Review: What Was Hot!

What Was Hot! by Julian Biddle



So, you think you’re an eighties fan? Okay, Sergio Valente, can you handle this? It’s I Love the 80s, and this is 1980. The flicks, the fashion, the trends, the TV, the tunes. A totally awesome year that gave us these burning questions. Why did Doc get laid so much? Could Han kick Luke’s ass? And do you believe in miracles? The answers to those questions, plus: sweet Air Supply and one smelly doll. Because you love the eighties. Because you still wear your collar up, admit it. This is 1980.

In 2002, I was still reeling from seeing The Fellowship of the Ring and realizing that there was a whole world of pop culture beyond the mix of British sitcoms, seventies music, and French comics that was, in my small, Southern town, utterly unique to my family. I’d already made my first forays into fandom (you’re my forever girl, Digimon), but this was different. It wasn’t something experienced in a vacuum; it was something experienced communally. Most importantly, The Lord of the Rings had a history in American pop culture, one that I was now a part of, and I suddenly realized that I knew absolute jack about American pop culture. I listened to Yann Tiersen, for Pete’s sake. Interrogating my parents about their own pop cultural experiences would only shed light on the landscape of seventies France; interrogating my brother was impossible, what with him being halfway across the country attending the Air Force Academy.

In short, nobody was going to tell me what was what. At least, until VH1’s I Love the 80s aired in December of that year. Eighties nostalgia was at an all-time high in the aughts (nostalgia has a twenty year lag), and VH1 had decided to cash in with an American remake of the original British I Love the 80s. It was, essentially, a handbook to eighties pop culture, spelling everything out. It was exactly what I needed to get some semblance of footing in American pop culture, and I fell in love with the eighties in the process.

I watched every incarnation of the I Love… series—seventies, nineties, even I Love the New Millennium, puzzlingly aired in 2008. Looking back on it now, it’s a not terribly sophisticated nostalgia grab, but I remember it (and still watch it, when I’m having a bad day) fondly. It was the beginning of my quest for pop cultural contextualization, a quest I slowly realized everybody else is also on.

My approach to this quest is systematic and methodical; there are spreadsheets involved and copious notes taken. (Geez, it’s almost like I write all the time or something.) And every time I see something that declares itself a compendium or a guide to pop culture, I must read it to divine what is next to be learned.

As a guide, What Was Hot! does its job. The format is basic but yearly, so it’s easy to follow. The reason I like reading things like this is it makes me take a step back and see where everything falls along the timeline. Hurling myself into desperate research on late night television is all well and good, but it’s even better to place things in their sociopolitical climate. I walked away from this book with plenty of new fifties, sixties, and seventies films to watch and a sudden interest in the sixties. (This may be fleeting, but I’ll research it as we go.)

But, otherwise, it’s an even worse nostalgia grab than my beloved I Love the 80s, clearly designed to cash in quickly. The grammar, hilariously, disintegrates towards the end, as does some of the information—did you know that Nintendo is a video game? Less hilariously, the end of the book features the patriotic-bordering-on-jingoistic rhetoric of the early aughts, due to the book’s publication in early 2002 and its final reflection September 11th. As I always say because it always bears repeating, supposed fluff like this is the easiest way to see some of the toxic narratives of our culture, and Biddle does not disappoint. The entry on Boys Don’t Cry features Biddle misgendering Brandon Teena and calling him confused. Slutshaming abides—to the point that Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman Ted Kennedy essentially killed, is blamed for Kennedy never running for the White House, despite, you know, being the actual victim here. The idea that Sharon Stone would consent to Basic Instinct disgusts him, despite earlier comments about how topless bathing never caught with the ladies, although the fellas certainly liked it! (Vom.)

I got what I wanted out of this—recommendations and a chance to reflect on my pop cultural contextualization quest’s progression—but I’m bemused by how slapdash this is, right down to including Biddle’s frothing hatred for Steven Spielberg and all that he touches. I am all for differing opinions and discussion (it’s what makes the world go round!), but Raiders of the Lost Ark is solid entertainment.

Bottom line: What Was Hot! is a slapdash guide to fifty years’ worth of pop culture. Decent enough to get you started, but hardly recommendable on its own.

I rented this book from the public library.

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