What lingering effect did the 1980s have on our society and culture today? David Sirota tries to answer that question in his new book, Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now — Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything. Full of pop culture references and examples, the book explains how the ’80s have informed policies, politics, new pop culture, and society today, and how history and pop culture of times long past affected the ’80s as well.
Flip to any page in the book and some reference to pop culture in the 1980s will jump out at you. The introduction especially seems to be a long list of various ’80s things with a few other words in between to stitch them together. It is playful, but in the introduction it seems forced and not terribly informative. Sirota does make a good point, though, that many things from the ’80s are coming back. Our interest in things from that decade has resurged and we’re sharing them with our kids. The ’80s have suddenly become relevant again today. But why?
Sirota explores that “why” throughout the rest of the book. He tackles one topic at a time, starting with Michael J. Fox’s importance to the decade of the ’80s. Each chapter deals with much broader topics, not tossing quite as many pop culture references into each sentence. Other topics he covers include politics, advertising, and social movements. The chapters are filled with so much detail that it’s obvious that he either has a very good memory for the decade, or he has done his research. More bits of the 1980s than you need are continually tossed at you, but Sirota uses them to drive his points home.
David Sirota’s audience for this book is clear. Unless you lived through the 1980s, most of the references in this book will go over your head. Just being a scholar of the decade, or a retro enthusiast, won’t prepare you for knowing all of the references. No one can know everything about a decade, even if you lived it to the fullest. So occasionally a point made in the book is lost on the reader.
Back to Our Future is about much more than just the decade of the ’80s. The author also dives into how society brought back the culture of the ’50s and ’60s in different ways, for different purposes. He talks about how society is manipulating our memories and using the rhetoric to guide people’s thinking and voting habits.
To get the most out of this book, you really need to be well-versed in pop culture from the 1950s through the present. Despite remembering living through the ’80s, much of the book would still be over my head if I hadn’t gotten a degree in American Studies and been a lover of pop culture since before I can remember. Here’s an example of something that I might not have understood otherwise: “But those Bob Ross paintings of happy Levittown trees and Eisenhower-era blue skies only became salient because the eighties placed them in the American imagination right next to sensationalized images of Woodstock and the Kent State massacre.” (p. 11)
Even if you didn’t live through or remember the 1980s, this book still has plenty to offer. You can learn in great detail what you missed during that decade. Also, if you love pop culture from the second half of the 20th Century, this book will be a real treat and a great look at how history and pop culture have affected each other and intertwined through the years. Some people write theoretical books with few examples. These are often dry and lose my interest. This book is mostly examples. It almost felt like a checklist of movies I’ve seen, toys I’ve played with, and events I remember.
Reading Back to Our Future is like reminiscing about the decade and the few before it. For the memory- or age-challenged, there is a very detailed pop culture glossary in the back. But it still won’t help you understand the true joy of using a TRS-80 first hand.
Carrying these themes to the next generation, author David Sirota has a multimedia article at Salon describing what Star Wars can teach his new son about life, complete with videos to support his points.
Back to Our Future retails for $25 for the hardback version, but is significantly cheaper on Amazon. I recommend it to anyone obsessed with the 1980s or the history of the second half of the 20th Century. For me, reading it is like walking down memory lane that happens to also take detours through my history classes in college.
Note: I received a copy of the book for review purposes.