Chapter 5

Pop Culture

This essay is a review of:

American Culture in the 1980s

by Graham Thompson

The Decade of Cultural Reforms
by Evan Le

Grahm Thompson’s book, American Culture in the 1980s, provides a brief overview of cultural forms in America during the 1980s. These forms include literature, drama, film, television, music, performance, art, and photography, in addition to these topics, Thompson covers various topics such as HBO, MTV, Rap and Rock, Cable, etc. According to Thompson, “one of the most noticeable dimensions of US culture in the 1980s is the emergence of cultural forms that alter not the mode of experiencing those cultural products such that these cultural forms themselves become cultural products.”[i]

1980s literature was mainly a dosage of fiction. William Gibson’s, “Neuromancer” was an example of science-fiction being exposed during the 1980s. Although Gibson was contributing to the science fiction genre, other authors such as Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz and Mark Lindquist produced novels that expressed the lives of the rich, the excess and shallowness of the upper class. Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, takes place in the mid-nineteenth century, and is a story of a kid who joins a scalp-hunting gang that murders Indians on the US-Mexico border in order to collect bounty.  “Dirty Realism” was another form of literature; it attempted to illustrate the lives of blue-collar workers that were not solely based in the major cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Race and cultures were also subjects in literature during the 1980s. Toni Morrison was one writer wrote about African American lives during the 1980s. Asian-American literature also blossomed during this time period, and because of the wars between Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, there was an uncertain perception of Asians in the U.S at the time. Author Maxine Hong Kingston’s wrote, The Woman Warrior, which painted the picture of life as a first-generation Chinese person living in the U.S. With fiction illustrating various cultural backgrounds during the 1980s, “poetry produced [work] [which] dealt with similar issues of assimilation and racial identity.”[ii] Overall literature in the 1980s consisted of fiction ranging from science to dirty realism, and also literature that implemented a new perspective for other cultures and races.

The art market during the 1980s was at its peak. “The American art world of the 1980s was the degree to which the late-nineteenth and twentieth-century art now attracted sums and the fact that money, business and art became so intimately entwined that the buying and selling of art was as much of a story as the art itself.”[iii] Washington’s National Gallery purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s, Genevra dei Benci, for approximately $6 million dollars, and Andrew Mellon paid $1.2 million for Raphael’s Alba Madonna. Art during the 1980s almost became an indicator for people’s social status, this caused art galleries to increase from 200 in 1970 to about 600 galleries in the 1980s.3 Neo-Expressionism, was an art form during the 1980s that illustrated the body in an abstract distorted way. Barbra Kruger was a photographer that began to incorporate text with photography, while Robert Mapplethorpe was a gay photographer that produced images, mainly of black men, that caused controversy. Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit was photo of an African American man with his zipper open, and his genitals exposed which lead to the creation of the, American Family Association; its main purpose was to censor “blasphemous” art. During the 1980s, “the boundaries of acceptability were constantly being policed.”[iv] Art and photography all evolved during the 1980s and caused controversy in some cases, as well as produced a whole new market in America and introduced new aspects of culture during the 1980s.

Television and Film made a roaring appearance in the 1980s. During the 1980s, “diversification into video, video games, cable television, publishing and various forms of product merchandising provided increasingly important streams of revenue for the industry.”[v] Paramount, Twentieth Century- Fox, Columbia Pictures, Sony all were formed during the 1980s. “In 1980, the new home-video market accounted for just 7 per cent of film industry… [and] [in] 1990 the home-video market generated 52.4 per cent.”[vi] The home video revolution frightened the film industry, mainly because now people were able to watch video movies at home, and could potentially pirate these movies and distribute them. However the film industry actually benefited off this because of the first sale doctrine, an exception to US copyright laws which allows the purchaser of a product to transfer a legally acquired copy of protected work without permission.[vii] In addition to people watching movies in the cinema, people also wanted to watch movies again at home, which opened a market for the industry to sell their movies for home video entertainment. Blockbuster classics that are currently still relevant, such as Empire Strikes Back (1980), E.T (1982), and Batman (1989), all were created in the 1980s. Horror films also flourished and caused controversy during the 1980s, and eventually led to the Motion Picture Association of America creating the PG and PG-13 ratings. On of January 1, 1980, the U.S would have its first cable television network called Premiere, which was set up by Columbia, Paramount, MCA, and Twentieth Century-Fox. This network would later be driven out by HBO, and eventually cable stations such as ABC, NBC, CBS, MTV, CNN, and ESPN would be created. Soap operas, Crime Dramas, Sitcoms, and Talk Shows would also dominate cable television. Television and film emerged in the 1980s, eventually becoming a massive industry in America.

With film and television being created in the 1980s, the rise in the music industry came with it. During the 1980s, “sales of vinyl records dropped 11 per cent and wouldn’t show an upturn until 1983.”[viii] The invention of the compact disc would eventually overcome the vinyl in 1988, and inventions such as the “musicassette was driven in the 1980s by the availability of portable cassette players, the most famous of which was the Sony Walkman.”[ix] The Walkman became one of the first portable cassette players that would set the precedent for the eventual inventions of the iPod, mobile phones, etc. The portable cassette also inspired the boom box, and Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Think (1989) would promote the sale of these music cassettes. Michael Jackson’s album Thriller would be aired on MTV in December 1983, this would be the start of the promotion of music through television, and the creation of superstars. In the 1980s, “the cultivation of a superstar image through promotional video was a key ingredient to success and many stars, notably Madonna, continually refined and reinvented their image with each album and video performance.”[x] The 1980s would jumpstart metal, New Wave, Alternative, Rap and Hip Hop; including artists such as Survivor, Bruce Springsteen, Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, and other various artists. MTV would guide these images and personas to mass audiences, and help create many sub genres and cultures in the U.S during the 1980s.

Thompson states, the “idea that globalization, certainly in the post-World War II period, is synonymous with a process of Americanization in which the US attempts to exert its control and influence across the globe by cultural as well as economic, political and military means.”[xi] Microsoft created an office in Japan in 1978, and a production base in Ireland in 1985; their computers went worldwide and created a heaping amount of revenue. Japanese culture slowly was implemented in America. Sony, a Japanese originated company, was popularized in America, as well as William Gibson’s science fiction book Neuromancer, which contained Japanese culture and words. The game console, Atari, named after the Japanese word for “go”, was also a console manufactured in the U.S, by a U.S company. Advancements in video technology, game consoles, cable television, etc. would help open people’s eyes to the world, particularly as a consequence of the routine use of domestic communications technologies.[xii] The concept of fusion within different cultural foods in America became popularized in the 1980s also. For example, Tex-Mex, California’s fusion between Asian, Mexican, and Pacific-island influences in food, and other types of fusion food all were present in America. America became multicultural in regards to immigration as well; the amount of Mexican-born people between the censuses of 1980 and 1990 doubled, increased immigration from Cuba, Korea, China, India, and Philippines also existed during the 1980s.[xiii] Major corporations that operated globally, for example, would be Nike; Nike was popularized in America and eventually became worldwide spreading to other various countries.

According to Thompson, he believes that the cultural forms during the 1980s did not change the way of experiencing these cultural products but these cultural forms became cultural product themselves. For example, “the video recorder, for instance, moved Hollywood Films into the domestic space in a way which freed viewers from television schedules… watching videos becomes a new method of consuming cultural products…it can be a group event, a solitary event, a repetitive event; the technology enabling the form becomes a source of cultural distinction, technical competence and can be shared and copied.”1 This goes for the other cultural forms as well, such as new music genres, cable television, photography, etc. Thompson is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, he is also the author of The Business of America: The cultural Production of a Post- War Nation (2004) and Male Sexuality under Surveillance: The Office in American Literature (2003). It seems Thompson is familiar with cultural topics and seems to be interested in cultural studies of America. This book was written in 2007, a time period that would contain the post effects of the 1980s. For example, cable television, and stations such as NBC, ABC, ESPN, etc. are all present to this day.

Arthur G. Neal states “the book is highly recommended for those who take a decade approach to the study of culture... [And] the book provides a comprehensive overview of the major development in American popular culture during the decade under review.”[xiv] Overall the book seemed to give a good overview of the 1980s in regards to culture. Although Thompson provided an overview of 1980 cultures, Neal states, “the author recognizes the artificiality and limitations of taking a decade approach to the study of American Culture…Such an approach fails to acknowledge the organic linkages between the past, the present, and the future in cultural developments.[xv] According to Kevin M. Flanagan, the book is overall extremely useful for students that did not live throughout the eighties.[xvi]

This book goes in a decent amount of depth considering the length is only 180 pages, and is organized into 5 chapters: Fiction and Poetry, Art and Photography, Film and Television, Music and Performance, and American Culture and Globalization. Graham Thompson goes in great detail for each chapter, whether the sub title is Cable Television, or photography, Thompson provides the right amount of information for the reader to gain enough knowledge of the decade as a whole. These cultural forms throughout the book do eventually become cultural products, for example Thompson states videos become new kinds of cultural products, and watching videos becomes a new method of consuming cultural products such as the music, sports, etc.[xvii] Other examples would include cable television being created and television becoming a cultural product itself. The 1980s included many cultural forms and products that eventually sets a background for the future in terms of future inventions and industries.

The 1980s was generally a socially and economic progressive time period in American history. The decade included poetry and literature that helped illustrate the lives of African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians for U.S citizens. The creation of cable stations such as NBC, ABC, ESPN, CNN, etc. all were developed, as well as photography causing controversy and conversations about the on-going problem with AIDS and homosexual men. All of these topics eventually revolutionized the 90s and the 21st century. The music genres, metal, hip-hop, and new wave, all eventually contributed to the evolution of music in the 1990s and 21st century. What was called AIDS from 1982 was initially labelled GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), and eventually led to studies about the disease.[xviii] Inventions such as the compact disc (CD), and portable music cassette, set the ground for future inventions that are now to this day massive industry’s in itself such as apple and the iPod. 1980s fiction, poetry, art, photography, film, television, and music, all contributed to the 1980s in America becoming an era of progressivism economically and socially.

The 1980s was an era of new inventions and cultures that sparked a variety of new products and industries in America. Advancements in television, photography, music, cinema, helped create drastic changes and pave the way for America’s near future. Many cultural aspects of the 1980s still and may exist in the 21st century and beyond.


1. Thompson, Graham. American Culture in the 1980s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh. 180.

2. Thompson, Graham. 60

3. Thompson, Graham. 63

4. Thompson, Graham. 88

5. Thompson, Graham. 189

6. Thompson, Graham. 92

7. Thompson, Graham. 93

8. Thompson, Graham. 123

9. Thompson, Graham. 124

10. Thompson, Graham. 129

11. Thompson, Graham. 129

12. Thompson, Graham. 169

13. Thompson, Graham. 174

14. Neal, A. (2008). Journal of American Cultures. American Culture in the 1980s, 31(2), 208-209.

15. Neal, A. (2008). Journal of American Cultures. American Culture in the 1980s, 31(2), 208-209.

16. “The Modest Proposal – Late Summer 2009.” The Modest Proposal – Late Summer 2009. The Most Proposal, n.d. Web. 25 May 2016.

17. Thompson, Graham. American Culture in the 1980s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh. 180

18. Thompson, Graham. 21