We Are Living Through the Worst Eighties Reboot
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is bringing back Cold War anxiety — for the MTV generation, it’s a nightmare that never went away
The past few years have seen plenty of Eighties revivals. But here’s one nobody wanted to see: the resurgence of Cold War anxiety. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it seemed like the end for pop culture’s obsession with the threat of World War III. But with Putin’s war on Ukraine, and America waking up to the idea of Russia as a nuclear threat, a specific kind of Us vs. Them dread is back from the past. And we’re not equipped to handle it.
The apocalyptic imagination was on fire in the Eighties, the soundtrack to the era of The Day After, as the world reached the brink of getting blown up. It’s weird how today you hear mega-famous tunes like “1999” or “99 Luftballons” or “The Final Countdown” without even noticing that they’re explicit Eighties songs about nuclear annihilation, which people were expecting any day. Now it’s easy to enjoy a movie like Top Gun as a kitschy little rom-com, with the cinema’s most erotically charged volleyball orgy, rather than propaganda for dropping the Big One.
But in 2022, that old-school anxiety is returning, for the first time in cultural memory. Hell, there’s even a Top Gun reboot this summer, starring Tom Cruise as Maverick, as if the volleyball never ended. It definitely hits differently than it would have a year ago. Yet Cold War-doomsday culture has always remained wildly popular, even after the context has been forgotten.
Case in point: “Crazy Train,” a song that nobody today is surprised to hear at a wedding, a prom, a football game, or an SUV ad full of happy children singing along. “Crazy Train” was a bluntly obvious song about the nuclear-arms race and the helpless terror felt by even the most pampered of citizens, including rock stars. As Ozzy Osbourne sings, “Heirs of a Cold War, that’s what we’ve become/Inheriting troubles, I’m mentally numb!” And Ozzy would much rather go numb some other way. Anyone could hear that “Crazy Train” was a rant against evil minds that plot destruction. But now it means your sister’s wedding DJ is taking requests, and Uncle Tony is goin’ off the rails.
It’s tough to overstate how deeply the atomic threat saturated every corner of the culture in those days. So dig, if you will, the picture: As the 1980s begin, the planet is run by two superpowers basing their decisions on the assumption they’ll soon be incinerating 400 million or 500 million of their citizens in a nuclear war. This is Plan A. In the USSR, the guy with his finger on the little red button is a seventysomething drunk named Leonid Brezhnev, boozing his way to his next stroke. In the USA, it’s a seventysomething actor named Ronald Reagan, who announces, “Eighty percent of air pollution comes from plants and trees.” These are the minds entrusted with the nuclear-launch codes. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night.
Music was fixated on the question of human life after the apocalypse — what would it look like? Would it even exist? And (because this was pop music) how would that affect making out? It was there in the survivalist metal of Saxon, who told MTV they wore armor to prepare to fight for their food in the post-nuke badlands. It was there in P-Funk, who called their beat “The Bomb.” It was there in even the silliest pop groups like Bow Wow Wow — their hit “Jungle Boy” was about running off to the wilderness to have frantic constant sex, because “when the city turns to rubble, big trouble!”
But the songs and movies stayed popular after the Cold War ended, even as the nation was eager to forget it ever happened. Now that panic is back, forcing America to confront long-cherished myths about the past, along with buried fears about the future. But the Cold War revival is a shock to the cultural imagination.
There was a hit movie a few years ago called Yesterday, a hugely popular rom-com about a world where the Beatles have disappeared into a memory hole, so there’s only one person alive who knows their songs. When he plays a gig in Moscow, the crowd happily sings along with “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” even the line “The Ukraine girls really knock me out.” This scene was already beyond belief in 2019 — nobody involved knew Russia and Ukraine weren’t the same country any more? Or that thousands of people had been killed fighting over it? Yet that oblivion wasn’t an oddity. It was America’s fantasy of the world for a long time. A fantasy where the Cold War was over and the U.S. won. A fantasy wherein America spent 30 years. But that fantasy was yesterday.
Cold Wardoomsday culture has always remained wildly popular, even after the original context has been forgotten.