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It Came From the 1980s

Things are bad, Gentle Reader. Most of this country has spent the last few days suffering through a brutal – and fatal – heat wave, one almost certainly exacerbated by forces of climate change that we consistently refuse to address. Civic virtue is undermined and thwarted by greed at seemingly every turn, and the forces of racist nationalism run rampant – and a grotesque relic from the 80s, once dismissed as a joke, is the person most publicly unleashing these forces. So naturally, these past few days, the nation has been consumed with fevered discussion about one disaster in particular.

The trailer for the new CATS movie.

Yes, True Believer, they made a movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I assume you’ve hate-watched the thing by now, but if you haven’t seen Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, and Taylor Swift digitally transformed into bizarre human-feline hybrids, like something from a video game adaptation of Island of Lost Souls – well, just take a look at it. Right here. I’ll wait.

I must admit, it’s been amusing to watch other people’s horrified reactions to this. It’s not just that they think this looks bad – of course this looks bad (or at least bizarre). It’s their dismay, their sheer stupefaction that such a thing could exist at all. Which is strange, because the musical CATS made its Broadway debut in 1982.  It's been around for almost forty years.

And trust me, it’s always been like this.

Obviously, the technology is new. (For a sense of what computer animation looked like at the time, watch Tron.) But I remember when that musical first played Broadway, when its commercials first appeared on our local airwaves, when it first entered the public conscious. And the grotesquerie? The hypersexualization of characters that are still presented as belonging in a children’s piece? The sheer confusion of not knowing what the heck you were even looking at? That was there at the beginning.

And it was just sort of accepted. Sure, plenty of critics didn’t like the show when it first came out, but they still discussed it as if it were another musical. They may have lamented that the lack of an obvious narrative represented a major comedown from the mid-century glory days of the book musical, but they were still crafting a logical argument comparing it to classic book musicals.  Sure, it became a punchline in some places, but that punchline was just another element in pop culture, something else for David Letterman to trot out in between Spuds McKenzie and Larry "Bud" Melman.  In other words, they normalized CATS – when the natural impulse would have been to cry out “dear gods what is it?! The cats are wearing legwarmers! LEGWARMERS!”

And for my younger readers, you have to take me at my word when I tell you that the entire decade of the 1980s was like this. The most bombastic, utterly ridiculous things were just shrugged off and treated as perfectly natural. Even if they were disapproved of, they were still, on a fundamental level, accepted. The gatekeepers of culture went to extraordinary lengths to rationalize the irrational and the grotesque. Andrew Lloyd Weber provided another perfect example of this some years after this; I distinctly remember, when Phantom of the Opera was about to open, the discussion in the New York Times about how this work, with its dissonant passages and Meyerbeer references, represented a major turning point in twentieth century classical music.

Phantom. That bombastic fanfare you hear at football games sometimes. A major turning point in twentieth century classical music.

And that’s just the pop culture. The entire decade was awful. (The good folks at Cracked had a terrific dissection of this last week; once you’re finished with this blog post, you can read it here.) And somehow, even though a good fraction of us knew it was awful, felt the awfulness in our bones, nobody ever seemed to say anything about it.

So, yes, this new trailer is frightening. But look on the bright side – it’s good that you’re frightened. It proves you can still make value judgments. Can still recognize, and proclaim, the truth.

Now if we could all just do that about all the other grotesque relics of the 1980s…

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