As suggested in two recent meditations on the 1970s — NBC's upcoming "big event miniseries" The '70s and David Frum's book How We Got Here: The 70's — The Decade That Brought You Modern Life — For Better or Worse, it's all too easy to recall the Me Decade as a succession of lazy, hazy, crazy, national malaise-y days. For reasons that will become clear, however, such an assessment packs about as much firepower as Evel Knievel's 1974 rocket blast over Snake River Canyon. Indeed, the 1970s surely rank as one of the five or six best decades of the second half of the 20th century.
Still, on a superficial level, it's all too true that in retrospect, the '70s seem closer in spirit to The Late Great Planet Earth than Jonathan Livingston Seagull (to reference two of the era's best-selling and most characteristic books). The decade contained more than its share of fear and trembling, of seemingly genuine Apocalypses Now that ranged far beyond seeing a plus-sized Marlon Brando eat bugs and mumble lines about clerks and overdue grocery bills.
To wit: Watergate; stagflation; the fall of Saigon (and of New York City) to communists; the Three Mile Island meltdown (which not only threatened to wipe out both normal and mutant residents of the already irradiated city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but energized two undeniably real tragedies by transmuting the leaden film The China Syndrome into pure box office gold and underwriting ultra-mellow girl-slapper Jackson Browne's atonal No Nukes concerts); ever-present worries while in the bathroom that not just a nuclear warhead but Skylab itself might come crashing through the ceiling; even more pressing fears while watching television of receiving news of a Beatles reunion; the prime-time tyranny of Quinn Martin productions including but not limited to Dan August, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, and Bert D'Angelo/Superstar; the "Cockatoo Craze" begat by Baretta and, one assumes, a misery index (unemployment plus inflation rates) that hovered consistently in the high teens and low twenties; an entire year of televised Bicentennial Minutes and equally oppressive displays of so-called Tall Ships staffed by polyglot crews of idiots in period costumes; migrating killer bees and the occasional killer rabbit; the sad, inexplicable devolution of John Travolta from Sweat Hog to Tony Manero to Danny Zuko and the equally inexplicable rise of '50s nostalgia and the popularity of phrases such as "Sit on it, you nerd!" And then there was Maude.
The '70s — the miniseries set to run this weekend on the Peacock Network, not the era described in a 1982 social history titled It Seemed Like Nothing Happened — promises to unleash all those happily, thankfully repressed memories in what might just be the most vomit-inducing film since The Exorcist first set audiences a-pukin' back in 1973.
"The '70s," notes the official press kit for the dramedy (which this reporter suffered through like yet another Death Wish sequel), "is a four-hour magic carpet ride through the politics and pop culture of the 1970s as experienced by four twenty-something friends." Which means, among other things, it is a Hanna/Barbera-level cartoon that covers everything from the Kent State shootings (perhaps the single greatest P.R. ploy pulled off by a college since Yale named itself after a popular lock company) through the machinations of Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) to "feminism" to Watergate to Black Power (and blaxploitation movies) to Jim Jones's death cult to disco to the Alaskan oil pipeline to the inevitable set of "happy" endings in which the main characters open drug rehab centers and become psychotherapists. To round out the historically "authentic" clichés (and in an uncomfortably accurate and uncomfortably unironic nod to an era in which black characters were routinely given names such as Lamont, Grady, Lionel, Huggy Bear, and Florida), the African American principals are named Dexter and Yolanda; a record producer "who lives life in the fast lane" croaks from an o.d.; and the character implicated in Watergate becomes an environmental activist.
The mentality behind The '70s may not be quite as deep as the Love Canal — the press kit lists a number of "news highlights" from each year in the eponymous decade, including these two back-to-back tidbits: "A cyclone tidal wave in East Pakistan kills 168,000" and "Postal Reform Bill makes U.S. Postal Service a government corporation." — but it isn't completely bereft of insight. The producers like to quote conservative author Frum's statement in How We Got Here that "political upheaval was transformed into an upheaval in habits, beliefs and morals…of a quarter-billion souls spread across a vast continent." Frum's starting point is that the '60s have been oversold as a cultural watershed. Rather, the Me Decade was where the action was. Unlike that of the Age of Aquarius, writes Frum, "the social transformation of the 1970s was real and was permanent," (emphasis in original). "It left behind a country that was more dynamic, more competitive, more tolerant; less deferential, less self-confident, less united; more socially equal, less economically equal; more expressive, more risk-averse, more sexual; less literate, less polite, less reticent."
He ain't kidding. While aging baby boomers and hippies still cling to the notion that the '60s brought it all back home, the reality is that the '70s rocked. Indeed, it's safe to say that by the end of 1980, the mainstream on almost every level had been diverted into an infinite number of small creeks and rivulets. In the decade before Ronald Reagan started yammering about deregulating the political sphere, virtually all controls on the personal sphere had effectively been lifted (indeed, the one may have been a precondition for the other). By the end of the '70s, whether you were male or female, gay or straight, black or white, etc. or ad infinitum, you were freer than ever before to fuck anybody you wanted; to live with anybody you wanted; to work where you wanted; to go to college; to do drugs; and on and on. As Marlo "That Girl!" Thomas put it, we were freer to be … you and me than ever before.
So just how great was the personal liberation from expected identities? Consider only this: By the end of the Me Decade's orgy of self-indulgence, Bob Dylan — of all people — transformed himself into a born-again Christian who felt absolutely comfortable sonically informing his "so-called friends" on the 1979 release Slow Train Coming that they were heading straight to hell, where "they would beg G-d to kill them" but they wouldn't "be able to die" (this only a few years after he wrote politically correct odes to mafiosos and jailed boxers). Not only did Dylan preach such good news to very modern man; modern man snorted it up like so much coke and made Slow Train the Maestro's best-selling record up to that time. It is precisely that wild set of massively broadened possibilities that informs the most successful '70s kitsch, ranging from Dazed and Confused to Velvet Goldmine to That '70s Show to Outside Providence. From David Bowie on through to transgendered dentist-cum-ladies-tennis pro Richard Raskin/Renee Richards, you could be anything you wanted.
And it is precisely this set of possibilities that ultimately disconcerts Frum. Not that he is immune to the Me Decade's fleshly charms. Much of How We Got Here beckons the reader onto the dance floor under a spinning glitter ball while the musical question "Voulez-Vouz Coucher Avec Moi Ce Soir?" hangs in the air. "Imagine a club like Studio 54 opening in Rudy Giuliani's New York," he writes. "A dance parlor in which nearly naked bartenders offered themselves to male and female customers alike, while the owners and their friends snorted cocaine in public view, heroin was pumping the bathroom stalls, and unusual sex acts were consummated in the alcoves overhead." Today's youth, Frum notes (ignoring today's adults), "live in a zero-tolerance world in which smoking is prohibited and seatbelt use is mandatory….They imagine the 1970s as a glorious moment of guiltless hedonism, and they yearn [nostalgically] for the strobelights of the discotheque."
So evocatively does he evoke the snowblown, pulsating, decadent excitement of the era that the reader is ready to hop in Frum's Volkswagen Thing and head back with him to his fern-lined pad. Sadly, though, unlike NBC — which merely wants to treat us to a few hours of advertiser-supported Gumptertainment — Frum is a regular Mr. Goodbar, whose facile pickup lines mask darker purposes. We're not talking a murderous Tom Berenger in high heels, just the sort of good old-fashioned conservative tut-tutting that regularly fills the pages of Rupert "Have You Met My New Wife — She's Several Decades Younger Than Me" Murdoch's moralistic rag, The Weekly Standard, to which Frum is a contributing editor. Frum's bold, courageous critique of Erich "Chariots of the Gods" von Daniken (whose books were never taken seriously even by the most stoned of his millions of readers) stands in for his larger condemnation of the 1970s: "This is an individualism run amok, an individualism that refuses to be bound not only by the laws of society, but even by the laws of nature."
Though Frum's tome is subtitled with the even-handed phrase, "for better or worse," it's hard to escape the feeling he clearly feels that it's the latter, and that the country has never really recovered from the decade (this, despite the fact that we have finally Whipped Inflation Now and the Tall Ships are everywhere in dry dock). "It's possible to imagine the cultural revolution of the 1970s as a kind of tidal wave that inundated homes and lives, but that is now receding, leaving the beach messy, but essentially unchanged," he writes. "But is it really true? … If remoralization is not yet a fact, it can still be an aspiration." Elsewhere, Frum pines for days "when people showed more loyalty to family and country" (as if the two are somehow contiguous). The real idea is to take Americans back to those prelapsarian days "when they read more and talked about themselves less … when they restrained their sexuality … when professors and curators were unafraid to uphold high intellectual and artistic standards" and on and on.
It's hard not to think that Frum is guilty of special pleading on behalf of the good old days, when élites of all sorts were more fully in control of things. Hailing from Toronto's upper crust, he is, after all, the "heir to a multi-million dollar fortune" (as Mirabella put it in a recent profile of Frum's wife, Danielle Crittenden), and is fond of making the sort of ex cathedra statements that even Pope John Paul II shies away from these days. A professional antifeminist who chides working mothers while herself maintaining a busy writing and speaking schedule, Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, calls to mind the Minnie Pearl of conservatism, Phyllis Schlafly, who hit the big time herself in the '70s by campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment and the bottomless horror of unisex public toilets. (Apparently, the campaign against dreary, priggish, longwinded power couples will have to wait for another decade).
In the mid-'70s essay that named the era, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening," Tom Wolfe — cited by Frum only three brief times and to no great effect — divined just what was going on, and hinted at why Frum's dream of a "remoralized" nation will never come to pass (at least not in any way that Frum would recognize). "The saga of the Me Decade begins with…the thirty-year boom," wrote Wolfe. "Wartime spending in the 1940's touched off a boom that has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history….The word 'proletarian' can no longer be used in this country with a straight face….One can't even call workingmen 'blue collar' anymore. They all have on collars like Joe Namath's or Johnny Bench's or Walt Frazier's. They all have on $35 superstar Qiana sport shirts with elephant collars and 1940's Airbrush Wallpaper Flowers Buncha Grapes & Seashell designs all over them." Intellectuals, artists, and architects, Wolfe notes, had always had great plans to "pygmalionize" the common man. "But once the dreary little bastards started getting money in the 1940's, they did an astonishing thing — they took their money and ran! They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do — they discovered and started doting on Me! They've created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken!"
A quarter of a century after The Me Decade was so named, Wolfe's analysis is more relevant than ever: We are that much richer still, that much more all aristocrats now, and never less likely to heed the call of "remoralization" emanating from a wealthy Beltway pundit. (Indeed, judging from the lukewarm reception of Wolfe's A Man in Full and its weak sales vis a vis The Bonfire of the Vanities, we don't even give a shit what that old windbag has to say anymore.) For some of us, that may be cause for concern. But for the vast, overwhelming majority, it's only cause to dig out that old Kool and the Gang 8-track from 1980 and celebrate the new world order.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.