by Jon Hunt
By any and all measures, 2016 has been a fucking awful year.
Just a quick recap if I may: we lost David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Glen Frey, Emerson AND Lake, Bernie Worrell, Merle Haggard, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson, Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, Vanity, George Martin, Pete Burns, Scotty Moore — and that’s just a partial list and just the musicians (and if I’d stopped at #1 and #2 it would still have been a god-awful year). We had Brexit and the rise of UKip in the UK, Trump won the election in the US, Harambe the Gorilla was shot, there was a major terrorist attack in Nice, police shootings up the wazoo. No matter where you look, it feels like the apocalypse, like the actual Biblical Apocalypse, is either happening or about to happen.
A lot of us feel — well, a little lost, I guess. Like how do we even deal with what’s about to happen? An actual literal fascist (not just a Republican that we call fascist) is about to enter the White House and how do we even cope with that? All over America people are making comparisons to Hitler and you’re left wondering: is that really going to happen? Are my neighbors going to get locked up in camps? It’s cast a pall on everything else that’s happened since the election, like oh, I won the lottery. But Donald Trump is still president. There’s a feeling of hopelessness that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I have felt it, too. Nobody, at least nobody on the left or the sane-right, is immune.
But it’s worth a reminder: as bad as this year has been, and it has been super bad, no question, we have been here before.
I’ve seen online lists of Other Bad Years In History, and while it’s sort of comforting to know that 1837 was really bad, as a Typical American, I don’t know a hell of a lot about that year and it’s parallels to this year are pretty much nonexistent.
But cast your gaze, if you will, to 1980.
I was ten years old, so I actually remember that year pretty fondly. I remember the Reagan vs. Carter election, sort of, from the perspective of a 10-year-old who had zero at stake (Carter was the guy with the funny grin, Reagan talked weird). I remember what was on TV that year (The Dukes of Hazzard, Galactica 1980, Mork and Mindy). I remember some music (I was pretty sheltered, but I remember hearing “Another One Bites The Dust” and a lot of disco). But not a lot else.
But it’s pretty interesting when you start to look at it from the perspective of an adult. First and foremost, and because this is a music column: John Lennon was assassinated. That’s the equivalent of Bowie, Prince AND George Michael dying, really. A Beatle, and he doesn’t just die a quiet death from cancer, he gets SHOT, and it’s announced on live TV during a football game. Granted, it happens near the end of the year, but it still counts as a pretty damn traumatic, shitty event that came at the end of a pretty shitty year. Also dying in 1980, music-wise? Bon Scott and John Bonham are the biggies, but Jimmy Durante, Ian Curtis from Joy Division, Keith Godchaux from the Dead, Tim Hardin, Darby Crash, Carl Radle. Also: Peter Sellers, Alfred Hitchcock, Steve McQueen, Mae West, Strother Martin, Dorothy Stratten, Buckwheat (yes, actual Buckwheat!), Mario Bava, Jesse Owens, Sartre, the Shah of Iran, Colonel Sanders.
The election that year (Ronald Reagan vs. incumbent Jimmy Carter, if you need a reminder) has a lot of parallels to this one because a) Reagan was seen as kind of an outsider candidate, even though he’d been Governor of California and a Republican heavyweight, b) he actually used “Let’s Make America Great Again” as a campaign slogan and used xenophobic fear of a great enemy (Russia) to basically scare people into voting for him, c) Reagan had the overwhelming support of the Evangelical Right who had been mobilized into voting for him by the nascent Moral Majority, and d) progressives, genuine progressives, viewed him as a fascistic character and warned of a Hitler-like dictatorship.
And it’s important to point out that not only did Reagan win, he won in a historic landslide, with only a couple states going blue. Tons of Democrats flipped over to Reagan because they couldn’t stand Carter. This ain’t no “he won the electoral college but not the popular” like we have this year — it was as clear a clear mandate as has ever been handed anybody in the history of the country. Imagine being a progressive in 1980 and knowing that you were in a vast, vast minority rather than a relatively comfortable majority. And the keys to the kingdom were handed over to Ronald Fucking Reagan and Al Fucking Haig and Ed Fucking Meese.
And remember: in the UK, things weren’t much better. Margaret Thatcher had just become Prime Minister the year before, indicating that the shift to the right happening in America wasn’t just isolated to one country. Saber-rattling was pretty much de rigeur as well — the tensions between the two allies and Russia were damned high and about to get even higher.
Some other shitty events in 1980 that probably felt pretty apocalyptic at the time: martial law in Afghanistan. The Iranian hostage crisis (including a major rescue bungle in April). High-profile nuclear tests in the US, Russia, France, Great Britain. Assassination attempt on the Iraqi vice premier. The US boycotts the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Terrorists seize Iranian embassy in London. Mount Saint Helens erupts, 60 die (only 60? I remember that so vividly). Major warfare in Korea. Massacres in Lebanon. Hurricane Aline kills hundreds in Texas. Iraq invades Iran, major war in the mideast threatens. Bob Marley gets cancer. John Wayne Gacy convicted of murdering 33 people.
I mean, that’s no small potatoes. The one thing I do remember about that year was the vague feeling (I was hardly woke as a ten-year-old) that something major was happening. A kind of mood sea-change that I probably attributed to the new decade but probably represented something else, or a lot of somethings else, all happening at exactly the same time.
And you bet there was a lot of apocalyptic talk back then, too. Besides the constant specter of nuclear war (my greatest fear at the time), religious end-times theology had sprung onto the scene in a big way thanks to Hal Lindsey and his 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth. It’s helpful to remember that Christianity in 1980 was far more prevalent and widespread than it is today and this shit was taken very, very seriously by the ever-rising evangelical movement and no doubt contributed to some of the weird mood that year had. So yeah, if we weren’t going to blow up in a massive nuclear war, we’d be raptured (or not, depending on if you were a pre- or post-tribulationist) and the damn apocalypse would happen — either way, we’re fucked.
And then the 80s happened. I mean, a lot, lot, lot of horrible things happened in that decade — AIDS, the cold war, the Satanic Panic, the Superbowl fucking Shuffle — but it was also a decade of amazing things, too. The music was great, no? The movies were great too. TV was — well, it was Christ-awful, but that was because there were only 4 channels or whatever, almost wasn’t even their fault. It was a terrible, awful decade in so many ways but there also were happy times. I was there, I remember them. Some years were almost entirely okay. And this was under an oppressive-as-fuck regime where the vast majority of the country were racist, homophobic, sexist as fuck and ready for a biblical apocalypse to start any time. And Reagan sort of actively wanted to be a cowboy and be the guy who dragged us into nuclear conflagration, quite like Trump, and it never ever happened, even though TV told us, over and over again, that it would.
I’m not saying the Trump Years won’t be worse. Hell, they might even be a whole lot worse. But because humans find comfort in patterns, it’s helpful to know that yes, we’ve been kind of in the same boat before, and we survived, and this time there are a whole shit-ass-ton more of us, meaning left-wing progressive types, than there were in 1980. And all of this is to say: please don’t despair. I’m saying that as much to myself as to you. Resist. Unite. Make art and make it fucking count. Write. Make your voice heard. Don’t let them crush us. At no point feel the kind of despair that you can’t come back from. We will persevere and we will take this god-damn country back and we will be okay. Okay?
I swear in the name of 1980 that I’m not lying.