Wagon in an attempt to address cultural anxieties over his particular Black masculinity, but in the process was able to signify the performative nature of masculinity
more broadly defined.
While Jackson took inspiration from countless performers, Astaire was an especially important figure for him. Moonwalk, Jacksons 1988 autobiography, was dedicated to Astaire and includes multiple references to him. In it, Jackson identifies
Astaire alongside James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr. as belonging to the category of
real showmen that he idolized as a child (70), and he crows about the day Astaire
called him to compliment his dancing (213). The notion of a real showman, a consummate entertainer, was crucial to Astaires star text from his earliest vaudeville
days to his studio albums with Bing Crosby in the 1970s. Even when wearing a top
hat and tails in his 1930s RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures) days, or representing the values of old-fashioned show-biz in the latter stages of his career, Astaire
embodied the humble pleasures of the show, what Jane Feuer calls the contagious spirit inherent in musical performance more than aspirations for high art
(Self-Reflexive 452). Facing cultural anxieties over his stardom, it is no surprise
that Jackson turned to showmen both Black (James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sammy
Davis Jr.) and white (Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire) as his cultural predecessors. Embracing the real showmen also provided Jackson with a new model of
masculine stardom from which to operate.
While Jackson drew on Astaires influence in myriad ways, The Girl Hunt
seems to have been a source of particular fascination for him. Both before and
after Smooth Criminal, Jackson turned to The Girl Hunt: an episode of The
Jacksons variety show that aired January 22, 1977, had Jackson dressed in a white
suit and dancing with a series of Cyd Charisse look-alikes; the title track to his 1991
album Dangerous quotes Astaires voice-over (The girl was bad, the girl was dangerous); and 2001s You Rock My World reprises the bar fight that Astaire
wins at the Dem Bones. What drew Jackson, over and over again, to this particular
moment in Astaires enormous screen output? It might have been due to the rising
influence (and marketability) of gangster imagery in the late 1980s and early 1990s,
particularly among hip-hop audiences. As his biographer suggests, Jackson might
have been keen to utilize the fashion (particularly the hats) and shadowy visual style
to mask his rapidly changing features (Taraborrelli 623). In addition, Iwould note
that the figure of the hardboiled detective afforded Jackson the opportunity to play
with, and at, varying forms of masculinity.

Michael Jackson, MTV, and Crossover Nostalgia 145

Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (left) and Jacksons recreation in Smooth Criminal

Male musical performers, Steven Cohan writes, offer an alternate vision of masculinity, because their song and dance performances emphasize their to-be-looked-atness that Laura Mulvey famously identified as the feminine position in the system
of Hollywood representation (One is reminded of what one goon whispers to the
other in Smooth Criminal, just before Jackson begins to dance:Watch him!).
The result, Cohan explains, is not simply a reversal of gendered representation
but rather a highly self-conscious and theatrical performance that constructs his
masculinity out of the show-business values of spectatorship and spectacle (Fred
Astaire 62). For Jackson, troubles arose when the values of spectacle (those embodied by the real showmen he idolized) were put up against the values of authenticity
(embodied by Springsteen or Run-DMC).
This is why it is so important to remember that The Girl Hunt is, within the
narrative confines of The Band Wagon, a performance of a performance of masculinity. Astaire plays Tony Hunter, an actor who plays the role of Rod Riley (a tongue-incheek play on Mickey Spillanes hardboiled detective character Mike Hammer).
Astaires turn as Rod Riley is memorable precisely because we are prompted
(through his characterization as Tony Hunter) to understand it as a performance,
and appreciate his skill and panache as a showman to approximate cultural figures
already recognizable to us. This shift, Cohan explains, allowed Astaire to revise
the terms of male movie stardom by emphasizing talent over looks, dancing over
action, spectacle over narrative (Fred Astaire 61). The Band Wagon doesnt ask us
to believe that Fred Astaire could brawl his way out of a bar fightit asks us to enjoy
the way that Astaire plays therole.
The backlash to Jacksons Bad video came from the clash between its urban
realist aesthetic and the spectacular nature of Jacksons performance style. Smooth
Criminal deftly steps around that conflict by invoking the legacy of pure
entertainmenta legacy that also allays white anxieties about soul power, hip-hop,

146 Back to the Fifties

and overtly politicized and sexualized Black popular culture. At the same time,
Jackson was able to claim a central position in American popular culture for Black
Americans, reversing the process by which performers like Astaire (most infamously
in the Bojangles of Harlem number in Swing Time [1936]) or another king (Elvis
Presley) had adopted/co-opted Black cultural forms. The logic of crossover required
Jackson to address specific aesthetic and cultural desires for audiences both Black
and white. Jackson reached back to the Fifties to stake privileged cultural territory
for Black Americans and draw lines of continuity for white audiences.
This was not, however, a situation wholly specific to Jackson, or even Black performers generally. Driven by an intense focus on corporate synergy and a proliferation of media outlets (via cable and satellite television, record labels and stores large
and small, and the fracturing of radio formats), and facilitated by an ever-expanding
and more accessible archive of media texts, the producers and marketers of popular
culture consistently faced the challenge of appealing to multiple audiences, simultaneously, through the same textsometimes using subtle modes of critique and
homage, parody and pastiche, signification and celebration. So it should come as no
surprise that pop nostalgia also functions this way. Once we understand nostalgia as
an affective response to representations of the past, we can understand that an array
of nostalgic affect can be generated in response to any single pop-nostalgia text.
Consider these questions:Does Michael Jacksons invocation of Bing Crosby represent homage to a role model? Areclamation of Black cultural traditions from a
performer who infamously performed in blackface? Adebasement of the legacy of
one of Hollywoods most beloved figures? An ironic twist on the forms of entertainment of a prior generation? Was Jacksons celebration of Astaire a claim for
traditional forms of masculinity that Astaires screen roles (like Tony Hunter)
embodied, and that Jackson struggled to meet? Or was Jacksons use of The Band
Wagon a camp performance of Astaire? Those questions are unanswerable because,
like Jackson himself and Fifties nostalgia generally, they are irreducible to any singular vision. Jacksons mobilization of Fifties stars (whether it was Fred Astaire or
Jackie Wilson) in his own work allowed him to simultaneously address radically
disparate audiences. At the same time, Jacksons use of Fifties stars also functions
as a form of historiography, crafting entertainment lineages between his own star
persona and those who came beforehim.
A broader examination of the nostalgic reclamation of Fifties star texts is the subject of the final chapter.


James Dean and Sandra Dee in the Re-Generation

Michael Jacksons str ategic use of the sounds and images of Fifties stars,
discussed in Chapter Four, was hardly unusual. Re-Generation performers regularly
cultivated associations with Fifties movie stars and pop idols. Images of Marilyn
Monroe and Elvis Presley appeared in advertisements, on magazine covers, and on
commemorative merchandise. Films like the Buddy Holly Story (1978), La Bamba
(1987), and Great Balls of Fire! (1989) introduced Fifties stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie
Valens, and Jerry Lee Lewis to new audiences. Stars of the Fifties were also regularly the subject of allusion in pop music, as evidenced by Madonnas recreation of
Monroe in the Material Girl video, Weird Al Yankovics parody of I Love Lucy
in his 1983 release Hey Ricky, or The Clashs 1979 homage to Montgomery Clift in
The Right Profile. The propensity of Fifties stars to appear in Reagan-Era popular
culture was also a function of their newly increased visibility via videocassette and
cable television. However, one Fifties star enjoyed a particular cultural resonance in
the Re-Generation:JamesDean.
Along with Monroe and Presley, James Dean was the most visible Fifties star in
popular culture of the 1970s and 1980s. This is despite the fact that Deans screen
output was quite limited (only three Hollywood films and a smattering of television
credits). Over twenty-five years after his death, Dean seemed more present than ever.
His image graced T-shirts, posters, advertisements, and memorabilia. In 1984, the
renowned Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein included Dean in his adaptation of

148 Back to the Fifties

Edward Hoppers Nighthawks titled Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The symbolic

ramifications of the stars death became the subject of a 1977 film by James Bridges
(September 30, 1955) and a 1982 film by Robert Altman (Come Back to the Five and
Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), not to mention a single from The Eagles (James
Dean) that became a fixture in live performances throughout the 1970s. Dean is referenced in lyrics by musicians like Lou Reed (Walk on the Wild Side, 1972), Elton
John (Amy, 1972), Van Morrison (Wild Children, 1974), David Allan Coe (Rock
and Roll Holiday, 1976), Bruce Springsteen (Cadillac Ranch, 1980), Government
Issue (Im James Dean, 1981), Rudimentary Peni (Teenage Time Killer, 1981),
Mtley Cre (Use It or Lose It, 1985), Public Enemy (Rebel Without a Pause, 1987),
and Billy Joel (We Didnt Start the Fire, 1989). Episodes of Happy Days (You Go to
my Head, 1974), ALF (It Aint Easy Bein Green, 1987), and Mystery Science Theater
3000 (The Crawling Hand, 1988)all reference Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Deans image was so omnipresent that it blossomed into a full-fledged stock character in 1980s teen films. These Deanager figures replicated the visual iconography
(blue jeans, sideburns, motorcycle jackets, cigarettes, etc.) and the cultural values
(rebellion, cool, American-ness, authenticity, etc.) popularly associated with Dean.
At the same time, the Deanagers claims on Deans legacy not only draw on the polysemous meanings of his star text but also extend, revise, and amend those meanings
in new contexts.
One example of this process occurs in Jack & Diane, the single from John
Cougars multi-platinum album American Fool, which topped the Billboard charts
for the entire month of October 1982.1 It remains Mellencamps most commercially successful single to date and is central to his public image. The songs sparse
arrangementsvoice, acoustic guitar, bass drum, keyboard, and hand clapsalign
Cougar with artists like Bruce Springsteen, the sonic qualities of Jack & Diane
parallel its lyrics emphasis on simple pleasures. Focusing narratively on the coming
of age of its titular characters, two American kids growin up in the heartland,
Jack & Diane lionizes and idealizes the white, patriarchal, heterosexual relations
that were in many ways associated with the Fifties.
The connection to the Fifties is made explicit in the songs third verse, when Jack
collects his thoughts for a moment / scratches his head and does his best James
Dean. Another Dean reference follows when Jack quotes Deans repeated well
then there from Rebel Without a Cause. These references to Dean partially function to mark the narrative as a Fifties one. But surely James Dean has a specific set
of meanings that the song would not conjure had Jack done his best Rock Hudson,
best Ricky Nelson, or best Pat Boone. For Cougar and his 1980s listeners, what
is the nature of Jacks best James Dean? What does it signify? What are the values
and meanings it is meant to provoke?

Star Legacies 149

Jack & Diane is an ode to the virtues of small-town American teenagers in

patriarchal heterosexual relations. Jack is described as a would-be football star,
Diane a debutante in the back seat of Jackies car. The music video features Jack
and Diane in all-American activities (eating hot dogs at the Tastee-Freez, driving
around town both on a motorcycle and in a Corvette) and displays Jacks masculine physical power as he carries Diane on his back and playfully wrestles her to the
ground. In this way, Jacks best James Dean can be read as an eroticized small-town
American masculinity that reflects republican individualism as well as sexual power
and allure. Describing the emergence of a new image of masculinity in 1980s popular culture, Sean Nixon identifies a fascination, almost a reverence, for a mythical America of the pastthe America that had produced Dean and Presley, the 57
Chevrolet, Sam Cooke, The Misfits and a host of other heroes and cult objects (117).
This figure is precisely the one that the John Cougar of 1982 attempted to embody.
Mellencamps performance as Jack in the music video, which includes home
movies and photographs of Mellencamp with his first wife Priscilla Esterline,
suggests that he was trying to use Deans star text to define his own. Like Dean,
Mellencamp is an Indiana native, and his emergence as a star in the 1980s relied
upon the projection of Fifties-inspired heartland masculinity as his calling card.
Mellencamps management and promotional team repeatedly compared him to
Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan in the press, attempting to play up his American
authenticity and artistic bona fides. The eroticism in Mellencamps early imagery is
legible across his early albums, and even in his original stage name, Johnny Cougar.
His agent, Tony DeFries, told Seventeen in 1983, We wanted something uniquely
American, something hot and wild. Johnny Indiana was one of our choices, Puma,
Mustangbut nothing was as hot as Cougar! (E. Miller 163). Mellencamp gradually jettisoned the stage name but maintained the Fifties rebel look for press photos,
album art, and stage performances, as the 1986 cover of Rolling Stone illustrates (see
image 5.1). Both the name and the appearance rely on a combination of the uniquely
American heartland imagery and hot and wild masculine eroticism. In this way,
Mellencamps public presentation in the 1980s (whether it was self-generated or the
result of DeFriess savvy promotion) attempted to establish lineage from Dean to
the Re-Generation rebel figure that Mellencamp attempted tocut.
Mellencamp was just one among many artists in the 1970s and 1980s that
attempted to channel Dean. Kevin Bacons performance as new-kid-in-town Ren
McCormack in Footloose (1984) incessantly references Dean. Bacons blue jeans, red
jacket, and hairstyle visually approximate James Deans Rebel character Jim Stark,
and his tortured gestures and mumbled lines harken toward Deans performance in
East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956). Using these markers, Footloose draws on Deans
star text to establish its heros American authenticity and erotic appeal. Beyond the

150 Back to the Fifties

Heartland eroticism: January 1986 cover of Rolling Stone. Authors personal collection.

visual symbols of Dean-ness, the film features complete re-enactments of iconic

scenes from Deansfilms.
Footloose memorably references Rebel Without a Cause in its reiteration of the
latter films famous chickie run. The iconic scene of Deans Jim Stark and his
rival Buzz (Corey Allen) charging toward the edge of a cliff in stolen cars is transformed in Footloose into a head-to-head game of chicken between Ren and the
bully Chuck (Jim Youngs), as they ride toward one another on borrowed farming
equipment. While the costuming, editing, and cinematography of these scenes
are clearly similar, Footlooses version reduces the stakes (nobody dies or is injured

Star Legacies 151

Rens chickie run in Footloose.

in the tractor showdown) and crucially restages the conflict to more directly
focus on the expression of masculine power and authority. In Rebels chickie
run, Jim and Buzz race toward a cliff, toward oblivion, in a contest that has been
understood as a confrontation with the nothingness their alienated generation
is facing. 2 In Footloose, Ren and Chuck compete directly against one another for
alpha-male status and the affections of Ariel (Lori Moore). Accordingly, the spatial configuration of the scene is reorientedin Footloose, Ren and Chuck do not
confront nothingness but drive directly toward one another. Ultimately, Ren wins
the contest, gains the status of big man on campus, and becomes romantically
involved with Ariel shortly thereafter. Rebels chickie run is tragic; Footlooses is
In response to Footlooses appropriations of Dean, popular film critics fiercely
denounced the films unoriginality and artifice. If Bacons performance approximated the form of Deans rebellion, these critics argued, the content of that rebellion
was radically altered, if not evacuated. Bacon is not a symbol for the alienation of his
generation; he just wants to cut loose. The films primary struggle is over whether its
fun-loving, clean-cut teenagers will have a school dance. The Bible-thumping reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow) has outlawed dancing and rock music in the
small town, but Ren encourages his newfound friends to rebel by learning to cut a
rug. By the end of the film, the teens get their prom, Ren gets the girl, and everyone
boogies happily ever after. Reviewers dismissed Footlooses abundance of pilfered
style but scarcity of substance. Times review, for instance, was wryly titled Revel
Without a Cause (Corliss). The NewYork Times Michiko Kakutani argued that

152 Back to the Fifties

although it blatantly appropriates the storylines, scenes and imagery from such 50s
films as Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, Footloose waters down those elements, turning a portrait of adolescent alienation into one of high spirited teen-age
fun (22). In this view, Footloose recasts adolescent rebellion as a fight for the right to
party; the ultimate end is personal gratification. For Kakutani, this represents more
than a violation of the sanctity of Fifties film. She argues that when Hollywood
reformulates the Dean image in Footloose, our sense of the pastand in this case,
of teenagers in earlier erasalso undergoes a revision (1). The Re-Generation invocations of Dean enact a revision of his star text, aligning his form of rebellion not
with a generation of teenagers growing up absurd but with the Reagan-Era concerns
about individual material fulfillment.
This revision simultaneously legitimates and contains adolescent rebellion in
the Re-Generation. Footlooses appropriation of Dean does not explicitly address
the issues of suburban alienation, the threat of juvenile violence, and the political and cultural contentiousness of the Sixties that Dean supposedly prefigured.
For many critics, this represents a political and aesthetic disavowal of the values
for which the real James Dean truly stood. In the place of these meanings,
Footloose offered a celebration of the muscular male and endorsed a reconsolidation of power in patriarchal heterosexual relations. Predictably, many critics
and scholars in the 1980s felt the reappropriations of Deans star text betrayed
his legacy, subverting (or perhaps, perverting) the authentic meaning of Deans
This chapter takes another step in the books ultimate goal of developing a richer
and more nuanced understanding of the role pop nostalgia played in American
cultural life from 1973 to 1988 by focusing on the claims on, contestations of, and
negotiations over a single Fifties textDean himself. Before progressing any further, I should clarify that I do not attempt to distinguish the real James Dean
from inauthentic or inaccurate claims on his legacy by Re-Generation music
and film. When Ispeak in this chapter of the claims on James Dean, Idraw on
Richard Dyers work on stardom, which casts star texts as semiotic and ideological
constructs that function to articulate what it is to be human in society (Heavenly
Bodies 8). The meanings, values, and politics that coalesce around the polysemous
star text are often opposing or contradictory, but they are reconciled and made
coherent when embodied by the star. Dyer argues that in this way, stars represent
the magical synthesis of otherwise irresolvable cultural contradictions (Stars 30).
Stars like Dean not only embody a new kind of individual but also represent social
types that negotiate the particular cultural and political tensions of the society from
whence they appear.

Star Legacies 153

Star Legacies

Beyond Mellencamp and Bacon, a slew of young actors filled Deanager roles, and
the press and promotional industries rushed to bestow on several actors the mantle
of the next James Dean. Matt Dillon was among the first to draw such comparisons in the wake of his appearances in juvenile delinquent dramas like Over the
Edge (1979) and The Outsiders (1983). Dillons sometime costar Mickey Rourke also
cultivated an association with Deanas much for his Method acting credentials
and uneven temperament off-screen as his performance in Fifties-nostalgia films
like Diner (1982) and Rumble Fish (1983). The press also granted new James Dean
status to Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, River Phoenix, Christian Slater, and Beverly
Hills, 90210 costars Jason Priestley and Luke Perry. While these comparisons may
have simply been a shorthand to promote a young actor filling a particular type, or
a way to invest a little-known performer with cultural legitimacy, it speaks to the
importance of Deans Fifties stardom to the Re-Generation that his legacy was so
persistently invoked.
Does the invocation of the Fifties star in the 1980s, like the invocations of Dean
in Jack & Diane and Footloose, work to articulate what it is like to be a young man
in the 1980s, to negotiate the tensions in American masculinity and sexuality in
the Reagan Era? Or does it seek to tell us something about what it was like to be a
young man in 1955, to continue to explore the tensions in American life inherited
from the age of postwar containment? Or, perhaps, does the return of Dean represent a form of mourning for the loss of traditional conceptualizations of sex
and gender? In pursuit of these questions, the remainder of this chapter will consider the ideological function of what Ill call star legacies. With the re-emergence
of Fifties stars on videocassette and cable reruns, Fifties star texts were repeatedly
extended, amended, and even repudiated in struggles over what the legacies of these
stars would be in the Reagan Era. This was particularly true in discussions of sex and
gender for Re-Generationyouth.
The multiple claims on the star legacy of James Dean in the Reagan Era reflected
Americas changing understanding of its own traditions of family, sexuality, identity, and individuality. The numerous and complicated invocations of Dean, and
the ways that Re-Generation films and pop music utilized his legacy, not only
influenced the ways audiences understood Deans films (or, more broadly, his star
text) in retrospect but also reshaped the cultural meaning of teen rebellion and its
attendant politics of gender and sexuality. In addition, he became a vision of what
America stood for, and fought for, in the Cold War eraa symbol of a coherent
American ideal of hot eroticism and cool authenticity. Ironically, it is that very
coherence that Deans Fifties star text worked to destabilize.

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In the 1950s, cool would not have been a quality ascribed to Deans screen
persona. Rather, the characters he played in Fifties family melodramas were tortured, emotionally vulnerable, and desperate for parental approval. Steven Cohan
has argued that Dean, among other new emotional male stars in the Fifties, represented boys who are not men, their masculinity distinct from the he-man
machismo of older stars like John Wayne. These male stars, Cohan argues, functioned to disrupt the conflation of gender and sexuality underwriting the
symbolic economy with which boys were made legible as the opposites of men
(Masked Men 203). While Deans stardom is popularly aligned with rebellion,
the rebellion in Deans self-presentation, on screen and off, is always a function
of his eroticized and explicitly emotional masculinity. This is articulated in Rebel
by Judy (Natalie Wood), when she answers Jims question of what kind of person
girls look for by saying, A man but a man who can be gentle and sweet, like you
are. And someone who doesnt run away when you want them, like being Platos
friend when nobody else liked him. Thats being strong. In Deans Fifties career,
his masculinity was defined not by his detached cool but by his vulnerability,
tenderness, and emotional volatility. This was true of his characters (Deans most
famous line in Rebel, Youre tearing me apart!, was delivered through tears) as
well as his off-screen reputation in the gossip magazines (his heartbreak over his
failed courtship of Pier Angeli).
By the time Bacon does his best James Dean in Footloose, however, vulnerability
and sensitivity were distinctly out of fashion. While Bacons Ren is certainly no
bully, he is more in line with Susan Jeffordss conceptualization of the hard body
than with the soft masculinity that Dean represented in the Fifties. Jeffords argues
that the patriarchal values reinforced by Reaganismindividual success, strength,
militarism, self-reliance, and machismowere symbolized in Hollywood by muscular male bodies. Footlooses Deanager Ren fits within this traditionhis athletic
body and physical power are highlighted in costumes, dance sequences (which feature powerful quasi-gymnastic routines3), manual labor scenes, and a fight scene.
Ren is not entirely without sentimenthis sensitivity with Ariel and urban sophistication distinguish him from the other boys in town. But unlike Deans film performances, Rens emotion is controlled and contained by a manliness signified by
his chiseled physique and blue-collar job at a mill. While the Deanager may be internally troubled, his vulnerability is hidden under a hard shell. In this way, Footloose
effectively transforms Deans legacy by hardeningit.
Star texts are historical. They include not only the onscreen performances but a
panoply of cultural discourses that surround the star, discourses which possess what
Dyer calls a temporal dimension (Stars 79)and therefore are continually subject to
revision. In Heavenly Bodies, Dyer analyzes the changes in Judy Garlands star text

Star Legacies 155

after her break with MGM, her attempted suicide, and her growing association with
urban gay male audiences. As Dyer points out, these incidents resulted in a reading
of her career before 1950, a reading back into the earlier films, recordings, and biography in the light of later years (Heavenly Bodies 139). Garlands image in the 1950s
was altered, as was public understanding of her whole career. It is this sort of retrospective revision of a star text that was the source of such consternation in the original reception of Footloose. Critics bristled at the notion of Dean as a music video
star or as an object of nostalgic longing for a time when men were men. Far from
being merely an identikit collection of Fifties signifiers, the Deanager figure served
as a site for the refision of the Fifties that Dean in some ways exemplified. The retrospective invocations of star texts (which simultaneously alter the meanings, values,
and emotions applied to their referent) are what Imean when Idiscuss claims on
star legacies. Star legacies are part of star texts, of coursethey can even be part of
multiple star texts. When Madonna staked her claim to being the Marilyn Monroe
of the Re-Generation, Madonnas stardom became part of Monroes star text, and
vice-versa. Naturally, star legacies represent the aspect of star texts most subject to
nostalgic affect. Star legacies can be altered well after the stars screen career is over,
or even, as in the case of Dean, after the actor isdead.
The propensity of teen stars to be promoted as the next James Dean and the
incessant mobilization of the Deanager figure (as pitchman, as sex symbol, as
martyr, as villain, etc.) did more than produce new meanings for Dean (or concepts
of the individual) for a new generation. These claims upon Deans star legacythe
attempts to retrospectively redefine or revise discourses that Dean signifiedalso
impact our understanding of the alienated postwar youth (and other social types)
that his stardom signified. While Kevin Bacon and other Deanagers of the Reagan
Era all possess their own star texts, Ifocus here on their influence on Deans star
legacy and how their films reframe what James Dean, and his star textsattendant
discourses of masculinity, mean to America. Simultaneously, these Deanager films
rewrite the star texts of their young actors, as they are invested with a Dean-ness
for a new generation. The Deanager combines Jeffordss hard-bodied masculinity
and dogged self-determination with eroticized emotional vulnerability and psychological dysfunction. While charismatic and sexually appealing, the Deanager
often threatens to disrupt or even destroy the existing social order. In Footloose, Ren
threatens only a dancing prohibition, but in other films the Deanagers positions
outside patriarchal family constraints makes them a danger to themselves and to
Fifties star texts were not only claimed and extended in the Reagan Era; they were
also rejected. Iclose this chapter by examining the star legacy of Sandra Dee, who
serves as an illuminating counterpoint to Dean. Dees star text was also the subject

156 Back to the Fifties

of considerable revision in the Reagan Era, but where Deans legacy was continuously rewritten, Dees story in the Reagan Era is one of utter abandonment. Ihave
chosen to focus on James Dean and Sandra Dee in this chapter not only because
they were two of the biggest teen stars of the Fifties but also because their screen
output is almost entirely contained within the Fiftiesunlike Marlon Brando or
Elizabeth Taylor, whose careers continued apace in the 1980s, Dean and Dee were
out of the pictures entirely by then. Dean died in a tragic automobile accident in
1955, and Dee slowly faded away in the 1960s after her doomed marriage to Bobby
Darrin and her struggles with alcoholism, depression, and anorexia.
As a result of their absence, the star texts of Dean and Dee were more amenable to ongoing reinvention by Re-Generation audiences. Allusions to the star
texts of Dean and Dee (and their associations with Fifties rebellion and conformity) reflected anxieties over gender and sexuality in the 1980s, in the wake of
second-wave feminism, family values, gay rights, and the panic over HIV/AIDS.
Deans image in the 1980s was simultaneously commercialized as an erotic symbol
of American masculinity, positioned as a forbearer of the Counterculture, and (as
Michael DeAngelis has explained) celebrated as queer icon. Sandra Dee provides
an illuminating counterexample, as she was mostly referenced as a figure to be dismissed, rejected, transcended, or forgotten.
The contestations over the star legacies of Dean and Dee in the Reagan Era were
also part of Americas retrospective redefinition of its own traditional values. The
version of innocent Fifties girlhood that Dee came to stand for (despite, as Iargue,
the actual content of her film performances) became the rationale for the wistful
longing for, and outright rejection of, Dees star text in the 1980s. Contrast this
with the celebration of the independent, rebellious masculinity that Dean signified (despite, again, the actual roles that he played). In some ways, the championing of Deans form of masculine rebellion and denigration of Dees conformist
femininity is akin to the practice of retconningaltering previously existing storylines in order to match a later narrative. Deans screen characters always worked to
reinforce traditional forms of masculine authority, while Dees performances often
challenged prescribed codes of girlhood. Yet when the Re-Generation revisited
their star texts, Dean was understood as a martyr, Dee a conformist and cautionary
tale. The numerous and complicated invocations of James Dean and Sandra Dee
in pop-nostalgia texts certainly transformed the way their stardoms were understood in retrospect. Beyond that, however, the star legacies of Dean and Dee also
influenced the cultural meaning of teenage rebellion in the 1980s, especially in its
associated politics of gender and sexuality. Despite the cultural anxieties that their
star texts generated (or perhaps reflected) in the 1950s, in the Reagan Era, Dean
and Dee served as a vision of what America stood, and fought, for in the Cold War

Star Legacies 157

era. They were symbols of American ideals that could be injected into Reagan-Era
debates about the Re-Generation.
Competing Visions:R eckless and Heather s

When critics maligned Footloose as a perversion of Deans authentic rebellion, a sense

that Dean (as an individual or as a signifier) truly stood for nascent Countercultural
politics, not the regressive forces of consumerism and Reaganism, fueled their outrage. Linking Dean to cultural movements of the Sixties was common in much of
the Dean hagiography produced in the 1970s and 1980s:most prominently, David
Daltons popular 1974 biography James Dean:The Mutant King, and televised retrospectives like James Dean Remembered (1974) and Forever James Dean (1988).
The understanding of Dean as a proto-hippie was held among champions of the
Reagan Revolution, as evidenced by conservative columnist George Wills summary of Deans legacy for The Washington Post:Feeling mightily sorry for himself
as a victim (of insensitive parents), his character prefigured the whiny, alienated,
nobody-understands-me pouting that the self-absorbed youth of the Sixties considered a political stance (7). For Will and his contemporaries, the Dean legacy was
the subject of suspicion and antagonism because its sexualized and politicized forms
of rebellion represented a threat to the traditional domesticorder.
One reason that Deans status as the definitive teen rebel generates so much
anxiety in representatives of parent cultures like George Will is because Deans
rebel image has such a powerful erotic allure. Working alongside hagiographic
television specials and commemorative merchandise, Re-Generation films featuring Deanager figures participated in a retrospective response to Deans political
and sexual iconicity. In their narratives and imagery, these films revised both
the causes and the effects of Deans eroticized forms of rebellion, through the
political and psychological frameworks of the Reagan Era. In films of this period,
Deanagers are given diverse origin stories and narrative resolutions, are depicted
as heroes and villains, and embraced as heroes or rejected as monsters by audiences. With the actor himself long since dead, these depictions engaged with the
temporal dimension of Deans star text by amending the cultural meaning of
James Dean. By filtering Deans image through the conditions of the 1970s and
1980s, these films trained teens born well after the stars death how to respond to
the Dean startext.
Reckless (1984), a film that premiered just two weeks before Footloose, reflects the
anxiety over the politics of the Dean legacy; it treats the teen rebel with as much
wariness as it does reverence. Promotion for Reckless also shows how much the film
relied upon the erotic allure of its Deanager figure. The films star, newcomer Aidan

158 Back to the Fifties

Quinn, was praised in reviews for his raw sexual energy and emotional abandon
(Armstrong 8). Another syndicated interview called Quinn a James Dean for the
80s more than just a pretty face with a sulky pout, then conveniently mentioned that Quinn keeps threatening to remove his jacket so he can freely flex his
back muscles, well-developed from work as a hot-tar roofer in his native Chicago
(Freedman 7). Language like this, omnipresent in the run-up to Recklesss premiere,
emphasizes Quinns blue-collar eroticism and all-American heritage, fitting neatly
into the tradition of Dean-imitators in the Reagan Era. However, Quinns motorcycle malcontent in Reckless significantly differs from other 1980s Deanager figures,
particularly in his sexual and familial relationships.
In Reckless, Quinn plays Johnny Rourke, the only child of an alcoholic millworker
and an absent mother in a dead-end Ohio Valley steel town. Compared to Rens
fairly stable home life with his mother, aunt, and uncle in Footloose, Rourkes experiences entail considerable domestic trauma. This is portrayed as the source of his
disaffection with his hometown, as evidenced by the films first shot. In the opening
scene, Rourke gazes out over the steel mill at which his father works while drinking
a can of Iron City Beer, his fathers preferred brew. Rourke sets the can down, then
drives his motorcycle to the edge of a cliff before coming to an abrupt and dramatic
stop, knocking the can (a symbol of his fathers weakness) into the ravine below.
Aside from indirectly recalling the chickie run from Rebel Without a Cause, this
scene reveals the particular inflections of Deans legacy that Reckless enacts, locating the failures of the father as the motivating factor for rebellion. The disaster that
Rourke courts in this version of the chickie run, after all, is falling over the cliff and
into the millsin other words, into the same life as his father.
The dying steel industry of Weirton, West Virginia, serves as the backdrop and
the dominant metaphor for the decaying state of Rourkes family. When Rourke is
summoned to the mill to drive his father home (he is routinely drunk on the job), is
the film reveals that his fathers drinking became a problem after Rourkes mother
left the family and moved in with the mill foreman. It is his fathers inability to
recover from this lossnot the loss of his mother itselfthat is portrayed as the
source of Rourkes psychological and emotional turmoil.
The intense focus on paternal failure in Reckless is undoubtedly inherited from
Deans teen melodramas. Deans three Hollywood films generally locate the source
of social problems in the absence of strong, supportive father figures. Seemingly,
these politics are totally commensurate with the Reagan-Era understanding of the
patriarchal nuclear family as a panacea for all social ills. Locating the primary drama
of adolescent rebellion in the home rather than in social conditions made for a new
understanding of teenagers, and Deans appearances in family melodramas made an
enormous contribution to the cultural legibility of teenage rebellion.

Star Legacies 159

Leerom Medovoi argues that the rebellion for which Dean stood in the Fifties
was not conceptualized as a threat to American society. Rather, teenage rebellion
was understood as the guarantor of democracy and American individualism. While
moral panics over juvenile delinquency certainly influenced policies and attitudes
toward young people in the 1950s, there were also arguments for the importance of
the kinds of rebellion that Dean represented. Robert Lindner, the psychoanalyst
who authored the study that was eventually adapted to become Rebel Without a
Cause, understood rebellion to be a necessary and valuable weapon in the nations
struggle against conformity and authoritarian regimes. In a 1956 essay for McCalls
titled Raise Your Child to Be a Rebel, Lindner argued that rebellion was necessary
to avoid a child becoming a slave to the irrational pressures of any authoritarian system (104). In this sense, some understood Fifties teen rebellion as healthy, as well as
necessary to sustain the twentieth-century American way of life. Thirty years later,
however, teen rebellion in some circles became less the subject of romanticization
and increasingly pathologized.
Reckless, in its rehearsal of the Dean-inspired rebel narrative, reformulates the
causes and effects of teenage rebellion for its 1980s audiences. By the conclusion
of Rebel, the father redeems himself by being the strong masculine role model
that Deans character has always desired. In Reckless, such resolutions are rendered
impossible. Rourkes father is ultimately destroyed by the combination of the dying
steel industry and his alcoholism. He is killed in an accident on the job. Rourkes
mother does not even attend the funeral, leaving Rourke a rebel without a home.
Outside of Fifties Americas containment culture that Alan Nadel has outlined,
Aidan Quinns rebel Deanager is rendered as potentially dangerous. In Reckless,
rebellion is not a crucial step to identity formation but rather a symptom of psychological dysfunction. This is suggested in Reckless when Rourke gets access to his
school records. His psychological profile reads:Onset of difficulties can be traced
to a period immediately following mothers abandonment of family. Since that
time there has been increasing evidence of antisocial behavior. He is potentially
dangerous and destructive. Throughout the film, Rourke is prone to violent outbursts, fighting with classmates, brawling with his father, threatening Tracey (Daryl
Hannah), and even setting his house on fire. In Lindners terms, Rourke represents
a negative rebellion that can only escape conformity in fundamentally antisocial
and politically exploitable ways (Medovoi 32). The teenage rebel in 1980s America
is thus transformed from symbol of American self-definition to another potential
enemy within, an opportunity for political demonology.
In Rebel, dysfunctional homes drive Jim, Judy, and Plato to attempt to create an
alternate domestic sphere for themselves, literally playing house in an abandoned
home in one memorable scene. In Reckless, Rourke and good-girl Tracey seek refuge

160 Back to the Fifties

not in a domestic relationship but an erotic one. The long, graphic sex scenes turned
many critics offone reviewer argued that the true passion of Reckless is lust, not
rebellion (Armstrong 8), but what is meaningful in these scenes is the absence of
(or perhaps escape from) romance and sentiment. Their sexual relationship does not
represent potential salvation in a new family unit (as Jim and Judy found in Rebel); it
is only a temporary escape from the painful and unfulfilling experiences with their
parents. Rourke and Tracey, unable to reconcile their relationship to their home
lives, eventually run off togethera significant difference from the final image in
Rebel wherein Jim is able to introduce Judy to his father.
Reckless does not hold out hope that the traditional family can be repaired, nor
can it be remade in teenage romance. Rourkes rebellion represents a serious threat
to the social order, as it cannot be channeled into steady heterosexual relations.
The treatment of the Dean star legacy registers the teen rebel as not only emotionally vulnerable but also psychologically imbalanced. With Quinns Rourke, the
Deanager (a symbol of Baby-Boomer youth rebellion) is cast as a psychopath who
cannot be reintegrated into the home. We must understand this at least in part
as a reflection of the anxieties over the legacy of Deans eroticized rebellion. If, as
George Will describes it, Deans rebel character prefigured the political positions
of the New Left, then the alterations of Deans legacy in the Reagan Era register a
profound anxiety over the legitimacy and efficacy of youth revolt against American
sociopolitical standards.
This anxiety seeps through the 1989 black comedy, Heathers, which casts its
Deanager, Jason JD Dean (Christian Slater) and his rebellion as violent, perverse,
and pathological. As his nickname suggests, JD gestures toward the social concern
over juvenile delinquency, and the erotic and tragic appeal of James Dean. Heathers
operates (perhaps ironically) as a cautionary tale about the dangers of Deans erotic
charisma, and it endorses the rejection of Deans legacy. In Heathers, the sexual relationship between the rebel JD and sweetheart Veronica (Winona Ryder) quickly
spins into a high school class war against the Heathers, the three spiteful girls who
sit atop the teenage food chain. For Veronica, who has been adopted as an honorary Heather, JD represents the promise of emancipated self-definition, free from
the constraints of her high school social class. Like Rourke, JDs rebelliousness is
a fundamental part of his sex appeal, and Veronicas persistent attraction to him
only underscores the Deanagers dangerous potential. Almost immediately after JD
and Veronica have sex for the first time, JDs rebellious tendencies intermingle with
violent ones, as he tells Veronica that Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is one bitch
that deserves to die. In the moment, Veronica is charmed by what she sees as JDs
acidic humor, revealing howin some cases at leastthe Deanagers eroticism and
rebellion serve as the cover story for his violent impulses.

Star Legacies 161

Heathers: The rebel as psychopath.

As with Jims and Rourkes, JDs rebellion is the product of domestic dysfunction. In their conversations throughout the film, JD and his father (who is in the
demolition business) engage in role reversal, with JD playfully calling his father
son, and his father asking the boy, Hey Dad, how was work today? This joking,
lighthearted though it may be, suggests the absence of a clearly defined paternal
ideal for JD. His mother is absent, having committed suicide: She walked into
the building two minutes before my dad blew the place up. She waved at me, and
then Boom. Heathers also portrays teenage rebellion as the result of domestic trauma, not a necessary psychosocial stage of development. Unlike most other
Deanager figures, however, JD cannot be reformed, and his rebellion offers no significant escape. JD is not Heathers hero. He is positioned in the films final act
not only as the villain but also as a horror-film Big Bad that must be destroyed.
Dean and other postwar teen rebels, Medovoi argues, helped legitimize adolescent
rebellion and distinguish American society from authoritarianism and conformism. Deans status as a teen rebel relies on an eroticism that operates as a critique of
postwar suburban society, which glamorized the sexiness of a boy whose struggle
for identity leads him away from the asexual, impotent drabness that would otherwise await him (Medovoi 191). In Heathers, however, JDs radical challenge to
high school society is a symptom of his own monstrosity. Even JD seems to share
this perspective, as he answers Veronicas charge, Youre not a rebel, youre a fucking psychopath, by chuckling, You say tomato, Isay to-mah-to. His emotional
vulnerability and sexual virility are not, as in the original case of Dean, symbolic of
a new, more appealing form of masculinity. Rather, they are symptoms of his psychological dysfunction, and evidence of the danger he represents to society. This is,

162 Back to the Fifties

ultimately, the case that Will makes regarding James Deans influence on the youth
of the Sixties. Veronicas turn against JDs murderous urges is coincident with the
end of their sexual relationship. In the couples arguments, Veronica repeatedly
tells JD to grow up. In so doing, she reorients the teenage rebellion that he represents as a symptom of arrested development. At the films close, Veronica kills JD
and rescues her high school classmates, rejecting both his plans for school destruction and the erotic appeal of the rebel. Do you know what Ineed she tells him
before shooting him in the chest, cool guys like you out of my life. With this,
the rejection of Deans legacy is narratively accomplished. Tellingly, JD welcomes
his destruction, as if he has been imprisoned by his negative rebellion. Heathers
seems to argue that the best tribute to Deans legacy is to allow the rebel to rest in
peace. Though the film acknowledges the Deanagers charisma and blames his dysfunction on failed parents, the eroticism and victimization of JD only underscore
the threat he poses to American society and highlight the need to reject him as a
model of manhood. Alternatively, this could all be an ironic commentary on the
Reagan-Era fear of rebellion.
By identifying teen rebellion as a distinctive feature of American adolescence,
Medovoi argues, American society in the Fifties could distinguish itself from fascist
and communist societies, as well as combat the menace of Gray Flannel Suit conformity. This cast adolescence as a time in which dominant values could be questioned,
or even resisted, setting the stage for the identity politics of subsequent decades. The
resistance to postwar social and cultural values that Dean exemplified in his fraught
relationship with onscreen parental figures was often, if not always, registered by
his form of masculinity. While audiences could locate different aspects of Deans
performance as the source of his appeal, those aspects almost always operate in an
erotic register.
The rebellion in Deans texts, in this view, comes out of audience identification with and desire for Dean. Elizabeth Cowie explains that the figure of the star
affords spectators the opportunity to frame and reframe the star in the realm of
fantasy, showing that the forms of double fixing that Idescribe in Chapter One
are never totalizing. Cowie argues that when audiences engage in fantasy over stars,
they participate in the making visible, present, of what isnt there, of what can never
directly be seen (12728). This form of engagement allows Dean to be defined, and
redefined, in radically different waysas a marker of authenticity and eroticism
by John Cougar, as icon of personal fulfillment in Footloose, as the first student
activist by veterans of the New Left, or as psychopathic force in Heathers. These
redefinitions, diverse as they may have been, all relied on an essentially heterosexual
and patriarchal understanding of Deans eroticism. This vision, as Ishow in the next
section, was not universallyheld.

Star Legacies 163

Queer ing Dean and theInher itors ofthe DeanLegacy

Stars represent and reflect cultural values for the societies in which they circulate.
However, in the process of determining the cultural meaning of stars, audiences
must work through contradictions and ambiguities between the stars public and
private persona. For example, audiences and fans in the Re-Generation might
have known everything there was to know about Madonna the singer, actress, and
cultural icon, but they simultaneously recognize their ultimate inability to access
the interior life of Madonna Louise Ciccone the human being. This negotiation
between the knowable and unknowable in pursuit of the true meaning of the star
drives much of the most passionate interest in starsan attempt to understand
what the star is really like, or understand the man (or woman) behind themyth.
Michael DeAngelis ties audiences pursuit of a stars true meaning to the experience of melodrama. Specifically, DeAngelis relates our irresolvable desire for the true
star to melodramas fantasy of the origin of self, in which the melodramatic subject
enacts the impossible pursuit of a lost state of wholeness (DeAngelis 6). This fantasy
that stars make available to film audiences remains pleasurable only to the extent that
ultimate resolutions are deferred, and as a result, film studios and public relations
agencies maintain a significant economic investment in extending the stars process of
emergence and redemption by withholding and disclosing information over the course
of a career (7). The incentive within the industry to extend and highlight the irreducible quality of star texts facilitates the continuous revisiting and revising ofstars.
In this light, Deans stardom presents a special case, as his star text was developed almost entirely posthumously. His death came only five months after his
star-making debut in East of Eden. One could convincingly argue that his untimely
death is the most significant aspect of Deans star textit certainly altered Warners
promotional strategies for Rebel, as his death came just a month before the films
release. For DeAngelis, Deans death makes his star text of interminable extension
and revision, a story without ending. The impossibility of audiences ever accessing the real James Dean fuels their desire, positing a resolution that is perpetually deferred, reinvoked, and revised ad infinitum. The fantasy of what might have
beenif Dean had lived, if only he had not climbed into his Porsche Spyder that
fateful nightestablishes Deans star text as an object of incessant negotiation and
revision. Even though a figure like Brando was by almost any standard a bigger star
than Dean in the Fifties, Brandos survival and shifting cultural meaning through
the 1960s and 1970s make him a less likely subject for audience reinvention in the
1980s. Deans cultural status as forever young, therefore, leaves the resolution of
his identity (social, political, and sexual) to audience fantasy, regardless of (or perhaps despite) its containment within the melodramagenre.

164 Back to the Fifties

The complex processes of Deans reappearance and revision are, as Imention in this
chapters opening, present across the pop culture landscape in the 1980s. With the
emergence of MTV, however, pop music stars immediately became more visible figures in the determination of identity and cultural values, particularly with the success
of MTV icons like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, or The Beastie
Boys. They became, in other words, more potent stars. With Hollywood films trending toward the high-concept blockbuster, the music video served as a more intimate
and direct interaction with stars. As Nicholas Greco has written, the images conveyed in the [music] video give the viewer limited information, both about the singer
and the events that are occurring the video works to maintain and continue the
draw of the celebrity (145). Writing about Madonnas claims on the star legacy of
Marilyn Monroe in the video for Material Girl, Andrew Goodwin argues that fiction, narrative and identity in music television are generally located at the level of the
star-text, not within the discursive world of the fiction acted out by the pop star (101).
That is to say, when Mellencamp references James Dean in performances of Jack &
Diane, it is not Jack but Mellencamp himself who is associated withDean.
So it also is with claims on Deans legacy made by another Re-Generation musician, Morrissey. Perhaps no pop star of the era had a more intimate and direct relationship of desire with his fans than Moz (as his fans call him), both as a solo artist
and as frontman for The Smiths. Called one of the most singular figures in Western
pop culture (DiCrescenzo), Morrissey has carefully cultivated an association with
Dean throughout his career, and his stardom, like Deans, can be understood as reliant upon the production of mystique. Morrisseys ambiguities and mysteries, Greco
explains, contribute to an overall sense of the singer as an enigma, a puzzle that must
be solved, an incomplete persona which is revealed over time, eliciting desire for
the whole (25). This is particularly true regarding Morrisseys ambiguous sexuality,
which has been the subject of ceaseless debate and speculation by fans, critics, and
even Morrissey himself. This is, of course, a feature of Deans stardom as well, particularly in the wake of Kenneth Angers salacious anecdotes in Hollywood Babylon.
Whether it was his penchant for using what Nadine Hubbs has called queer
insider language (285) in his lyrics, his tendency to don pearls or ladies thrift store
clothing, or the way his vocals often soar into a fragile falsetto, Morrisseys star text
has been largely defined by questions of his sexuality. Reviews and features after The
Smiths first album variously stated that Morrissey admits that hes gay (Henke 45);
had a lot of girlfriends in the past and quite a few men friends (Mills 14); isdramatically, supernaturally, non-sexual (Owen); and is a kind of prophet for the
fourth sex (McCullough). In an interview with New Musical Express representative
of his responses to inquiries about his sexuality, Morrissey said, I refuse to recognise
the terms hetero-, bi- and homo-sexual. Everybody has exactly the same sexual needs.

Star Legacies 165

People are just sexual, the prefix is immaterial (Kopf 67). Morrisseys resistance
to binary definitions of sexuality allows him to be the object of crossover appeal, a
term DeAngelis uses for stars that are able to simultaneously and equally appeal to
gay and straight audiences. At the same time, Morrisseys refusal to recognize dominant conceptualizations of sexuality produces enigma that further fuels audience
identification and desire, both queer4 and straight. Morrisseys own fan relationship
with Dean thus provides a blueprint for his ambiguous intimacy with his ownfans.
Morrisseys connection with Dean, both personally and incorporated as a part of
his own star text, was longstanding. He published a poem about Dean in a Scottish
fanzine in 1979, and penned his own Dean biography, James Dean is Not Dead, in
1983. The links between the two stars were, in many ways, the product of concerted
public effort. In 1984, Morrissey told Smash Hits magazine:
I saw Rebel Without ACause quite by accident when Iwas about six. Iwas
entirely enveloped. His entire life seemed so magnificently perfect. What he
did on film didnt stir me that much but as a person he was immensely valuable At school it was an absolute drawback because nobody really cared
about him. If they did, it was only in a synthetic rock and roll way. Nobody
had a passion for him asIdid.
(Birch, The Morrissey Collection40)
Aside from his dismissal of synthetic rock and roll appropriations of Dean
(here one imagines Moz is referencing the gestures toward Dean by performers
like John Cougar), Morrisseys articulation of sameness (I was entirely enveloped) with Dean and difference from mainstream audiences (Nobody had a
passion for him as Idid) squares with DeAngeliss account of Deans crossover
appeal: The gay spectators choice of Dean as a figure of self-representation is
often based on a likeness, a perception that Deans unanchored rebel status mirrors the spectators own un-anchored sense of place in the world (12). Audiences
fascination and identification with Dean drives them to take part in the revision of Deans star text, by engaging in melodramatic fashion in the fantasy of
imagining what Dean would be like, if only he had lived beyond the Fifties.
DeAngelis argues of this rewriting:
Although the star persona functions as the catalyst that initiates the fantasy,
the pleasure here is that of the participant, guided not exclusively by the series
of primary narrative texts (there are, after all, only three and no more) but also
by extra-cinematic discourses that extrapolate from the onscreen persona.(89)

166 Back to the Fifties

Dean watches over Morrissey in Suedehead.

While Footloose and Jack & Diane use Dean imagery to affirm patriarchal values, Morrisseys use of Dean is more ambiguous and complex in its gender/sexual
politics. The music video for Morrisseys Suedehead, for example, works not only
to recover cultural values ascribed to Dean, but also to extend those cultural values into the future by positioning Morrissey as the inheritor to Deans star legacy.
Suedehead was the first single from Viva Hate, Morrisseys debut solo album after
his acrimonious 1987 departure from The Smiths. The sense of enigma is fueled by
the explicit references to James Dean in the Suedehead music video, which reveals
a depth of familiarity with Dean iconography and extra-filmic materials that rivals
many Fifties film scholars.
The videos opening presents Morrisseys interest in Dean as an intimate onethe
first shot depicts Morrissey sitting in the bathtub with an enormous portrait of
Dean hanging on the wall behind him. In the videos first half, Morrisseys sexual
ambiguity and his Dean fandom are presented as intertwined, positioning Dean as
the object of Morrisseys (fan) desire. The references to Dean in the video are never
filmic but are rather symbols of Deans childhood and family life in Fairmount,
Indiana. These often-obscure nods to minute details of the real James Dean in the
video serve to authenticate Morrisseys status as a true fan and demonstrate his
dedication to, knowledge of, and passion forDean.
For example, the book of Byrons poems that lies on the table in the videos opening scene is a reference to Deans middle name (and the story that his mother gave

Star Legacies 167

him the middle name in honor of the poet). The video regularly draws on deep
knowledge of Deans life. In a later scene, it depicts a boy arriving at Morrisseys
flat to deliver a brown package that includes a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exuprys
Le Petit Prince. Passionate fans of Dean recognize the book as Deans favorite, and
the delivery boy bears a resemblance to Deans cousin Markie, who Dean treated as
a kid brother. Still further, the video features an Indian Motorcycles shop (the one
where a teenaged Dean spent afternoons) and has Morrissey carry a medium format
camera (of the same style that Dean carried around NewYork City). As Goodwin
teaches us, these associations with Dean extend beyond the narrative frame of the
video and into the realm of Morrisseys startext.
In the videos narrative, Morrissey relaxes at home among his Dean memorabilia
until the delivery boy sends him a book. The delivery prompts Moz to travel to
Fairmount, Deans birthplace and the point of origin for his heartland-infused
star text. Once in Fairmount, the videos narrative trajectory follows the traditional
arc established in Deans biographies, emphasizing the small-town qualities of
Main Street, his idyllic life on his aunt and uncles farm, his dramatic awakening
at Fairmount High School, his ultimately tragic fascination with cars and motorcycles, and his final return to Indiana to be buried.
The structure of the videos narrative aligns with Linda Williamss and Steven
Neales description of melodrama as organized around an impossible pursuit of
unity and for points of origin. In the video, Dean works as a lost object of desire
that, in DeAngeliss terms, must be recovered with the spectator regulating and
negotiating the distance between himself and this object of his own desire
While ultimate access to the object may be unattainable, the ability to imagine
this access is what produces pleasure and sustains desire (12). The video presents
Morrissey as a Fairmount outsider, carrying a camera and wearing a chic black
trench coat in the empty winter streets. The video thus likens Morrissey to the
thousands of tourists who flock to the small town every year on the anniversary
of Deans death, acting out their fan devotion by returning to the stars place of
origin. On the lyrical level, the song appears to be about a one-night stand that
turns into an obsession, and the video adds a layer of meaning that suggests that
the bond between fan and star is akin to a dysfunctional relationship between
The sexual ambiguity of Deans star text, coupled with Morrisseys sexual ambiguity, allows queer audiences to claim Dean for their own purposes. Because
Dean is as emerging yet never fully revealed consistently neither here nor
there, DeAngelis maintains that the promise that he might yet be revealed as a
full presence responds to the needs and desires of his audience (68). This allows
gay spectators to claim the quintessential American rebel as a queer icon, thereby

168 Back to the Fifties

invoking his legacy as part of their individual and collective subjectivity. If, as
Steve Neale argues, melodramas obstruct the return to the fantasy of origin of
self, in which audiences are helpless in the interplay of if only and too late,
Deans death provides the ultimate obstacle. As the video reveals while panning
over a chalkboard at Fairmount High School, you cant go home again. The feeling that melodrama produces in these moments is akin to the affective condition
of nostalgia.
Dean works in this video as both the object of desire and an object revitalized
by Morrissey. Dean is brought to life in the figure of a new star who is perpetually emerging yet never fully revealed and inherits Deans sexually ambiguous legacy. Though the videos narrative arc represents Morrissey engaging in a
melodramatic pursuit of and identification with James Dean, the videos mise
en scne creates a series of images that depict Morrissey becoming James Dean,
or at the very least embodying Deans cultural legacy. The video does this in several registers, none more fascinating than its use of iconic photographs of James
Deans return trip to Fairmount with photographer Dennis Stock in 1955. No
less than seven still images from Stocks famous photo session are recreated in
Morrisseys videowalking down a Fairmount street, sitting in the theater,
reading Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley in the barn loft, playing bongos in the cattle pen, carrying a dog out of the barn, and staring away from a

Moz recreates famous Dean photos in Suedehead.

Star Legacies 169

headstone marked Cal Dean in the towns graveyard. The careful reconstruction of these images, with Morrissey in Deans place, simply cannot be a mistake.5 As the video ends, Morrissey sits next to Deans grave while Deans image
is superimposed on the scene. For DeAngelis, this image could be read as the
specter of Dean haunting the subsequent viewer. However, an alternative reading might position Morrissey as embodiment of the spirit of Dean, the inheritor
of his star legacy as the sexually ambiguous outsider for a new generation. In
this way of reading the video, the title of the Dean biography Morrissey penned,
James Dean is not Dead, comes true.
Looking atSandr aDee

The constant posthumous appropriations of James Deans star text have resulted
in a proliferation of new James Deans, as various populations have laid claim
to his legacy, writing and rewriting stories of what might have been. An inversion of this process, Iargue, can be found in the star text of Sandra Dee, who was
among Fifties Hollywoods biggest teenage stars. The comparison between Dean
and Dee is an important one. As Dean has been elevated to the status of cultural
icon whose meaning is under constant revision, Dees legacy in both popular and
critical consciousness has largely been reduced to the unproblematic figure of the
innocentBlue Velvet, for example, evokes Dee by naming its teenage blonde
girl-next-door character Sandy. The new meanings appended to Dee in films, press,
and popular discourses are negational ones, replacing the considerable tensions present in Dees original star text with a fantasy of Fifties virtue, or Fifties conformism. Sandra Dee, in other words, has been transformed from a polysemous text in
which cultural values can be resolved into an uncomplicated type. This is at least
partially due to the reorientation of teenage rebellion from the province of teenage
girls to that of teenageboys.
If Dean in the Reagan Era was omnipresent but never quite knowable, Dee
was (and continues to be) largely understood as completely knowable but not particularly worth knowing. While even today Deans star text continually reappears
in popular culture, Dee seems only to serve as a sort of negative example, either
a symbol of an age of conformity and repression or an icon of a fresh-faced innocence destroyed by the sexual revolution. The significance and complexity of her
star text is thus covered over, but without the critical uproar that accompanied
Back to the Futures vision of the Fifties, or Footlooses use of Dean. Ipursue this
point neither to recover a supposedly true meaning of Dees star text nor to
rescue Dee from the arguments that have taken her as a symbol of cultural values

170 Back to the Fifties

worth critique. Rather, in examining the deployment of Dee in pop-nostalgia

texts of the Re-Generation, Inot only illustrate how Fifties femininity was retrospectively articulated through the star text of Sandra Dee, but also demonstrate
that the strategic manipulation of Fifties stars in this period was a practice of the
sociopolitical left as well as theright.
It is a testament to the effectiveness of the Reagan-Era transformation of Dees
star text that the ensuing biographical sketch is even necessary. To a greater extent
than Dean, Dee was a significant movie star in the 1950s, with considerable cultural resonance. Her career began at age ten, as an advertising and magazine model
in New York (making up to $75,000 a year). In 1958, after starring roles in The
Reluctant Debutante and The Restless Years, Dee won a Golden Globe for Most
Promising Female Newcomer and was named by the Motion Picture Herald as
the Number One Star of Tomorrow. After two more successful appearances in
1959 (Gidget and Imitation of Life) and her marriage to teen idol Bobby Darin in
1960, Dee was a household name. From 1960 to 1963, Dee was named among the
top ten money-making stars in Hollywood, ranking #6 in 1961, just behind Cary
Grant and above Jerry Lewis, William Holden, Tony Curtis, and Elvis Presley
(Quigley Publishing Company). Fan magazines brimmed with articles about Dee,
most often about her dieting strategies; her fashion sense; her relationship with her
mother; her dates with other teen idols; and her opinions on dating, family, and
Despite all that, Dee is little more than an afterthought in most critical and
scholarly reflections on Fifties cinema and culture, and her star legacy went virtually unclaimed by the Re-Generation. If she appears at all in television retrospectives or popular histories of Hollywood in the Fifties, it is most often as an aside or
a footnote. Even academic histories of the Hollywood youth film published in the
last thirty years give Dee short shrift. Thomas Dohertys invaluable teen film history
Teenagers and Teenpics dismisses her films and star image as conformist in two
brief pages. David Considines exhaustive The Cinema of Adolescence gives slightly
more attention to Dee, but even that is mostly confined to a section titled Movies
Monstrous Moms and only offered as a point of comparison to the depiction of
the family in Rebel Without a Cause. Dees image graced no T-shirts, merchandise,
posters, or advertisements in the 1980s, and she was scarcely referenced in pop music
(exceptions include brief mentions in Waylon Jennings Aint Living Long Like
This and Lita Fords Cant Catch Me, which both figure Dee as a nave innocent to be left behind). Atelevision series, The New Gidget, did briefly air in syndication in 1985, but even that show excluded Dee from production and was fairly
dismissive of her legacy. In an interview with the Associated Press, new star Caryn
Richman assured audiences that the new Gidget would not be the same as those

Star Legacies 171

that came before:I cant make it Shakespeare or Gone with the Wind, but Itried
very hard not to make it Susie Creamcheese. Ifought for her to play the intimate
moments intimately and play the pain with pain. Not as the old Gidget (Buck 14).
In what appears to be her only major press appearance of the 1980s, Dee spoke to
The Washington Post about her career and seemed haunted by her good-girl image:
I cant lose it. People say, You were in all those beach movies. But really Iwas only
in the first Gidget (Goldfarb B7). Whether Dee was held up as a paragon of traditional feminine virtues or condemned as a symbol of the repression and enforced
conformity of the Fifties, discussions of Dee in the Re-Generation positioned her as
an absence, a figure that was (for better or for worse) lost forever.
This is certainly the argument made within the song Look at Me, Im Sandra
Dee from the Fifties-nostalgia musical (and eventually movie-musical) Grease
(1978). Today, Dees place in the popular imagination of the United States is best
articulated by this song, which became a staple for Broadway compilation albums
and karaoke catalogues. The relation to Dee is explicitly rendered in the character
of Greases uber-blonde female protagonist Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John),
who suggests Dees star text both in name and in appearance. On the other side
of the good-girl/bad-girl dyad, Grease offers the ethnicized Betty Rizzo (Stockard
Channing), a sexually uninhibited, yet emotionally vulnerable, female juvenile
In Look at Me, Im Sandra Dee, Rizzo ridicules Sandys goody two-shoes persona and morality, sneering in the opening lines, Look at me, Im Sandra Dee /
Lousy with virginity / Wont go to bed til Im legally wed / For Iam Sandra Dee.
For the sarcastic performance, Rizzo and her fellow Pink Ladies don blonde wigs
and assume snooty voices and mannerisms. The emphasis on falsity or inauthenticity in this performance suggests that the morality for which Sandy stands (and, of
course, the codes of white femininity that it signifies) are not natural but a put-on
that the Pink Ladies explicitly reject. With lines like As for you, Troy Donahue /
Iknow what you wanna do, and Elvis, Elvis, let me be / Keep that pelvis far from
me, Grease positions Dee as the out-of-date virginal bourgeois good girl who
is better left in the dustbin of history. Rizzos number uses Sandra Dee to invoke
restrictionson girls drinking, smoking, or engaging in premarital sexthat
would be made obsolete by the sexual revolution. Rizzo delights in breaking the
taboos that her version of Dee would rigidly abide by, sarcastically braying Im no
object of lust while flaunting her silky drawers.
In Grease, Sandys eventual sexual liberation can only be accomplished by transforming herself in the films conclusion into a blonde version of Rizzo, as if the Dee
image is of a piece with Fifties sexual repressionboth, in Greases view, are to be
rejected. The irony, of course, is that Dees teen characters in the Fifties rarely prized

172 Back to the Fifties

Grease: Im Sandra Dee!.

their virginity, and in most cases lost it enthusiastically. As Georgeann Scheiner has
argued, although she has become synonymous with sexual prudery, in fact Dees
film characterizations are often quite erotic Dee actually became a recognizable
new type in the late Fifties, a teenage girl conflicted about her emerging sexuality (90). Ashort review of some of Dees most prominent roles reveals the degree
to which Dees clean teen star text was generated in opposition to her actual
In her screen debut in Until They Sail (1957), Dee plays the youngest of four sisters
in New Zealand who experience romantic and sexual relationships with American
servicemen during World War II. The trailer for the film announces that, for Dees
character Evelyn, flirting was a teenagers prerogative. The promotional poster
for Dees next film, The Reluctant Debutante (1958), suggests very little reluctance
indeedDee seductively sits on the lap of a drummer (John Saxon) as her parents
(Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall) look on in shock. In Douglas Sirks Imitation
of Life (1959), Dees character, supposed good-girl Susie, attempts to seduce her
mothers fiance. Even at this young age (either twelve or fourteen years old6), Dee
was playing characters that were precociously, even worryingly, sexual.
In A Summer Place (1959), the film that Scheiner argues helped define sexuality
for adolescents of the period (97), Dee plays Molly Jorgenson, a self-made millionaires young teenage daughter who accompanies her parents on a summer vacation.
Despite Universals efforts to construct an entirely wholesome image for Dee in the
fan magazines, Molly is a fully mature erotic figure in the film. She confesses to
undressing in front of opened windows so the neighbor boy can see and sneaking
away to make out with the class president during school. Further, Molly battles with
her conservative mother about sexual mores throughout the film, and even chafes
against her parents control over her body in arguments about the constraining
underwear she is forced to wear (this has a special resonance with Dees personal life,

Star Legacies 173

as her own mother bound her early developing breasts before she was ten years old).
In the illicit relationship between Molly and the neighbor boy Johnny (Donohue),
Molly is the sexual aggressor, and she maintains an independence over her sexual
and personal life throughout the films melodramatic narrative. Dees Molly asserts
her prerogative to express her sexuality on her own, more honest terms, refusing to
be constricted by the sexual mores of her parents, social stigma, her cross-class liaison with Johnny, or even her underwear.
In perhaps her most famous roleas the titular Gidget (1959)Dee joins a band
of quasi-Beatnik beach bums, rejecting the passive position of beach bunny and
gaining access to the homosocial community of rebel boys. Gidgets tomboy-ness,
according to Medovoi, registers a profound dissatisfaction with, if not a direct challenge to, the possibilities of patriarchal gender relations. The potential union of the
bohemian Kahuna and tomboy surfer presents the opportunity that Gidget could
be both eroticized subject and girl surfer, that her rebellion or rejection of bourgeois
gender codes need not be just a phase but an alternative position that resists or
perhaps even disrupts the passive girl/active boy binary. In this respect, Dees star
text functioned, like the more celebrated Marilyn Monroe, as a metaphor for the
cultural schizophrenia surrounding female sexuality both sexy and innocent,
demure yet vivacious, fearful yet sensual (Scheiner 91). Interestingly, the only critic,
scholar, artist, or performer that Ifound in my research who acknowledged this reading of Dee before 1991 was Charles Busch, the playwright and drag performer who
produced the play Psycho Beach Party in 1987which was originally titled Gidget
Goes Psychotic. When Spy magazine asked Busch if the Gidget fascination was a
presexual thing, Busch insisted, The movie Gidget, with Sandra Dee, is all about
sex! Shes this really nubile thing, and she thinks shes a freak because she doesnt
want to go on dates. Then she falls in love with Moondoggie and then its all, How
far am Igoing to let him go? (Handy 14). Part of the camp appeal of Psycho Beach
Party, Ithink, is revealing the sexual fascination that has been part of the Gidget/
Dee figure all along in the context of a culture that refuses to recognizethem.
The forms of cultural resistance that Dee represented, however domesticated, were
transformed (the odd Psycho Beach Party aside) by the Re-Generation into either
nave innocence or facile and inauthentic performance. Cultural narratives that
indexed Dee allowed for little else. If James Deans rebellion has been romanticized
and canonized, Dees resistance to hegemonic codes of gender and sexuality has been
diminished and dismissed. The notion of Dee as the ultimate clean teen, icon of conservative Hollywoods recuperation of the teenpic genre, is not just a product of popular memory but the effect of critical discourse as well. As Inoted, Doherty gives short
shrift to Dees films, dismissing them as conformist and clean teen pics. Considine
calls Gidget a retreat to the circa-forties family and casts Dee as succumbing to her

174 Back to the Fifties

desires in A Summer Place rather than actively pursuing them. And Timothy Shary,
in his Wallflower volume Teen Films, mentions Dee only as a costar of John Saxon,
whose status as teen sensation was short-lived and far less remarkable than Dees.
As these examples illustrate, even among accomplished scholars who specialize in the
teen film, Dees legacy has been that of an innocent conformist, an image that may
have been consistent with studio-generated publicity but as a legacy is very much at
odds with her actual screen output. The persistent dismissals of Dees symbolic value
in both popular culture and academic criticism fail to acknowledge the impulses of
sexual liberation in Dees ponytailed characters and assign to her values of Fifties conformism that her on-screen characters never reflected.
Throughout the Reagan Era, occasional Where Are They Now? columns in
newspapers would gesture toward personal demons that followed Dee in the wake
of her divorce in 1967 and Darins death in 1973. ALos Angeles Times column about
her short-lived comeback on television noted her unnatural slimness that accompanied a generous portion of ups and downs (Willens 68). The Chicago Tribune
described Dee as retired in 1981 (TV Mailbag). Goldfarbs 1982 profile of Dee
in The Washington Post noted that she was reticent to discuss her personal life,
and by 1987, columnists could only report that Ms. Dee insists on a life of privacy
these days (Cuthbert T26). Later, with the encouragement of her son Dodd, Dee
emerged to reveal elements of her personal life that run counter to her squeaky-clean
reputation. Apublicity offensive featuring an Associated Press profile, a cover story
in People magazine, and a televised interview with Sally Jesse Raphael revealed (and
to some degree, reveled in) a darker side to Dees sunny image. These revelations did
not, however, force a reconsideration of the validity of her goody two-shoes image.
Instead, they spurred retrospective discussion regarding the potential dangers of the
performance of Fifties values.
The People magazine cover story itself works as a narrative retelling of the Sandra
Dee star text. The storys opening paragraphs draw on the fantasy aspects of Dees
stardom with lines like During the late 1950s and early 60s, Dee was the teen ideal,
Hollywood style, and In 1960 she eloped at 18 with crooner Bobby Darin her
storybook life seemed complete (Gold 90). In other words, the story positions her
as the embodiment of Fifties ideals. But in the story, Dee recounts the sexual assault
her stepfather perpetrated upon her as a child and her lifelong battles with depression, anorexia, addiction, and alcoholism. When Dees traumatic experiences and
struggles with addiction are revealed, however, People does not conclude that the
Fifties was not in fact an innocent time but posits these demons as the result of the
eras impossible-to-meet standards. The reality was nothing that the America of
that time could imagine, or that Hollywood would have wanted to know, it claims
(Gold 87)as if sexual assault, incest, anorexia, or alcoholism were unheard of in

Star Legacies 175

the 1950s, and despite the fact that Dees anorexia and substance abuse were well
known and to some degree facilitated by the entertainment industry. In the televised interview with Sally Jesse Raphael, Dee discussed these challenges and subtly
revealed that she was actually two years younger than her story claimedmeaning
that she was sexually assaulted beginning at five years old, became her familys primary breadwinner by working as a model at eight, started appearing in screen nymphet roles at age twelve, developed bulimia at thirteen, and married a teen idol at
age sixteen, all the while manifesting signs of drug and alcohol addiction. And yet,
many retrospectives on Dees career cast her as trapped in her Fifties image or
unable to transition to adult roles rather than acknowledge that the abuse and
enabling behavior from both her family and the film industry had immense costs on
Dee as a performer as well as a humanbeing.
The press appearances that Dee made discussing her addiction and abuse focused
on the psychic and emotional costs she had paid to maintain her image. In these
appearances, Dee is portrayed as a victim of history (rather than of malevolent individuals or indifferent institutions), and the Fifties is cast as the villain. People, Sally,
and the Associated Press present the Fifties as a time that was too nave, too repressive, or too invested in quietism to understand the trauma Dee faced. While the
popular press has long covered the salacious and scandalous secrets of Hollywood,
the 1980s stories about Dee frame her experiences as a referendum on the Fifties.
This suggests that, at the close of the Reagan Era, Americans had become suspicious
of the fantasy Fifties that seemed so appealing when Marty McFly went back in
time. In these stories, the impossible ideal of femininity represented by Sandra Dee
(one that she never actually embodied, on screen or off) was under fire, for its hypervisibility as much as for its impossibility. The popular refrain from Grease, Look
at Me, Im Sandra Dee, takes on special significance in this light. Whether it was
the erotic gazing at Dee in A Summer Place, the mockery and critique in Grease,
the camp celebration in Psycho Beach Party, or the somber reflection in People, the
American public was compelled to look at Sandra Dee. What they saw when they
looked, however, were vastly different images of both femininity and the Fifties.
As with the song, the People cover presumes that Dees star persona was a calculated and outdated performance driveneither by her mothers insistence or
her own compulsionto be seen (Look at me!). In this retelling of the story,
Sandra Dee stands in for a set of morals and expectations imposed upon young
women by the Fifties form of repressive patriarchy. The strategy of many engaged
in the culture wars was to reveal the damaging human consequences of living in
a society of compulsory family values, and highlight the impossible ideals that
young women in the United States continuously face, and Sandra Dee served as
a convenient illustration in both respects. To be clear, my aim is not to defend

176 Back to the Fifties

Dee in People. Authors personal collection.

symbols of repressive patriarchy but to highlight how Dees status as a symbol of

the Fifties good girl is one that owes more to Grease than Gidget. Responding
to the People article, Camille Paglia told The Washington Post, In the 50s, you
know, it was the blond sorority queens and cheerleaders, it was the era of Debbie
Reynolds, Doris Day and Sandra Dee and now, Sandra Dee comes out of hiding
20years later to reveal she was abused by her stepfather, she was a drug addict, she

Star Legacies 177

was anorexic Sandra Dee to us was a model of what we should be! (Allen1).
Stars like Dee became associated with the good-girl values that the New Right
would champion as the cure for societys moral shortcomings. For critics on the
left, Dees personal struggles are presented as a false feminine ideal to be rejected
and, indeed, scorned.
As Paglias comments suggest, this rejection was not simply about Dee but about
an entire culture represented by cheerleaders and sorority queens. Similarly, in
Greases Look at Me, Annette Funicello and Doris Day take their place alongside
Dee on Rizzos hit list, with lines like Hey, Im Doris Day / Iwas not brought up
that way and Would you try that crap with Annette? Rizzo adopts the intonations
and mannerisms of Day and Funicello, linking the songs critique of Dees perceived
innocence to other Fifties girl-icons, and perhaps to girlhood itself. While masculinized forms of Fifties nostalgia (rock and roll, juvenile delinquent narratives, car
culture) were often celebrated, forms associated with femininity (pop music, teen
romance, or forms of Fifties courtship) were dismissed as restrictive and retrograde.
R ecover ing Lost Legacies

Academia in the Reagan Era also had a deeply ambivalent relationship with girls
and girls culture. Mary Celeste Kearney explains that throughout the 1970s and
1980s, girls were largely ignored by most strains of Birmingham-inspired cultural
studies (which mostly relied upon a masculinist understanding of cultural resistance) and by emerging forms of feminist analysis and activism (which privileged
the woman as the liberated subject against the immature or subjugated figure of the
girl). The peripheral status of girls in youth studies in the tradition of Stuart Hall
was noted at its very origins. Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garbers essay Girls and
Subcultures appeared in the seminal collection Resistance through Rituals in 1976.
The essay begins by noting that very little seems to have been written about the role
of girls in youth cultural groupings. They are absent from the classic subcultural
ethnographic studies, the pop histories, the personal accounts and the journalistic surveys of the field (12). As scholars undertook work that would celebrate (and
validate) forms of youth style and culture that took James Dean as their spiritual
ancestor, the culture of teenage girls was largely ignored. This led to a situation that
Christine Griffin described as one in which young mens experiences have been
presented as the norm against which young women must be judged (24). Girls
cultural participation was understood to be confined to bedroom cultures of
consumption. Often, girls were associated with the consumption of commodities
centered on the pursuit of heterosexual romance, including the films that starred
daddys girls in the mold of SandraDee.

178 Back to the Fifties

Many feminist critics have challenged the notion of girls as uncritical consumers
of popular culture and highlighted the reading strategies girls develop for the texts
they encounter. Despite that, many cultural studies scholars maintained an uneasy
relationship with girls and their forms of bedroom culture. Even when scholars
attempted to tease out a politics of resistance from girls consumer practices, the
search for autonomous female cultural forms in the bedroom hideaways of teenage
girls has been consistently dogged by nagging doubts as to the creative, productive
and potentially subversive power of this mode of femininity (Carter 110). These
nagging doubts predate feminist cultural studies by decades and point to a hesitancy in twentieth-century feminism to embrace the figure of the girl.
Writing about Sandra Dee and Molly Ringwald (the 1980s performer that in
some ways inherited Dees legacy as Hollywoods teen queen), Christina Lee has
discussed the way that girls in Hollywood cinema are often consigned to the past,
standing in for an impossible vision of social order that had already begun to crack
(96) even when that historical period is over. Lee draws on Roland Barthess concept
of myth, which she defines as the naturalisation of history through the distortion
(not concealment) of the meaning of a sign (95). Dees retrospective Reagan-Era
transformation (or distortion) made her into either the ultimate clean teen or a
tragic victim of the enforced performance of Fifties values. This transformation was
so successful, in fact, that even Lee casts Dees image as a myth of the way things
never really were, ignoring the way that Dees screen output explicitly challenged
traditional models of female sexuality. Clearly, this mythologized version of
Dees star text, and the Fifties social types for which she stands, has gained the status
of official or historical truth in the national popular.
But as Dyer reminds us, star texts are polysemous, incorporating diverse and competing ideological and affective meanings. Nostalgic engagements with Dees films,
or with Dees star text as a whole, is one way of challenging the narratives that have
become dominant. As Lee argues, engagements with popular culture can expand
the possibilities of (re)thinking about the past, and contribute to a collective process that can be described as the social production of memory where everyone is a
potential historian. Cinema provides one such implement for recording (and later
recalling) events that may otherwise be ignored. [] More importantly, it is the
affective threads in cinemaits ability to spark certain corporeal responsesthat
reconnects the past to the present tense (91). In this way, nostalgia can actually
work to correct the historical record, giving future generations access to the feelings of the Fifties, whether those feelings are the anxieties and frustrations of James
Dean, or the rebelliousness and sexuality of SandraDee.


The Futures of Nostalgia

Like their Boomer parents, the Re-Generation has responded to their

middle age by reflecting back on the popular culture of their youth. Since Ibegan
researching this project in 2006, American movie screens have seen the reappearance
of Reagan-Era popular culture in films like Miami Vice (2006), Rocky Balboa (2006),
Live Free or Die Hard (2007), Transformers (2007), Hairspray (2007), Indiana Jones
and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Rambo (2008), Fame (2009), Friday the
13th (2009), The A-Team (2010), The Karate Kid (2010), A Nightmare on Elm Street
(2010), Footloose (2011), Red Dawn (2012), and Robocop (2014), among others. Film
is not the only site of this new pop nostalgia:video streaming sites offer 1980s programming like Cheers, The Facts of Life, and Diffrent Strokes, while Alex Keaton for
President T-shirts abound on websites like Snorgtees.com. Popular culture of the
1970s and 1980s is the focus of online communities like RetroJunk, NostalgiaCritic,
and Perpetual Kid. Not to be left out, cable television channel VH1s contemporary series I Love the Eighties delights in ironic enjoyment of 1980s pop culture.
In popular music, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna have not
only seen resurgences in album sales, but have spawned a series of artists like Justin
Timberlake, The Gaslight Anthem, and Lady Gaga, who compete to claim their
star legacies.
Among political conservatives in the United States, nostalgia for the Reagan Era,
and the myth of Reagan himself, has only intensified since the former presidents

180 Back to the Fifties

death in 2004. Legislative bodies at all levels have appended Reagans name to airports, highways, elementary schools, government buildings, and even mountains,
while proposals have been made to add Reagans image to everything from the
ten-dollar bill to Mount Rushmore. As Gil Troy puts it, a quarter of a century
after Ronald Reagans 1981 inauguration, more than a decade after he withdrew
from public view, and years after his death, Ronald Reagan seemed to be one of
Americas most popular politicians (xii). Indeed, despite the grave challenges facing the countrytwo protracted wars; economic calamity; climate change; public
health and education in decline; and flagging confidence at home and abroad due
to the policies of torture, domestic spying, and corporate deregulationearly in
the 2008 presidential election, candidates seemed to be focused on Reagan above
all else. In January of 2008 the contenders for the Republican nomination held
their final debate at the site of the Reagan Presidential Library, which is also the
former presidents burial place. There the candidates were welcomed by Reagans
widow, were asked whether Reagan would have endorsed them, and desperately
attempted to establish their connections to Saint Ronnie. As Will Bunch points
out, in this debate Reagans image provided the visual backdrop to the proceedings
(in the form of his library and his Air Force One positioned behind the stage),
as well as the conceptual background to the discussion (18). Not to be left out,
Democratic challenger Senator Barack Obama praised Reagan in a 2008 interview, saying that Reagan tapped into what people were already feeling, which was
we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism
and entrepreneurship that had been missing (In Their Own Words). Such signals would seem to suggest that if the Reagan Era did indeed end, many in our
society are currently in the grips of some intense Reagan-Era nostalgia. Reagan
hagiographies have filled bookstores, only to be accompanied by books aiming to
correct the historical record, offering counternarratives of Reagans political and
Perhaps the most interesting illustration of this nostalgic ambivalence of the
Re-Generation comes from the peculiarly named MGM/United Artists release Hot
Tub Time Machine (2010). The film tells the story of Nick (Craig Robinson), Lou
(Rob Corddry), and Adam (John Cusack), three middle-aged friends deeply dissatisfied with their adult lives. Reunited by Lous attempted suicide, the three friends
seek to recapture their glory days on a weekend vacation to their old stomping
grounds, the Kodiak Valley Ski Resort with Adams latchkey nephew Jacob (Clark
Duke) intow.
Although it is never mentioned by name, Back to the Future is a crucial intertext
for Hot Tub Time Machine. The conceit of unintentional time travel facilitated by a
time machine built into a consumer device is pure Zemeckis (early drafts of the Back

Epilogue:The Future of Nostalgia 181

to the Future script had Doc Brown build a time machine out of a refrigerator). The
film also features several direct allusions to Back to the Futurethe scene in which
the group realizes they are in the 1980s is a parallel to the Hill Valley town square
scene, right down to the isolation of a Reagan image at the moment of the protagonists realization of their predicament. Just as Marty begins to disappear when his
intervention into the past threatens his existence, Jacob begins to flicker and fade
after the group begins to alter history. Additionally, Nick gets to invent a new
musical form in a scene similar to the Johnny B.Goode performance in Back to the
Future. Even the original George McFly, Crispin Glover, appears as a bellhop in the
before and after versions of Kodiak Valley. Most tellingly, Hot Tub Time Machines
heroes can only resolve their present-day regrets by returning to a crucial moment
in the past. This might suggest that for contemporary America, the Reagan Era has
become the new Fifties.
However, the protagonists responses to their time travel speak to the tension
between retro and nostalgia, as well as the vexed relationship contemporary America
has with the Reagan Era. Jacob, representative of the audience of Millenials who were
not even alive during Reagans first term, responds to 1986 with a mixture of confusion (at the lack of wireless Internet) and abject horror (at his mothers cocaine use).
Lou and Nick enthusiastically enjoy the opportunity to recapture their youthLou
by engaging in hedonistic sex and drug use, Nick in renewing his passion for music.
Adam, in contrast, has no interest in giving the Reagan Era a second chance. Im
trapped in the Eighties and Ihate this fucking decade, he tells his companions,
adding, We had Reagan and AIDS, thats it! Lets get the fuck out ofhere!

Back to the eighties in Hot Tub Time Machine.

182 Back to the Fifties

Adams rejection of Reagan-Era nostalgia is particularly meaningful coming from

the mouth of Cusack, as he made his career on the teen comedies that Hot Tub Time
Machine so often references:the ski resort itself, for example, recalls the setting of
Cusacks Better Off Dead (1985), and the film makes several satirical references to
Cusacks 1980s films. In press for Hot Tub Time Machine, Cusack distanced himself
from any longing for the Reagan Era that might be ascribed to the film:I hoped
that Iwould be out of the 80s in 2010 Ididnt have a very nostalgic view of
the 80s. They frightened me, and Iremain in fear (Itzkoff, I Loathe the 80s).
Cusack also drew irate coverage from conservative news outlets after saying that
his memory of the 1980s was of a kind of forced Prozac happy-time without the
Prozac, and there was this militant patriotism, nationalism, faux spirituality to it.
Ilook back on it as an intense, dark decade (Patterson 17). Though Cusacks 1980s
star text always included a strain of punk subcultural resistance, interviewers on
Access Hollywood appeared shocked to hear him say that he has no nostalgia for the
1980s, or that he has no particular affinity for the films of John Hughes. Cusacks
resistance to 1980s nostalgia in promoting Hot Tub Time Machine prompts viewers
to engage with his film with a similarly criticaleye.
The characters response to the Reagan Eraironic amusement, emotional reconciliation, and political rejectionrepresent a range of responses to pop nostalgia that do not simply lionize the conditions of a bygone era. ANewYork Times
review points out that while Nick, Lou and Adam are miserable in 2010 one
thing that becomes clear pretty quickly is that they werent all that happy in 1986
either (Scott). For Scott, and other reviewers, the enduring message of Hot Tub
Time Machine is that there were no happy days or wonder years, no simpler times
to which we may return. In this way, Hot Tub Time Machine reframes and rewrites
Back to the Future, producing new meanings for the film and the nostalgic vision
of American progress that it offers. However, we must bear in mind that a staunch
anti-nostalgia of the sort Cusack endorses enacts the very kinds of historical transformations that the critics of nostalgia lament.
Those that share Cusacks political or cultural outlook may wish to reject instances
of pop nostalgia that lionize the social or political order of the Reagan Era, but if the
supposed problem with nostalgia is the simplification and erasure of history, then
surely the rejection of nostalgic impulses can cause the same issues. There was much
more to the politics of the period than Reagan and AIDS, and much more to the
culture than John Hughes films and novelty pop music. The years 19731988 saw
the development of post-punk and hip-hop; demonstrations against nuclear proliferation and the wage gap; the emergence of filmmakers like Joel and Ethan Coen,
Amy Heckerling, David Lynch, and Spike Lee; and the formation of organizations
like Greenpeace, Food Not Bombs, and ACT UP. As Bradford Martin outlines

Epilogue:The Future of Nostalgia 183

in The Other Eighties, there were many organizations, institutions, and individuals
who worked against the dominant trends of Reagan Era society, and to fail to tell
their story would be to obscure the value of their commitment, their diligent labors,
and their painstaking toil at times when the outlook appeared bleak for those who
shared their values(192).
The purpose of this book has been to challenge dismissive attitudes toward the
social and political value of nostalgia, and to complicate reductive notions of the
cultural and aesthetic value of pop music and Hollywood films of the Reagan Era.
That does not mean lionizing nostalgia or glossing over some of the developments in
American political and cultural life from 1973 to 1988 that merit rigorous critique.
But it does mean thinkingreally thinkingabout how cultural attitudes toward
the past structure our engagements with the present, and how the historical conditions of the present structure our affective engagements with thepast.
In this book, I have attempted to contribute to a reconsideration of our existing, and too often limited, conceptualizations of nostalgia. I have tried to show
the various and sometimes contradictory ways that pop nostalgia operated in the
ReaganEra, because Ibelieve this period is both underexamined by media studies
scholars and enormously influential on our current political and social debates. But
it is important to say, by way of closing, that the assessments and analyses Ioffer here
may not apply to the future (or futures?) of nostalgia.
When Johannes Hofer first diagnosed nostalgia in the late seventeenth century,
his subjects were living through a period of significant political, social, and technological changes that radically reoriented humans relationships with the spatial
concept of home. This is to say, specifically, that the nature of nostalgic affect
is always framed by the specific historical conditions from which it emerges. The
years 19731988 saw radical transformations in media technologies (audio cassette
decks, VCRs), media distribution methods (cable television, VHS, record reissues),
and creative practices (sampling in hip-hop, bricolage in punk subculture). The existence of the rewind, reset, and record buttons on Camcorders and Walkmans, in
other words, were more than technological features on consumer electronicsthey
represented transformations in the concept of time. As a result, members of the
Re-Generation experienced new forms of nostalgic affect, forms that brought with
them new aesthetic and political functions for nostalgia.
As new representational practices, industrial strategies, and technological features emerge in popular culture, so too will emerge new forms of pop nostalgia.
This sort of retrospective revisioning is not only the privilege of major media conglomerates. The mashup video Brokeback to the Future, produced by the Emerson
College comedy troupe Chocolate Cake City in 2005, represents the way that the
retrospective and referential practices and principles of the Re-Generation have

184 Back to the Fifties

been adapted for what Henry Jenkins calls participatory culture. Online communities like YouTube have fostered an environment in which film and media can be
recontextualized and reformulated in ways never intendedor even imaginedby
their producers. Though this new participatory culture has its roots in practices
that have occurred just below the radar of the media industry throughout the twentieth century, Jenkins argues, the Web has pushed that hidden layer of cultural
activity into the foreground, forcing the media industries to confront its implications (Convergence Culture 137). To put the increasing cultural relevance of viral
video into perspective, consider that Brokeback to the Future has received over six
million hits on YouTuberoughly the same number of viewers who paid to see Hot
Tub Time Machine in theaters.
The videos formal qualities suggest a more complex relationship with its source
texts than might be expected from an online trailer spoof. Brokeback to the Future
intersperses footage from Back to the Future (along with 1990 Old West sequel, Back
to the Future Part III) and title cards underscored by Gustavo Santaolallas plaintive
guitar theme from Brokeback Mountain (2005). The music, titles, and pacing of the
mashup all approximate the form of the original Brokeback Mountain trailer, and
the spoof trailer relies on viewers to have a fairly intimate knowledge of Brokebacks
narrative in order to fully appreciate its humor. While the mashup is clearly played
for laughs, it opens up new interpretive possibilities for both films. Seen in the light
of Back to the Future, Brokeback becomes legible as a parallel narrative of two men
traveling through time from the Fifties to the Reagan Eraa story for which the
Hill Valley version of history simply does not allow. The scenes and images from
Back to the Future that the video employs often, in this new context, suggest connections to iconic moments from the 2005film.
As opposed to the appropriations of found footage by avant-garde artists of the
1970s, who sought to disrupt the grammar and syntax of dominant filmic codes,
trailer remixes like Brokeback to the Future remain formally close to the texts that
they appropriate. Cinematic language and narrative structure are only rarely the site
of transformation in the works of digital remixersinstead these elements are replicated and the content, context and meaning become the site of revision (Horwatt93).
As Hot Tub Time Machine borrows scenes from Back to the Future while simultaneously inflecting them with different affective power, so too does Brokeback to the
Future cast images from the 1985 time travel film in a wholly newlight.
Mashups and other forms of digital remixing hold out the promise for new
methods of revision and critique for media consumers and audiences, allowing for
what Eli Horwatt calls the possibility of bottom-up media distribution and an
open dialogue between individuals and an increasingly concentrated mass media
machine(89). While the critical potential of fan remixes is easy to overstate, they

Epilogue:The Future of Nostalgia 185

The mashup video Brokeback to the Future (left) visually recalls iconic images from Brokeback
Mountain (right).

do at least signal that audiences take pleasure in recognizing the constructed-ness

of media narratives, and harbor enthusiasm for the prospect of investing old texts
with new meanings. In his earlier work on fandom, Jenkins argues that practices
like online mashups allow fans to actively struggle with and against the meanings
imposed upon them by their borrowed materials (Textual Poachers 33). Clearly,
Brokeback to the Future restructures Back to the Future in order to highlight
the erotic tension in the Marty/Doc relationship. The enjoyment in lampooning
their homosocial relationship comes not just from the videos skillful editing but
also from the notion that any Hollywood narrative can be made queer with a light
nudge and some very cheap technology (Clover and Nealon 63). For a generation
of Millennials accustomed to cultural practices of remix, mashup, viral distribution, and crowd financing, these practices can be applied beyond slash fiction, and
become more generalized cultural and aesthetic principles.
Remixes like Brokeback to the Future do not simply alter our understanding of
its source texts; they open up new interpretations and reading practices for the genres
or eras from which the originals emerged. Additionally, remixes leave a record of
their revisions that can be found by anyone searching for clips of Back to the Future
or Brokeback Mountain, positioning themselves as adjacent texts for new viewers.
YouTube, in other words, becomes an unstable but highly participatory public
archive that introduces a new model of media access and amateur historiography
(Hilderbrand 54)and invites exploration of the archive, contested notions of public memory, and debates over the meaning of the past (Uricchio 36). By aligning the
Fifties-to-Eighties relationship of Doc and Marty to the Fifties-to-Eighties relationship of Brokebacks Ennis and Jack, the Brokeback to the Future draws attention
to subtexts that readers could tease out of Back to the Futures vision of the Fifties.
In this way, fans and remixers participate in a form of do-it-yourself historiography,
assigning and revising meanings that are attached to the Fifties, the Reagan Era, or
any other period that is contingent upon their historical moment, and collectively
developing cultural memories of the way wewere.


1. Scholars have begun to re-examine functions of nostalgia that extend beyond Jamesons
characterization of it in Postmodernism. Linda Hutcheon famously sparred with Jameson
over his characterization of postmodernist aesthetics as fundamentally ahistorical, resulting
in a debate that largely defined the critical conversation on nostalgia throughout the 1990s.
However, as Christine Sprengler points out, this discussion did not significantly reconceptualize the nature of nostalgia itself. Rather, their discussion hinged on what particular forms
should nor should not be included in the reviled category of nostalgia. The possibility for nostalgia to function in a more complicated historical way was, in many ways, foreclosed by the
terms of debate between Jameson and Hutcheon. These limits have been a feature in much of the
(often valuable) subsequent work on nostalgia by scholarly like David Lowenthal (1980), George
Lipsitz (1990), Leslie Speed (1998), and David Shumway (1999). In this body of work, the nostalgia film is seriously investigated, but the essential understanding of nostalgia as inherently
retrograde remains relatively stable. Some more recent work has begun a critical reconsideration
of the function of nostalgia, as the scholarship of Paul Grainge (2002), Svetlana Boym (2002),
Vera Dika (2003), Marcus (2004), Caputi (2005), and Sprengler (2009). Grainge and Boym,
under the influence of trauma and memory studies, began to reconsider the role of nostalgia in
the definition of a societys historical consciousness. Both sought to distinguish between varying types of nostalgia. Boym describes restorative nostalgia as that which advocates a return to
a prior order, and reflective nostalgia as a rumination upon times gone by. Grainge separates
the nostalgia mode (a visual style) from the nostalgia mood (the emotional impact) in an
analysis of how cultural memory is often assembled through circulation of established aesthetic
tropes. Grainge and Boyms work informs Caputi, who analyzes Fifties nostalgia as a symptom

188 Notes
of late twentieth-century social melancholia and in terms of its influence across the political
spectrum in the United States. Somewhat similarly, Marcus examines the often competing
political uses that nostalgia has served since the 1970s, but does little to interrogate the nature
of nostalgia itself. Dika and Springler explore the relationship between codes of representation
designed to evoke nostalgia and the crucial potentials of affective audience responses. Back to the
Fifties is indebted to all of these works, and more. But it differs in its specific focus on the historical and cultural context that shaped Fifties nostalgia in the Reagan Era, as well as its location
of nostalgia outside the realm of texts and within the networks of text, audience, and broader
sociopolitical context.
2. It is not my intention, in making this distinction, to dismiss retro out of hand but only to
say that it is a separate phenomenon from nostalgia. For more on retro and its cultural implications, see Elizabeth Guffeys Retro:The Culture of Revival.
3. By the New Right, Imean the conservative political coalition of old-guard anticommunists influenced by William F. Buckley, populist conservatives inspired by Barry Goldwater,
free-market advocates in the tradition of the Heritage Foundation, and religious conservatives
energized by groups like the Christian Voice and Jerry Falwells Moral Majority that rose to
immense power in the United States through the 1970s and1980s.
4. Bradford Martins The Other Eighties:ASecret History of America in the Age of Reagan is an
invaluable resource that provides an overview for many social, cultural, and political movements
that are elided by an over-emphasis on Reagan and Reaganism in American cultural history and
popular memory.
5. Jonathan Gray, in his book Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media
Paratexts, argues for the centrality of what heborrowing a term from Gerard Genettecalls
paratexts to off-screen media studies. As Iargue in Back to the Fifties that the nostalgic affect
generated from our engagement with popular culture is shaped by extra-textual and contextual factors, Grays work (along with that from Barbara Klinger, Henry Jenkins, and Katheryn
Wright) serves as an important influence. However, Idont find the term paratext to be altogether satisfactory for describing the types of intertextual relationships Iam interested in exploring. In Show Sold Separately, Gray focuses largely on professional and promotional materials (as
the subtitle of his book illustrates), whereas the adjacent texts I am interested in (political
speeches, radio formats, star texts, unrelated music videos, etc.) are often not officially affiliated with the texts with which they come in contact. While the Greek prefix para-does literally
translate to beside or next to, in practice in US English it suggests, to me at least, a more or
less natural or designed relationship between objects (as in parasite or paralegal). This generally
aligns with the metaphor of the paratext as airlock that Gray cites from Genette. While this
is a useful concept for certain kinds of intertextual relationships (with album packaging, film
trailers, official or unofficial merchandise, etc.), Iam often more interested in the ongoing cultural process of positioning or arranging unrelated texts than Iam in the pre-designed passageways or thresholds prepared for films or pop music. Iam interested in the ways that certain
texts (and the nostalgic affects that they might prompt) are placed into relationships with others
(so that, for example, the values and discourses of Golden Oldies are read onto the star text of
Buddy Holly retrospectively, or the way that Stand By Me might generate new nostalgic meanings for American Graffiti). In this respect Ifind the spatial and relational qualities suggested by
the term adjacent text more appropriate for mystudy.

Notes 189

6. See R.Serge Denisoff and George Plasketes, Synergy in 1980s Film and Music:Formula
for Success or Industry Mythology?
7. Popular music scholars, perhaps more than film scholars, have acknowledged the multiplicity of ends that nostalgia can be directed toward, and accounted for the complexity of motivations for the increasing importance of nostalgia to media industries, from the commercial
imperative to move back-catalogue properties to the place of media consumption in our psychosocial development. Much of this research has been valuable to me in the writing of this book.
Robert Snyders Music and Memory, and Schulkind, Hennis, and Rubins Music, Emotion, and
Autobiographical Memory focus on the cognitive relations between music and psycho-social
processes of remembering. Tia DeNora (Music in Everyday Life), Jos van Dijck (Remembering
Songs through Telling Stories), and Simon Frith (Music and Identity) focus on the role of
nostalgia in identity formation, centering their analysis on the individual or group forms of
nostalgia and (in van Dijcks case) the aggregation of those narratives of personal memory
to form collective nostalgic experiences. Valuable work by scholars like William Howland
Kenney (Recorded Music in American Life) and Michael Bull ( Auditory Nostalgia) consider
broad-ranging cultural trends but focus specifically on the role of recording and listening technologies in the formation of cultural memory. Back to the Fifties differs from these investigations
not only in its broad-ranging scale (focusing on pop nostalgia rather than individual or subcultural memory) but also its investigation of the interrelation of the recording and film industries.
8. Throughout this book, I use the adjective Black rather than African-American, of
color, or minority. Ihave chosen to use this adjective in an attempt for precision, specificity, and inclusion. In using the term Black, Iam referring to the culture and traditions of a
specific subset of structurally marginalized people and cultures that is distinct from, though
of course not unrelated to, other racialized populations (among others:Native, indigenous, or
First peoples; South Asians, Hispanic, or Latin populations) in Western society. Though this
sense of Blackness is of course enormously influenced by the legacies of chattel slavery in the
United States, it exceeds racial identity or ethnic heritage and does not perfectly align with
African ancestry (Africa being a diverse and complicated place). By the same token, Imean to
include elements of cultural identity and traditions that are shared across the Caribbean, the
United Kingdom, and elsewheresomething that is not literally acknowledged in the term
African-American. Icapitalize the term Black in order to distinguish the sense of cultural
identity and belonging from a description of colorMichael Jackson was always Black, even
after his skin color lightened. Ido not capitalize the term white because, as scholars like Ian
Haney Lopez have elucidated, whiteness does not operate as a coherent cultural identity so
much as a legal construction or presumed norm. Of course, one must always be cognizant and
respectful of the preferences and rationales of individuals who may, for their own reasons, prefer
terms like African-American or person of color to describe them or their cultural identity.
My use of the term Black for the purposes of identifying broad cultural phenomena in this
particular book makes no claim for its universal applicability or propriety.
1. Back to the Future does to some small extent acknowledge that racism existed in the 1950s.
In one scene a shop owner scoffs at the notion of a colored mayor, while in another scene a
teenaged tough uses a racial slur. But these scenes are largely played for laughs, and the violent

190 Notes
realities of structural racism are avoided. Similarly, though Lorraine does exhibit sexual agency
in the films Fifties depictions, the films representations of her in the 1980s portray her youthful
sexuality as a vice, and the film certainly allows no space for exploring feminism as a collective
political movement.
2. See Garry Wills, Reagans America 231; Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a
Lifetime 8; Alan Nadel, Flatlining on the Field of Dreams8.
3. The value of active masculinity, and the anxieties over asserting it, repeatedly appears in
Back to the Future, as well as its sequels and spin-offs. Marty is continually accused of being
chicken or yellow, and his compulsion to refute those accusations both evidences his anxiety
over the passivity he detects in his father and (in the sequels, at least) illustrates the destructive
potentials of living with the constant need to prove onesself.
4. For more on the McFlys and Back to the Futures treatment of economic class, see Elizabeth
McCarthy, Back to the Fifties!
5. See Lance Morrow, Yankee Doodle Magic.
6. See Kenneth Holden, Making of the Great Communicator, and J. Hoberman, Vulgar
7. The alignment of Reagan with Fifties ideas is a point that comes up in Reagan scholarship
and commentary from across the political and methodological spectrum. See James Combs,
The Reagan Range; Daniel Marcus, Happy Days and Wonder Years; Jim Mann, The Rebellion of
Ronald Reagan; Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan:The Movie; David Sirota, Back to Our Future;
and Gil Troy, The Reagan Revolution.
8. Pun intended!
9. Graham Thompson points to this imperfect rendering of Hill Valley 1955 as a kind of resistance to the New Rights idealization of the Fifties (105). In my view, however, Back to the Future
isnt so much critiquing the neoconservative forms of pop nostalgia as it is reproducing them.
Neoconservatives of the Reagan Era fully understood that the 1950s were not perfectthat is
why the Fifties, as a symbol, was so valuableit represented a perfected version of a historical
period that could be rhetorically mobilized in contemporary debates.
10. There are a few historical inaccuracies in this scene. The Honeymooners episode in question
actually aired on December 31, 1955, not November 5, 1955, the day Marty travels back in time. In
addition, the practice of rerunning shows was already established by 1955. With all that said, the
notion of the Fifties on which the film relies has, as Ive argued, little to do with the historical
realities of 1955 and more to do with the historical perspective of the era that produced thefilm.
11. Martys band in 1985, The Pinheads, play in a hard rock/heavy-metal style reminiscent of
early 1980s Van Halen, with synth keyboards backing frenetic electric guitar solos. The band is
thus both of the moment and perhaps a bit ahead of its time in mainstream Reagan-Era society. This is suggested by the scene when Marty and the band audition for the school talent show.
The judge (played by mainstream pop-rock star Huey Lewis, who also lent a hit song to the films
soundtrack) tells The Pinheads, Im sorry, Im afraid youre just tooloud.
1. This interview is, for the moment, available on the web at https://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=FNsPt5T4aZE. Historian Daniel McClures analysis of the interview offers valuable insight on the cultural politics of the era. See McClure, Daniel R. Have You Understood

Notes 191

Anything Ive Said?: The Dick Cavett Show, Jimi Hendrix, and the Framing of the Black
Counterculture in 1969. The Sixties 5, no. 1 (June 2012):2346.
2. See Junker, Howard. The Fifties. Rolling Stone 18 Oct. 1969:2426; The Nifty Fifties.
Life 18 June 1972:3851; Rodgers, Jonathan. Back to the 50s. Newsweek 16 Oct. 1972:7882.
3. Staiger, Janet. Interpreting Films. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press, 1992; Klinger,
Barbara. Film History Terminable and Interminable: Recovering the Past in Reception
Studies. Screen 38, no. 2 (1997):10728.
4. Happy Days is probably the most famous pop-culture product to come in American
Graffitis wake. The ABC sitcom focuses on the life of clean-cut suburban teenager Richie
Cunningham (Ron Howard) and (increasingly, as the show evolved) local greaser Arthur
The Fonz Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler). Though there was no official connection between
American Graffiti and Happy Days, they were immediately understood as part of the same
cultural phenomenon. ABC promoted the series as an effort to recapture those bygone,
happy, innocent days, but as Marcus points out, critics werent buying it. The New York
Times called it a dishonest product of the duplication factory (OConnor 79)and Time
similarly called it an American Graffiti rip-off with none of the sensitivity and sensibility that made the film memorable (Schickel). The similarity between the film and television show was impossible to ignorebeyond sharing the same star (Howard), they had an
almost identical title sequence, with neon sign-style title cards and the same theme song (Bill
Haley and his Comets Rock Around the Clock). Despite the harsh critical reception, the
series soon became a breakout hit that helped ABC gain ground on its network competitors.
Happy Days reveled in the imagery of an emergent youth culture simultaneously invoked and
sanitized in the image of The Fonz, always contained within the safe, patriarchal familial structure of the Cunningham household. As Marcus argues, Happy Days presages the
revaluation of Fifties family life that would mark conservative rhetoric in ensuing decades
(25). But Happy Days and American Graffiti are wholly different projects, and the conflation
between the two (as happens so often in the wholesale rejection of pop nostalgia) is both
reductive and misleading.
5. See Maltby, 2144, andWyatt.
6. For more on border blaster stations and their influence on American broadcasting and
American popular music, see Fowler, Gene. Border Radio:Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics,
and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves. Revised edition. Austin:University
of Texas Press,2002.
1. For a fuller understanding of the structure and operation of the music industry in the twentieth century, the work of Simon Frith is invaluable. His essay The Industrialization of Music
in Music for Pleasure (NewYork:Routledge, 1988)is as good a starting point as any to understand the production and distribution of popular music in the last century.
2. Despite punk rocks reputation of being dismissive or disinterested in the past, The
Ramones at least rather consistently mined the history of rock and roll in the 1950s and early
1960s. See Jason Hellers The Ramones Pirated the Past. Many punk rockers, from the 1970s
to today, have also embraced rockabilly; 50s greaser iconography; figures like Bettie Page; and
artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Del Shannon.

192 Notes
3. Later in the song, Seger insists that he wont go to hear em play a Tango, which is likely
yet another reference to/rejection of discothe tango hustle was prominently featured in
Saturday Night Fever, and as a result was probably the most famous bit of disco choreography
in theworld.
4. The disco backlash reached a fever pitch in Chicago in 1979, when a radio station promotion called Disco Demolition Night cooked up by WLUP-FM DJ Steve Dahl resulted in a
full-scale riot. Dahl had lost his previous job as a DJ at WDAI when his Rude Awakening
morning show scored low ratings, and the station converted to a disco format. Dahl responded
by declaring war on disco, organizing a group of listeners into the Insane Coho Lips Anti-Disco
Army and releasing a parody song, Do Ya Think Im Disco?, that briefly charted in Billboard
after receiving some national airplay. Dahls Disco Demolition Night, staged during a Chicago
White Sox doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers, became infamous. The event drew over ninety
thousand fans to Comiskey Park, which only held fifty thousand spectators. Thousands of fans
scaled fences to enter the stadium after the gates were closed, and police shut down ramps on the
Dan Ryan Expressway to prevent more fans from entering. When Dahl exploded a crate full of
disco records between the games, fans stormed the field, setting fires, destroying more records,
tearing down the batting cages, and brawling with riot police, all while incessantly chanting
disco sucks. See Behrens, Disco Demolition:Bell-Bottoms Be Gone!, and LaPointe, The
Night Disco Went Up in Smoke.
5. Since writing this chapter, Ihave discovered Osvaldo Oyolas essay Aint Got the Same
Soul, which makes similar observations regarding the connections between Seger, disco, masculinity, and Risky Business, though it is largely dismissive of the discourses of nostalgia that
Ifind most interesting in these connections. Oyola distinguishes between the listening practices
articulated in the song (at the disco or sitting at home) and claims that in response to the threat
of disco, Seger performs a kind of racial erasure (a point on which Iwould mostly agree) and
strips [rock] of its sex, which Iwould dispute. To my mind, Segers song isnt eradicating sex in
popular music so much as he is straightening ithes claiming the authenticity, sexual power,
and cultural relevance of the Fifties blues or rock star for the Heartland whitemale.
6. For more on the connections and divergences between karaoke and ventriloquism, see Kessler,
Sarah, and Karen Tongson. Karaoke and Ventriloquism:Echoes and Divergences. Sounding
7. The TRAX name is almost certainly a reference to Wax Trax!, a Chicago record store and
recording label that gained national influence in new wave, punk, and industrial music. Wax
Trax! released music by Brian Eno, Strike Under, KMFDM, Ministry, and My Life with the
Thrill Kill Kult, among others.
8. The sense of vulnerability is important to this scene, as Sams singalong puts him in mortal danger. The volume of the music prevents him from noticing that his partially vampirized
brother is looming outside the door and is ready to pounce. Sams vulnerability is underscored
by his childish ignorance, his nudity, and the fact that he is home alone (he aint got noone!).
9. This was not the original intention of the filmmakers, howeverthe original script had
Motown hits in the place of Belafontesmusic.
10. Belafontes star text is, of course, missed by the Deetz family entirely. Belafonte was not
only an activist and advocate for anti-racist causes in the United States. He posted the bail
for Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. that allowed his release from a Birmingham jail, spoke at the

Notes 193

March on Washington in 1963, and financially supported the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee, but he was also active in anti-colonialist and humanitarian efforts in the Caribbean
and Africa. In fact, his participation in USA for Africa (the organization responsible for We are
the World) and his anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s landed him back on EMI, which likely
influenced his appearance on the Beetlejuice soundtrack. Not just a novelty artist,he.
11. One might argue that this transformation began much earlier than Blue Velvet (Kenneth
Angers 1963 short Scorpio Rising featured the song), and continued long after the film (Lana
Del Rey released a cover of the song as part of an H&M ad campaign in 2012). Still, Lynchs film
made Blue Velvet central to its narrative and popular image, and as a Hollywood feature that
has firmly established itself in the critical and academic canon it registers more broadly than
Angers piece of art cinema.
1. For more on crossover, see the section To Cross Over or Not to Cross Over in The Pop,
Rock, and Soul Reader, 38894.
2. To be sure, music videos existed before MTV. Television shows that featured music videos before MTV include the BBCs Top of the Pops, the Australian Broadcasting Companys
Countdown, USA Networks Video Concert Hall, and Nickelodeons PopClips. For more background on the history of music video before MTV, see Denisoff, Tarnished Gold and Inside
MTV. Still, it cannot be disputed that MTV fundamentally transformed the cultural status and
industrial function of music videos.
3. Henceforth I default to using the surname Jackson to refer to the performer Michael
Jackson, except in cases when Ineed to distinguish him from his immediate family members
and use his full name. Iuse the first name Michael only to refer to the characters he plays in
the music videos for Thriller and Smooth Criminal.
4. To be clear, Iam not claiming that race in and of itself directly determined any individual
viewers reading of Jacksons music videos, but rather that, to the extent that demographic categories like race became central to the marketing and development strategies of the recording and
broadcasting industries, Jacksons videos were strategically designed and packaged to make distinct but simultaneous appeals to audiences defined by racialized categories like Rock, Pop,
Disco, R&B, etc. To paraphrase the King of Pop, when youre talking about pop music, it
does matter if youre Black orwhite.
5. See, for example, Michael Awkward A Slave to the Rhythm; Susan Fast Michael
Jacksons Queer Musical Belongings; Victoria Johnson The Politics of Morphing; Sylvia
Martin Moonwalking Between Contradictions; Kobena Mercer Monster Metaphors:Notes
on Michael Jacksons Thriller; and Michele Wallace Michael Jackson, Black Modernisms,
and The Ecstasy of Communication.
6. There are many valuable histories of the rise of free-form and progressive radio on FM:Susan
J.Douglass Listening In, Mark Fishers Something in the Air, Michael C.Keiths Voices in the
Purple Haze, and Jesse Walkers Rebels on the Air. All informed my thinking in this chapter.
7. Denisoffs book is heavily referenced in this chapter, but its influence on my writing goes
beyond the direct citationsthe story chronicled in Inside MTV was a guide in my investigation into the trade and popular press coverage of the founding of MTV, and informed my thinking in this chapter as awhole.

194 Notes
8. In fairness, the videos werent entirely free to MTV, as they needed to pay processing fees
for each video to prepare it for television broadcast, as well as expend the labor to cut and identify each one. But the costs were minimal, especially compared to the costs of actually producing
the video. See Denisoff, Inside MTV,37.
9. Jackson consistently used the cinematic term short film rather than the MTV term
music video after Thriller.
10. This interview is excerpted in Spike Lees 2013 documentary Bad25.
1. The artist now known as John Mellencamp used the stage names Johnny Cougar for
his debut album Chestnut Street Incident (1976), John Cougar from 1977 to 1982, and John
Cougar Mellencamp from 1983 to 1990, finally eschewing the Cougar with the 1991 album
Whenever We Wanted. In this chapter, Iuse the name John Mellencamp to refer to the artist
over the scope of his career, and the name John Cougar to specifically refer to his star text from
1977 to1982.
2. See Murray Pomerances Stark Performance for an extended discussion of the relevance
of the chickie runs staging.
3. Mens gymnastics experienced a renaissance in the United States after the 1984 Summer
Olympics in Los Angeles. With the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East
Germany all boycotting, American men won a bevy of medals, several gold. Four years later,
with the Soviets, East Germans, and Hungarians back in the competition, the US men won
no medals.
4. Im using queer to signal what Alex Doty calls all aspects of non- (anti-, contra-) straight
cultural production and reception (3)in his book Making Things PerfectlyQueer.
5. In fact, in preparation for his 1995 Boxers tour, Morrissey commissioned a series of photographs of himself at the Griffith Observatory in Hollywood, where pivotal scenes of Rebel
were filmed. Again, these photos recreated famous images with Morrissey in place of Dean. The
images were reproduced on T-shirts, posters, and promotional materials for thetour.
6. It is unclear whether Dees actual birth year was 1942 (as it is listed on her gravestone,
studio contracts, government documents, and personal interviews up until 1991), or 1944, as
her son Dodd claims in his 1994 book Dream Lovers and Dee herself intimated in a televised
interview with Sally Jesse Raphael in1991.

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Abrams, Lee: 118119, 123,126

adjacent texts: 12, 1415, 45, 79, 185,188n5
Adventures in Babysitting: 16, 92, 9496,103
affiliating identifications: 91, 95,100
Aint Got No Home (Clarence Frogman
Henry song):9394
album-oriented rock (AOR): 113, 118124,
126127, 131,136
All Summer Long (Beach Boys song):76
American Graffiti: 3, 11, 15, 5179, 83, 103104,
110, 188n5,191n4
association with blockbusters: 5253,5657,
association with New Hollywood: 51, 55,57,
making of:5859,
original reception: 5960,6264
pastiche in: 51,7174
soundtrack: 6465, 7779,83,
theatrical poster:6667
video packaging:6971
American Pie (Don MacLean song):3,50
American Werewolf in London: 128,131
American Zoetrope: 15,5758
AM radio: 82,118
Anderson, Martin:2829
Animal House: 85,131

Astaire, Fred: 143146

At the Hop (Danny & the Juniors
authenticity: 17, 8788, 95, 99, 129, 133134,
138142, 145, 148, 149, 152153, 157,
The B-52s:11
baby boomers: 13, 20, 37, 56, 86, 91, 160,179
Back to the Future: 3, 7, 1415, 50, 51, 52,
68, 69, 109, 169, 189n1, 190n2, 190n3,
and the cultural fantasy of returning to the
and the double fixing of the Fifties:
and the dystopian 1980s:3738
music in: 19, 23, 4041, 79, 86,181
and Re-Generation superiority:3841
re-mixed as Brokeback to the Future:
Bacon, Kevin: 149, 151, 153, 154,155
Bad (album): 113, 136, 139, 140, 141,142
Bad (song): 139, 140,145
The Band Wagon: 16, 143, 144, 145,146
Bates, Toby Glenn: 29,3334

212 Index
Baxter-Birney, Meredith:3637
The Beach Boys:73,76
The Beastie Boys:164
Beat It: 126, 128,142
Beatles, The: 73, 79, 84, 95, 97,138
Beetlejuice: 16, 92, 9596, 98,192n10
Belafonte, Harry: 96, 192n9,192n10
Benson-Allott, Caetlin: 109110
Berry, Chuck: 4041, 50, 79,123
era in Hollywood: 15, 5253, 5557,164,
in popular music: 113,124
Blue Velvet (film): 3, 1112, 16, 98103, 107,
Blue Velvet (Bobby Vinton song): 12, 100103
Body Heat: 21,140
Bonnie and Clyde:51,57
border blaster radio stations: 65, 70,191
Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Gottfried
Helnwein artwork): 12,148
Brackett, David: 112, 125126
Branca, John: 128,135
Brando, Marlon: 149, 156,163
Brokeback to the Future (mashup video): 17,
Brown, James: 107, 124125, 127, 130, 135,
Buckley, William F.: 31, 36,188n3
Buddy Dean Show, The: 103, 109,131
Buddy Holly Story, The: 85,147
Burkhart, Kent: 118119
cable television: 3, 12, 16, 65, 78, 83, 118, 120123,
146147, 153, 179,183
Cannon, Lou: 29,190n2
Caputi, Mary: 3, 5,187n1
Cateforis, Theo: 88, 93,119
Cattle Queen of Montana:2324
Cavett, Dick: 47,190n1
CBS Records: 112113, 120, 122, 124129,140
Charles, Ray: 97,107
Chedwick, Porky:82,97
Chitlin Circuit: 124125
Christgau, Robert: 128,136
Civil Rights movements: 4, 8, 21, 29, 3435, 63,
104, 106,109
Clash, The: 11,147

Clift, Montgomery:147
Cohan, Steven: 145,154
Columbia Records: 81,113
Coppola, Francis Ford:5758
Counterculture: 3, 29, 47, 49, 58, 75, 117118,156
critical signification: 16, 116, 127, 131, 137,
crossover (radio strategy): 112, 11317, 125, 126,
127, 129, 134, 136139, 144,146
Cruise, Tom:8990
Cusack, John: 180182
Daley, Mike:4647
Daniel, Jeffrey:142
Darin, Bobby: 82, 170,174
Davis, Fred:6,51
Davis Jr., Sammy: 142,144
Day-O (Harry Belafonte song):96
Dean, James: 1617, 147169, 170, 173,
Deanager: 148, 153162
DeAngelis, Michael: 156, 163, 165, 167,169
Dee, Sandra: 1617, 147170, 173, 177178,194
Denisoff, R.Serge: 78, 120123, 126, 189n6,
193n2, 193n7,194n8
Depp, Johnny:153
Dika, Vera: 13, 37,187n1
Dillon, Matt:153
Diner: 3, 85,153
Dirty Dancing:3
disco: 15, 80, 8889, 97, 113, 116, 120, 125, 130,
192n3, 192n4, 192n5,193n4
Donahue, Tom: 118119
doo-wop: 3, 3940,64,82
double fixing: 1415, 2223, 27, 3435, 4243,
55, 63, 98, 102103, 109,162
Dreyfuss, Richard:52,54
Drucker, Mort:6667
Dyer, Richard: 5152, 7172, 74, 134, 152,
Earth Angel (The Penguins song):39
East of Eden: 149, 152,163
Ebert, Roger:6364
Echols, Alice:88
Family Ties: 23, 3637,179
Fast, Susan: 125,193n5
Fat Boys, The:110

Index 213
femininity: 156, 170171, 175, 177178
Ferris Buellers Day Off: 92, 9498, 104, 106,111
Feuer, Jane: 53,144
the Fifties (retrospective cultural concept):
23, 58, 1112, 1821, 41, 59, 104, 109, 115,
131, 169, 174175,185
double fixing of; 2223,4243
Reagans use of: 2831,3334
reclamation of personal memories of: 4950,
Five Easy Pieces:51,57
Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids:50,68
FM broadcasting: 83, 112113, 117120,193n6
Footloose: 17, 20, 78, 149153, 154155, 162,169
format segregation: 111, 113, 117123,131
Fosse, Bob: 142144
Fox, Michael J.: 18, 23,3637
Frith, Simon: 13, 84, 111, 138139, 189n7,191n1
Garland, Les: 120,123
Gates, Henry Louis: 116, 131,137
George, Nelson: 113, 124125
Gidget: 170171, 173,176
girl studies: 17, 177178
Golden Oldies (radio format): 3, 6, 13, 15, 40, 65,
80, 8284, 110, 112, 117, 119,188n5
Goodwin, Andrew: 138, 164,167
Grease: 3, 12, 49, 51, 78, 171172, 175177
greaser: 3, 4849, 127, 191,191
Gravy (Dee Dee Sharp song):110
Grossberg, Lawrence: 4, 20, 8687,91,97
Guffey, Elizabeth: 47, 49, 69,188n2
Hairspray: 3, 16, 103110, 112,179
Hall, Stuart: 53,177
Happy Days: 12, 54, 70, 148,191n4
Harvard Report, The:113
Heathers: 17, 157, 160162
Hendrix, Jimi: 41, 4548, 4950, 55, 58,
Hide n Go Seek (Bunker Hill Song):
crisis of: 8,21,54
of nostalgia: 12,20,52
HIV/AIDS: 156, 181,182
Hoberman, J.: 29, 101,190n6
Hofer, Johannes: 910, 13,183

Holly, Buddy: 3, 50, 73, 147,188n5

home video: 1, 3, 7, 51, 128129
Honeymooners, The: 3839,190n10
Hot Tub Time Machine: 17, 180182,184
I Only Have Eyes for You (The Flamingos
Imitation of Life: 170,172
In Dreams (Roy Orbison song):98100
innocence: 59, 62, 64, 72, 97, 99, 109, 169,
insider rebellion: 8991,97
Jack & Diane (John Mellencamp song):
148149, 153,164
Jackson, Michael: 11, 16, 113117, 124146, 147,
164, 179, 189n7, 193n3, 193n4,194n9
James, Rick: 123, 126, 129130
Jameson, Fredric: 6, 89, 2021, 5354, 70, 71,
72, 110,187n1
Jeffords, Susan: 26, 28, 154155
Jenkins, Henry: 184185,188n5
Johnny B.Goode: 4041, 79, 86, 92,181
Jones, Quincy: 124, 125, 128,140
jukebox: 3, 8182,111
Wurlitzer 1015,6970
Jump in the Line (Harry Belafonte song):96
Kael, Pauline: 5354, 5657,72,74
Kakutani, Michiko: 20, 151152
karaoke: 9293, 98, 171,192n6
Kassabian, Anahid: 91,100
Keightley, Emily: 10,22,43
Kelly, Gene: 142,144
Kennedy assassination: 3, 5, 30, 59,62,64
Klinger, Barbara: 51,188n5
La Bamba: 85,147
Lack, John: 120121
Landis, John: 128129, 131132
The Last Picture Show:3,50
Lipsitz, George: 97,187n1
lip-synch: 16, 89, 9399,105
The Loco-Motion (dance): 92,110
Look at Me, Im Sandra Dee (song from
Grease): 17, 171172, 175,177
Lost Boys, The: 92, 9394,96
Lucas, George: 15, 5153, 5759, 6263, 69,

214 Index
Lymon, Frankie: 64, 125, 127,142
Lynch, David: 12, 16, 99100, 182,193n11
Madison, The (dance): 105106,107
Madonna : 1, 3, 11, 110, 147, 155, 163164,179
Marcus, Daniel: 12, 30, 47, 49, 187n1,
Marcus, Greil: 46,136
market research: 8283, 113, 118, 120,121
masculinity: 16, 2328, 8788, 9394, 98, 115,
127, 130, 137, 140, 14446, 149, 15356,
161162, 190n3,192n5
Material Girl (Madonna song): 3, 147,164
Mazullo, Mark: 99,103
McRobbie, Angela:177
Medovoi, Leerom: 6, 159162,173
Mellencamp, John: 1617, 148149, 153, 162,
melodrama: 98, 154, 158, 163, 165, 168,173
Mercer, Kobena: 115116, 129, 131,193n5
Monroe, Marilyn: 1, 147, 155, 164,173
More American Graffiti:69,77
Morrissey: 3, 17, 164169,194n5
Motown Records: 84, 113, 123, 124125, 127,
Mister Sandman (Four Aces song):19,23
MTV: 13, 16, 78, 85, 93, 111, 113, 117,
119124, 126129, 136, 138, 164, 193n2,
Murphy, Eddie:137
Nadel, Alan: 6, 159,190n2
Nader, Richard:83
national popular: 6, 2021, 23, 29,178
Neal, Marc Anthony: 124125
New Hollywood: 15, 53, 5557, 63, 70,7778
New Right: 1, 5, 11, 17, 19, 2123, 26, 2830,
3435, 37, 43, 45, 50, 53, 54, 177,
Nick at Nite:12
as affective response: 10, 13, 146,188n1
as amnesia:2223
for the Eighties: 179181
for eras other than the Fifties:56
historicity of: 22, 45, 51, 53, 71, 183184
history of:810
and Jameson, Frederic: 2021,70
and nostalgia films: 3, 8, 13, 21,5334

as productive: 1516, 2223,69

Reagans rhetorical use of: 15, 2122,
scholarship on:187n1
ONeal, Tatum: 124,130
Obama, Barack:180
Off the Wall (album): 113, 124,142
on film soundtracks: 16, 79, 80, 8586,
as genre:40
history of the term:8184
on the radio: 1, 65, 80, 8284 see Golden
Oldies (radio format)
Old Time Rock and Roll (Bob Seger song):
Orbison, Roy:98100
Outsiders, The: 20, 80,153
pastiche: 8, 21, 51, 7174,146
Penn, Sean:153
Perry, Luke:153
Phoenix, River:153
Pittman, Bob: 120123,127
pop nostalgia:
in Back to the Future: 2229,190n9
critical reflexivity of: 100104, 109110,
definition: 4,189n7
heterogeneity of: 8, 1314, 17, 4953, 179,
in the music industries: 8091, 114116 (see
also Golden Oldies, oldies)
and the New Right:34
and stardom: 146, 152, 156,170
treatment of history: 2022, 43, 72, 7475,
109110, 182183
postmodernism: 6, 20, 5354, 71,187n1
Presley, Elvis: 22, 48, 138, 146, 147, 149,170
Pretty in Pink: 16, 9293, 96,106
Price, Vincent: 130, 132133
Priestley, Jason:153
Prince: 113, 130, 136,164
progressive radio: 118119, 123,193n6
Psycho Beach Party:173
punk: 3, 11, 15, 50, 84, 97, 120, 182, 183,

Index 215
Quinn, Aidan: 157160
radio formats: 3, 8283, 112, 113, 118,121
Ramones, The: 7, 84,191n2
Raphael, Sally Jesse: 174175,194n6
Ray, Ola: 114,130
Reagan, Ronald: 12, 5, 14, 21, 23, 2836, 38,
4143, 45, 54,56,63
Reagan Era, the: 5, 6, 1011, 12, 19, 2223, 26, 30,
37, 3941, 53, 55, 56, 76, 78, 80, 85, 91, 100,
113, 130, 157,179
Reaganism: 8, 11, 17, 19, 22, 37, 53,154
Rebel Without a Cause: 20, 148, 150152,
158159, 165,170
Reckless: 17, 157160
Re-Generation: 67, 1114, 1617, 21, 2324, 26,
28, 3536, 39, 63, 7680, 8586, 89, 9193,
102, 114, 117, 130, 147, 149, 152153, 155157,
163164, 170171, 173, 179180,183
Reluctant Debutante, The: 170,172
remix: 12, 17, 37,184
rerun: 1, 21, 3839, 131, 153,190
Restless Years, The:170
retro: 910, 49, 53, 69, 71, 104,188n2
rhythm and blues: 3, 16, 94, 110,119
Risky Business: 16, 87, 8991, 98, 106,192
rock: 1516, 21, 4041, 50, 6465, 7980,
8289, 9192, 95, 97, 103107, 118120, 123,
136138; (see also AOR,punk)
Rock and Roll Never Forgets (Bob Seger
Rock Around the Clock (Bill Haley and his
Comets song): 40, 60, 69,191n4
Rogin, Michael: 3132,190n7
Rourke, Mickey:153
Run-DMC: 138,145
Ryder, Winona: 160162
Saturday Night Fever: 78,192n3
Schatz, Thomas:5556
Schlock: 131132
See You in September (The Tempos song):61
Seger, Bob: 3, 8789, 91, 97, 106, 111112, 123,
Sha Na Na: 15, 4850, 53, 55,58,83
Shales, Tom:1,7
Shumway, David: 69, 84, 87,187n1
Slater, Christian: 153, 160162

Smith, Jeff: 6465,7879

Smooth Criminal: 16, 117, 139145,193
soundtrack album: 3, 15, 65, 70, 7779, 83,
Spector, Phil:84,99
Sprengler, Christine: 12, 13,187n1
Springsteen, Bruce: 100, 136, 138, 145, 148,179
Staiger, Janet: 51,191n3
Stand By Me: 54, 66, 80, 85,188n5
Stanwyck, Barbara:2324
Staples, Mavis: 87,142
star legacies: 16, 153, 155156, 160, 164, 166,
Star-Spangled Banner, The:46,49
star text: 1314, 1617, 23, 37, 134, 142, 144, 146,
148149, 152157, 163165, 167, 169174,
178, 182, 188, 192,194
Star Wars: 5, 8, 39, 54,57,63
Stax Records:113
Stock, Dennis:168
Stoltz, Eric:37
Storz, Todd:82
Stray Cats: 3, 11,122
"Suedehead" (Morrissey song): 3, 166169
A Summer Place: 172175
Sweatin to the Oldies:13
Sykes, John: 120, 122,127
synergy: 13, 78, 146,189
teen film: 16, 17, 20, 26, 78, 80, 8586, 89, 91, 93,
9798, 108, 148, 170,174
teen rebel: 6, 20, 74, 148, 149, 151154, 156163,
165, 167, 169, 173,178
Teen Wolf:85
teenager: 2, 67, 13, 16, 18, 21, 23, 3536, 39, 41,
52, 62, 85, 89, 92, 95, 98, 103, 105106,
109110, 114, 149, 151152, 158, 172,191
That Thing YouDo!:5
Then He Kissed Me (Crystals song):9495
Thriller (album): 113, 124128, 134135, 137139
Thriller (song): 128130, 132,140
Thriller (video): 16, 114, 116117, 128133, 137,
Time for Choosing (Ronald Reagan
Time to Recapture our Destiny (Ronald
Reagan speech): 30, 3334,41
Top 40 radio: 8283, 93, 113, 117118,136
Townshend, Pete:41

216 Index
Traveling Wilburys, The:100
Try a Little Tenderness (Otis Redding
Twist and Shout (Beatles song):95,97
Until They Sail:172
Van Halen: 39, 40, 41, 126,190n11
ventriloquism: 80, 9293, 96, 97,192n6
Vestron Video:128
Victory Tour: 134136,142
Vietnam: 5, 12, 29, 30,59,62
Warner Amex / Wamex/ WACC: 120121,123
Warner Bros.: 57, 122,163
Watergate: 5, 29, 30, 59,60,62
Waters, John: 16, 103110
Why Do Fools Fall in Love? (Frankie Lymon
and the Teenagers song): 64,125
West Side Story: 128,143
Will, George: 157,160

Williams, Linda: 115,167

Wilson, Jackie: 125, 127, 130, 142, 144,146
Winter, Johnny:50
Wiz, The: 113,124
Wolfman Jack: 6162, 6466,68
Wood, Natalie:154
Woodstock: 15, 4547, 4950, 53, 55,198
Wurlitzer 1015: see jukebox
XERB-FM: 61,65,70
Yakety Yak (The Coasters song):4849
Yankovic, Weird Al:147
Yetnikoff, Walter: 127128
Young, Angus:41
and Reaganism,3536,
as affective category 86 (see also teenager)
yuppie: 27,36,95
Zemeckis, Robert: 29, 3738, 49, 180