The Beastie Boys Revisit, Revise, the 1980s

Fight for Your Right, Revisited (2011)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about The Beastie Boys lately, and not because they’ve been one of my favorite bands (Licensed to Ill was one of the first two albums I purchased with my own money–six year old Mikey Dwyer picked it up on cassette from a Massachusetts record store in early 1987, along with the soundtrack to Top Gun). And it’s not just because the run-up to their latest album, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, has utilized new media services and transmedia promotion with a sophistication and savviness not ordinarily associated with the major record labels. And it’s not because the album is, by the way, totally fresh. I mean, it is because of those things, and there are lots of worthwhile reads on those subjects. But it’s also because the promotion for this album has also featured the Beastie Boys seeking to reflect on, and finally redefine, their 1980s stardom, and perhaps offer a new vision of the 1980s as a whole.

Fight for Your Right (1986)

My dissertation focused on issues of cultural memory and nostalgia, particularly on the ways that film and popular culture in the 1980s invoked and redefined cultural images of the fifties, to diverse and sometimes contentious political and social effects. Over the last four or five years, it’s been impossible not to notice that the 1980s are subject to similar retrospection now. Whether it is Lady Gaga recycling the 1980s star image of Madonna or  Hollywood films like Easy A, Hot Tub Time Machine and Take Me Home Tonight pastiching John Hughes teen films, government officials renaming highways, schools and airports after Ronald Reagan, or 80s-themed parties at clubs and on college campuses, it’s clear that the cultural meaning of the eighties is entering a new period of negotiation and debate.

With Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, The Beastie Boys get in on the Eighties nostalgia action. There is a lyrical callback to “Fight for Right” in “Make Some Noise,” the kinda-sorta lead single¹ that repeatedly promise to “party for the motherfuckin’ right to fight.” The album’s release also coincided with an oral history of the Beastie Boys published in New York magazine which, interestingly, only covers the years 1981-1987. But the most obvious connection to the 1980s is made by “Fight for Your Right, Revisited,” a 30-minute promotional film produced by Adam Yauch’s film/recording studio Oscilloscope Laboratories.  The film picks up where the Beasties’ debut video left off, with Ad-Rock (Elijah Wood), MCA (Danny McBride) and Mike D (Seth Rogen) escaping a house party gone wild. From there, the B-Boys break into a bodega, party with Bon Jovi groupies, harass some squares in an outdoor cafe, and eventually, meet up with time-travelling future versions of themselves (Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly) that have (naturally) arrived in a DeLorean.

In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, Mike D and AdRock call the gesture “a tribute to ourselves,” and others (particularly R. Colin Tait in Antenna) have placed the video in the context of a “culture of referentiality” to which the Beasties have certainly contributed. Tait calls the video “both a playful reflection on the band’s meaning and travels within the past 25 years, as well as a text that indicates the Beasties’ influence within a larger cultural net of references, fandoms, stars and other texts.” Fans of the group will no doubt recognize the connections to other Beasties videos–the final scene  recalls the “Shake Your Rump” video, and the video features several characters from the Beasties universe, from Johnny Ryall to Nathanial Hörnblowér, who famously and hilariously interrupted Michael Stipe at the 1994 Video Music Awards after “Sabotage” inexplicably did not win “Best Video.”

"Im'ma let you finish, but Nathanial Hornblower had the best VMA interruption of all time!"

Still, it’s somewhat surprising that The Beastie Boys would venture back into the 1980s, as they’ve essentially spent their entire career trying to escape the legacy of “Fight for your Right.” Their discomfort with the frat-goon personas of Licensed to Ill directly led to their split with Rick Rubin and Def Jam in 1987, and their follow up album Paul’s Boutique represented an enormous shift in the Beastie Boys sound, moving from cheezy classic rock riffs to a sampling tour de force.  When the band looked backward, it was to the 1970s, a tendency reflected in their choice of funk and jazz samples (from artists like Jimmy Castor and Kool & the Gang), their instrumentation (funk guitars and organs), as well as their fashion and imagery (producing and wearing ABA-style basketball jerseys, and the entire “Sabotage” video). At the same time, the band embraced 1990s-style politics, organizing and performing in several Free Tibet concerts and aligning themselves with Third Wave feminist movements of the 1990s, particularly after Horowitz became involved with Kathleen Hanna. In 1994’s Ill Communication, Yauch raps “I’m gonna say a little something that’s long overdue / This disrespecting women has got to be through,” a far cry from the ethos he espoused on “Girls” just 8 years prior.  They were also some of the only mainstream (male) artists to publicly condemn the sexual violence at Woodstock 99.

By the late 1990s, the Beastie Boys had all but eliminated Licensed to Ill songs from their live performances. Of the 42 tracks on The Sounds of Science, the Beasties’ double LP Greatest Hits anthology released in 2000, only three songs come from Licensed to Ill (the same number of tracks that came from 1995’s Aglio e Olio, their 8-song hardcore EP) and one of those songs, “Brass Monkey,” is introduced in the liner notes by Yauch saying “We included this song because it sucks.” Perhaps most notably, only one Beastie Boys song prior to “Make Some Noise”  included a direct reference to  Licensed to Ill  (the “mmmmm…..drrrroooop” from Licensed‘s “The New Style” pops up in 1998’s “Intergalactic).

So why would a band that gained legitimacy and respect by working as hard as possible to escape “Fight for Your Right” return to it 25 years later? Aside from it being a funny and intriguing way to promote the new album, it seems to me that “Fight for Your Right, Revisited” allows the Beastie Boys to retroactively define their “Fight for Your Right” personas as juvenile, misguided, and ultimately ridiculous performance. The impressive and somewhat gratuitous use of celebrity cameos reinforces that notion, as viewers are constantly reminded that these characters are “played” and not lived, and the silly plot (a breakdancing showdown becomes a literal pissing match at the video’s close) highlights the absurdity of the entire affair.

Underscoring that point is an exchange between 1986 Adrock (Wood) and Mike D (Seth Rogan) toward the end of the film. As they watch the bumbling, middle-aged versions of themselves struggle to accomplish the most simple tasks, Mike D assures his compatriots “this is just a possibility of the future. I think we’re being given the gift of seeing what we could be like, what we might be like.”

In the end, “Fight for Your Right (Revisited)” provides the rationale for moving beyond the 1980s, as appealing as they might be through the haze of retrospection, and Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 shows us the rewards for doing so. As we suffer through a series of Hollywood reboots and remakes of films, television, and even toys of the 1980s, and as we prepare for another campaign season where every candidate tries to be the most like Ronald Reagan, we would do well to remember that it’s much better to revisit the 1980s than to re-live them.

¹ – “Too Many Rappers” was actually released in June 2009 as the advanced single to Hot Sauce Committee, Part 1 —which was delayed and renamed Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 after MCA entered treatment for lymphoma.

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About michaelddwyer

Assistant Professor of Media and Communication at Arcadia University, specializing in film, media studies, and cultural studies. View all posts by michaelddwyer

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