From 20’s to 80’s: Sleepers in Metropolis (1983) (in English)

The music begins a bit like one of those “opening credits” from the Commercial album of the Residents. And then a sequence, another sequence and the drum machine. Pure 1983 pre-techno.

For several years, we have seen many “80s revival” and over time, emerging a sort of stereotyped image, quite caricatural. Much like the other ultra-creative decade of the 20th century, the 1920s, the surface imposed itself and ended up obscuring the substance: the incredible creative energy of this decade which, from the second half of the 1970s in the mid-1990s has forged a deep imprint on the culture of our time.

I wrote they started in the second half of the 70s, and if I had to choose just one year, I would choose 1977, the punk and disco year, when Kraftwerk, having their hair cut and adopted the tertiary sector employee suit, inaugurated this “modern” aesthetic made up of a fascination for technology mixed with a deep melancholy. The cover of the Trans-Europe-Express album, produced in the purest tradition of old-fashioned portraits, roots this aesthetic in a past that would be a projection of our own future. Terry Gilliam, a few years later, will take up this aesthetic by pushing it to its climax in the film Brazil, in some 1930s of the future…
There’s a particular aesthetic to the 80s that totally misses the radar of successive revivals. These limit their exploration to broad shoulders, minimal synthesizers of italo-disco and fluorescent credits of television programs. We remember wide suits and fine ties, arrogant golden boys and dynamic women with colorful streamlined hair and make-up. We revisit colorful tracksuits, bananas and “German” haircuts, short bangs in front, long hair behind. Stranger things.

We have long reduced the other creative decade, the 1920s, to the same type of clichés. Flappers dancing the Charleston, cigarette holder in hand and long pearl necklace wrapped around their necks. Quickly, the 20s were reduced to a caricatural aesthetic when at the same time, under the battering of the consumer society, everyone got rid of their furniture, newspapers, magazines, posters, in short, any trace of this « decadent » decade which had brought us to Nazism in its frenzy of money and champagne.

And yet, the 20s, all crazy and eager to have fun to forget the butchery of the First World War, were so much more than that. They were above all those years that defined the world as we know it. We even forget that not 10 years separate the flappers, with their short hair, their increasingly shorter skirts and their pants, from the women in corsets with their kilos of hair and constraining walking long dresses, and that they have thus were the first to dress as most women still dress today. Far from stereotypes, this decade turns out to be the richest of the first half of the 20th century, it created the objects, codes and images of our time.
Innovative 1920s…

And then, during the 1970s, a few curious people began to look at there remaining objects from different angle. They took the few artists who had passed through them out of the rigid cabinet in which the art history had locked them up, and they no longer discovered traces, but a whole, an era.

Because isolating Mondrian from De Stijl or Art Deco from Dada is just an incredible mistake. Gradually, we truly discovered this fantastic decade, born of a monumental butchery (the First World War) and the Russian Revolution, a total and political nihilism at the same time, a desire to wipe the slate clean of everything, aesthetic, moral, and create on new bases.

Ceramics, Bauhaus, 1923

The BAUHAUS wants to start from nothing, to return to terracotta, to basic forms. De Stijl wants to put art everywhere and explores the aesthetics of the city of the future, rid of unnecessary decorations. Le Corbusier, Mallet-Stevens see concrete as the material that will make life easier while providing space, light and beauty. While the cinema is essential, young artists begin animated visual experiments. Dada, a sort of artistic punk moment around 1917, literally explodes the meaning of words, images, and now surrealism extends it by exploring the meaning hidden in the disorder of our soul.

It is finally the decade of the arrival of household appliances, cars invade the streets, advertising triumphs, the radio gradually settles and from 1924 a new technology is experimented: television. In 1927, finally, the cinema begins to speak when at the same time Eastman Kodak and Technicolor experiment color.

It is by looking at the furniture, the objects, the buildings that have survived the subsequent demolitions that a decade of incredible vitality emerges, and that we better understand why women cut their hair, why they began to wear short skirts: an incredible need to turn the page on the war, and among young people especially, never to see the slightest trace of the 1900s again, with their rococo aesthetics, their corsets and their bourgeois conventions. The 20s want to be new, eternal, they say shit to the past, this so-called « Belle Epoque » having led Europe to the most incredible butchery of all time.

Otto Dix – 1924 – War

In Germany, Expressionism recounts this wound, this darkness of the wounded soul, in a raw, uncompromising way.
Art and architecture, the Charleston tell of new era. Whether it lasts or not, we will have lived.

The 80s, speed and telescoping

Ettore Sottsass – 1983

When we scratch under the shouldered and slicked back surface of the 80s, we find the same features as for the 20s, the same vitality, with the telescoping of two antagonistic generations but united at that time to definitively shake up the past: the babies -boomers in their thirties, and « post-boomers », those that later marketing will call « generation X ». My generation…
The 80s are the product of the 70s by repulsion. The latter had been for the counter-culture a veritable breeding ground born in the previous decade. Beatniks, hippies… The fact remains that the culture of this era is the era of mass culture, standardized, the triumph of the dreams of the 20s, in a way: beauty is now factory-made, everyone has a car and the television is in color, we dress “à la mode”, and even the counter-culture is beginning to add to this consumerist purr.
When the oil shock arrives, the whole consumerist model seems to explode: people queue to buy petrol, the states organise power cuts – in England, people only work three days a week . The world is experiencing its first major recession since the post-war period.
The crimes of communism which are beginning to be documented, the war in Vietnam, the economic crisis instill in the youngest an increasingly important skepticism when it comes to ideologies.

1980 – Fanzine – the B52’s

This is perhaps why gradually, artists, designers but also the curious are beginning to revisit the past, to explore extra-Western cultures. A bit as if this uncertainty about the present invited them to explore in order to create something new.

The first mark of the 80s, therefore, and this is a point that completely misses all pseudo-revivals, is resourcing in the past. We have fun with the aesthetics of the 50s, their balloon dresses and their ultra-thin heels in these never ending boring 70s made of godet skirts and thick soles. We laugh watching these men in wide suits, hats on their heads, thin ties, in front of an enormous rounded shape car with. We burst out laughing watching old movies from the 50s with these couples dancing the cha-cha-cha. We are fascinated by the fluid silhouettes of the young people of the 60s dancing the twist or the jerk, their close-fitting pants that are a little short revealing the ankle and their pointy shoes, the slicked back hair that gets messed up when it sways at all speed to music by Eddie Cochran.
When you look up, you only see neohippies in their faded clothes, sitting on the floor, drained of their energy, with their tiresome, repetitive political speeches. And old people with their accordions, their corny side, the doily on the television and the garden gnomes in front of their prefabricated terrasse house.

Devo – 1979

The 80s were born from a retro rejuvenation and a desire to laugh and have fun. When we look back, we discover that there are endless possibilities. Mini-skirt and ultra-thin stiletto heels on Monday, balloon dress, leather jacket and ballet flap on Tuesday, short ballerina jeans and colorful 50s jacket on Wednesday… The 80s are the opposite of standardization, it’s everyone does as he wants, the decade of post-modernism. The 20s had destroyed everything to start from scratch? The 80s will be the decade of the remix of everything.

Armchair revisited by the 80s, truly inspired by the shapes of the 20s

Creators eagerly delve into the past. The design remixes the simple shapes of the 1920s and the angular shapes of the 1950s, which themselves were inspired by the 1920s. An overdose of colours or angular black.
Among the youngest, we have only one obsession: to make our group. Rock and rap collide with technologies and very quickly drum machines like synthesizers take over, prefiguring the techno that will emerge from this creative explosion in the second half of the 80s, in what was supposed to be the 90s (but which will never really emerge because of the war in Iraq, AIDS and the recession of the 90/93 period).

The economic crisis is ravaging, unemployment is exploding, the cold war and the fear of a nuclear war feed this creative energy through an increasingly intimate depoliticized aesthetic on the one hand, and a so-called “cold” rock scene with dark texts. Very dark.
The 1980s thus appears to be a decade driven by the same thirst for living in the present as the 1920s. ABBA, bell bottoms and orange plastic in the tacky pit… before coming out with the same vengeful laughter as with the 50s. In 1987, when the “80s” aesthetic is imposed, the underground has fun rediscovering the 70s, for fun. If we had known…

And I came across this song by Anne Clark a few days ago.

The music begins a bit like one of those “opening credits” from the Commercial album of the Residents. And then a sequence, another sequence and the drum machine. Pure 1983 pre-techno.
The lyrics moved me deeply with their incredible lucidity on what our civilization has become, on its trajectory, a deep fear in this decade that we have tried to counterbalance with this thirst for intimacy, friendship and live in the present.
The implicit reference to the « Metropolis » necessarily refers to the film by Fritz Lang made in 1927, to this brutal society embodied by a city-corporation depriving beings of their freedoms. The 80s saw the emergence of a particular aesthetic that would fuel video games until today and which we called « cyber-punk », a cold technological future, an abandoned world dominated by money and technology where humans would be reduced to a miserable, brutal life, devoid of sweetness and love.
In three and a half minutes, Anne Clark recounts this sadness of the tentacled, inhuman city, our lives isolated by technology (and we think of Facebook, Twitter, Grindr, Tinder, our lives used to communicate separated from each other , our faces riveted on screens…).
“The city, a wasting disease”

As a sleeper in metropolis
You are insignificance
Dreams become entangled in the system

Environment moves over the sleeper
Conditions sedated breathing
The sensation of viscose sheets on naked flesh
Soft and warm
But lonesome in the blackened ocean of night

Confined in the helpless safety of desires and dreams
We fight our insignificance
The harder we fight
The higher the wall

Outside the cancerous city spreads
Like an illness
It’s symptoms
In cars that cruise to inevitable destinations
Tailed by the silent spotlights Of society created paranoia

No alternative could grow
Where love cannot take root
No shadows will replace
The warmth of your contact

Love is dead in metropolis
All contact through glove or score
What a waste
The City –
A wasting disease


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