June 2016, IMNN book review written by Gavin Wilson on
Dwyer, Michael D. (2015) Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
The subject of Michael Dwyer’s book, Back to the Fifties, could easily have been undertaken either as a work of politics or social science. It could have, but then we would have to search hard for another book that goes such a considerable way to explaining American society’s anxieties, even lingering fears, of the manipulations and socio-political machinations, which have emanated from popular media from approximately 1973 to 1988. Dwyer characterizes this period using the central motif of the ‘Re-Generation,’ referencing Reaganism and its attendant political conservatism, and locating it as a repeat, a re-packaging or reaffirmation of American youth culture from some thirty years before.
Dwyer sets out his terms and conceptual labels with a journalistic flair for the resonant phrase. Firmly locating the neo-conservative politics of the ascendant Ronald Reagan with the dissatisfactions and a relative lack of direction in the USA during the early 1980s, Dwyer intones Tom Shales’ (1986) phrase, ‘The Re-Decade,’ establishing it as a weighty noun with the capitalization of its component parts. He performs a similar job with his re-contextualisation of ‘nostalgia,’ describing, by drawing on Frederic Jameson’s protestations of nostalgia’s superficial attractions, a clearer path for a neoconservative re-fashioning of history. Dwyer establishes in early, foundational chapters how nostalgia manifests in popular media’s allowing, or encouragement, of neo-conservatism in America during the late twentieth century. Importantly, Dwyer reminds us of how relatively recent is nostalgia’s overriding association with temporal matters, at the expense of its accompanying sense of dislocation from physical places. Thus, avoiding simplistic questions of whether nostalgia can be considered a good or a bad thing during the long eighties, Dwyer outlines a dual thesis that nostalgia has become a wholly temporal form, having shaken off its previous concerns for spatial matters, and that the New Right and Reaganism appropriated 1950’s nostalgia for 1980’s political expediency.
The media forms that Dwyer selects as significant sites for the production of nostalgia are Hollywood and other mainstream American films, and pop music from the 1980s. His primary sources range widely, beginning with thorough re-readings of films such as Back to the Future (1985), American Graffiti (1973), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), moving on to popular music’s idealization of a restricted number of tropes from its own past.
As Dwyer admits, his project is not ‘an exhaustive account of Fifties nostalgia […] or representations of the Fifties in the Reagan Era.’ However, his sources are wide, especially in cultural theory and the critique of popular and populist media, and his central themes receive close attention from a number of interlinked directions. Of the several questions the book asks the reader to consider, among the most crucial might be why we should care about nostalgia, and what is the value in, perhaps nostalgically, looking back at American history which itself looks nostalgically to an earlier period. In answering this, Dwyer presents more than a thought experiment or memory test. The book presents a lucid understanding of the power and influence of pop nostalgia. This, he contests, coincides with an apparently populist brand of social movement within the rise of Reaganism and New Right politics in America. The book also re-examines the relationship of nostalgia to history, and notions of the 1950’s refracted through the prism of an extended decade in the 1970s and 1980s that seems addicted to myth making. Along the way, Dwyer invokes several verbs with the prefix ‘re’ to position Back to the Fifties as an interrogation of the underlying function of popular media’s remediation of past cultural memory, as a form of ideological self-definition.
Dwyer structures his text to draw on a range of exemplars of popular films and pop music, re-reading and re-appraising their influence and contribution to a re-packaging of the 1950s more suited to a re-shaping of 1980’s society. He calls this process ‘fixing’ and even ‘double fixing’ the fifties – halting post-second world war ideas of progress at an arbitrarily chosen, idealized point in American history, deciding what is selected for remembrance and cementing what is remembered of unverifiable codes of family values, morality at the time and so on. In describing this freezing of normal historical progression, Dwyer illustrates the flip side of the time travel trope that he introduces in his long discussion of Back to the Future.
In these ways, Dwyer shows how the complex and messy history of 1950’s America was contained, re-shaped and transformed into the mythic Fifties, to serve a socio-political project that emerged during the late 1970s and carried on into the 1980s. Back to the Fifties contributes to a larger ‘constellation of discourses,’ central among which is the contradiction between genuine historicity and the postmodern aesthetics at play in nostalgia for simpler, optimistic times.
The book is equally persuasive about the bourgeois ‘ventriloquizing’ of popular media, particularly of black popular music in the early years of rock and roll, which returns in the 1980s to don the legitimizing clothes of crossover artists. Part of the book’s central thesis is that America has re-visioned the 1950s as an idea that merely serves as, or stands in place of, cultural knowledge of a historical past. In the politics of the 1980s, a convenient investment is made in a postmodern fantasy of 1950’s halcyon days.
If not exactly looking for a villain to hang responsibility upon, Dwyer lucidly explains what are the stimuli that underlie political exercises in shaping popular mis-remembering of cultural phenomena. His consistent judgement is that the New Right politics of 1980’s ‘Re-Generation’ attempted to freeze socio-political progress, because progress involves change, and change is hard to control. Those responsible for, as Dwyer suspects, playing fast and loose with historical veracity, appear to be of a similar age – middle-aged in the 1980s – able to cast their memories back to their formative teens and twenties, secure in their romanticism of the Fifties. The book itself becomes a re-imagining of historical popular film and music, which illuminates a period in history shaped and told by those who consider themselves the victors. Even his choice of title, Back to the Fifties, invokes Dwyer’s arch film text, Back to the Future (1985), placing it squarely in the decade he deems responsible for time-travelling, political conjuring tricks with cultural memory.
In order to stress this point, Dwyer posits a hypothetical question: What would be a powerful source of references for a public brought up on a diet of pop music and popular cinema? Quite naturally, therefore, Dwyer explains how the 1980s was able to draw on the kind of popular memory that was most affecting for voters and opinion formers who had lived through thirty years of cultural training. Their final lesson was to look back to a shared cultural history, to summarize their formative influences in popular music and films.
Dwyer wisely moves quickly past making slightly tenuous connections between nostalgic references to the 1950s and the Woodstock appearances of Jimi Hendrix and Sha Na na. Youthful, all-American preoccupations with cars, sex, and pop music about cars and sex, are shown to have been re-written to correct any perceived shortcomings, and re-edit history for a better, more wholesome happy ending. Circumscribed interpretations of Christian values add legitimising philosophical ballast to what begins as a form of social control, a taming of rebellious youth. In other words, the book outlines a mediated appeal to hearts and minds, and the memories contained therein. These are memories of and about figures as diverse as James Dean, Sandra Dee and Michael Jackson, and their playing out by contemporary interpreters such as Morrissey, Olivia Newton-John and Mickey Rourke.
The aesthetically impoverished landscape of 1970’s and 1980’s Hollywood Blockbuster films comes in for a thorough beating. Similarly questioned is the validity or authenticity of commercial American cinema of the 1980s, as constituting a ‘New Hollywood.’ Dwyer contests that alternative descriptors, ‘American New Wave’ or ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ have similarly flimsy substance outside the commercial re-branding by the likes of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
Ultimately, Dwyer turns what could have been an account of 1980’s descent into self-referential hubris, into a well-supported reflection on the collision of New Right politics and the borrowed signifiers of 1950’s popular media. In many ways, Back to the Fifties presents a cautionary tale of various emasculations of mildly subversive films and ‘the racially and sexually destabilizing potential of genres like disco, glam, punk, new wave and hip hop.’ The victors who remain to write the new history are, unsurprisingly in Dwyer’s view, predominantly white males appropriating pop music ‘oldies’ and commercial cinema fantasies, regurgitating them later with intensified cultural associations: The borrowed optimism of youth melded with the idealization of romantic nostalgia.