On American Suburbia in 1980s Music Videos
Video Essay
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by Luisa Sol

Although the suburb is a 19th-century conception, the post-war period in the USA sees the emergence of a serially produced and constructed periphery, simultaneous with the spread of television.

Each influenced the other and they proliferated together. Lynn Spiegel states that the American standardisation of the suburbs, coupled with television, fostered the social practices and cultural fantasies of the emerging suburban class:

“Television and suburbs are both engineered spaces, designed and planned by people who are engaged in giving material reality to wider cultural belief systems. In addition, media and suburbs are sites where meanings are produced and created; they are spaces (whether material or electronic) in which people make sense of their social relationship to each other, their communities, their nation, and the world at large.1

The television image and suburban America’s lifestyle and domestic dynamics have gone together since their beginnings. Capital, industrial, geopolitical and territorial prosperity propelled the USA into ascendant abundance, success and power that defined the entire American 20th century. The exodus of the middle class towards the outer city limits represented a conquest based on mobility, powered by cars and highways, and based on the expansionist idea of unlimited territory – the ever surpassable and transposable frontier – where, supposedly, the promised land can be found.

Through a ‘modern’, comfortable-house-with-garden-and-large garage-for-a-large-car lifestyle the suburb represents a bittersweet reconstruction of domesticity. On one hand, it emphasises the fulfilment of ambitions and its ostentation; and on the other it gives a new impetus and meaning to consumer culture. In addition to this search for belonging, identity and meaning, the average American middle-class individual faced the possibility of becoming an owner.

Moving to the suburbs was a closest representation of what the Declaration of Independence proposed when it enshrined “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" as the inalienable rights of the American citizen. The North American periphery thus constituted the materialisation of a ‘post-city’ (beyond the limits of the city) that concentrated in itself, potentially, the best of both dimensions, and therefore the realisation of the promise to live in the ‘America’ project.

James Brown’s Living in America music video (1985) is a celebration of how easily distances are overcome – “Super highways, coast to coast, easy to get anywhere” – and the fruitful opportunity of the unlimited freedom to cross territory in search of happiness and the promised land. But above all, the potential possibility of finding them on the way:

“Living in America – eye to eye, station to station
Living in America – hand to hand, across the nation
(…) You may not be looking for the promised land,
But you might find it anyway.”

There is an excess – of speed, information, brilliance and exuberance – inherent in this video that reflects the lifestyle full of optimism that prevails in this decade: “American pursuit of happiness degenerated into an obsessive pursuit of pleasure, both indulgent experiences and beautiful things.”2
 

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In Living in America, which simultaneously illustrates status, social ancestry and power, aspects that were increasingly projected in the aura of the celebrities of the decade are based on materialism and consumerism, fomented also by Reagan’s speech:

“Considered America’s oldest yuppie, his call for capitalist renewal fostered the money-media culture. Reagan would summarise the year’s accomplishments in his January 1984 State of the Union Address, saying: ‘Hope is reborn for couples dreaming of owning homes and for risk-takers with vision to create tomorrow’s opportunities’.”3

The pursuit of happiness makes suburban America a possible consummation of the American Dream on the one hand, and its crumbling on the other: “But when newcomers arrived in their suburban communities they were likely to find something different from the ideal that the magazines and advertisements suggested.”4

There is a contrast between the optimism of the post-war middle-class families who settled in suburban neighbourhoods (with all their potential and promise of the good life) in the 1950s and 60s, and the disillusionment of the next generation born and raised in suburbia in the 1970s and 80s:

“‘Mark and I can be very happy here, air is clean, skies are blue and all the house are brand new and beautiful. They call it suburbia, that word’s perfect because it’s the combination between suburb and utopia.’— They didn’t realise that would be the slum to the future.

— ‘... I’m sure Mark‘s job makes a lot, so I don’t have to work again’ ... uh... wish... ‘oh, and by the way diary, I want have a child soon, suburbia is a great place for children.'5

The other side of the well-intentioned idea of planning and building neighbourhoods and communities this way is demonstrated in the music video Suburbia by the Pet Shop Boys (Eric Watson, 1986). The video corresponds to a disenchanted vision of travelling through a Los Angeles suburb, with a tense and expectant sound prelude, and a pack of dogs barking ferociously, accompanied by the whisper: “Suburbia / Where the suburbs met utopia...”

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The theme song and music video were both inspired by Penelope Spheeris’s film Suburbia (1983). Set in Los Angeles suburbs like Downey and Norwalk, the film chronicles the decadence of the American suburbs through the daily lives of a group of kids who run away from home. They take refuge in a punk community occupying uninhabited houses in abandoned suburbs. The boredom of suburban life, dysfunctional families, the discrediting of contemporary America, the remnants of the 1970s recession, ideological emptiness, and a general sense of a failed project culminate in the children of the middle class fleeing to an anarchic foster family occupying the remains of an abandoned suburban neighbourhood.

In the music video, the residential and domestic setting is constantly punctuated by the possibility of invasion and pressing threats, whether it’s the constant presence of barking dogs, the series of residents, leaning against a car, looking vacant and hostile, the collection of notices scattered around the neighbourhood – Exact Fare Please, Watch your Step, Beware of Dog, the half-abandoned swimming pool, or the pile of rubble in front of a villa.  There is a suspenseful atmosphere at the beginning of the video, and the sense that danger hangs in the air is confirmed in the camera shots entering the house, which focus on two portraits with defensive connotations: a dog, and a boy with a defiant look and clenched fists.

The Pet Shop Boys perform Suburbia sitting on a couch inside a house where all the furniture is semi-packed, and its arrangement once again accentuates an unsettling uncertainty as to whether this is a house that has just been occupied or is about to become uninhabited. There is also doubt as to whether the musicians are the presumed residents or intruders. The whole video is wrapped in an apparent tense calm, which refers to the pause between a period of post-violence and something that may happen at any moment.

The return to and refuge in the familiar setting are associated with an implied nostalgia for the prosperous, conservative America of the 1950s, resurrected by the Reagan atmosphere: “The Reagan presidency was all about nostalgia. Nostalgia for small town values, revival of traditional virtues – prosperous America of the 50s – mom and apple pie.”6

The nostalgia for happy families and the – more idealised than actual – golden years of the 1950s rests on the attempt to mitigate the ideological void of this period. The anti-war protests and psychedelic rebellion of the 1970s are replaced by resignation, disenchantment, and refuge in nostalgic alienation, so nostalgic that it’s almost as if the present can be remedied by the past.

The prosperous and happy past versus a disillusioned and bleak present is manifest in the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA (directed by John Sayles, 1984). Although this theme seems to have become associated with a kind of nationalism, it represents its scathing denial: “Born in the USA was this working-class troubadour’s rejection of Reaganism and rah-rah Americanism.”7

The repetitive, encouraging, assertive and strong chorus contrasts with the disillusioned and despairing narrative of the rest of the song. The intermittence of images representing home and community with the images representing the conflict – near but far away – of Vietnam mirror the dichotomy between local and global. “What holds together the narrative divides – chorus/narrative, and domestic/foreign – is a guerrilla war, a working class under siege at home and abroad.”8

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War transformed the way the nation-state began to be viewed. The post-Vietnam War experience encompassed unemployment, trauma, economic crisis and a lack of social and political support. The mother country became a hostile and threatening place, and there was no longer a place for those who had left on their return. The emphatic Born in the USA serves not to reinforce patriotism, but to remind the country of a forgotten class:

“The working-class hometown, then, may be conceptualised as a kind of liminal identity structure, dependent on negative distinction in opposition to that which is outside of it in both geographical and ideological senses. The combination of a class-biased draft for an unpopular war and a growing cultural radicalism of the movement against that war served to further confuse the boundaries of working-class identity: anti-war but pro-America, anti-protestor but pro-tradition, a victim of place but ‘Born in the USA’.”9

These music videos illustrate the paradox of an American Dream based on planned settlements that, like cities, do not consider all social realities, or how home ownership does not necessarily solve all housing problems or, finally, how American suburbia can function as a segregating structure in itself – and in this sense, how the suburb can represent a shattered dream.


Bibliography

Jefferson Cowie and Lauren Boehm, Dead Man’s Town: ”Born in the USA”, Social History, and Working-Class Identity, in, Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream, ed. Kenneth Womack, Jerry Zolten and Mark Bernhard, Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1988.

Lynn Spigel, Welcome To The Dreamhouse – Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2001.

Gil Troy, Morning in America – How Ronald Reagan invented the 1980’s, Princeton University Press, 2005.

Rob Tannenbaum, Craig Marks, I Want My MTV, New York, Plume Books, 2012.

Umberto Eco, Faith in Fakes - Travels in Hyperreality, London, Vintage, 1998.

Owen Gleiberman, in 80s The Decade That Made Us, Ep.05 — Tear Down These Walls, Nutopia, National Geographic Channel, 2013. (TV series)

Suburbia, directed by Penelope Spheeris; Suburbia Productions,1983. (film)

Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen, directed by John Sales, 1984 (music video).

Living in America, James Brown, 1985 (music video).

Suburbia, Pet Shop Boys, directed by Eric Watson,1986, (music video).

  1. Lynn Spigel, Welcome to the Dreamhouse – Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2001, p.15

  2. Gil Troy, Morning in America – How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s, Princeton University Press, 2005, p.119

  3. Idem, p.120

  4. Lynn Spigel, op. cit., p.42

  5. In Suburbia, Penelope Spheris, 1983

  6. Owen Gleiberman, in 80s The Decade That Made Us, Ep.05 — Tear Down These Walls, Nutopia, National Geographic Channel, 2013.

  7. Gil Troy, Op Cit, p.163

  8. Jefferson Cowie and Lauren Boehm, Dead Man’s Town:”Born in the USA”, Social History, and Working-Class Identity, in, Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream, ed. Kenneth Womack, Jerry Zolten and Mark Bernhard, Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1988, p.33

  9. Idem, p.27

Luisa Sol
PhD Architect Luisa Sol obtained her BA in architecture, as well as a Diploma degree in Scenography, from the Faculty of Architecture - University of Lisbon. She worked as an architect at Triptyque Arquitetos (São Paulo, Brazil) and at Aires Mateus & Associados (Lisbon). In 2018 she finished her PhD degree in Architecture “The Image of the City and its Represented-Space in 80’s Music Videos: North-American Interferences in Contemporary Architecture Culture”, also in Faculty of Architecture – University of Lisbon and at NOVA School of Social Sciences and Humanities. She has written several essays for academic and non-academic publications, focusing especially on the enormous public space inaugurated by the television screen, exploring the city and domesticity by assessing the repercussions of architecture on audiovisual representations and vice-versa.
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