So what was on TV? Dynasty made its debut. The top shows were Dallas, 60 Minutes, and also The Jeffersons, which had been on for quite a while by that point. I didn’t watch any of the top shows, because my parents didn’t. One TV, four channels, you guys. It seems to me now that the theme song from M*A*S*H* droned from the television for the entirety of my childhood, evoking the memory from the opening credits of incoming helicopters bearing the bleeding and dying. Like a lot of Gen Xers, I grew up assuming that the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. soon would bomb each other into oblivion and take the rest of the planet down with them, so maybe that image of doom was appropriate.
But hey, there was still love and beauty in the world! I stayed up until maybe three a.m. to sneak downstairs and watch Charles and Di’s wedding, seething with jealousy at her flower girls and bridesmaids. I thought it was the most amazing, romantic thing I had ever seen, and I tried to tear up, although I didn’t quite manage it.
A couple of years later, I would hate royalty and pretty much all authority figures. I already didn’t like Ronald Reagan, but I was sorry when he got shot. My teacher said, “You’ll always remember where you were and what you were doing when this happened,” but I remember absolutely nothing, except her (or him?) saying that. Someone also shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 (four times!) but he survived.
I spent a lot of time in my room reading sword-and-sorcerer fantasies where the two men really, really love each other. What were the grownups reading? Noble House by James Clavell, who brought us Shogun; The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving; and Cujo by Stephen King, which Mr. Donovan tells me was no good. Even adults were buying Kit Williams’s curious picture book, Masquerade, which contained clues to a golden hare buried somewhere. I would flip through it in Waldenbooks, captivated by the gorgeous illustrations.
Nonfiction lovers read The Lord God Made Them All, another installment by James Herriot about his life as a British small-town veterinarian. I read one of them at my grandma’s. Both kids and adults read Shel Silverstein’s A Light In the Attic.
I hardly ever got to go to movies as a kid, but I did get to go see the top film that year, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even in that unenlightened time, I did briefly wonder if this professor/adventurer really ought to be stealing other people’s precious artifacts, but basically I thought it was fantastic. Another popular movie that year was On Golden Pond, which I saw later on television. Jane Fonda stands on a dock in her bathing suit for what seems like ten minutes, flexing her muscles. Fine. Congratulations on your body. What do you want, a cookie? No, I suppose not.
The top pop songs of 1981 were crap, and I refuse to mention them, lest one of them get stuck in your head. I will say that Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” came out that year, and as a kid I liked it as much as anyone, which was a lot. No one could resist this song! It remained a staple of graduations, weddings, and local TV commercials for the next fifteen years.
(The YouTube video here says 1980, but all other sources, by which I mean Wikipedia, says it’s 1981!)
Rick James’s “Super Freak,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” also made a lasting impact on the culture. Like preteens everywhere, I rocked out to the last one and to the Go-Go’s. My brother listened to the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and Ted Nugent, who we all know now is a total ass. My dad listened to Dire Straits and Queen, which I considered more respectable.
Some people released records in 1981 that I only became important to me a couple of years later, like U2’s October, the B-52’s Party Mix!, Siouxsie and the Banshees singles album Once Upon a Time, and an eponymous EP by hardcore punk band Minor Threat. Altered Images released “Happy Birthday,” which is terrific to listen to on your birthday. You know, along with “Celebration.”
Now here’s something you should know. Billy Idol’s band Generation X, sometimes known as Gen X, released the album Kiss Me Deadly. The band’s name comes from a sociology book talking about youth Mod subculture in the 1960s. The band’s name in turn inspired Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. In that roundabout way, it became the name of my generation, which was widely known to be entitled and lazy, until Millennials took over that banner from us. Don’t worry, Millennials. Some day, you’ll shake it, too!