RUNNING ON EMPTY
If you wanted a world that was orderly, where progress was guaranteed, the seventies were a terrible time to be alive. Cars were running out of gas. The country was running out of promise. A president was run out of office. And American troops were running out of Vietnam.
Only a decade before, as the nation anticipated the conquest of space, the defeat of poverty, an end to racism, and a society where people moved faster and felt better than they ever had before, it seemed that there was nothing America couldn't do. Even the protestors of the sixties objected that America was using its immense wealth and power to do the wrong things, not that it did things wrong. Yet during the seventies it seemed that the United States couldn't do anything right. The country had fallen into the Great Funk.
America even fumbled the celebration of its birthday. In 1975, the United States began a multiyear observance of the two-hundredth anniversary of the American Revolution. Fifteen years earlier, such a celebration would have engaged America, but by the mid-seventies, everything seemed to be falling apart. Four years of pageantry, featuring musket-wielding guys in tricorn hats, didn't feel like a solution for the country's malaise. At many of the commemorations, Gerald Ford, that unelected, unexpected president, said some little-noted words. Ford presided over bicentennial America like a substitute teacher, trying to calm a chaos he had no hand in making and seemed scarcely to understand.
The bicentennial celebration left few memories, few images or events that have resonated through the decades since. "Media Burn," staged on July 4, 1975, at San Francisco's Cow Palace, is an exception. It was not an official commemoration but rather a project of Ant Farm, an art and architecture collaborative. President Ford was not in attendance as he was at most of the bicen's big moments. Instead, the presiding figure was an imitator of the late President John F. Kennedy, who was remembered at the time as the last real president, or at least the last who didn't leave office in disgrace. "Haven't you ever wanted to put your foot through your television?" the ersatz Kennedy asked. In the climactic moment of the event, a specially modified and apparently driverless 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible crashed through a wall of vintage television sets. In fact, there was a driver hidden inside the car. And the crash was documented by a camera housed in an additional tail fin, constructed for the purpose.
"Media Burn" was a quintessential event of the seventies--bleak, funny, transgressive, and intensely satisfying in a way that was either juvenile or profound. Though it lacked the Betsy Ross impersonators and flag-waving oratory that marked official bicentennial events, it was nevertheless a historical pageant: Kennedy and the Cadillac Eldorado, icons of success in the immediate past, represented an America that was past and seemingly irrecoverable. Only a decade and a half earlier, every part of American culture--from its leaders to its cars and even its linoleum--seemed to promise expansiveness and progress. Americans had watched those television sets and seen the future, but nothing had turned out as advertised.
By 1975, the future had turned from a promise to a shock. Following the first Arab oil embargo of 1973, the Eldorado and the dream of freedom and luxury it embodied had come to appear grotesque, a true road to ruin. Overnight, Americans went from a world where abundance was assured to one in which scarcity was an ever-looming threat, and they didn't handle it well. Mysterious rumors of shortages of everything from toilet paper to raisins led to runs on supermarkets and hoarding as the everyday necessities of life seemed no longer to be guaranteed. What was, in essence, only a commodity shortage quickly became, for many, an intimation of apocalypse. In the early sixties, people brainstormed about when all human problems would be solved; in the seventies, the talk was about when and how civilization would end.
Just days before "Media Burn," the Vietnam War had come to an ignominious end, with diplomats escaping by helicopter from the roof of the embassy in Saigon. Earlier, Richard Nixon, too, had left in a helicopter, after resigning the presidency in the wake of a bungled burglary and a cover-up that revealed a personality even more diabolical and self-destructively insecure than even his many enemies had imagined. For nearly two years, Americans had seen the intellectually brilliant, sometimes visionary president they had reelected in a landslide ever so slowly revealed as a foul-mouthed conspirator, condemned by his own words on his own secret tapes. ("NIXON BUGGED HIMSELF" screamed the New York Post headline.) Spiro T. Agnew, Nixon's vice president, had resigned as well, in the wake of a tax-evasion scandal.
And then there was the economy, producing very little actual growth, while prices were rising at a double-digit pace. This was something that elementary economics textbooks said could not happen, and yet it did. This so-called stagflation so traumatized politicians and policy makers that for the rest of the century, their central goal was to assure that it would not happen again. "Things can't get any worse," was the expert consensus in 1970, after the booming economy of the sixties started to sputter in 1968 and inflation persisted the following year. The experts, it turned out, had no idea. You could get eight loaves of bread for a dollar at the supermarket in 1970. The next year, that dollar bought five; in 1973, four; and by the end of the decade, one and part of a second. In 1974, following the imposition of wage and price controls that had only made matters worse, President Ford was encouraging Americans to wear little buttons that said "WIN--Whip Inflation Now," even as prices rose 13.9 percent in that one year. The seventies began with worries over home mortgage rates approaching 7 percent and ended with them at 13 percent, on the way to a high of 18 percent in 1981.
Many more Americans were feeling like losers as the economy entered unfamiliar territory. Ever since World War II, Americans had come to expect ever higher living standards and greater economic opportunities. During the seventies, income equality decreased, and ladders of advancement disappeared. After dominating the world economy for more than three decades, the United States saw its balance of trade with the rest of the world begin to slip into the red during the early 1970s, and stay there permanently after 1976. Americans had turned from a nation of producers to one of consumers. American workers, who had long been able to ignore the rest of the world, had to worry about competition from overseas.
Nearly all American cities experienced a dramatic increase in crime during the decade, and some truly bizarre crimes made headlines. In 1973 and 1974 in San Francisco, a band of black supremacists known as the Death Angels killed fourteen and injured seven in what became known as the Zebra murders. The first of what became known as the Son of Sam murders took place in New York in the summer of 1976, and twelve more attacks, resulting in five more murders, happened during the next year. The killer claimed that he had been ordered to commit the crimes by his neighbor's Labrador retriever. In San Francisco in 1978,a member of the city's board of supervisors shot the city's mayor and another supervisor, then won clemency because, his lawyers argued, his judgment was impaired by eating too many Twinkies and other sugary foods. Call it the Decade of Poor Excuses.
Perhaps the most horrible revelation was at Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, New York. There, a chemical company had buried barrels of extremely toxic chemicals atop which a public elementary school and more than one hundred houses were built. For more than twenty-five years, these chemicals leaked, causing such grotesqueries as babies born with two rows of teeth on their lower jaw and skulls that failed to fuse together, while adults had extremely high incidences of rare ailments. Its revelation, the result of an activist mother putting all the pieces together and demanding a school transfer for her child, was more than just a horrible litany of human suffering. It was like an outpouring of long-suppressed evil that had been denied during sunnier times but was now inescapable.
Overseas, the revolution in Iran in 1979 led to yet another gasoline crisis in the United States. Following the revolutionary students' seizure of the embassy in Tehran in October, fifty-two Americans spent 444 days as hostages. An attempt to rescue them in April 1980 proved a disaster and contributed to President Jimmy Carter's defeat in the 1980 elections.
Even parts of the world that didn't suffer through America's traumas of Watergate and Vietnam suffered from the same economic stagnation, fear of scarcity, and trepidation about the future. In Europe, terrorism was becoming a fact of life. Terrorists disrupted the 1972 Olympics, killing eleven athletes and a dream of peaceful competition. In Britain and Ireland, street-corner bombings became routine, and in Italy a prime minister was kidnapped.
In space, an increase in solar radiation doomed Skylab, the first U.S. orbiting space station, which fell out of the sky on June 11, 1979, just about a decade after the first moon landing. The sky was falling, if only on Australia.
The contemporary consensus is clear. The seventies were awful. The important things were awful, and the trivial things were awful. The politicians were awful. The economy was awful. Those insipid harvest gold and avocado kitchens were awful. Those polyester clothes that looked like tailored sponges were awful. The gas lines were awful. The pudgy AMC Pacer automobile was awful. As for Earth shoes, whose raised toe and lowered heel turned every walk into an uphill climb, they were awful too. And don't even mention disco! Call it a slum of a decade, and people will smile and nod knowingly. Even in an era like ours that seems nostalgic for everything, seventies style sounds like an oxymoron, an aesthetic whose allure seems mysterious even, or especially, to those who once embraced it.
Still, after the litany of disasters and the inventory of embarrassments have been recited, many who lived through this supposed nightmare of an era recall good times, and not just hedonistic ones. The seventies were a time when many people felt free to invent or reinvent themselves, or to feel good about who they were. In civic life, the confrontations of the sixties gave way to improvisation and cooperation. The routines of everyday life--eating, staying comfortable, taking out the trash--could be meaningful, both personally and globally.
Some of the old promises of progress had proved to be empty or unwise, but new possibilities were emerging. Indeed, the very phenomenon of "Media Burn," in which a bunch of people get together and decide to drive a Cadillac into a wall of televisions just because it could be, you know, cool, suggests a defiance of the lousy circumstances and even a certain confidence that shattering old beliefs is the beginning of making something new. The world Americans had been promised might have broken down, but when that ziggy, chrome-encrusted Caddy smashed into the wall of Zeniths and Motorolas and Magnavoxes, it showed that a breakdown does not preclude a breakthrough.
There is something deeply liberating about discovering that you don't live in a perfect world. When what you have always been taught hasbeen shown to be untrue, that opens the opportunity of finding new truths on your own. When things fall apart, you can put them together in new ways. When the center cannot hold, well, that's good for those out on the edge. When the forces of order are revealed to be a malign conspiracy, it's a good time for a party. The disappearance of a universally accepted American Way of Life opened the door to celebration of a number of different ways of life. Even Life, the magazine that once presumed to define America's national purpose, ceased publication. It was replaced shortly afterward by People, a shift in emphasis that suggests, as people would have said back in the seventies, a change of consciousness.
You can't help living in the present. Thus, when you look back at a time that is relatively recent, though in many ways remote from contemporary experience, it's difficult not to pay the most attention to those phenomena and attitudes whose impact is obvious now.
The Great Funk grows from a different feeling--the one you have when you look at an old photograph of yourself. You see yourself--but not quite yourself--in weird clothes and with a look on your face that you only dimly recognize. It is a past self who might have done all sorts of things you never quite accomplished, a self that didn't know all the things life had in store. "What was I thinking?" you exclaim, and it's a question that's worth trying to answer. Also, "What was I feeling?" and "How did I become the person in this picture?" If you lived through the seventies, you probably have a bunch of different pictures in which it seems like you were several different people, thinking and feeling a lot of different things. That was the nature of the time: Finding your identity was extremely important, but theatricality and artifice were seen as ways of finding--or making--yourself.
The great question of Watergate, asked by Senator Howard Baker, was, "What did the president know and when did he know it?" The Great Funk is about what people thought they knew, how they felt, what they did. It will try to get into the heads of these figures from recent history--in many cases ourselves--by getting into their shoes, scrutinizingtheir homes, feeling the rhythm of their music, and scanning the advertisements that attempted to incite their desires.
One of the things we learned in the seventies is that people's experiences, both as individuals and as members of groups and communities, are astonishingly diverse, and different people remember and value very disparate things. Still, many phenomena will be ignored here, not out of malice but simply because that's a danger of writing a short book on a big subject. Feel free to disagree, send angry e-mails, or even write your own book, which would be a seventies kind of response. I lived through the period and had a furry sofa (though I never accumulated a closetful of polyester shirts). Still, The Great Funk isn't a memoir; it's an attemptto evoke an era by looking at the ideas, feelings, textures, shapes, gestures, colors, catchphrases, demographic forces, artistic expressions, and all the other things that shaped people's lives at the time. It's not a place to look for accounts of Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, global warming, or other major issues that have generated whole libraries' worth of reporting, analysis, and polemic. Rather, it is about living in the shadow of these matters. It is about the way that knowledge of corruption, or forecasts of impending doom changed the texture of life and shaped how people thought about themselves, how they dressed, and behaved, and decorated.
While The Great Funk doesn't attempt to look back from the twenty-first century to find the origins of the present, it does, in the tradition of "Media Burn," join the people of the seventies as they look back at a recent period that was radically different from their own. This is the post--World War II era, part of which was the subject of my book Populuxe, which dealt with American life in the decade from 1954 to 1964.
Near the end of that earlier book, I wrote, "The Populuxe era confidently projected the American family--Mom, Dad, Junior and Sis--unchanged, centuries into the future, spinning through the galaxies in starbound station wagons. And today, Mom and Dad are divorced, the factory where Dad worked has moved to Taiwan, Sis is a corporate vice president, Junior is gay and Mom's a Moonie. The American Way of Life has shattered into a bewildering array of 'lifestyles,' which offer greater freedom but not the security that one is doing the normal thing."
The decade when everything shattered was the seventies. And although one can see what happened in the seventies as a fall from grace, most of us would not wish to return to the seeming certainties of the Populuxe era even if we could. The seventies undid the fifties, and to a great extent the fifties deserved to be undone. The eras of Populuxe and of the Great Funk represent two extreme versions of American life. Neither was normal, neither could go onforever. But the way we understand and misunderstand these times colors the way we view the present.
I coined the word "Populuxe," a proudly artificial term that evokes the smoothness and speed of a society that looked forward to sharing an ever more opulent future. It's obvious that a term for the seventies couldn't be so slick. As I tried to come up with one, I found myself returning to an old English word, "funk," one with many meanings, most of which are relevant to the period I am describing. One kind of funk is a panic or depression; the seventies had plenty of panic, and economically, the years of the Great Funk were the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. An even older meaning of "funk," stretching back four centuries, is that it's an unpleasant smell, redolent of old cheese and crevices of the body. This kind of funk became a term in African-American music during the 1930s, to describe music that was rough, rhythmic, sexy, and real. Funk music, which emerged at the end of the sixties, was unruly, repetitive, conceptually simple, improvisatory, and often self-indulgently long-winded. Funk was probably the most important genre of the seventies: It expressed the era's lust for authenticity even as it underlay other genres, such as disco, with which it superficially had little in common. The funky furnishings and clothes that people found in flea markets and thrift stores were prized as a fusion of mildew, authenticity, and anarchy. The importance of funk in seventies life reflected a conviction that reality sometimes stinks, but it's better than being fooled by a perfumed delusion.
The oldest meaning of "funk," one that I didn't know until I started looking it up, is spark. (It seems to be related to "punk," a connection that opens even more seventies pathways.) I like this mostly forgotten meaning because this difficult decade sparked quite a few new insights and lasting changes in people's lives. The Great Funk speaks then of panic and stink, but also of ebullience and improvisation. It is an ambiguous term to describe a paradoxical era, one in which society was coming together even as it was falling apart.
There is one more question I'd better answer before I disappear behind the curtain of authorial omniscience, and that is: When were the seventies? The answer isn't quite as obvious as it might seem, because human experience is rarely neatly organized into ten-year segments. When the seventies were depends, to some degree, on what you find interesting or what you are trying to prove. I have optedfor a longish seventies, beginning in midsummer 1969. The Woodstock music festival and the riots at the Stonewall bar in New York City's Greenwich Village, both of which happened that summer, are often seen as quintessentially sixties events. But they really represent a transition from issue-based protest to the politics of identity and generational solidarity that characterize the seventies. And the draft lottery of December 1969 allowed draft-age young men to plan their lives, thus taking some of the urgency out of antiwar protest and setting the stage for the next phase. The end came in January 1981, when the Iran hostages were released and Reagan took the oath of office a few minutes later. Some of the economic gloom of the seventies carried over into the eighties, as the harsh inflation-killing policies of Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee, continued under Reagan. But from the beginning, Reagan reassured the public that we were back in more normal times, times more like the fifties.
When Janis Joplin's recording of "Me and Bobby McGee" became a number one hit in 1971, the notoriously hard-living, drug-abusing singer had recently died. Thus, the song's refrain, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose," was heard as a kind of epitaph. Still, that line, self-pitying though it is, nevertheless expresses something important about the time. Americans clearly hadn't lost everything in the seventies, but the obvious failure of so much they had counted on provided an opportunity. There was room to experiment, room for you and like-minded friends to try to do things that might make a difference.
Authority had broken down. Everywhere, there was a growing, and ever more justified, skepticism about experts and their ability to deal with the challenges of the time. In the sixties, the establishment fought back against the protestors, but in the seventies, it seemed simply to have walked away and left the rebels to cope with the fusillade of crises.
"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," said the sixties slogan, but in the seventies, it became clear that the solution often becomes the problem. In 1973, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St. Louis, which had won praise and awards only two decades before, were blown up by the agency that had originally built them. The image of the imploding high-rises quickly became the symbol of a failed idea and of the bankruptcy of the whole concept of large-scale urban renewal. Busybodies keeping their eyes on the street, not heroic architects and planners, were the cities' future as well as their past.
Meanwhile, school busing, the technocrats' solution to segregation, was despised by whites and blacks alike, and it unleashed a sometimes violent resistance movement. Economists who had promised to "fine-tune" the economy as if it were a fancy stereo system became subjects of ridicule. The Vietnam War was not the only ill-conceived venture for which "the best and the brightest" were blamed.
All sorts of people came together during this time in order to try many different approaches to life. Some people removed themselves from the society and went to live as families or communities in remote places unconnected to the technological network. Women came together to raise one another's consciousness, to try to understand their lives as women and to change them. Charismatic Christians came together to reconnect with those ecstatic days after the Pentecost, when Christ's apostles spoke in tongues and emotion was translated immediately into action. Young professionals--they weren't called yuppies yet--came together in deteriorating big-city neighborhoods to try to re-create modes of urban living that had been given up for dead. Gays came together, to dance or to march, but mostly to affirm that what they felt was not unnatural, not wrong. Young computer enthusiasts came together to figure out how to make it possible for individuals to partake of the power of information technology. Neighbors came together to recycle their trash, a pursuit that elicited surprising fervor, perhaps a reconnection with ancient practices of making sacrifices to justify consumption. Political conservatives came together to create new institutions to claim some of the intellectual ground and political power left empty by the failure of vaguely liberal mainstream institutions.
While many of the groups that emerged during the seventies had a political program, or at the very least represented a challenge to what had been a political consensus, they spoke not of ideology but of identity. Feminists reveled in the power of sisterhood, gays liberated themselves from the closet, survivalists established self-sufficient settlements in the wilderness to embody better ways of living, and settlers in city neighborhoods styled themselves urban pioneers. And even though they were part of a different generation, the rapid proliferation in Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere of communities made up entirely of old people mirrored their grandchildren's inclination to dispense with the family and traditional multigenerational ties and hang out with people who listened to the same music and shared the same tastes and concerns.
Writing in 1976, Tom Wolfe memorably christened the seventies "the Me Decade," but perhaps the pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk was closer to the mark when he spoke of an emerging coalition, "the us-es." These were, he said, "not only gays but those blacks and the Asians and the disabled and the seniors--the us-es, the us-es--without hope, the us-es give up." It's important to note that Milk did not speak of these groups as victims, any more than Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers, would label the old people for whom she spoke as passive or pitiful. Both were seeking to lead people who had long been marginal or forgotten, but their rhetoric had more to do with unleashing power than with bewailing past injustice.
There were, however, more "us-es" than Milk or Kuhn or others on the left realized. Indeed, Wolfe's key point about the decade was that it was "the third Great Awakening," a time of seeking an intensely personal savior. He was prescient in identifying those seeking a religious revival based on personal faith uncompromised either by reason or the necessity for a social consensus as the most important of the countercultures that arose during the period. This antiestablishment religiosity has since become ever more potent and has pushed back against the growing power of some of the "us-es" with whom Milk identified.
Like the newly adult boomers who gave the era its character, the seventies were at once hedonistic and moralistic. Much of the hedonism sprang from the zone of freedom created by the failure of the old values of the Populuxe era. Some was a result of demographics: Never before had so many people reached sexual maturity at the same time. And some of it, of course, was the drugs. In Harold and Maude, the 1971 cult movie hit, the seventy-nine-year-old sensualist heroine spoke for the seventies when she introduced her college-age paramour to the pleasures of marijuana. "It's organic!" she said. Even so, many in the seventies were willing to imbibe wholly artificial substances in their quest for more intense experiences.
For many, the moral basis for behavior came from awareness of the limits of Earth's natural resources and the belief that humans were irreversibly polluting the air, the oceans, the aquifers, and thus jeopardizing the lives of future generations. Such an awareness of material limits could give moral force to everyday behavior. Building your house so that it takes full advantage of the sun and the prevailing breezes provided a more satisfying basis for design than mere style or status. Cooking yogurt and barley soup from the recipe in Diet for a Small Planet, even though it didn't taste great, made the most fundamental act of consumption into an act of generosity toward your fellow creatures and toward the future. It was also a way to defy the chemical-agribusiness complex, and also to rebel against the boomers' moms' embrace of artificiality and convenience. Later in the decade, the movement toward healthy and local food gave rise--through the efforts of Berkeley's Alice Waters and many others--to a tasty and sensuous indigenous American cuisine. Being able to have something that is moral and pleasurable at the same time was truly a seventies sort of nirvana.
Falling apart and coming together--whether for the planet, for sex, for peace, for freedom, or for God--was the common experience of the era. And even if we fear to repeat the seventies, it is nevertheless an important place to revisit, to see an America that was very different from the present, one that contained many seeds of the present and suggested countless other possibilities that remain unexplored.
Baby boomers had grown up with a cheap toy called the Magic Slate. A child could draw on it with a stylus and her drawing or writing would show. One needed, however, to pull up the plastic that covered it to make everything disappear so that you could start anew. During the post--World War II era, the entire society seemed to view itself as the embodiment of the Magic Slate. Progress would keep coming; it would supplant everything that had come before. Images of the future never contained any old buildings. They had been erased repeatedly by the magic slate.
The shocks of the seventies killed this myth of inevitable progress. They showed that some marks are permanent, and they can't be erased with a flick of the wrist. Americans started to notice all the places, people, and things that are left over after progress. Decaying, crime-ridden cities showed that the previous decades' rhetoric of ceaselessimprovement had been a sham. But they were also filled with neglected treasures: not just grand buildings and generous parks but also finely crafted details, such as granite curbs, statues of forgotten leaders, and elaborate architectural moldings. These expressions of permanence and seriousness showed an alternative to the throwaway culture of the post--World War II era. The Great Funk aesthetic begins not with a blank slate but with a landscape filled with ruins--the ruins of communities and buildings, and the ruins of failed old ideas. It is based not simply on looking forward but rather on looking all around, to see what was available, to find new uses for what had been left behind. It was an aesthetic of salvage and of juxtaposition. Recycling was becoming an environmental imperative, and it became a cultural one too, as people sought to rediscover and renew what had long gone unnoticed and neglected. Creators of Great Funk style roamed the city streets on garbage night, finding the Mission oak tables, the moderne kitchen sets, the disheveled remnants of old avant-gardes. They were on the lookout for space, big spaces in unexpected places such as abandoned warehouse districts, which became artist studios, performing spaces, places to dance, places to live. They prowled through attics and discovered old fabrics and fashions that could be aggressively mismatched and made into something new.
The Great Funk aesthetic rejected the hard and the shiny, whose connotations of speed and progress felt wrong for those who saw the society going in bad directions. Instead, it embraced texture and layering, distressed surfaces and exposed brick. Some of the textures were artificial and downright unpleasant; there were squishy suits and slimy sport shirts.
People in the seventies took pleasure in setting their tables with mismatched chinaware. Those around the table were probably mismatched too. At least they weren't trying so hard to assimilate. Some were rediscovering ethnic roots that their parents and grandparents had sought to escape. Some were engaged in spiritual explorations, or expressing a newfound sexual identity, or throwing themselves into a craft, like carpentry or cooking, that made their parents wonder what good college had done them. They may have been wearing polyester, but they were homespun in their hearts.
Tolerance and acceptance were core values of the time, which meant that some dangerous, or at least stupid, behavior and beliefs were not only tolerated but encouraged. The smiley button--the yellow circle that bids everyone to have a nice day--was a badge of openness and universal cheerfulness. For many, it has become the very symbol of the vapidity of the seventies, even though the first version of it began to appear in the sixties. Unquestionably, many wore the little buttons because they honestly wanted to wish everybody well, which may be naïve but not cause for censure. Almost as soon as the button became popular, however, some people began wearing it ironically, as an accent in a punk wardrobe of rejection, provocation, and screaming fury. The smiles, which has subsequently become enshrined as an Internet emoticon, was an assertion of bland acceptance, but it was one part of a far from bland time.
Indeed, the Great Funk was far more memorable for its extremes of ebullience and despair; mere cheerfulness scarcely enters the equation. One can feel this emotional intensity in one of the era's pop masterpieces, Stevie Wonder's two-LP album Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Its overall tone is joyous and celebratory, but it is hardly a smiley button. Wonder sings of his elation at the birth of his daughter in "Isn't She Lovely" but only after bemoaning the fate of poor children with sores on their hands playing in broken cars in "Village Ghetto Land." He celebrates Duke Ellington, one of his greatest predecessors, in "Sir Duke" but condemns those who want to live in a "Pastime Paradise"--or a future paradise. In between these bits of social criticism are dance numbers, love songs, and laments in a seeming attempt to include every feeling, emotion, and situation. That was a dream of the seventies, to live in the present, to love everyone and everything, and to miss nothing. Songs in the Key of Life epitomized seventies acceptance of complexity and love of layering. Wonder celebrated life in all its glorious contradictions, all of which could--and should--be experienced with the same heartfelt intensity.
A good way to feel the crosscurrents of Great Funk culture was watching the most compromised and allegedly brain-rotting medium, television. In the fifties, the society's tensions were largely invisible on television, while more recently, they have been dumbed down, polarized, and packaged into screaming ideological smackdowns. During the seventies, television recognized change and conflict in the society, and, capitalizing on its position of strength in the center of the household, showed how those tensions were coming home. The wisdom of the Vietnam War (thinly disguised as the Korean War) was being ridiculed on M°A°S°H. Several shows, including Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and All in the Family, found humor in class conflict and racial unrest. On Saturday Night Live, Gerald Ford was laughed at more for his clumsiness than for his policies. Still, calling attention to the president's literal stumbles focused attention on an administration that wasn't exactly sure-footed. The issues raised by feminism, and the grievances that brought it about, were aired in different ways on Maude, on which the title character had an abortion; Alice, which dealt with a single mother who had no choice but to work; and Mary Tyler Moore. Soap found comedy in frontiers of family dysfunction that few had even imagined.
For many, the 1973 public television series An American Family ranked among the shocks of the decade, right up there with the oil embargo and Watergate. In twelve one-hour programs, filmmakers chronicled the real lives of Bill Loud, a prosperous Santa Barbara, California, builder; his wife, Pat; and their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michelle. They were, by and large, the kind of people you expect to see on television: attractive, healthy, living in a large, comfortable house. What was unexpected was that this nuclear family exploded right before the viewers' eyes. Pat, feeling the need to be something more than just a housewife, announced that she was leaving Bill, who was shown to be unfaithful to her. Lance, the eldest son, moved to New York, established himself at the fringes of the Andy Warhol scene, and announced that he was gay. The other members of the family were given plenty of screen time to show themselves wounded, angry, selfish, and shallow. ("Television ate my family," Lance Loud later reflected.) The celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead pronounced the series "as significant as the invention of drama or the novel--a new way in which people can learn to look at life." An American Family was certainly unlike anything television had ever done before, boasting as it did the first real-time marital breakup, not to mention the first in-your-face homosexual. It was seen by only ten million people, not a large number in those pre-cable years, but certainly enough to get people talking. Some even believe it helped accelerate an already rising divorce rate. It was, nevertheless, great television that spoke directly to families.
The tensions of the time were even more visible in the movies, though often less literally expressed than they were on television. Indeed, the early seventies are widely acknowledged as a golden age of American film, which is just about the only art form of the period that gets any respect. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) bracketed the Watergate era, and by the time the sequel reached theaters, the values and behavior of the murderous gangsters the filmdepicted seemed almost noble compared with the conduct of some public officials. (The two summers' worth of congressional hearings about Watergate were transfixing television.) Chinatown (1974) was an immensely entertaining film that argued that the very basis of Southern California life--its drinking water--fed a conspiracy that was primordially sinister. Shampoo (1975), set on the night of Nixon's election in 1968, starred Warren Beatty as a hairdresser--Don Juan with a blow dryer--who motorcycles through the Hollywood Hills bedding the wife, mistress, and daughter of a wealthy pro-Nixon businessman. Clips of Nixon promising to bring the country together are juxtaposed with the behavior of people who seem to have no principles, only desires.
"The American people are turning sullen," proclaimed the ruthless television executive played by Faye Dunaway in the 1976 film Network. "They've been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression; they've turned off, shot up, and they've fucked themselves limp, and nothing helps ... The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them." Network, the story of a TV anchorman who is fired, then goes crazy on the air, then threatens to kill himself and becomes a big hit, was--the porno boom of the time notwithstanding--the most naked movie of the decade. It was funny and cynical, romantic and cathartic. And when the anchorman told his audience to go to their windows, open them, and shout, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," he provided a cry for the age.
Even Jaws (1975), a summer blockbuster that some critics cite as the beginning of the end of serious American films, has a story based on a plot by officials to cover up the existence of a deadly menace. In seventies America, the killer shark was a reality that could be denied no longer.
During the Great Funk, people weren't precisely nostalgic for the Populuxe period. Many, if not most, were pleased to be free of the sexual stereotypes and other repressive elements of Populuxe culture. As Shampoo suggested, even those who disapproved of the licentiousness of the time indulged in some of the pleasures.
Still, Americans had been led, for a very long time, to believe that the two decades after World War II represented normal times. That's why the contrast between those times, so often described as innocent, and the far more confusing present was such a strong theme of seventies culture.
One of the most poignant and popular films of the era was 1973's American Graffiti, which depicted the world of eleven years before as if it were a distant and lost civilization. A film with very little plot, it follows the activities of several young people, most of them recently out of high school, on the last night of summer vacation. They drive around, flirt, and listen to the radio, in a world where nothing seems to matter but themselves. Its only overt political point comes at the end of the movie, before the closing credits, where a text panel tells what has happened to these fictional characters. One is a draft evader living in Canada; another died in Vietnam. Audiences couldn't help but reflect on what had happened to them in those few short years and how everyone's expectations had been remade.
One of the main things the Populuxe era and the Great Funk had in common is that many find the artifacts of both decades--the tail fins of the former, the polyester leisure suits of the latter--to be aesthetically offensive. That may be because both periods were dominated by popular rather than elite taste. In the post-World War II era, most Americans were becoming wealthier, and they relied on big companies like General Motors to provide them with products that would enable them to assert and celebrate their good fortune. In the seventies, incomes were shrinking. People rushed to the warm, the fuzzy, the cheap. And in a time of perceived scarcity, people cluttered their homes as they hadn't done since Victorian times, creating places full of bold patterns, rough textures, salvaged junk, and domestic jungles of spider plants and ferns to serve as refuges from the world outside.
In the Populuxe era, however, there was only a narrow range of acceptableclothing and hairstyles. A businessman who wanted to be wild on the weekend might indulge in a madras plaid sport coat, but that was about it. Women's wardrobes were more varied, but they were, for the most part, clothes designed to be appropriate for specific circumstances, in which most others would be wearing similar outfits. By contrast, many objects--including automobiles, appliances, and furniture--were quite expressive. Through color, form, and a set of dynamic, future-evoking ornamentation, their cars, refrigerators, barware, patio furniture, and other possessions embodied the joy of having things and the confidence that there would always be more. During the Great Funk, this shared nouveau riche optimism was long gone, but it had been replaced with a sense of personal freedom. Appliances and cars were no longer very sexy, but dress and behavior more than compensated. People sought to express their individuality, especially through their bodies. Much of what people wore in the seventies might appear, in retrospect, to be a misjudgment. But the clothes, the hairstyles, the dances, and the attitudes were very positive gestures, affirmations that people could feel good about themselves regardless of whatever else was happening in the world. They didn't use machinery to live out their dreams, as in Populuxe times. They used their bodies instead.
The key symbolic object of the Populuxe era was the jet fighter plane, whose acute angles and parabolic curves created "a new shape of motion" that was tremendously faster than the streamlined shapes that had come before. The fighter plane projected a vector of progress, powerful, relentless, unstoppable. By the seventies, people had lost their faith in progress, or at least in the common vision of progress that seemed to have crashed and burned. The energies within society were more diffuse, pushing in many different directions.
One candidate to be the characteristic object of the age is the disco ball, which, as it revolved, reflected light by breaking it into discrete beams shooting in unexpected directions. And as those tiny points of light shined upon them, each dancer on the floor could feel like a star. The disco ball is an instrument of disorientation, which makes it an appropriate symbol for the seventies, an era whose allure lay in the belief that old ways were dead ends, and that new paths might lead in any direction.
But there is another spherical object that might be an even stronger candidate: Earth itself. "Fly Me to the Moon," Americans had crooned throughout the sixties. During that decade, the song was recorded by acts ranging from Frank Sinatra to Dion and the Belmonts, In 1969, we finally got there, and it turned out to be a dead end. In 1961, astronaut Alan B. Shepard made history as the first American in space, and his short sojourn outside Earth's atmosphere seemed little short of heroic. By 1971, Shepard was on the moon, hitting golf balls, and the Apollo mission had come to seem a cosmic irrelevancy.
Fortunately, though, the astronauts took some snapshots along the way, and the best ones were taken when they looked back toward home. Earth sparkled in the heavens, a shining sphere of blue ocean, orange earth, and swirling white clouds. It was beautiful--and finite. It provided an unforgettable reminder that we live on what Buckminster Fuller, in 1963, termed "spaceship earth." Like the astronauts in the Apollo capsule, the inhabitants of the planet were seen to be floating through space aboard a vessel that had very limited resources. That view of Earth from space galvanized efforts to conserve these resources and stop, or at least slow, the despoiling of the planet. Though we tend to associate the environmental consciousness of the seventies with oil shortages, the first and most widely observed Earth Day was observed in April 1970, more than three years before the first oil embargo. Concern about pollution had been building for many years, but the astronauts' view of Earth from space provided the image that people rallied around.
Both of these spherical icons--the disco ball and the glowing Earth--seem to represent contradictory visions. The fragmented brilliance of the disco ball embodies the differences that seemed so suddenly to have emerged in the culture, and it evokes the hedonism and theatricality that were so much a part of seventies life. The glowing Earth in space represents an awareness of limits and an emerging sense of responsibility for future generations and all the other life on the planet. Earth consciousness also helped give us earth tones, the oranges, browns, greens, and tans that were the background colors of life during the Great Funk. Glitter doesn't seem to go with mud, but both were big in the seventies.
Yet they are linked both ecologically and emotionally. The science of ecology demonstrates that a diversity of life-forms is a sign of health in an environment. Monocultures are prone to sudden collapse in biological systems, and it's not difficult to extend this insight to social, political, and economic systems as well. Postwar America seemed to aspire to monoculture, and in the seventies it seemed in danger of collapse. The country was clearly going in the new direction; it was time to break up and try a lot of new paths.
Beyond this rationalization, though, there were just too many pent-up urges. Many people had feelings and desires that were suppressed by the society's expectations. The roles people could play were few and limited. And when the system weakened, the oddballs and malcontents found an opening. It became possible to try out identities and find solidarity with other rare birds like yourself. Awareness of a world with limits allowed people to impose fewer limits on themselves and to explore frontiers within themselves.
Thus these twin spherical icons express different but not contradictory ways of seeing and being. The dazzling disco ball symbolizes the many different directions in which people were taking their lives, or permitting themselves to be led. Earth is a reminder of profound commonality. Yet, as Buckminster Fuller noted in 1970, "none of the perpendiculars to our spherical earth's surface are parallel to one another; they go in an infinity of directions." That tells us that each person standing has a direction of his or her own, but we should also understand that we're all in the same boat. This seems obvious, but it became so only in the seventies.