It Was Acceptable At The Time


[Image taken from:  Check out the blog; it’s a good one on textual analysis of the song and video for “Acceptable In The 80’s, by British DJ Calvin Harris.]

One of the things I most enjoy about listening to music critics and watching their videos is the fact that occasionally they can introduce me to some excellent music.  Recently, while watching one of my favorite music critics (who has written some excellent Minecraft fan fiction as well [1]), commented on one of my favorite years of music, 1983 [2], by talking about what he viewed as five of the worst songs, from 10-6 on his scale.  Although we only fully agreed on one of the songs being one of the worst of  the year, with “China Girl” for its cringy lyrics and tone, the video was a great one to listen to not least because the reviewer chose some amazing bumper music, namely an obscure Calvin Harris classic called “Acceptable In The ’80’s,” a song that was made before the DJ thought he was cool and when he was still openly nerdy.  This song is seriously one of my favorite homages to the 80’s, and something I keep on returning to for laughs and smiles at the outrageous music video and the fondness of the two main people in it with holding stuffed otters, which are being tested on by some unethical-appearing scientists (!?).

Yet even the silliest and nerdiest of songs can have a much deeper meaning if one is inclined to take them seriously on at least some level, and that is true here.  When Calvin Harris intones that he’s got love and hugs for someone who was born in the 80’s, one can get a sense of at least some of what was going on when Taylor Swift (an ex-girlfriend and former co-writing partner of his) titled an entire album 1989, subtly indicating that she was born in the 80’s and wanted those hugs and that love for herself.  Beyond that, though, there is at least one other additional layer of seriousness in the song that I would like to discuss, and that is the understanding that what is acceptable in one period does not always translate to other periods.  As human beings of the last few decades have been particularly full of chronological snobbery, it is important to note at the outset that much of what is acceptable is not based on moral standards of righteousness at all, but rather matters of taste and fad and fashion.

It is easy for human beings to confuse that which is unfashionable for that which is immoral.  When I was in college in southern California, for example, some of my acquaintances would play videos of “Dueling Banjos” from the film Deliverance as a way of trying to delegitimize my opposition to their fashionable leftism by not very subtly claiming that the reason for my more conservative views was from being an inbred Southerner.  As someone who was always considered to be a dayum Yankee by my southern neighbors for my mild Western Pennsylvania accent, general proclivity to intellectual interests like reading lots of book, and fast talking, this would have been news to the people I grew up with in rural (now suburban) Central Florida.  It was clearly unfashionable in middle or upper middle class Southern California society to be someone who had a political worldview that was anything like that of the Southeastern United States, but that which is unfashionable is not necessarily immoral.  A classic example of this is the way my father kept a polyester leisure suit long after the seventies ended, long after it became disastrously unfashionable.  While there are certainly moral critiques that one could make of my father’s conduct, particularly in the early 1980’s, his wearing of unfashionable clothing was not a moral failing, only a sartorial one.

When we fancy ourselves to be more morally developed than the people of the past, there is a strange sort of moral blindness that occurs due to this chronological snobbery.  For example, the book of Philemon addresses the situation of slavery in the first century Roman Empire, where there were many slaves but they were not enslaved by ethnic or cultural origin but rather for economic or military reasons and where slavery typically lasted only until about the age of thirty in many cases and where freedmen still retained loyalty and close connections with their former owners.  This situation was far different from the slavery of the 19th century antebellum South, or from the situation of those who are often termed wage slaves who often live hand to mouth or paycheck to paycheck and who expect (and generally receive) no loyalty from their corporate masters.  The fact that we look down on the people of the past means that we often fail to recognize ways in which we act similarly to them or even morally worse than they are.  These are matters that would embarrass us and remind us that moral progress is not a linearly increasing phenomenon.

As human beings living in times of great and immensely conflict-ridden social change, it can be greatly disorienting to reflect upon past deeds with the understanding that some things which are definitely not acceptable now were acceptable at the time.  It is harder for us to understand that some of the things which are acceptable now may not be acceptable in the future.  We often take for granted that what we are doing and how we are behaving is the acme of civilization.  A governor of Virginia may think it is acceptable to engage in blackface in the 1980’s (where it was already something viewed as being offensive) and attempt to justify himself.  In our present generation, it is easy to see how our casual attitudes towards immorality may not be acceptable in future generations who will so easily point out the cost of our degeneracy and may lament the destructive results it had on the cohesion of families and society as a whole.  Given what happened to say, Afghanistan between the 1970’s and today, perhaps it is not entirely unreasonable to suppose that a possible future exists where freedom is far lower than it is today, partly as a result of present excess, and that the preservation of freedom for future generations may require some restraint on our part.  Yet few people consider the repercussions of current behaviors or the ways that what is common now may not be acceptable in the future.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It Was Acceptable At The Time

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    A grievous error that historical revisionists are engaged in is judging the past by current mores. The past must be held to its own standards. This is the only way we can learn from it and accurately measure our growth.

    • That is a grievous error, and one easier to avoid when we reflect that we too will one day be judged by later generations and found wanting, which makes it easier for us to be charitable here and now.

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