It’s the tenth and final 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 in December 1991 with a special focus on the final days of the Soviet Union. Then, I take a look at my two favorite Cold War films.
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.
[This post addresses current-day politics and expresses some of my political views. If you care not to read that, please skip this.]
I saw the decade end
when it seemed the world could change
in the blink of an eye.
Those are the first lines of the second verse of “Right Here, Right Now”, a song by Jesus Jones that hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 (and topped the alternative chart) in late July 1991. Written about a year earlier, it is an optimistic song that celebrates what lead singer Mike Edwards describes as “watching the world wake up from history.” Even though the song is approaching its thirtieth anniversary, it still gets some airplay, especially on alternative radio stations that cater to the aging teenagers of the Nineties.
The song’s melody has aged well, especially compared to the pop that accompanied it at the time–an era in which pre-“grunge” alternative was seeing some mainstream success (EMF’s “Unbelievable” was also in the top ten) and D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released “Summertime,” but that was dominated by Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush,” Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, and the constant chart presence of Color Me Badd and Amy Grant–but its lyrics are very much of its time. The line about the world waking up from history is a reference to the end of the Cold War, which had begun in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and would continue until the Soviet Union finally disbanded in December 1991. And while I’m sure that anyone who actually takes music seriously would look at it and scoff at the sentiment, I thought then and still think that it encapsulates the feeling of the time (with apologies, of course, to “Winds of Change” by The Scorpions).
Granted, when I was seeing the world change in the blink of an eye, I was in junior high school and to me, it did seem that everything was happening at once. When you’re a ‘tween (I guess that’s the official term now–it really didn’t exist in the early 1990s), you don’t have a deep understanding of how the news that you catch glimpses of between your favorite shows is the result of years of policy decisions and other tactics taken by leaders, some of whom long ago left the world stage. Sure, maybe I’d get the Weekly Reader condensed version in class every once in a while, but for the most part, my context for the Cold War was mostly the action movies I was renting from the video store. The Soviet Union (or “Russia”, which is what we tended to say) was a big bad that our action heroes and action figures fought against. When we were on the playground, we weren’t having long discussions on the ramifications of Glasnost; we were pretending that the swings were F-14 Tomcats or we were hunting Gaddafi through the deserts of Libya. At the same time, though, we were being taught that not everyone over there was like what we saw on TV.
I am from the last Cold War generation and occupy a unique part of it because while my early childhood came during the first part of the Reagan era–that of the “Evil Empire” speech, The Day After, and the “Star Wars” plans to blow nuclear missiles out of the sky–my formative years truly began as it was all ending. I saw the threat of nuclear war but started to come of age when the teens in the U.S.S.R. were not zombified commie youth, but blue jeans-wearing, Coca-Cola drinking, heavy metal-loving kids. So, this song, with its catchy hook and bright lyrics, matched my perspective that everything was going to be great because we had gotten through a tough time in our history, but the Wall came down, all those countries were free, and we didn’t have to worry about a Third World War.
Flash forward to when I recently heard “Right Here, Right Now” on my local alternative station and thought about how much of a contrast the world politics of 1991 are to the situation in which we currently find ourselves. I know that not everyone thinks we have been living a waking nightmare since 2016, but I find it hard to think otherwise as I have tried to navigate the news, social media, work, and everyday life without having a complete breakdown. And I realize that compared to many other people out there, I am saying this from a place of extreme privilege, but I still feel that people who cheered with me when the Berlin Wall fell slammed me with a folding chair because heel turning on their tag team partner was more lucrative.
Yes, I realize that I just made a pretty clunky professional wrestling comparison and also realize that I’m the Marty Jannetty of said metaphor, but watching people go after one another online because “owning” them and declaring themselves some sort of “winner” is more important than actual conversation or a relationship makes said comparison apt. When I finally studied how the Cold War ended, I saw way more nuance and complexity than I was seeing in junior high and became more appreciative of it. At 41, I struggle with being someone who wants to see the same nuance and complexity in our world, knowing that’s a losing battle. I’ve watched people throw away their core values (though they don’t see it or won’t admit it) and let the doublethink take over and this makes me just want to toss my hands up and walk away because we’re completely fucked and quite frankly, I’m exhausted.
For decades, we’ve let pop music be the soundtrack to the times, but right here, right now, it’s tough to figure out what that soundtrack should be. At our most positive, maybe we could find comfort in the bittersweetness of “Let It Be”; at our most negative, we’re a teenager slamming the door to our room and blasting The Downward Spiral. Jesus Jones’ sentiment is quaint and maybe even trite, especially considering the cynical, toxic world in which we live. Maybe, though, listening to it now can provide us with some hope that there can be another time when we can say “I was alive and I waited for this.”