1983 in Popular Culture

Thinking about retrospective judgment the other day piqued me to follow up my post on 1980 in music with another 25-year retrospective, this year focusing on 1983. Rather than running through all the categories and subcategories from Grammys and Oscars, I’ll exercise my authorial prerogative to award retrospective honors on an as-merited basis. That being said, Thriller (for which Pippa has recently shown some enthusiasm) represents a noteworthy accomplishment for the scope and staying power of its cultural impact. When Pippa borrowed the CD from the library, it was weeks before I could get “Billie Jean” out of my head (and now it’s back, of course). Overall, though, “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” stand out from the rest of the disk in critical retrospect; I’ll award it a “Landmark Achievement of 1983” ribbon, but not Best Album or Best Single.
’83 was a slack year for some of my favorites. Springsteen didn’t release any new material; he was between Nebraska and Born In the U.S.A. Bob Dylan’s Infidels album has “Jokerman,” but it’s not a knock-out. I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan, and I delight in Punch the Clock, but I wouldn’t lobby for it to win any notable honors (not even in the extended version that includes “Heathen Town”). High marks for New Order’s Power, Corruption, and Lies and XTC’s Mummer, but of all the albums I can think of for 1983, the standout rock album, top to bottom, has to be Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues. “Burning Down the House,” “Girlfriend Is Better,” “Pull Up the Roots” — terrific work from a band that was peaking.
The vast impact of Thriller obscures what I’d think a more important soul/rock crossover, that being Prince’s 1999. The title cut, “Little Red Corvette,” and “Delirious” make a tremendous opening sequence for a very strong album.
A few of my favorite singles came out this year, too. Big Country’s “In a Big Country” makes me turn up the stereo every time, and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” likewise.
As far as movies are concerned, I’ve never seen all of Terms of Endearment (just portions in passing), but the bits I’ve seen didn’t win me over. In fact, I haven’t seen very many of the 1983 releases at all: Return of the Jedi (of course), Silkwood, WarGames, The Return of Martin Guerre (the French one). My favorite movie of the year would have to be Zelig, one of the last old/transitional Woody Allen movies.
In all fairness, though, I’d bet Margaret (and many others) would cast their votes for The Big Chill, which I like all right, but am not as intensely fond of as others are. It’s too easy to write off Chill as self-congratulatory yuppie Boomer narcissism — Kasdan and the actors put a great deal more into the film than the nostalgia, and the strong ensemble acting still catches some of the actors’ best work.
There’s some ambiguity about the release date (Amazon says 1980, IMDB says 1982/83), but before I close, I have to put in a plug for one of my favorite documentaries ever, Say Amen, Somebody. Yes, I’m especially susceptible as a raw-gospel music advocate, but the music and the historical narrative and the participants all lend their extraordinary contributions to a memorable, joyous, proud movie from outside the well-worn paths of the mainstream media.
What have I forgotten?

9 thoughts on “1983 in Popular Culture

  1. As I look over it, it looks like 1983 wasn’t a terrific year for films, but one of the great films of all time came out that year: Tender Mercies.

  2. I have to confess, Paul, that despite my profound admiration for Robert Duvall, I haven’t seen Tender Mercies.

  3. 1983 was a rough year for life in general back at my homestead…but here are some other gems from back then…

    Good call with New Order by the way. Nice follow up to Joy Division for sure, but still does not get to the same level of innovation as when I put in Unknown Pleasures today. That’s Interpol.

    The Fixx put out Reach the Beach which is still a great listen. The Eurythmics put out their first album and arguable the first electronic industrial song with Sweet Dreams. MTV began the year with Duran Duran playing Hungry Like the Wolf. SRV gave us a really minimalistic guitar solo on Let’s Dance. A bunch of studio musicians got together, wrote some cheesy music but with extremely good technical displays (including that kicking shuffle groove on Rosanna) and called themselves the equally cheesy name of Toto. Styx ended their career in a sea of robotic cheese. Herbie Hancock became forever associated with that annoying Rockit song rather than the brilliance of Maiden Voyage or even Head Hunters. Iron Maiden put out Piece of Mind and they still sound the same today.

  4. Not that I was aware of the album at the time (because I was jamming to Thriller, of course), but R.E.M.’s Murmur came out in 1983.

    “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” is probably my favorite cut from Thriller. 🙂

  5. Excellent call, Michael. Murmur falls into the category of “works that we have on some other ancient media but haven’t ripped to mp3s yet,” so it doesn’t show up in my comprehensive iTunes index. Same, now that you mention it, with Billy Bragg’s first release, Life’s A Riot With Spy vs. Spy. Now, neither of those would displace Speaking in Tongues on my list, but “Radio Free Europe,” “Talk About the Passion,” and “A New England” certainly enrich my list of the year’s favorite singles.

    Drew, I’m sorry, but I deliberately avoided mentioning the MTV pretty-boys and JourSpeedStyxTo homogenized stuff. Some of us lived through the 80’s so that you wouldn’t have to repeat those mistakes.

  6. Oh, and how could I forget Steve Martin’s “The Man with Two Brains”? “Into the mud, scum queen!” was a catchphrase of mine for years afterwards!

  7. I never really caught the Violent Femmes or Depeche Mode virii. Sure, I like particular songs here or there (I really only know “Blister in the Sun” from the Femmes), but it would never occur to me to say, “Hey, I want to listen to some Violent Femmes (or Depeche Mode).” I notice, though, that you didn’t nominate Flick of the Switch in this category!
    And I defer to you absolutely in the realm of arcade games. I played Asteroid a few times, Pac Man and Ms Pac Man a few times, but that’s about it.
    And although I just offered a paean to Steve Martin in today’s blog, I’ve never seen The Man With Two Brains. I’ll mention it to Pippa, who manages our Netflix queue.

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