1981–the 1980s were truly beginning to get into gear as Ronald Reagan became president and NASA’s space shuttle program not only literally launched for the first time, but also symbolically rocketed further into orbit a whole new decade that would continue to revolutionize society.
In the News
On Ronald Reagan’s inauguration day, the hostages being held in Iran were released. Two months into his presidency, Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt. Only weeks later, Pope John Paul II would also survive an assassination attempt. NASA launched the first space shuttle, Columbia. Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer married, and the disease later to become known as HIV/AIDS surfaced. Sandra Day O’ Conner became the first female Supreme Court justice, and I.B.M. first released the personal computer.
Movies, Music, and Television…Oh My!
Arthur, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chariots of Fire, Reds, and On Golden Pond were among the most popular films at movie theaters in 1981. On the radio in 1981 were such memorable top hits as “Celebration” (Kool & the Gang), “9 To 5” (Dolly Parton), “Kiss On My List” (Daryl Hall & John Oates), “Endless Love” (Diana Ross & Lionel Richie), “Arthur’s Theme” (Christopher Cross), and “Physical” Olivia Newton-John. The gap between radio and television was iconically bridged in 1981 when MTV was launched; MTV’s first song, most appropriately, was “Video Killed the Radio Star”(Buggles). If watching music videos still was not quite your thing yet, you likely watched Dallas, M*A*S*H, The Jeffersons, Little House on the Prairie, or The Greatest American Hero. Perhaps you wanted to catch one last episode of The Waltons or Charlie’s Angels. You were still able to match the stars on The Match Game, and you could laugh at Johnny Carson’s unmatchable version of The Tonight Show.
The Oakland Raiders defeated the Philadelphia Eagles (27-10) and the Los Angeles Dodgers overcame the New York Yankees in the World Series (4-2).The Boston Celtics won against the Houston Rockets in the NBA Championships (4-2), and the New York Islanders were victorious in their Stanley Cup effort against the Minnesota North Stars (4-1). One of the biggest sports moments in 1981 was John McEnroe’s epic win over Bjorn Borg (4-6 7-6 7-6 6-4), who was unsuccessful in pulling off a sixth consecutive victory at England’s famed Wimbledon.
Other Interesting Tidbits
The American economy was still rather unstable in 1981. Though the median household earnings was up from 1980 (now $19,074), unemployment also rose, averaging at 7.6%. Also on the rise were first-class stamp prices; in January 1981, you could have purchased a stamp for 15 cents. By the time you got around to sending your Christmas cards in December, a single stamp would have set you back by 20 cents.
The End of the Year
Clearly, some of the pop-culture trends and social events in 1981 are iconically linked to the “image” of the 1980s, but society still had a long ways to go before becoming fully reflective of the mainstream “1980s picture” that is often popularized in retro-style peeks back at the decade. However, while the decade was indeed still in its infancy, it appears that this baby was already starting to crawl around the house. Continue to read The 1980s article series to see how this young decade began walking on its own two feet.
Information Please. “1981.” 19 August 2007.
McNeil, Alex. Total Television. 4th ed. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. 7th ed. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2000