The 1970s have maintained their bad reputation across the decade. Thanks to residual images in our culture (think That 70s Show and Foxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers III) and a youth spent listening to parental griping, we find ourselves agreeing with Newmagazine that is was “a Pinto of a decade.” It is no mistake that one of the first major historical accounts of this slice of time was titled It Seemed Like Nothing Happened. We look back at the decade as a “long, national nightmare” of bad disco music, vapid excess, earth-tone polyester, and a long, futile search to get one’s groove on.
It is easy to pinpoint this tendency almost exactly to 1973. By that point, McGovern had been defeated, ending any hopes for a fundamentally game-changing politician, the OPEC oil embargo had begun, Nixon unmoored the U.S. dollar from the gold standard (a sound move that nonetheless caused violent shockwaves in the short term), and wage-and-price freezes had been enacted. It amounted to this– the long postwar prosperity had ground to a halt, a seemingly limitless economy was showing signs of wear and tear. As the allegations of Watergate grew, as gas prices rocketed upward, as factories closed, many in American society decided to move forward by looking back. Part of this was looking back 200 years to the American founding– the bicentennial was right around the corner, after all. But more commonly, most Americans looked back to living memory, and chose to live out the 1950s all over again. For many baby boomers, the 1950s constituted a kind of chronological comfort food, an era when they enjoyed the carefree joys and casual certainties of childhood. Presidents were honorable and paternal like Dwight Eisenhower, not secretive and suspicious like Tricky. Before Vietnam, the lines of good and evil seemed clearly drawn, and we were on the side of good. Race, gender, sexual identity, class, labor…all these seemed less complicated then, and it was easier to find one’s place in the world.
While this collective embrace of 1950s culture is understandable, it is also weird as hell. I can find no time or place where so many people in a given society chose to simply live out the decade pretending they were living in some other time. I mean, when the Depression hit in 1929, Americans didn’t respond to this by childishly wishing it was the 1890s again! More than this, the fingerprints for this are everywhere, if you know where to look– television, movies, music. Each of these suggests a kind of fetish for a bygone era.
Consider “Crocodile Rock.” Elton unwittingly juxtaposes a golden past that is implicitly the 1950s– “me and Susie had so much fun”, “rock was young”, to a squalid present. “Rock just died”, Susie left him, and he is left crying over his record machine having, in true early rock fashion, lost both his girl and his Chevy. Other songs, especially by introspective singer-songwriters, wrote unswervingly about their childhoods, hoping to recover a sliver of this lost, happier world. Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy,” Clint Holmes’ “Playground in my Mind,” (my least favorite song of the decade…no small distinction) and Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” all fit into this vein. Even worse, Sha Na Na, a collection of suspicious-looking Jerseyites in tight black t-shirts, came together to do nostalgia shows, singing doo-wop songs and flexing their flabby arms.
Chicago even got into the act with “Old Days,” a song pining for the simple pleasures of childhood– Howdy Doody, birthday parties, baseball cards, comic books. The following year, Chicago managed a top 20 hit with a song called “Harry Truman,” a simple ditty in the style of Randy Newman praising the 33rd president’s simplicity and forthrightness as Nixon festered in retirement and Gerald Ford flailed about to “Whip Inflation Now”
On television, Happy Days became ratings gold, set in the idyllic locale of 1950s Milwaukee, inspiring still other spin-offs like Laverne and Shirley. On film, Grease and American Graffiti were set in that decade as well, with the resounding message that this was a fun time in which to grow up.
1950s diners even made an unlikely comeback. Stainless steel, turquoise, and jukeboxes playing Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” were once again all the rage, assembled by the very same construction companies that made the original diners twenty years earlier.
All this suggests a rather dreary culture of nostalgia enthusiasts accomplishing little, a people looking back instead of blazing trails forward. But this was not always so. As their country’s international prestige, civic integrity, and economic livelihood all took a turn for the worse, many bold thinkers pushed boundaries, taking advantage of the “productive uncertainty,” as one historian calls it, that typified the decade. Labor unionists in Youngstown Ohio who started sabotaging their own plant, tired of being treated like cogs in a great industrial wheel. The social space that disco allowed for blacks, women and gays. The pioneers in the burgeoning environmentalist movement. The mainline ministers who continued to fight for social justice even when it royally pissed off their congregants. The lonely computer-hobbyist nerds on the West Coast who took rudimentary computer technology and turned it into a user-friendly appliance.