The decade is now fully underway, and we’re looking back at the year 1981. I was now 5 and starting to embrace some of the new cartoons and toys that were available. Like 1980, 1981 still exists like a carryover from the 1970s. The first half of any decade is as much about the decade prior—until the new decade establishes itself.
If you haven’t checked it out already, take a look at my article all about 1980 and the kick-off of a new decade. But back to 1981. The Ronald Reagan era is starting to slowly take shape. His deregulation of many industries is leading to a new Wild West of commerce and finances. People would soon accumulate vast amounts of wealth through the stock market, giving rise to Yuppie culture.
But we’re not quite there yet. 1981 is still a relatively gritty time as that influence from the 1970s is still prominent. With these yearly lookbacks, I want to mainly focus on the things that affected pop culture, such as movies, music, sports, and general entertainment.
So let’s look back at some of the big things from the year 1981.
Some Other Notable Moments From 1981
I obviously don’t have time to cover everything that happened in 1981, as I have something on the stove right now. But I wanted to look at a few select things from 1981 that are pretty notable:
- The Iran hostage crisis ends
- The Post-It note was invented and launched
- The AIDS virus was first identified
- Walter Cronkite signed off the evening news for the last time
- Ronald Reagan is shot in the chest in Washington by John Hinckley Jr.
- The average cost of a new home was $78,000, average monthly rent was $315, and a gallon of gas cost $1.25
The Wedding of the Century
To me, the real wedding of the decade–and the century—was when Miss Piggy married Kermit in “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” But that movie wouldn’t be out for a few years. The big wedding was, of course, the Diana/Prince Charles wedding that took place on July 29th.
This was one of the golden eras of the Royal Family and they had yet to face the turmoil and scandal that would happen in the coming years. For the moment, this was the fairytale wedding come to life. The world was still enamored with the Royals, and especially Diana.
This wedding was a world event. There are few reminders of how glamorous and spellbinding the lives of others can be, but this was a great example. But I think people watched to embrace glamour and excess. And A LOT watched. Some 750 million people tuned in to the wedding. That is an absurd amount of people and it shows the power and influence held by the Royals at the time.
I’m half English, so this wedding was a big deal in my family—and I remember it well. I remember the length of the train on Diana’s dress, and it felt like we were watching a movie—but it wasn’t fictitious. This was really happening. It’s tough to look back now, as we all know the tragedies that would unfold. But for this period of time, it was like a real-life Camelot.
The Changing Landscape of Music
One of the biggest things that happened in 1981—and for the entire decade—was the launch of MTV. This new music television completely changed how we consumed media. It launched new bands, styles of music, and made an artist’s visual representation more important than ever.
Bands now had to pay close attention to how they promoted themselves, and appearance was critical. Many great bands were left in the dust because they couldn’t translate their brand over to music videos. This wasn’t a problem for bands from England, though.
British music had been using short musical clips on shows like “Top of the Pops” for years. These British bands were all too familiar with the importance of videos and easily adapted to the new MTV movement. Bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode embraced the new medium and another British invasion began to happen in America.
The concept of the music video is quite simple and has its roots in England too. Not surprisingly, the Beatles are the ones behind the creation of the first music video. Because of their immense popularity, they couldn’t be everywhere at once.
Flying to New Zealand or Australia to perform wouldn’t be in the cards, but they presented an option. They would record themselves performing their latest song so people in other countries could still get some Beatles content.
This grew throughout England with other bands copying the format and it gave rise to “Top of the Pops.” Like many new innovations, MTV was criticized and seen as being a pipe dream. We now know it was far from that. MTV changed the pop culture landscape and gave us new artists like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, who made great use of the visual medium.
If you want to learn the whole history of MTV, just check out my article here.
Some Notable Movies From 1981
We’re slowly getting into big blockbuster territory in 1981. We’ve now had enormous hits already, such as Jaw, Star Wars, and the Empire Strikes Back. Here are a couple of very significant movies from that year.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Proof that Harrison Ford and George Lucas could do no wrong. (For the time being.) Indiana Jones was a brand new swashbuckling hero starring Han Solo. But despite being of the same influence as the Saturday afternoon serials like Star Wars was, Indiana Jones created its own mythology despite using a recognizable star in Ford.
Raider of the Lost Ark is another throwback to those 1930s Buck Rogers action-adventure movies. The character of Indiana was great, and the movie featured intense action, Nazis, and Biblical mythology. Some of the special effects don’t hold up today, but they were there to serve the story instead of being in there for technology’s sake, and for that reason, they work.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was a massive hit, earning $385 million. Converted for today, that’s over one billion dollars. Besides being a massive financial success, it was a critical hit too, and it’s crazy to think that this movie came out all the way back in 1981.
If you want to read more about Indiana Jones, and if he was actually based on a real person, check out my article.
The Great Muppet Caper
Say what you want, but I think this is the best of the Muppet movies and some of Jim Henson’s finest work. With the Great Muppet Caper, Henson took the concept of “The Muppet Show” and put it on the big screen. It’s wacky, hilarious, full of great music, and a great spy caper.
They took the movie across the pond to England (where the Muppet Show was actually filmed) and put together a movie where everyone involved is firing on all cylinders. The Muppets as a franchise had really come into their own. They were world-famous and embraced this with the grand musical they released in 1981.
I think what makes this such a great Muppets offering is that it’s the only Muppet movie that was directed by Henson. You can feel his touch and influence all over this film, and, to me, it’s the best thing they ever did (with a Muppets Family Christmas being a close second).
I’ve got a whole blog that looks at the making of the Great Muppet Caper here
Here’s a list of some other notable movies from 1981:
- Heavy Metal
- Chariots of Fire
- For Your Eyes Only (for British eyes only…IYKYK)
- On Golden Pond
- Superman II
- The Cannonball Run
Looking at the Oscars winners for that year, the entire ceremony was postponed because that was the same day that Reagan was shot. When the awards eventually came out, we had:
Best Actor – Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull
Best actress – Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter (miner? I hardly know her)
Best Picture: Ordinary People
Best Director: Robert Redford for Ordinary People
The Best Music of 1981
We covered MTV, and how important it was to the growth of pop music, but let’s look at a few specific things from the year.
We still have that New Wave sound going on thanks to the influx of British talent. Disco has pretty much died a slow death, and of course, Michael Jackson and Madonna have risen to prominence.
There are some massive songs that came out that year that stretches over a wide variety of genres. It’s really hard to define the sound of the era as we weren’t quite there yet. What we have is a mish-mash of different styles and sounds, but there was something for everyone.
Case in point: the number one song of the year was “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes. Rounding out the top 5 songs, we, again, have a wide variety of styles. At #2 was the classic “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell (I feel everyone knows the song, but no one can name the band?)
#3 was Phil Collins with “In the Air Tonight,” at #4 was the recently deceased John Lennon with “Woman,” and rounding out the top 5 was “Stars on 45” which I have no idea what the hell that was.
For the top-selling albums we had:
- Double Fantasy – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
- Hi Infidelity – REO Speedwagon
- Paradise Theatre – Styx
- Escape – Journey
- Tattoo You – The Rolling Stones
- For Those About to Rock We Salute You – AC/DC
- Bella Donna – Stevie Nicks
- Precious Time – Pat Benatar
- Long Distance Voyager – The Moody Blues
See what I mean about the wide range of styles and genres? You had classic rock, a Beatle, folk music, and an aging legendary band in the Rolling Stones.
The Video Games & Technology in 1981
When it comes to video games, Atari still ruled the roost in 1981. They were going strong coming out of the 70s and really hitting their stride in the early parts of the decade. As far as the specific video games go, we had some big entries in 1981 including Donkey Kong, the George Costanza favorite, Frogger, Centipede, Tempest, and Galaga.
It’s important to note that most of these are arcade games, as that was still a big part of life in the early 1980s. Not everyone had an Atari, and those that did often made note of how they just weren’t as good as the arcade versions. Pac-Man was a notable example of this: the Atari version was ok, but it didn’t translate over into the home video game experience as well as many hoped.
Arcades were still the big dog, and they were also the social spot for most kids. The arcade is where you socialized, networked, and showed off your abilities. People were too young to get into bars, obviously, but the arcade still combined many of the aspects of a night out at a bar without throwing up in the urinal. (That still happened, but it was usually from too many Cheetos.)
In other areas of technology, things were starting to heat up when it came to the PC. We now had the Apple II along with entries from IBM, the iconic Commodore 64, and the ZX81. It’s crazy to look back on the limitations (or advancements at the time) regarding the technology.
These computers boasted about having 16k of memory.
Side note: Watch the AMC show “Halt and Catch Fire” to see the evolution of the PC in those early days of the 80s.
The Important TV Shows of 1981
As I mentioned in the article about 1980, it can’t be overstated how significant TV was in the early 80s. There were only three networks and really no other forms of entertainment besides the movies. TV shows were big events that created a collective viewing experience that everyone could experience together.
Besides live events, those days are really gone now. Here’s a couple of notable shows that debuted in 1981:
- Gimme a Break
- Hill Street Blues
- The Smurfs
- The Fall Guy
- Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends
Now, let’s look at the top ten highest-rated shows for 1981:
- Dallas – 28.4
- 60 Minutes – 27.7
- The Jeffersons – 23.4
- Three’s Company – 23.3
- Alice – 22.7
- The Dukes of Hazzard & Too Close for Comfort – 22.6
- ABC Monday Night Movie – 22.5
- MASH – 22.3
- One Day at a Time – 22.0
If you want to check out more about the very best shows of the 80s, take a look at my breakdown of the 21 best here.
Major Sporting Events of 1981
There’s always a bit of a letdown coming off an Olympic year. The Winter Olympics of 1980 gave us one of the greatest sports moments in history with the “Do you believe in miracles” upset of the Russians by the Americans in hockey.
That’s not to say that there weren’t any significant sporting moments in 1981, far from it actually. Let’s look at a few highlights:
- Larry Holmes defeated Trevor Berbick to win the WBC heavyweight title
- Tom Watson won the Masters
- Bill Rogers won the British Open
- David Graham won the US Open
- John McEnroe won Wimbledon and the US Open
- Bjorn Borg won the French Open
- Chris Evert won Wimbledon
- Martina Navratilova won the French and Australian Open
1981 would also continue the dynasty of the New York Islanders when it came to hockey. The 80s were all about dynasties when it came to sports, and in hockey, the Islanders ruled the ice. It was a few years before the Edmonton Oilers would emerge as the next 80s dynasty, but, for the time being, the hockey world centered on Long Island.
Here are the other champions in the big four sports in North America:
- NBA – Boston Celtics
- NFL – Oakland Raiders
- MLB – Los Angeles Dodgers
Wrapping it Up
So that was a look back at the year 1981. It had some very significant moments as related to pop culture, specifically for movies and video games. The decade is starting to also become more technological with the advancement of the PC. They were still a bit foreign to many people, but we were understanding their importance.
It wouldn’t be long before they took up a natural place in homes across the country. I think the other key thing that stands out about 1981 has to be MTV. This was a pop-culture earthquake that happened and created a new movement not only in music but in the culture itself.
Fun fact: the “I Want My MTV” promotional campaign is actually stolen from an advertisement from the 1960s for “I Want My Maypo” which was a cereal endorsed by people such as Mickey Mantle.
All in all, 1981 looked like a pretty decent year, but for pop culture, things would really start to take off in 1982…