In Reagan’s Debt

Writing in the Rumpus, Rick Moody takes an absurd approach toward answering a question long loved by music geeks: What’s the most awful pop song you can think of? Moody’s nominee is Steve Winwood‘s “Higher Love,”* and his essay ultimately becomes a heartfelt reminiscence of his sister, who died in 1995, and their shared passion for music. Before he gets there, though, there’s lots of willfully silly top-of-head riffing about Winwood and music, and one of the ideas that gurgles up is this:

And since I believe that the politics of an age affect the artistic productions of the age, I suppose I really do think that Ronald Reagan somehow forced Steve Winwood to make “Higher Love,” even though Winwood is a British subject (from Birmingham, I believe), and could theoretically make any recording he wanted to. On first blush, the theology of “Higher Love” is morning-in-America theology, theology of the kind that leads people to believe that Jesus wants them to make lots of money. Or that Jesus will somehow protect them from death, disease, poverty, bad luck, traffic accidents, and so on.

If it’s silly to apply all this to Steve Winwood, is it silly to apply it to books? It certainly seems like a no-brainer to say that politics has a strong influence on art—back in 2007 it was hard not to notice that a few literary novelists seemed to be commenting on American interventionism by writing stories about oppressive regimes and disappeared citizens. Life since 9/11 has made it easy to leverage politics into art; was it as easy to do it during the Reagan go-go years?

The 80s were the years of my childhood and adolescence—nerdy as I was at the time, I didn’t follow contemporary literature (or politics) very closely. But looking at the bestsellers for that decade, it’s not hard to detect some of the themes that Moody is concerned about—there’s scads of Cold War thrillers (Clancy, Ludlum, Le Carre), American verities (Jakes, L’Amour, Keillor), and high-fashion glitz and romance (Steel, Collins, Krantz). But I’m not sure what, if anything, the epic bricks by Clavell, Michener, Auel, and Uris have to say about the Reagan years. (Did we stop liking massive historical novels, or did people just stop writing them?) And the same question goes for all those Stephen King books—though The Tommyknockers is infamously a product of, and commentary on, cocaine addiction, and some smart graduate student could probably spin an argument about Reagan-era South American misadventures out of it.

It’s not as easy to tease out these influences when you look at the kind of literary fiction that was embraced by critics through the decade. Looking at the New York Times Book Review‘s selections for best books during those years—imperfect benchmarking to be sure—what sticks out is an almost deliberate avoidance of political themes and messages. There was plenty of affection for Raymond Carver (in 1988), Philip Roth (1981, 1983, and 1987), and John Updike (1981, 1982, and 1986), none of whom seemed especially interested in morning-in-America themes. (Rabbit Is Rich talks a lot about the economy, but given when it was written and the time in which it’s set it’s probably best considered the Great Carter-era Novel.) Same goes for the interior stories by Marilynne Robinson (1981), Peter Taylor (1985), Louise Erdrich (1985), William Kennedy (1983), and others. With the notable exception of Tom Wolfe‘s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was met with both critical and commercial acclaim, looking at the Times‘ selections you’d think American fiction writers spent the decade unaware that the country had a president, or politics, at all.

Conspicuous in their absence from either set of lists are the “brat pack” authors like Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and Bret Easton Ellis, but those authors may wind up best reflecting the era in which they emerged—certainly Ellis’ American Psycho is a potent satire of 80s consumerism, greed, and selfishness. That book came out in 1991, so perhaps it took getting out of the 80s for those writers to effectively approach it. While they were in the midst of it, they produced threadbare works like McInerney’s Story of My Life, stories that were hollow and went down easy—the “Higher Love” of American literature.

* Moody’s wrong. “Higher Love” is just innocuous. As I suggested on Twitter, the song that ought to get this prize is Europe’s “Cherokee,” which has a number of fatal flaws: It’s reminiscent of (but not as good as) the band’s biggest hit, has a hilariously insincere “social justice” lyric, and includes a keytar solo. None of which, unfortunately, keeps the song from appearing in regular rotation on XM’s otherwise unimpeachable “Hair Nation” channel.

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