The past few years have seen plenty of Eighties revivals. But here’s one nobody wanted to see: the resurgence of Cold War anxiety. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it looked like the end for pop culture’s obsession with the threat of World War 3. But with Putin’s long, vicious war on Ukraine, and America waking up to the idea of Russia as a nuclear threat, a specific kind of Us vs. Them dread is back from the past. And we’re not equipped to handle it. As Prince would say, party over—whoops, out of time.
The apocalyptic imagination was on fire in the Eighties, the soundtrack to the era of The Day After, as the world reached the brink of getting blown up. It’s weird how today you can hear mega-famous tunes like “1999” or “99 Luftballons” or “I Melt With You” or “The Final Countdown,” without even noticing that they’re explicit Eighties songs about nuclear annihilation, which people were expecting any day. Now it’s easy to enjoy a movie like Top Gun as a kitschy little rom-com, with the cinema’s most erotically charged volleyball orgy, rather than propaganda for dropping the Big One.
But in 2022, that old-school anxiety is returning, for the first time in cultural memory. Thinking the unthinkable—how is that transforming our minds, our imaginations, our nightmares? Hell, there’s even a Top Gun reboot this summer, starring Tom Cruise as Maverick, as if the showdown with the Russkies never ended. It definitely hits different than it would have a year ago. But Cold War doomsday culture has always remained wildly popular, even after the context has been forgotten.
Case in point: “Crazy Train,” a classic that nobody today is surprised to hear at a wedding, a prom, a football game, or a SUV ad full of happy children singing along. But “Crazy Train” is a bluntly obvious song about the nuclear arms race, and the helpless terror felt by even the most pampered of citizens, including rock stars. As Ozzy Osbourne sings, “Heirs of a Cold War, that’s what we’ve become / Inheriting troubles, I’m mentally numb!” And Ozzy would much rather go mentally numb some other way.
There was nothing subtle about “Crazy Train” or its message—Ozzy doesn’t do subtle, right? (He rarely gets props as a protest singer, but he always kept it real about nuclear war, with “War Pigs” planning an “Electric Funeral” for “Children of the Grave.”) Anyone at the time could hear that “Crazy Train” was a rant against Pentagon/Kremlin evil minds that plot destruction. But now it means your sister’s wedding DJ is taking requests, and Uncle Tony is goin’ off the rails.
It’s tough to overstate how deep the atomic threat saturated every corner of the culture in those days. So dig if you will the picture: as the Eighties begin, the planet is run by two superpowers who base all their decisions on the assumption they’ll soon be incinerating 4 or 500 million of their citizens in a nuclear war. This is Plan A. There’s no serious public debate allowed about this in either country. In the US, where political parties legally exist, both sides agree: we need more, more, more of these awesome weapons. All they argue about is how to pay for them. The Democrats advocate paying out of public funds; the Republicans advocate racking up the biggest debt in the history of money, plus Jesus. Naturally, the Republicans win every election.
In the U.S.S.R., the guy with his finger on the little red button is a 70-something drunk named Leonid Brezhnev, boozing his way to his next stroke. In the U.S.A., it’s a 70-something actor named Ronald Reagan, who announces, “Eighty percent of air pollution comes from plants and trees.” Neither gent is exactly a mental giant. Both take a lot of naps on the job. Both think the world of their personal astrologers. Leonid’s is an Assyrian named Dzhuna; Ronald’s is a Californian named Joan, and he never makes a decision without running it past her first. The President famously shows up to the 1983 global economic summit without reading any of the briefing materials. When his Chief of Staff complains, Reagan says, “Well, Jim, The Sound of Music was on last night.”
These are the two minds entrusted with the nuclear launch codes. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehn, good night.
The week Prince’s “1999” peaked on the pop charts, at December 1982, Reagan was visiting Brazil, where he toasted “the people of Bolivia.” Maybe it’s no surprise that “1999” got re-released and became an even bigger hit the next year. But the paranoia wasn’t going away. There was too much to be paranoid about. It was a time when ordinary citizens thought about the future in terms of concepts like “nuclear winter” and “dense-pack” and “mutually assured destruction.” The Day After was a massive TV hit. There was a wildly popular paperback guide called Nuclear War: What’s In It For You? [https://www.amazon.com/Nuclear-Inc-Ground-Zero-Fund/dp/0671450964] Title of one chapter: “The Good News Is You Will Be Killed Instantly,” followed by “The Bad News Is You Might Survive.”
Pop music was fixated on the question of human life after the apocalypse—what would it look like? Would it even exist? And (because this was pop music) how would that affect making out? It was there in the survivalist metal of Saxon, who told MTV they wore armor to prepare to fight for their food in the post-nuke badlands. It was there in P-Funk, who called their beat “The Bomb.” It was there in even the silliest bubblegum pop groups like Bow Wow Wow—their hit “Jungle Boy” was about running off to the wilderness to have frantic terror sex, because “when the city turns to rubble, big trouble!”
Kate Bush, Gen Z’s new favorite Eighties rock star, was obsessed with the bomb—she wrote “Breathing,” one of her biggest, best, and weirdest hits, about a woman giving birth in the middle of the nuclear annihilation. “There is such a real shadow of it happening all over the world,” she told the BBC. “Breathing” hit Top of the Pops in 1980, the same year the Clash were on the radio ranting against atomic doomsday in “London Calling.” (The Ukrainian punk band Beton just fittingly turned it into “Kyiv Calling.”)
It was there in the go-go scene, where Black artists and dancers in Washington D.C.—the city everybody knew was first on the red-button list—gathered by night to chant Trouble Funk’s “Drop The Bomb.” When the big one drops, it falls on all the party people—the Freak Crew, the Technicolor Crew, the White Boy Crew, the Sugar Grit Crew, and all the other cliques who get shouted out in this song, because everybody’s blowing up together. Trouble Funk released their “Drop The Bomb” 12-inch on the hip-hop label Sugar Hill—a moment where NYC and D.C. were on the same page.
When Brezhnev died, his replacement Yuri Andropov expired after 15 months. *His* replacement Konstantin Chernenko croaked 13 months later, barely surviving long enough to see himself get eviscerated by Frankie Goes To Hollywood in their video for “Two Tribes.” (As Rolling Stone noted at the time, “Frankie say nuclear war is no good mostly because it would rule out any future orgasms.”) The crabby old men at the controls were falling apart, physically and mentally. One day in 1984, Reagan felt frisky before a radio broadcast, so he cracked a joke: “I have signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in 5 minutes.” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VQgbMOezqA] When you read these words, they seem merely stupid, but hearing him say it, the zest in his voice, the way he drools at the punch line, this man is quite clearly deranged. You wouldn’t trust him with your car keys, much less ICBMs. As Phil Collins put it, this was definitely a Land of Confusion.
That’s why Eighties music had so much desperation behind the hedonism, even when it was disguised to pass for zany shenanigans. If all you had were those 5 minutes, you needed to pack in as much living as possible. Duran Duran declared, “We want to be the band to dance to when the bomb drops.” The Smiths sang, “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.” A quintessential New Wave one-shot like Haysi Fantayzee could score a hit like “Shiny Shiny”—it might seem like just a fun novelty bop, but as they explained, it was “a party song about dressing up after the bomb has dropped.” (The writer Matthew Perpetua has assembled an excellent playlist of Eighties bomb-paranoia pop, fittingly titled “Melt With You.”)
But the songs and movies stayed popular after the Cold War ended, even as the nation tried to forget it ever happened. Prince classics like “1999” or “Sign O’ The Times” were more beloved than ever. Nuke imagery seemed so harmless, the kiddie rap duo Kris Kross could put a mushroom cloud on the cover of their 1993 album Da Bomb, without any controversy in this country. (The Japanese edition censored the artwork.) The fact that all these ICBMs were still stockpiled out there, still ready to go off, faded from the public imagination. There was plenty other shit to get upset about.
But now that panic is back, forcing America to confront long-cherished myths about the past, along with buried fears about the future. (As Steve Kandell wrote in Vanity Fair, it’s “the gritty reboot of Gen X’s nuclear nightmares.”) Yet the Cold War revival is a shock to the cultural imagination. America has clung to the fantasy that the threat was over and the good guys won. The idea that this history had a happy ending, or any ending at all, has taken a beating in recent years—like when Donald Trump proudly paraded as Putin’s BFF, while treatening other countries with nuclear war on a well-known social-media site.
There was a hit movie a few years ago called Yesterday, a hugely popular rom-com about a world where the Beatles have disappeared into a memory hole, so there’s only one person alive who knows their songs. When he plays a gig in Moscow, the crowd happily sings along with “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” even the line, “The Ukraine girls really knock me out.” This scene was already beyond belief in 2019—nobody involved knew Russia and Ukraine weren’t the same country any more? Or that thousands of people had been killed fighting over it? Yet that oblivion wasn’t just an oddity in a rom-com. It was America’s fantasy of the world for a long time. A fantasy where the Cold War was over and the U.S. won. A fantasy where America spent thirty years. But that fantasy was yesterday.