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Analysis: The age of Reagan

President loomed over the '80s, an era at odds with itself

By Todd Leopold

• Gallery: The pop culture '80s
Ronald Wilson Reagan
Bruce Springsteen
David Letterman

(CNN) -- In the heart of his 1984 re-election campaign, Ronald Reagan made a speech in Hammonton, New Jersey, and took the opportunity to invoke the name of one of the Garden State's favorite sons.

"America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts," the president said. "It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."

Reagan -- or his speechwriter -- was likely thinking of one song in particular: "Born in the U.S.A.," the title cut from Springsteen's No. 1 album of the time. The song, with Max Weinberg's thunderous drums, Roy Bittan's glittery keyboards and an anthemic chorus, was impossible to avoid that year: "Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A. ..."

But look deeper, and there was another dimension to "Born in the U.S.A." The song was the ferocious cry of an unemployed Vietnam veteran.

"Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I'm 10 years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go," Springsteen sang in a working-class howl.

The singer wasn't amused by Reagan's appropriation of his work.

"I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in," he later told Rolling Stone. "But what's happening, I think, is that that need -- which is a good thing -- is getting manipulated and exploited. You see in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, 'It's morning in America,' and you say, 'Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh.' "

The singer, who spent much of 1984 on a huge concert tour, dedicated "Born in the U.S.A." to a union local at one stop.

But "Born in the U.S.A." neatly encapsulates the Reagan '80s, a decade that was about morning in America or a "Midnight Mission" (a Textones song about the homeless), optimism or cynicism, chorus or verse, depending on whom you listened to.

As satirist Paul Slansky wrote in his diary of the decade, "The Clothes Have No Emperor," ["My book] is the response of ... an observer whose very sanity was threatened by the ease with which illusion -- an actor is playing the president! -- was embraced as reality."

Irony laden

The decade's pop culture trafficked in the blur between illusion and reality.

David Letterman launched an irony-laden talk show, the whole point of which was to mock talk shows. He had his cameras do 360-degree spins; he used a 1966 Sears catalog for his opening credits. His interviews -- the "talk" of talk shows -- were often deliberately devoid of content in favor of comedy bits or, in the case of some guests, outright antagonism.

On the other hand, television also produced a new wave of sitcoms that hearkened back to the cozy 1950s. "The Cosby Show" updated "Father Knows Best" around a successful black family in well-off Brooklyn Heights, New York. "Family Ties," yoked to "Cosby" on NBC's Thursday night schedule, featured '60s liberals who had settled down in middle-class Columbus, Ohio, with their kids, one of whom was a conservative, Nixon-worshipping business student played by Michael J. Fox.

Many people heard the chorus of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." without hearing the verses.

Fox's roles were often symbolic of the high-flying, optimistic side of the '80s. In "Back to the Future" (1985), he played a teenager who went back in time to the '50s to bring his parents together (and, incidentally, vanquish a bully, which allows his family to move up the economic ladder 30 years later).

More to the point was "The Secret of My Success" (1987), an irony-less version of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." "Secret" glorified money, status and corporate climbing, one of the many '80s films to do so.

In fact, in the midst of the '80s bull market, there were few films that didn't play up the money-happiness connection. One of the few that went against the grain was Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (1987), which placed Charlie Sheen's low-level stock trader in the world of avaricious tycoon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas).

Thanks to Douglas' magnetic Oscar-winning performance, however, Gekko became the character everyone remembered, and his "Greed is good" speech -- "Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit" -- was quoted endlessly, and sometimes seriously.

Reality stops and starts

Michael Douglas played the villainous Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street." His "Greed is good" speech was echoed in real life.

Indeed, the '80s had a way of reflecting all sides of the looking glass. Pop culture mixed with real life as never before. Jokes became serious; the serious was tossed off as a joke. The zeitgeist tended to move forward, back upon itself and do a 180.

For example, there was Rambo. The Sylvester Stallone character originated in the 1982 movie "First Blood" as a troubled Vietnam vet who goes on a one-man war against some threatening police officers. Naturally, the violent character became an action hero, and Stallone revived him for "Rambo: First Blood Part II," in which the ex-vet was sent to Vietnam on a secret mission. The upshot was, of course, that the Vietnam War wasn't over until we said it was (and we won).

Or consider Max Headroom. The allegedly computer-generated character (actually actor Matt Frewer in latex) was born for a British music video show and became a spokesman for Coca-Cola. At the same time, his British creators made him the star of a scabrous TV movie that lampooned the shallow world of television and its demanding advertisers. ABC brought the character over for a TV series, pitted the show against "Miami Vice" and "Dallas," and it was gone in 14 episodes.

Meanwhile, "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau turned the character into "Ron Headrest," a sendup of the president, who had become known as much for his upside-down remarks ("Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do") as his forthright conservatism.

But Reagan was often at the center of such spin cycles. He quoted movie lines ("Go ahead, make my day") and mixed up movies with real life (as when he told Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal he had been part of liberating a concentration camp, when he had actually logged grim movies about the Holocaust). He was played by Phil Hartman in a particularly wicked "Saturday Night Live" sketch about his detachment, mocked by the British in their satirical puppet series "Spitting Image" and faced off against Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in Frankie Goes to Hollywood's video "Two Tribes."

Max Headroom: From video show host to ad pitchman to subject of merciless TV movie to canceled TV series to ... well, Ronald Reagan. Sort of.

Sometimes the looking glass looked back. Testing an open microphone during a 1984 sound check, the president cracked, "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." His comments, which horrified Reagan critics, were remixed by Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison into a song, "5 Minutes." For those critics, the song said it all.

Harrison's song didn't get any airplay on mainstream radio stations. By the '80s, college radio held music's cutting edge, and it was there listeners could hear artists such as R.E.M., Laurie Anderson, Public Enemy and the Lyres. Indeed, it was an indie band, the New Jersey-based Groceries, who earned some college radio airplay for their 1984 song "Part of the New America":

"I never think too much/About what I'm going to say ... I think that unity is the proper way to be/I don't have a need to be different/I'm part of the new America ..." the lyrics went.

And later in the song, as the singer mentioned ways of fitting in, he said, "Think Democrat, vote Republican."

Ronald Reagan -- former FDR voter and union head -- couldn't have described the '80s better himself.

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