Three decades later, a look at Orwell’s big year
British author George Orwell made the year 1984 famous decades before it arrived, but he was no Prince.
No Bruce Springsteen, either.
Orwell coined several iconic terms in his dystopian novel written in 1948, among them “Big Brother,” “Newspeak” and “thoughtcrime.”
But Orwell didn’t bust any ghosts.
Nor did he sweep the leg.
Three decades have passed since 1984, which bore little resemblance — in America, anyway — to the repressive regime Orwell’s fertile mind imagined and his agile pen rendered.
Certain Democrats might have disagreed, I suppose, what with President Ronald Reagan trouncing the hapless Walter Mondale that November to claim his second term.
Liberals’ disdain for the Gipper has dissipated slightly over 30 years, although I don’t believe this is because his critics have soberly reappraised Reagan’s record.
He is employed instead as a political pawn by people who argue that today’s Republican Party leans so far to the right that Reagan, with his more upright conservatism, would whack his head trying to fit in.
I think their case is a weak one.
The difference between Reagan and today’s GOP leaders is a matter of political skill rather than of philosophy — Reagan having quite a lot more of the former.
In any case there is no dispute that in 1984, and indeed throughout his presidency and beyond, Reagan’s foes strived to brand him as, if not a totalitarian, then as a dangerous ideologue.
It strikes me as passing strange, then, that the epochal year, 1984, the very heart of the Reagan Revolution, was distinguished not by the sort of tyrannical society that Orwell described but rather by its antithesis. That year was rent by an explosion of creativity, particularly in popular music and film, that epitomizes the artistic freedom that has defined America for much of the past half century.
It was perhaps the most fecund year of the decade in the entertainment industry.
Prince and Springsteen both released albums that year — “Purple Rain” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” respectively — that were both their most popular records as well as ones widely acclaimed by critics.
This is no minor feat.
Critics, it seems to me, are a contradictory bunch, more inclined to brand as brilliant an artist’s most obscure recording while dismissing his multi-platinum releases as pabulum concocted to appease to the unsophisticated masses.
This tendency annoys me not so much for its implicit elitism as for its lack of logic. Even allowing for the obvious subjectivity of rating music, the notion that any album that sells 10 million copies can’t also be a work of greatness seems to me insulting to the musician and to the fans.
I don’t mean to suggest that sales numbers guarantees quality, either.
If that were the case, the disco era never would have happened.
And “Wham!” would have had a much shorter career, much to the dismay of millions of adolescent girls.
Not to mention MTV executives.
Still and all, I prefer to think of a record such as “Purple Rain” not as an anomaly but rather as a pleasant confluence of high achievement by the musician and widespread adulation from his audience.
Prince and The Boss weren’t the only rock stars for whom 1984 was a milestone.
Among the other notable albums arriving that year in record stores — those still existed, along with vinyl LPs and cassettes; compact discs were available but hardly anyone owned a player — were Van Halen’s “1984” (alas, the group’s final record with David Lee Roth); The Pretenders’ “Learning To Crawl”; The Cars’ “Heartbeat City” (not great, as the band’s 1978 debut was, but still awfully good); and Metallica’s “Ride The Lightning.”
It was a fine year for Hollywood, too.
“Ghostbusters” probably is the best known film from 1984, and deservedly so.
(Harold Ramis, one of the geniuses behind not only that movie but such other comedic classics as “Animal House” and “Caddyshack,” died earlier this year.)
But that was also the year Eddie Murphy proved, in “Beverly Hills Cop,” that he was a movie star as well as a gifted comedian.
The phrase “wax on, wax off” entered the American lexicon in 1984, and there it has remained, along with the other advice Mr. Miyagi gave to Daniel LaRusso in “The Karate Kid.”
Although in my view the most memorable line of the movie was uttered by Cobra Kai sinsei Kreese, who urged his star student, Johnny, to “sweep the leg.”
As for Orwell, his novel is not so often assigned in high schools these days, I suspect, and its influence probably will continue to wane.
Yet it seems to me that his fantasy world, with its ironically named government ministries — the Ministry of Peace handles war, for instance — actually has more relevance today than it did in 1984, at least in theory.
Barack Obama has the capacity to intrude on his constituents’ lives in ways that Reagan, notwithstanding his often-lampooned fascination with technology, most notably the “Star Wars” missile-defense system, could scarcely have conceived of.
Even so, you need to slink toward the far and flimsy edge of the conspiracy theory bridge to believe that any more than a veneer of Orwell’s fictional society has emerged in America during the 30 years since that landmark year came and went.
So long as we can continue to watch such TV shows as “Pitbulls and Parolees” and “Swamp People” — and to watch them not only on TVs in our living rooms but indeed wherever cell phone signals have penetrated — I won’t worry about the Thought Police knocking on my door.
Jayson Jacoby is editor