There are three ways to remember the not-so-distant past. The first is to remember how things actually were, which almost no one does. The second is to remember things the way we assume they must have been, which basically equates to making up plausible stories that (a) don’t directly involve us and (b) are potentially true. But there’s also that third way, which is to remember things the way we want to remember them, which is how most everyone seems to remember 1987.
If you are American and alive, you probably have seen shows such as I Love the ’80s on VH1, in which unemployed comedians (and, I suppose, idiots like me) reminisce about how Care Bears were awesome. This is how we want to remember the 1980s; we like to find specific memories that match our nonspecific conclusions. The culture of the late ’80s was (at least in retrospect) dominated by capitalism, cocaine, and misguided Reagan-era optimism, so people choose to remember movies like Wall Street and books like Bright Lights, Big City, overtly unserious rock bands like Poison, and (I guess) Care Bears. This all seems reasonable and accurate; the selected icons match the presumed nostalgia. But as I look through the September 1987 issue of Spin, a publication that was attempting to cover the culture of the ’80s as it was happening, the main thing I notice is that all the stuff we want to remember about 1987 has little relationship to what anyone here was interested in at the time.
What people were interested in was John Cougar Mellencamp, who was on this month’s cover 18 years ago. Interestingly, the story was written by then-editor-in-chief Bob Guccione Jr., who was clearly the most fanatical nonfarming John Cougar Mellencamp enthusiast on the planet. This is a nine-part (!) article that opens with Mellencamp’s lyrics from “Paper in Fire.” The story goes on to compare the singer’s speaking voice to a violin, and it’s approximately 152,000 words in length. Virtually everything about the story is weird…but it’s not weird as in “weirdly unconventional”; it’s weird as in “weirdly serious.” It makes John Cougar Mellencamp’s work on The Lonesome Jubilee sound like Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the A-bomb. This is what backward-looking shows like I Love the ’80s always miss: People who were truly engaged with culture in 1987 did not want the world to be superficial and glossy and disposable. They wanted the world to be really, really important.
By 1992, finding import within pop culture had become easy — all you had to do was align yourself with anything that was classified as “alternative,” which suddenly became almost anything at all. Every fraction of alternative culture was conceded to be meaningful; it somehow became political to like bands that were selling ten million albums and being played on the same radio stations that used to play John Cougar Mellencamp. But judging from the pages of this tattered Spin, it was considerably harder to do that in 1987. There was almost no successful outsider culture to align with; all you could do was look for meaning in things that were still hanging around from the 1970s. As a consequence, there is a feature in this issue on Roger Waters, and he talks extensively about Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. The lead album review is of the Grateful Dead’s In the Dark, and it’s generally positive. All the alleged frivolity of the decadent ’80s is absent. Take the coverage of hip-hop, for example: Whenever people discuss the seminal, pre-N.W.A days of rap, they inevitably mention how the songs were about partying and bravado and the self-promotion of one’s own MC skills. However, here is my favorite exchange from this issue’s feature on LL Cool J:
Spin: The ladies love you. LL Cool J: Whatever, I don’t know.
Incendiary! And actually, I’m kind of lying — in truth, this is my favorite exchange from the piece:
Spin: Why do rappers rub their balls? LL Cool J: A lot of guys who aren’t rappers rub their balls.
Undeniable! Yet I find myself disappointed by LL’s understated realism. It’s not the zeitgeist I want to recall. Admittedly, I was not readingSpin in 1987, nor did I even know such a magazine existed; I was reading Hit Parader and living under the erroneous impression that most rock stars were snorting cocaine in preparation for dates with Tawny Kitaen and/or working on albums that were either going to be “heavier” or “bluesier.” This Era of Seriousness missed me completely, as did Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee. This makes me sigh. But time heals all wounds, including the ones we never actually suffered.
That said, may I reiterate that Care Bears were awesome?