In some respects, the popular culture of the 1980s reflected the era’s political conservatism. For many people, the symbol of the decade was the “yuppie”: a baby boomer with a college education, a well-paying job and expensive taste. Many people derided yuppies for being self-centered and materialistic, and surveys of young urban professionals across the country showed that they were, indeed, more concerned with making money and buying consumer goods than their parents and grandparents had been. However, in some ways yuppiedom was less shallow and superficial than it appeared. Popular television shows like “thirtysomething” and movies like “The Big Chill” and “Bright Lights, Big City” depicted a generation of young men and women who were plagued with anxiety and self-doubt. They were successful, but they weren’t sure they were happy.
At the movie theater, the 1980s was the age of the blockbuster. Movies like “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Return of the Jedi,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Beverly Hills Cop” appealed to moviegoers of all ages and made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. The 1980s was also the heyday of the teen movie. Films like “The Breakfast Club,” “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Pretty in Pink” are still popular today.
At home, people watched family sitcoms like “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Roseanne” and “Married…with Children.” They also rented movies to watch on their new VCRs. By the end of the 1980s, 60 percent of American television owners got cable service–and the most revolutionary cable network of all was MTV, which made its debut on August 1, 1981. The music videos the network played made stars out of bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club and made megastars out of artists like Michael Jackson (1958-2009), whose elaborate “Thriller” video helped sell 600,000 albums in the five days after its first broadcast. MTV also influenced fashion: People across the country (and around the world) did their best to copy the hairstyles and fashions they saw in music videos. In this way, artists like Madonna (1958-) became (and remain) fashion icons.
As the decade wore on, MTV also became a forum for those who went against the grain or were left out of the yuppie ideal. Rap artists such as Public Enemy channeled the frustration of urban African Americans into their powerful album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” Heavy metal acts such as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses also captured the sense of malaise among young people, particularly young men. Even as Reagan maintained his popularity, popular culture continued to be an arena for dissatisfaction and debate throughout the 1980s.