1970s: Trauma, Trivia and Transition

    The 1970s: 1. A decade of decadence — bad clothes, bad hair, bad music. 2. Sequel to the 1960s, continuing the political and sexual revolution. 3. A nation torn and divided, betrayed by a corrupt government and plagued by a faltering economy.

    What’s your take? There is no definitive picture of the era. If anything, the 1970s was a decade of contradictions: conservative government and liberal activism, disillusionment and decadence, revived religion and conspicuous consumption.

    It was the age of Vietnam and Watergate, but also the age of disco and the happy face. It spawned films of dark visions such as “”Apocalypse Now”” and “”Taxi Driver,”” but also feel-good fare such as “”Star Wars”” and “”Grease.””

    What caused these contradictions and what were the ramifications? The answer lies in the political and economic atmosphere that shaped such culture, one which provoked Bob Dylan to sing, “”the great American dream is over.””

    Roots of disillusionment

    Various political and economic factors contributed to the awkward adolescence of America. In the 1970s the relatively stable post-war economy finally collapsed and recession engulfed the nation, due to a massive energy crisis and stagflation — a mix of economic stagnation and high inflation.

    Meanwhile, the United States stumbled politically as well: Ideological battles over the U.S. presence in Vietnam and Cambodia became physical when protesters clashed with police. Four students were killed at Kent State University and protests shut down Columbia University.

    The Watergate fiasco, resulting in President Richard Nixon’s humiliating resignation, and the Iranian takeover of its U.S. embassy, in which President Jimmy Carter was powerless, severely shook the public’s faith in government.

    Conflicts over desegregation wracked the nation, ironically during America’s bicentennial. The United States, which had emerged victorious with the Allies after World War II, was now suddenly a stumbling giant — unable to follow through with its war against the South Vietnamese, unable to escape recession and unable to deal with its own civil discontent.

    A response to the distress was a determined push for movements, laws and reform. But America became less a melting pot than a salad bowl, upholding diversity as its new creed.

    ‘That’s the Way I Like It’

    The 1970s were as much about enjoying oneself as helping others, if not more so. In contrast to the 1960s’ optimistic and altruistic idealism, the 1970s celebrated jaded hedonism. People were not only participating in liberation movements, but liberating themselves from older ways of conduct. Sexual promiscuity became more visible and acceptable for women. Coed dorms sprang up and cohabitation was on the rise. Celebrities lived it up and got high at Studio 54.

    Fashion became informal and outrageous. Even those who hadn’t liked hippies began to dress like them; by 1979, the police in Des Moines, Iowa, sported long hair, beards and mustaches. The clean-cut look was out, and bellbottoms, platform shoes and blazing colors were in. Men could dress like women — or androgynously in the cases of glam rock artists Queen and David Bowie — and women could dress like men, such as Diane Keaton in “”Annie Hall.””

    Others opted to transform themselves through self-discovery. Some headed for the mountains and formed communes and collectives, turning to environmentalism rather than politics.

    Some turned to religion or new age practices. A religious revival swept the nation, invigorating Judaism as well as evangelical Christianity. “”New age,”” a term for non-Western philosophies or belief in the supernatural, also swept the nation for those unsatisfied with traditional religions. New-agers could embrace Zen Buddhism, yoga, the I Ching, Wicca, holistic medicine or transactional psychology. Even exercise became a potent alternative, with a book about running becoming a national bestseller.

    Disco daze

    The music genres of the 1960s went in new directions in the 1970s, with something for everyone: bubblegum pop, contemporary Christian, singer-songwriters, funk, soul, disco, hard rock, punk, metal and rap.

    Mid-1960s blues and psychedelia gave birth to hard rock from the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Aerosmith and others.

    Heavy metal, the slower, heavier, darker cousin to hard rock, was ushered in by Black Sabbath. Punk, on the other hand, pioneered by the Ramones, gave established music the finger, stripping it down, playing it louder and faster, and forsaking the bombast and spectacle of mainstream hard-rock concerts.

    The fragmentation of society into different cultural and ethnic niches mirrored the situation in music. Rock, metal and punk became white territory; soul, funk and rap became black territory. Disco was the one new genre that didn’t fit into either category. It was also the one category that attempted to unify people rather than critique authority.

    Ridiculed years later, disco was ironically a controversial subject of its time. It originated in the pulsing dance music of discotheques, mostly gay New York clubs, which synthesized disparate musical styles (funk and soul) and different cultures (black, gay and Latin), integrating all into a community where the marginalized women, blacks, and gays could belong through dance.

    But as author Bruce J. Schulman notes, as rock became increasingly “”white, male, and macho,”” a backlash occurred: “”Disco was hated with more intensity than any other form of popular music before or since.”” With whites hating disco and anti-assimilationist blacks, club-sponsored “”disco sucks nights”” and racial incidents ensued.

    Leading American artists stayed away, but British and Australian stars like the Bee Gees had no qualms about joining disco’s foray into the mainstream. They helped “”Saturday Night Fever”” become one of the most popular movies of the decade, although the movie is often remembered more for its whitewashed disco than its dark portrayal of American life.

    ‘You talkin’ to me?’

    “”New Yorker”” film critic Pauline Kael called the 1970s Hollywood’s true golden age, and there is good support for her claim. In this “”new Hollywood,”” rebel directors battled against profit-hungry global conglomerates for artistic freedom in expressing their highly personal visions of society.

    The results were dark, often anti-Establishment masterpieces such as Francis Ford Coppola’s “”The Godfather”” parts I and II, Roman Polanski’s “”Chinatown,”” and Martin Scorcese’s “”Mean Streets”” and “”Taxi Driver.””

    These films all exposed the rotten core of hypocrisy in American society, exemplified in “”Taxi Driver’s”” violent, angry Travis Bickle, who is no better than the “”scum”” he wants to get rid of.

    Corporations fought back by acquiring film companies and by finding the mass-market antidote to artistic cult films: the Hollywood blockbuster, which offered thrilling, escapist adventures, exemplified in Steven Spielberg’s precedent-setting “”Jaws”” and George Lucas’ “”Star Wars.””

    Laughing through the tears

    If television is any indicator of the times, “”M*A*S*H,”” “”All in the Family”” and “”Saturday Night Live”” were three comedies that took the temperature of the 1970s.

    “”M*A*S*H”” looked at a mobile army surgical hospital staff’s experiences during the Korean War, infusing humor into the hell that was their life-mixing comedy, tragedy, life and death in its anti-war message. It became hailed as one of the greatest television comedies of its time.

    “”All in the Family”” was another cultural thermometer of the ’70s. With “”uproarious urgency,”” as senior editor of “”Rolling Stone”” magazine David Wild reminisced, it dared to go where no television show had gone before. It showcased the bigoted Archie Bunker and his devoted wife butting heads with his liberal daughter and son-in-law over topics such as Vietnam, Watergate, racism, abortion, wife-swapping and even menopause. These taboo issues were so controversial that it took three years to get on the air, and even then, the first episodes were prefaced by a disclaimer.

    Then there was “”Saturday Night Live.”” As producer Lorne Michaels explained, “”In 1975 the country was ripe for a fresh approach, which made it possible for ‘SNL’ to come in and be honest.”” It was indeed fresh — like “”M*A*S*H”” and “”All in the Family,”” “”SNL”” featured social commentary, but crossed it with a weekly variety show format mixing outrageous skits, musical guests, celebrity hosts and news-bite send-ups, whose irreverent attitude has continued to this day.

    The legacy of the 1970s

    The contradictions within the stormy 1970s are not surprising. A nation faced with all kinds of political, economic and social problems responded in as many different ways as its different constituents: with serious critique, black humor, wanton violence, brash indulgence, or apathy. Some turned back toward nostalgia, others turned inward toward spiritual therapy, and others turned outward toward fitness, fun and fashion.

    In a twist of fate, happy faces, bellbottoms and platform shoes are back in fashion in the 21st century. With nostalgia and the eternal quest for reinvention, it is easy to retain the fun from the 1970s and forget the failures. However, the terrible events and their effects linger on as well: distrust of government, disillusionment in the American dream, and defiant, cynical popculture.

    The 1970s were undoubtedly a time of transition, significantly shaping the American cultural landscape — or better or worse.

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