Friday, November 9, 2007

Talkin' About My (Underappreciated) Generation

One of the most annoying movies ever made was 1983’s The Big Chill. It was, you may recall, a story about six baby boomers reuniting at the funeral of a friend. The seven had been classmates at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s and had been caught up in “The Movement”, protesting the Vietnam War and spreading the gospel of free love and cheap dope. By the early 80s, however, they had all sold out in different ways: one made a fortune selling running shoes, one was a TV cop, one wrote for People magazine, and another was a drug addict without a penis (if you didn’t see the movie, don’t worry about it). Anyway, there were these six successful people (except the dickless guy) whining about how much they had all changed and wondering if the passion and commitment they shared at Michigan had really meant anything.

Because of its soundtrack, many people think of The Big Chill as a movie about the 60s. It was not. Instead, it was a 103-minute indictment of the 1970s. What, after all, had happened to these noble souls in the years between graduation and grief? Why, the 70s, of course! In keeping with the spirit of the “me decade”, they had become greedy, superficial, and self-indulgent. Rather than taking drugs to raise their consciousness, they used them to escape. Instead of practicing free love, they cheated on their spouses. Where once they had crafted heartfelt challenges to the existing political and social order, they were now writing cheesy profiles of Farrah Fawcett and Erik Estrada. Indeed, even the movie’s soundtrack was a not-so-subtle jab at the 1970s, suggesting that, like everything else, the music of the 60s was superior to anything that came afterward.

In the years that have passed since the days of Carter and Kotter, the 1970s have become notorious as the decade in which good taste took a long holiday into a world of polyester, disco, and touchy-feely self-indulgence. You know what the critics say. Moral standards fell more sharply than the second-year ratings of Mork and Mindy. Our politicians were crooks or losers, we dressed in colors that did not exist in nature, and men started to cry in public. The 70s, according to the critics, were one big cultural Jonestown.

And that’s only the beginning of the assault. During the 90s, a number of commentators, apparently tired of blaming all of America’s problems on Jane Fonda, began to attack the 1970s as the decade that gave birth to most of the pathologies of modern life. The 70s, they said, were responsible for quickie divorces, failed public education, and the breakdown of the family. Worst of all, the decade started us on an unrelenting path toward sexual promiscuity, open marriages, loose women, and suburban orgies.

Now, defining a decade can sometimes get slippery. Many events that are quintessentially 60s actually occurred during the first few years of the 1970s. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix both died in 1970, as did four students shot by national guardsmen at Kent State. One of the most significant protests against the Vietnam War took place in Washington in 1971. But if you were born after 1955, those stories probably didn’t have a real sense of immediacy to you. And once the Paris peace accords were signed in January, 1973, teenagers no longer had to consider even the possibility of being sent off to war in Asia.

As a result, politics was fairly peripheral during the 70s. The great battles had been fought, and only the political exorcism of Richard Nixon remained to be accomplished. After a decade of Kennedys and Johnsons and Nixons, the political landscape was filled with leaders who were, to be charitable, very ordinary. And not just Ford and Carter. The Speaker of the House through most of the 70s was a very unremarkable Oklahoman (if that’s not redundant) named Carl Albert. Anybody remember him? The best-known U.S. Senators were men of an earlier era (McGovern, Humphrey, Goldwater, etc.) running out the string. The hottest young politician, Jerry Brown, proved quickly to be little more than an occasionally thoughtful gadfly, and eventually matured into just another serial office-seeker (he's now California's Attorney General).

We were less alienated than we were disinterested. We cared less about the Chicago 7 than about the Jackson 5 (forgive us). If the 60s concentrated on the political, we specialized in the personal. We weren’t changing the world; we were getting in touch with our feelings. A good example from a bad pop artist: in 1967, Janis Ian recorded “Society’s Child”, a song about the politically charged issues of interracial romance and prejudice. In 1975, she hit the charts with “At 17”, a song about what a drag it is to be ugly.

Some of us were forced by well-intentioned parents and teachers to engage in some of the more extreme methods for finding ourselves (encounter groups and the like). But most of us took a far mellower approach to self-actualization. Mostly, we just tried to have fun. Consider the clichés of the day: take it easy, have a nice day, mellow out, kick back. Our lives were just one big collective sigh of relief after one of the more turbulent decades in American history. The struggles were over, and now, like the ad said, it was Miller Time.

The popular culture of the day reflected these changing attitudes. Critics often excoriate the music of the 70s, comparing it unfavorably to the supposedly powerful, muscular, message-laden songs of the 1960s. It is, in the main, an unfair charge. To write a protest song, one first needs something to protest. Note that many of the same artists who are lionized for their work in the 60s also recorded in the 70s. By 1974, John Lennon, often cited as the poet-laureate of the flower children, was singing, “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right.” The Who, no longer talking about their g-g-generation, were busy in the 1970s contributing lyrics such as, “mama’s got a squeeze box, daddy never sleeps at night”. And we all know what happened when Paul McCartney went solo and found his Wings. Clearly, not all the problems with the music of the 70s can be attributed to the Captain and Tennille, Olivia Newton-John, and KC and the Sunshine Band.

But two other points also bear some mention. First, who decided that the music of the 1960s was so uniformly outstanding? Don’t believe your parents when they tell you that all 60s era protest music belongs in the Smithsonian. Take another listen to Barry McGuire croaking out “Eve of Destruction” (sample lyric: “my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulating”).

Second, who decided that all of the music of the 70s was bad? The same generation that gave Terry Jacks his season in the sun also made a star out of Jim Croce. Too mellow for you? OK, the same generation that fueled the disco craze also created a market for punk and new wave.

And what about popular entertainment? Well, the 70s were finally able to kill off the long-running westerns of the 1950s and the oh-so-relevant TV shows of the 1960s, unless you count All in the Family, which was more about playing bigotry and ignorance for laughs than making some sort of Big Statement about them. By the middle of the decade, the small screen was dominated by three distinct types of fare: 1950s revivalism (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, M*A*S*H), shows featuring scantily dressed women (Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company), and—how should we put this nicely?—ethnically oriented comedies (Good Times, The Jeffersons).

It was an era when practically nobody was bleating about “quality” programming, and probably for good reason. Few people expressed ostentatious embarrassment about watching television. Comedies were judged by a simple criterion: did they make you laugh? Other shows were evaluated by an even clearer standard: did people watch them? Today, M*A*S*H is thought of as one of the great quality shows of the 1970s; back then, it was just considered funny. In 1974, it finished fourth in the ratings, one position behind the much less critically celebrated Sanford and Son. No big deal.

Obviously, there is a lot more that could be said here. For example, we often dressed badly in the 70s, especially those of us who played for the Houston Astros. We made The Rocky Horror Picture Show a cult classic by throwing rice and toilet paper at a movie screen. We brought fame and, presumably, fortune to the Unknown Comic, Sally Struthers, Leif Garrett, and Rodney Allen Rippy. We had the chance to stop Barry Manilow’s career at its very outset, and we blew it.

I realize that it's hard to defend a decade that started with Richard Nixon and ended with Jimmy Carter, but let me try. The 1970s were the first decade in which women and African Americans enjoyed full, or nearly full, membership in American political, social, and economic life. They were the first decade in which millions of Americans were willing to give voice to the proposition that gays and lesbians deserve respect and legal protection. The 70s were the last decade to feature an abundance of well-paying, relatively secure industrial jobs, the kind that, to borrow John Edwards' life history, allowed the sons (and daughters) of mill workers to realize the full measure of the American Dream. They were the last decade not to associate unprotected sex with death.

The decade followed the discovery of penicillin, the polio vaccine, and the G spot. The children of the 70s were not forced to endure the horrors of Omaha Beach or Dallas or Selma or Memphis. Neither was their lexicon sullied with terms like HIV-positive, downsizing, homeland security, or extraordinary rendition. David Duke and Al Sharpton were still unknown. Karaoke, too.

There are, of course, no truly golden eras in the life of any country. The 1970s had their gas lines and their double-digit inflation. Elvis died too young. Busing brought children together and tore cities apart. Chico met the Man.

Still, if I had to nominate one year as the high point in American history (at least so far), I would probably choose 1976, the bicentennial year. I would do this even knowing that Gerald Ford was president, "Muskrat Love" was on the music charts, and lime green leisure suits were considered chick magnets. We were at peace. And we had never heard the names Clinton or Bush. Good times.

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