Talk Hard! Steal the air! In 1990, the cult film Pump Up the Volume was released and it proved to be a formative movie experience for many teenagers of the time. So, 31 years after it came out, I sat down with Michael Bailey to take apart the film and see if Hard Harry’s words of rebellion still hold up.
It’s the sixth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from December 1990 to February 1991 with a special focus on the role that the Soviet Union played in Operation Desert Storm. Then, Andrew Leyland joins me to take a look at Britain’s most famous super spy, James Bond.
Thirty years ago, Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a novel that would name the generation that came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. It told of disaffected, misanthropic, self-absorbed twentysomethings who didn’t seem to care about anything that was going on in the world. But was that really the case?
In this episode, I take a look at Coupland’s novel as well as Richard Linklater’s film Slacker; plus, I examine articles and books that attempted to define and explain Generation X and make some attempt to come to a conclusion about this group of people who are now middle aged.
When my son was little, he liked to watch videos of the space shuttle taking off. They were exciting and short, perfect for the attention span of a three-year-old. But whenever we watched them, I would get anxious about a minute and a half after the launch when the camera angle switched to the underside of the shuttle as it flew diagonally away from the viewer. The anxiety would melt when the solid rocket boosters separated, because I knew that the launch had been completely normal.
It doesn’t take any real analysis to understand why that happened. Everyone in my generation has not only seen the Challenger explode, we each have our own very specific answer to the “Where were you?” question. Mine? I was in Miss Hubbard’s third grade classroom at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School. We didn’t get to watch it live, and found out when Mrs. Nolan, our principal, came over the PA to tell us that the space shuttle carrying the teacher in space had blown up after takeoff. I’d never heard an adult sound so upset before and I can’t imagine how she managed to even stay that composed. Nobody said a word for at least a while and I can’t remember what our teacher said, just going home, turning on the television, and watching Peter Jennings narrate the shuttle taking off and exploding 73 seconds into its flight, leaving a huge ball of smoke in the clear Florida sky. The lack of sound after Mission Control’s “Go at throttle-up” made it more real than anything I’d seen in a movie, and while it scared me, I couldn’t stop watching.
The news played the footage more times than I can remember and 35 years later, I am struck by how we were all totally unprepared. Everyone who saw the Challenger explode live on television had been watching because something good was supposed to happen. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was being launched into space, nearly every child in the country — every member of a generation — was tuned into that event in some way. Unlike the way my parents’ generation watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, which had a pallor of tragedy prior to its happening, this broke a generation’s trust in the world. The time after was surreal and confusing. President Reagan offered words of solace that we half understood and adults chastised us for not staying quiet enough while he did. And nobody wanted to be an astronaut anymore.
One of the best sources of solace came a little more than a month later when the Punky Brewster episode “Accidents Will Happen” aired on NBC. Filmed as a direct response to the Challenger disaster, it was a rare moment of responsibility on the part of a show, as the writers understood their influence on a young audience. We all understood how Punky felt when she comes home in tears after watching the Challenger explode on live television, and how she is completely inconsolable. It takes a heartwarming talk from an adult—in this case, it’s Buzz Aldrin—to help her realize this is something she’s allowed to be upset about but it shouldn’t stop her from pursuing dreams of going up into space or loving space travel. While not a cure for our sadness, it was a much-needed balm; Punky was our friend and if the adults in her world took the time to show they cared, then they cared and were thinking about us.
Later that year, we received Young Astronauts commemorative packets. These had 8×10 pictures of the crew, Christa McAuliffe, and the shuttle lifting off; two stickers with the Teacher in Space Program and the official mission logos; a letter from President Reagan; and a poster with a picture of the shuttle and the poem “A Salute to Our Heroes”. That poster hung on my bedroom wall for a few years and I even bought a Revell space shuttle model kit because I really wanted a space shuttle toy but couldn’t find one. It sat in its box for a few years before I made a poor attempt at putting it together. We had a moment of silence on the one-year anniversary, but then the Challenger faded from consciousness and conversations—that is, when we weren’t making tasteless jokes like “What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts”. We turned our attention to movies where humans were fighting aliens in space, and the shuttle program went into in limbo.
In the aftermath, NASA took a serious image hit, especially after hearings revealed that the explosion could have not only been prevented, but some engineers’ pleas about an impending disaster were ignored or dismissed. While at eight, I knew about the cause of the explosion—a failure of both O-ring seals on the right solid rocket booster—it wouldn’t be until college that I would attend a lecture given by Roger Boisjoly, one of the Morton Thiokol engineers who gave the warning. He went into detail about the engineering behind the rocket boosters, what was an ultimately fatal design flaw, and those efforts to warn management and NASA about the probability that the shuttle would explode. Having just watched the Clinton impeachment play out, I was fully aware at the capabilities of our government to cover things up, but I still wound up feeling almost exactly how I felt like the day of the disaster when I stood in the den watching television. The gravity of the situation was still abundantly clear.
The shuttle program would be retired in 2011 and in 2013, my son and I went to see Discovery—the shuttle that in 1988 made the first successful launch after Challenger—at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Upon reaching its exhibit hall, I was floored by its enormity. Knowing that we could build something that huge and send it into orbit reminded me of what we are capable of, and as I walked around it, holding my son’s hand, I felt the same awe that he did, and was humbled knowing what our achievements cost.
It’s time for another trip down the rabbit hole that is the music of my formative years! This time around, I’m taking a look at B-sides and rarities that are some of my favorites or marked an important moment in my time as a music fan or collector. You’ll hear me talk about scrounging record stores for “import” CDs, years of random rarities put on mix tapes, and why songs by Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Bruce Springsteen, and even Ben Folds Five are important to my musical tastes.
I have a battered and bookmarked copy of the tenth edition An Introduction to Poetry by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia on my classroom bookshelf that I use for reference in planning my AP Literature poetry units each year. It’s one of those textbook-meets-anthology books that English teachers like myself seem to collect throughout the decades of their careers, and I’ve found this one to be especially helpful because of the way that the authors take us through the genre and its forms via the lens of various literary devices. When the reference dialect, one of my favorites to teach*, they include an excerpt from “Auld Lang Syne” as an example of how a poem written in a particular English dialect sounds richer when read using those words, pointing out that “auld lang syne” when translated into standard English would mean “old long since”, which doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The song, which is credited to Robert Burns in 1788, is an indelible piece of our popular culture and the traditional soundtrack to midnight on January 1. Burns gets credit for a number of the verses, but he is quoted as giving credit to the tradition of passing down folk music, saying that quite a bit of the inspiration from the song came from “an old song, one of the olden tunes, and which has never been in print, or even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” In fact, Burns also references a poem by James Watson from around 1711, and when it is all put together, we get these lyrics (courtesy of Scotland’s official website)**:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne.
Chorus: For auld lang syne, my jo, For auld lang syne, We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne,
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp! And surely I’ll be mine! And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes And pu’d the gowans fine; But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn, Frae mornin’ sun till dine; But seas between us braid hae roar’d Sin auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! And gie’s a hand o’ thine! And we’ll tak a right guid willy waught, For auld lang syne.
Should old acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, And long, long ago.
And for long, long ago, my dear For long, long ago, We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For long, long ago And surely youll buy your pint-jug! And surely I’ll buy mine! And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, For long, long ago. Chorus
We two have run about the hills And pulled the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered manys the weary foot Since long, long ago.
We two have paddled in the stream, From morning sun till dine; But seas between us broad have roared Since long, long ago.
And there’s a hand, my trusty friend! And give us a hand of yours! And we’ll take a deep draught of good-will For long, long ago.
I included the song’s lyrics in their entirety here because like a number of older songs that are traditionally sung, we tend to forget or neglect that they’re much longer than we realize. Also important to note is that the tune of the song was not Burns’ composition but was a traditional Scottish folk tune–in other words, the lyrics were just put to music, even if that was not Burns’ intended tune.*** The tradition of singing it to celebrate the new year began in Scotland, and Scots have a particular ritual of sorts to go along with it:
It has long been a much-loved Scottish tradition to sing the song just before midnight. Everyone stands in a circle holding hands, then at the beginning of the final verse (‘And there’s a hand my trusty friend’) they cross their arms across their bodies so that their left hand is holding the hand of the person on their right, and their right hand holds that of the person on their left. When the song ends, everyone rushes to the middle, still holding hands, and probably giggling.
With the phrase meaning “for old time’s sake” and intended to be sung at the end of a long night of celebrating, “Auld Lang Syne” winds up being a perfect drinking song about friendship. When you sing it to someone or with someone, you are connecting with them across the years and honoring what you’ve shared. And that first verse being a rhetorical question is key, especially with New Year’s Day wiping away the past and in some cases saying good riddance. So we wind up having to ask ourselves “Do we really want to get rid of everything?” Then we look at all we’ve done in the past and decide that we will drink to our friendship for old time’s sake.****
Now, I’m a fan of traditional drinking songs and have been so since I discovered Great Big Sea in the late Nineties. But many of those songs tend to be upbeat and rowdy, the party having to come to you for a few minutes. “Auld Lang Syne” is appropriate for midnigth when you are more than a few in and clinging to whatever second or third wind you’ve gotten.***** And it’s sentimental, a folk song version of “The real treasure was the friends we made along the way.” No wonder it’s sung at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Funny enough, this year seemed like a reckoning more than anything, so “Auld Lang Syne” is less sentimental and more of a cling to hope. Or maybe it’s a positive reminder. Singing a song where you ask yourself “Are you going to forget your old friends?” at the end of a very tough year does help you put things into perspective, even if the question is rhetorical and you’re actually supposed to answer “No. Of course I won’t forget them.”
As I contemplate this question at the end of the end of 2020, there are those people whom I can’t forget and wish were with me to celebrate ringing out this stressful, tough year. And yet, there are also those old acquaintances I should forget. Not that they weren’t really friends to begin with or anything (that’s too simple of a way of thinking, to be honest). People change, circumstances reveal things, or you just grow apart. So, sometimes the real treasure is the friends you lost along the way. I don’t want to get into too much about how tough this year was, especially since we can all offer up our particular 2020 stories, except to say that there were moments in the year that were revealing and while some of them still hurt in a way, they’re moments I am grateful for.
I continue to be grateful for them and am grateful that I can head into 2021 with a glimmer of hope, because I need to say something other than complaining about what a shit year it’s been. It’s not being a Pollyanna; I just think contributing something more positive is important. Consider my cup of kindness raised to those who I’d like to remember and my best wishes for a happy, healthy new year.
*It’s really only one of my favorites to teach because I can whip out a flawless Long Island accent that always amuses my class.
**It’s not hard to see someone’s twenty-post Twitter thread about Robert Burns being a plagiarist and how this somehow ties into classist oppression.
***This is also true of another song that is commonly sung in America, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
****Unless, of course, you’re Dan Fogelberg. Then it’s a lover.
*****Or, if you’re me, you wake up because you fell asleep in the big chair at around 9:30.
Spend this holiday season with some of your favorite families in TV Land! This time around, I take a look at seven sitcom episodes from the 1980s to 2010s that center around or take place around the holidays: Cheers, Married … With Children, Saved by the Bell, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Friends, and Schitt’s Creek. I take a look at one holiday-themed episode from each that I find memorable and give each a quick review. It’s all a bit of cheer to close out 2020!
And as it is the week of Christmas, I wanted to take an opportunity to thank everyone who reads this blog and listens to this podcast for your support, especially during this very tough year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours!
In 1990, David Fincher directed one of the most iconic videos of all time, “Freedom ’90” by George Michael. The video featured five supermodels lip synching the song and was a literally explosive deconstruction of the image he had created in his 1987 solo debut, “Faith.” So, on the video’s thirtieth anniversary, Amanda and I sit down to talk about George Michael and his music, do a video commentary, and then segue into a discussion about fashion in the early Nineties.
It’s the fifth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from September to November 1990 with a special focus on the roles that corporate America and pop music played in the end of the Cold War. Then, the discussion turns to sports; specifically, the Olympics with a spotlight on the controversial 1972 men’s basketball final, The Miracle on Ice, and the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
It’s Halloween and that means it’s time for me to actually get seasonal … for once. I’m here and talking about some oddities of entertainment from the late 1980s and early 1990s. First up is Time-Life Books’ best-selling series Mysteries of the Unknown, whose commercials were some of the creepies of the time. Then, I move into the area of true crime (among other subjects) by looking at a classic Robert Stack-era episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Plus: listener feedback!