I Want My Mutually Assured Destruction – Teaching the Cold War with Classic Music VideosRoundup
tags: Cold War, MTV, 1980s, popular culture, teaching history
For decades, I have taught courses on nuclear weapons and the Cold War. Conveying what life was like with the everyday fear of immediate destruction, especially to younger students, has become more and more difficult over the years. Students understand, in some general way, that nuclear war was a terrifying possibility. But the “duck and cover” images—black-and-white stock footage of boys with slicked-down hair and girls in saddle shoes all dropping to the floor as if in a clumsy game—are now clichés. The nightmares of my childhood are, to them, just pop-culture kitsch.
In class, I’ve shown students movies from the nuclear age, hoping that Gregory Peck’s stoicism about the death of the world in On the Beach or Charlton Heston’s damnation of all mankind in the final moments of The Planet of the Apes might make them understand some of the smothering fear of living in a world on the edge of instant oblivion. I make them watch The Day After and read Fail-Safe and Warday. To younger people, these films and books now seem like relics from some lost civilization, full of mysterious, apocalyptic texts and angry cinematic gods.
But one medium from the Cold War, more than any other, gets through to my students: MTV, Music Television, which cannonballed into America’s cable systems in August 1981. When I show them videos from the age of glitter and spandex that are filled with images of nuclear destruction, they finally grasp how much the threat of instant and final war was woven into the daily life of young Americans who thought they were turning on the television just to tune out the world.
In fact, messages about nuclear weapons, nuclear war, and the end of humanity, by some counts, appeared almost hourly on MTV, making nuclear destruction second only to sex as the most ubiquitous video theme flooding the eyes of America’s youth in the 1980s.
When MTV landed in that first year of the Reagan administration, artists weren’t sure what to do with the new medium, and neither were their record-company bosses. One of the first VJs, Alan Hunter, told me that the music industry was initially flummoxed by the whole notion of videos. Executives wanted bands that toured and sold tickets; they didn’t want to spend money on cameras and studios to film rock stars lip-synching their own hits.
But the irresistible marriage of vision and sound took hold in American culture immediately, and almost overnight MTV became, as Hunter perfectly described it, “the wallpaper of people’s lives.” Videos soon evolved from disposable band promos full of wiggling butts and pouty strutting (although those would remain staples of the medium) into mini-movies that had a script and high production values.
Yes, some of the videos were about how girls just wanted to have fun, or about how boys wanted to date centerfold models. More than a few of them, as some of the industry pioneers have admitted, didn’t make a lick of sense. But a surprising number were about the Cold War—and the fear that it would turn hot. As Hunter said, artists had a platform that was subversive in its ability to mix entertainment and political messages.
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