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© Copyright

The Eighties


By Alex Brown





The decade opened up with a series of bitter regional wars: the Soviet Union fighting in Afghanistan, the Israelis invading Lebanon, the Iran‑Iraq War, the British against the Argentineans in Falklands War, several guerrilla wars in Latin America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), and civil wars in Africa (Angola and Mozambique). Directly or indirectly several of these conflicts were the result of the continuing COLD WAR hostility between the Capitalist West and the Communist Soviet Bloc with each side supporting and financing one or the other of the warring sides in the conflicts.


This hostility between the Superpowers (Soviet Union and the USA) was increased when in 1979 Britain elected the radically conservative Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and the USA elected Ronald Reagan as an equally conservative President. Both saw themselves as 'super‑patriots' whose main task was to defend the so‑called 'free world' against the Soviet Union. During this period arms spending on nuclear and conventional weapons increased dramatically in both East and West. This continued spending would have a considerable negative effect on the economies of both blocs later in the decade.




Some of the economic and political characteristics of the Eighties as a decade can be summed up under the following headings:


1.         Superpower rivalry across the world. Massive arms spending.


2.         Rise of the Asian 'dragons': Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore & South Korea  as major economic forces.

3.         Famine and civil war create human disasters in Africa. (Ethiopia in particular).

4.          Economic inefficiency of the Communist systems leads to:

​5.         China under Deng Xiaoping begins to open up its state‑controlled economy but the  Communist Party retains                      complete political power.

6.         Soviet Union, under its new leader Gorbachev opens up its economy and l  loosens state control over all sectors                  including the mass media.

7.        Islamic fundamentalism takes over Iran under the Ayatolla Khomeini in 1979 and takes up a hostile position against             the West, particularly the USA who  had previously supported the Shah of Iran before the revolution.

8.        By 1989 the Berlin Wall had been torn down and this signals the end of Communism in Europe and re‑unification of             Germany.

7.         Economic crises due to economic inefficiency and the cost of the arms race  with the Americans causes the                       Soviet Union to break up into several different countries (eg. Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Tajikstan, Latvia, and so on)             with Russia as still the major military power in Eastern Europe.

8.        This period marks the END OF THE COLD WAR that had lasted for over 40  years.

9.       World economic recession further affects poor Western economic & industrial performance in the face of                               competition  from Asian countries.

10.     In 1989 pro‑democracy student demonstrators in China are repressed by lent  rmy action in Tianamen Square                      Beijing. Many are killed.

Generally one can describe the major economic changes during the Eighties in the following way:


 1.    The West (USA & Western Europe?: increasing economic difficulties, rising unenlpyment loss of their heavy               industry sectors to foreign competition and reduced state spending leads to social tensions, riots in some cities            and a more obvious split between social and economic classes.

  2.   Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union): economic collapse at the end of the Cold War period leads to                  massive unemployment and increasing crime rate.

  3.   Asia: The standard of living of populations in the SE & East Asian countries rose as a result of their continued              economic success. China, with its one billion population and open policy is seen as the major force in the future.




Conservative policies and commercialism of the Seventies continue and expand into the Eighties. Any sense of idealism, social reform or the creation of a 'new society' had completely disappeared by the 1980s. In The West continued economic problems, loss of industries and unemployment take place in a new harsh atmosphere of commercial pressure and individualism which affects the social and cultural environments. The reality of the Eighties was the coexistence of two very different lifestyles and their media images:


1.       Unemployed youngsters in ruined industrial cities, Urban riots, football hooliganism, alcohol and drugs, vandalised housing estates  high crime rates. The human desperation in cities were whole industrial had  disappeared was treated as an unfortunate fact of  conomic life.


2.       The executive lifestyle of the Yuppie stockbroker making money on the stock  exchange.

           In the Sixties, Media attention had been directed at the Hippies.

           In the Seventies it was the Punks.

          In the Eighties the key group for the media were the 'YUPPIES. ('Yuppies' = Young upwardly‑ mobile                                   professionals").


For commercial reasons the teenage market was no longer seen as the most financially rewarding for producers of consumer goods and fashionable products.


These companies and the media in general concentrate on the growing number of young professional people in their mid‑twenties who have become financially successful and who now define the style of the Eighties.




STATUS, STYLE and FASHION become the key media issues of the Eighties. The professions which are now seen to have social status are those concerned with the financial sector. E.g. banking, stock market and commodities. In some cases the Law is represented as another exiting Middle Class dramatic battlefield.


Television and the cinema now treated these areas as 'exciting' and dynamic and produce dramas out of the lives of those who work there. Making big money in the financial jungle was represented as 'thrilling' and especially if the main characters were 'ruthless'. (See Hollywood's film 'Wall Street' starring Michael Douglas).


The High Life was now regarded as an essential environment for any drama on TV or Cinema and if the ethical rules were bent slightly by the characters this made the drama more exciting. For the same reasons, TV in the Eighties produced such series as 'Dynasty', 'Dallas' and others of the same kind where MONEY and POWER were the main issues and where none of the characters had any real moral sense. The plots of these TV series can be simply stated:


Ruthless, beautiful, rich, unhappy people living in big houses with swimming pools and driving very expensive cars.


(The Porche sports car was the car of the Eighties and represented the essential Yuppie, executive lifestyle of Gucci shoes and Giorgio Armani suits).


Generally, the brutal reality of life in the devastated inner cities was represented only in police drama series were crime offered another source of excitement. The fact was that crime and urban riots of the new poor threatened the security of the Yuppie middle class and received a lot of media attention for that reason.




In the Eighties, Teenagers who had defined many of the styles of the previous two decades were a reduced percentage of the population as widespread birth control measures and the tendency to marry at a later age began to take effect. These factors plus the Yuppie image of expressing success through clothes and style began to show up in fashion design. Unlike the casual Sixties, or the mixed styles of the Seventies, the tendency in the Eighties was split between:


a)  The more formal styles suitable for the 'RISING, YOUNG, WELL EDUCATED (RICH) EXECUTIVE'.


b) The tough, inexpensive, street level clothes suitable for 'ANGRY, YOUNG, UNDER‑EDUCATED, (POOR)                     UNEMPLOYED.


5.1    The Designer Label


The Eighties was the decade of the 'designer label'. If you were successful and you had to show it, then the thing to do was to wear obviously expensive designer branded goods: Armani, Gucci, Rolex, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, St Laurent, and, if you were really lucky ‑ the Porche car, and so on.


Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren targeted their clothes and accessories at this newly emerging group and became very successful in doing so. They spearheaded a 'Total Look' style of shopping was everything the Yuppie would need from underwear to overcoats came under one designer label.


5.2    The Designer Boutique


Large department stores reorganised themselves to cater for this new way of fashion shopping splitting the store into specialised boutiques for each designer label. If you wanted a skirt or a shirt you did not search the whole store ‑ you went straight to the designer boutique of your choice. This meant that your wardrobe was fully co-ordinated in colour and style.


5.3    Sportswear


The 'healthy lifestyle' required by the young executive meant that even sports goods had designer status. It was not enough to stay in shape ‑you had to look good while doing so. Reebok and Nike were the brands and in the Eighties trainer shoes became fashionable.


5.4    Power Dressing


For women, the Eighties were the decade of 'power dressing' and for expressing their individuality and equality with men. FEMINISM became very influential across all sectors of Western society and this showed up in fashion as masculine‑styled business suits for women (with padded shoulders) and a much tougher semi‑Punk look for female rockstars (or partygoers). For Men, the decade demanded a much more 'caring and even 'beautiful' look. In the Eighties, male Sensitivity was IN ‑ Macho was OUT.




On the 8th of December 1980 in New York, John Lennon is shot dead on the street outside his apartment building.


"What marked the early years of the decade was speed. Faces, styles and trends came and went at a bewildering rate." 'All this energy, this frivolity and this sheer, giddy fun set against a backdrop of recession and ever‑mounting youth unemployment"


The splitting up of musical styles which took place in the Seventies was even more noticeable in the Eighties. Bands, styles and performers of all different musical tastes came and went at great speed. No particular musical style within the Pop ‑ Rock area dominated the music scene. Some idea of this diversity is suggested below:


1.       The New Romantics: In the early years of the Eighties the key element in the success of any group or performer was STYLE plus a really good music video. Some of these groups may not have been great but they gave the decade music to suit its superficial Yuppie style. For Instance: Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Depeche Mode, Boy George & Culture Club, Style Council, Spandau Ballet and (more sophisticated) ‑ Roxy Music with Brian Ferry. The term the 'NEW ROMANTICS' was used to define this smooth, light and stylish Pop music which threatened no one and went well with gin and tonic down at the wine bar.


2.      The Supergroups: Yet amongst the bubblegum music there were several super groups active in the Eighties producing serious music such as Police (Dont Stand so Close to Me), Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody), U2 Joshua Tree), Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms), Genesis.


3.     The Superstars: Without question the most successful performer of the 1980s as MICHAEL JACKSON whose brilliant 'Thriller' album sold a huge number of copies. His musical and visual talent dominated the decade. With his album 'Born in the USA', BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN celebrated the working class Rock music (with all its pain and desperation) that lay as a subculture under the smooth 'romantic' media image that dominated the decade.


4  Disco, Heavy Metal and Rap: If anything defines the general musical character of the Eighties it is Disco which became incredibly popular (different tunes are made to sound almost exactly the same). The Hard Rock of the Seventies was exaggerated to become Heavy Metal with such groups as Guns & Roses, Metallica & Iron Maiden. The really original sound of the Eighties was Black American Rap music out of the Inner City streets and Black ghettos. Note: Grandmaster Flash, Ice‑T, MC Hammer, PM Dawn.


5.  MTV: By the Eighties it was almost impossible for a group to get a hit without backing it up with a promotional video. This became a Pop sub‑culture on its own to the point where Music Television (MTV) could broadcast 24 hours a day every day in some countries.



All good things must come to an end and the Yuppie era really ended with the New York stock market crash of 1987. A lot of people had made a lot of money in the flashy Eighties and now some of them had lost it and gone bankrupt. At the same time the trivial and superficial quality of much of Eighties culture gave way to new and tragic realities taking place outside the Yuppie environments of stockbrokers office, the wine bar or the upmarket disco. Tragedies which could not be ignored:


1.        The deprivation and poverty of the homeless poor who now took to the streets  to live in cardboard                    boxes.

2.         Urban riots in depressed areas of Western cities.

3.         Major increases in crime and its direct relationship to poverty and the  inequalities  of  Eighties society.

4.         The war and famine in Ethiopia and the news images coming through the media of  That tragedy.

5.         The growing Aids epidemic throughout the world.

6.         The superficial response of the Eighties towards a not‑so‑nice‑world was  RETRO. That is nostalgia or longing for                a previous era. This presented itself as a return to the fashions of the Fifties and Sixties and as reissuing of the                    music of that period.

7.         The Live Aid Concert: More thoughtful responses to tragic events were  organized by Bob Geldorf of the group Boomtown Rats who put together the  massive LIVE AID concert for famine relief in Ethiopia in 1985 and  raised over          100 million dollars. The groups who gave their services free to the concert  were the biggest and the best of the last two decades: Led Zepplin, Queen, The Who, Black Sabbath, The  Rolling Stones, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney,  David Bowie and many others.


8.         The Chernobyl Disaster: in 1986 a massive nuclear explosion ripped open Soviet atomic power station spreading large amounts of radioactivity across Eastern  Europe. The whole issue of environmental and ecological problems             was emphasised by his event including the depletion of the ozone layer and  the destruction of tropical forests.


The destruction of the American Challenger space shuttle with its seven crew members was amongst the other public disasters that ended the great Eighties Party. A sense of sober reality began to dominate the public mind as the Nineties started.




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