30 Years On: The Pop Culture of 1989

So much of the popular culture I was consuming in the watershed year of 1989 felt like more than just entertainment—instead, much of it felt incendiary.

The world itself felt on the cusp of something big and at times scary in 1989—on the cusp of a new decade, an unfortunate rise in racial tensions across America, a new world order with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a wave of rebellious Gen Xers seeking to forever alter the pop culture landscape. There was a sense of urgency about the world at that moment in time, and certainly the pop culture of 1989 reflected this.

One of the more powerful single images of 1989: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) in Do the Right Thing.

My opinions of that crucial year might be heavily influenced by how big a year it was for me personally, too. It was as major a transition year as I’d experienced up to that point, beginning the year as a thirteen year old eighth grader, and closing it out halfway through my freshman year of high school. Few years in a person’s life can compare, when you graduate from the relative (but certainly not total) innocence of middle school straight into the deadly jaws of teenage drama.

USA Up All Night rotted my brain properly, at a time when I really needed it.

Arriving at just the right time to help guide me into this exciting and scary new world, USA Up All Night premiered in January. Thus began my formal education in the ways of late-night b-movies, and suddenly I had access to a lot more R-rated movies than I had previously. This is where I was first introduced to cult classics that I still consider personal favorites today, like Slave Girls from Beyond InfinityHollywood Chainsaw Hookers, and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. I watched religiously, every weekend, for most of the series’ duration through the 1990s. USA’s deep catalog of low-budget movies and Friday night host Rhonda Shear certainly fortified my misspent youth.

I didn’t date at all during my first few years of high school but it didn’t matter because every Friday night Rhonda was the best date ever.

Too many important and personal favorite movies were released in 1989 for me to list, but here’s a small sampling just to show you what a mind-blowing year it was at the multiplex:

Sea of Love

The Fabulous Baker Boys

Do the Right Thing

Batman

When Harry Met Sally

Road House

The ‘Burbs

Ghostbusters II

Say Anything

Pet Sematary

Shocker

Society
Dead Poets Society
Born on the Fourth of July

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Glory
Casualties of War

The War of the Roses

Steel Magnolias

Drugstore Cowboy

It was an incredible year at the movies.

My forever autumnal happy place.

A friend scored preview tickets to When Harry Met Sally and invited me along with him. There we were, two middle-schoolers, dropped off at the mall by his dad, completely unaware that we were about to watch what many consider the greatest romantic comedy ever made.

As big a pop culture event as any in my lifetime.


Tim Burton’s Batman and the Bat-mania it spawned were as generational-defining as any pop culture of that era. I marveled at Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader, a character I’d loved since I was two or three years old. I swooned at every onscreen appearance of Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale (and her lookalike Vicki Vale dancers in Prince’s “Batdance” video).

The “Batdance” video was, is, and will always be bat-tastic.

It was also, of course, the year I met Susie Diamond, as brought to life by Michelle Pfeiffer in one of her best-ever performances. The film and its characters—Susie, Jack (Jeff Bridges) and Frank (Beau Bridges)—showed me that reaching adulthood wasn’t going to be some panacea for all my struggles. Adults still struggled too, even the gorgeous ones like Susie and Jack. Steve Kloves wrote and directed this masterpiece of grown up ennui and I’ve loved it ever since.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Susie Diamond: Simply the best.

I didn’t see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing until a year or two after its 1989 release but immediately recognized this was not only one of the most essential movies of that year but likely would be one of the most important of the century. I think that still holds true today.

Ellen Barkin and Al Pacino gifted us with a master class in acting in Sea of Love.


Sea of Love
 played an enormous role in igniting my passion for Al Pacino and his movies. He had been away from the screen for several years at that point but man did he return with a vengeance. He and Ellen Barkin literally set the screen on fire, I swear it. The movie theater screen just went up in flames. That’s how hot they were together.

I could go on about a dozen or two dozen more films from 1989 that helped elevate my budding love for film into full-blown cinephilia, but that would take me days. Even films released that year that few people these days would consider masterpieces still left an enormous impression on me, from gonzo action flicks like Tango & Cash to one of the loopier and wildly entertaining entries in the Halloween franchise, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers.

Before she was Lois Lane, Teri Hatcher made an impression in Tango & Cash.

The music that would shape my high school and college life in the 1990s was just beginning to break out into the mainstream. Alternative rock, or grunge, or whatever the hell it was labeled back then, arrived at the exact right moment in history for kids my age. The musicians behind the music introduced us to what art suffused with integrity looks like. Looking back, it was all a bit too earnest, at times, but at heart the sentiment behind the sound of bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and the Pixies was true: these bands make music for the heart, the soul, and the mind.

I miss Chris Cornell so much.

Madonna was everywhere in 1989. Like a Prayer was one of the biggest albums of the year, and the video for the song of the same name was both literally and figuratively incendiary. I can still recall discussing it with my fellow eighth-graders with a mix of awe and confusion—we knew it was a button-pushing video but weren’t quite sure why yet. All that mattered to us was that song—still Madonna’s best, in my opinion—and seeing the usual platinum blonde Madonna going back to her natural brunette roots! Stunning. Madonna would be omnipresent throughout my high school career, even gracing the inside of my locker in 1990, thanks to her iconic “Rock the Vote” photoshoot, which I must’ve ripped out of some magazine or other.

About as iconic as it gets.

Janet Jackson’s absolutely critical Rhythm Nation 1814 was released in September of 1989 and quickly became my favorite album of the year—and today remains a strong contender for my favorite album ever, full stop. Her best collection of songs, each hit single more unbelievably catchy than the last. Socially conscious music that you could still dance to. On a family trip north to Canada I played that cassette tape on repeat until it croaked. Bought it again and played that one to death too. The album’s powerful messaging about it being time to “give a damn” helped elevate my awareness in ways few pieces of art—if any—ever had up to that point. It was the very definition of a game-changer. There were music and pop culture before Rhythm Nation for me, and then everything else after that would be compared to it forever.

In many ways, the same can be said for 1989. It was a game-changer, for the world at large and for me, personally. It disrupted notions of what good entertainment could be. The year helped elevate socially conscious art to a new level, one which my contemporaries and I would take to heart and integrate into our own lives. As cliche as it might be, I was a shy, socially unsure kid in 1989 who had trouble feeling like I fit in with any one group. The pop culture of that year and the ensuing years went a long way towards helping me feel connected to something. In time, I found like-minded people who felt similarly plugged into the stuff I was watching, reading, or listening to. The pop culture of 1989 played a big role in helping me to find connections with people in ways I otherwise might not have been able to do on my own. It was a heady time to grow up a student of pop culture, and I was just the right age to soak it all in.

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