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Culture Watch / That ‘70s Revival: Clinging To The Malaise Decade

Josh Ozersky. Josh Ozersky is a freelance writer and author of a forthcoming book on American television.

The great ‘70s revival of the 1990s seems to be finally losing steam. Or is it just settling in for the long haul? The difference is as wide as Snake River Canyon.

There’s plenty of evidence for an RIP: Now that an ABC miniseries has officially embalmed the decade (to spectacularly low ratings and critical jeers), and conservative ideologue David Frum has located in Me Decade decadence the answer to "How We Got Here: The ‘70s—The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse," it would seem that the ‘70s have lost their sparkle. With the colossal celebrity meltdown that is "Battlefield Earth," John Travolta’s reborn star is clearly in its red-giant stage. Most telling of all, TV shows and movies set in the period, such as "Studio 54," "Growing Up Brady," "That ‘70s Show" now pay much more attention to their own cheesy plotlines that they do to commemorating polyester or ABBA.

On the other hand, the fact that all these shows keep on trucking says that, at some level, Americans can’t get enough of the ‘70s—or, at least, its broadly referenced feel and mood. Even after the novelty of recollecting the Village People in tranquility has worn off, there is still something deeply rewarding about looking at the past and feeling superior to it. After all, the ‘70s themselves found a similar use for the 1950s. What’s telling about the ‘50s revival, though, is that it isn’t limited to "Happy Days" or "American Graffiti" (technically set in the early ‘60s, but a 1950s set piece all the same); it didn’t die with the ‘70s, any more than the fascination with pseudo-psychedelia disappeared with the 1980s.

In other words, when we find a good use for our past, we stick with it. The 1950s continue to serve us as an all-purpose reassurance of how enlightened we are, which is why we invariably turn to the most freakishly staid sitcom characters and bigots when sending our teenagers back there in time. The ‘60s, on the other hand, provide us with a diverse crew of straw men, from free-loving flower urchins to wide-eyed radicals to brainwashed patriots.

The usefulness of the ‘50s and ‘60s will never be exhausted as long as America needs to feel good about its worldliness and apathy. So it’s only fair, now, to ask just what the ‘70s have to offer us.

It can’t be consensus. The whole decade was, in many ways, a chronicle of fragmentation. But for ideologues, that very balkanization is attractive. The dominant reading of the decade, from both left and right, is of a time of acute cultural declension.

For conservative critics such as Frum, the prospectus is simple. "It’s possible to imagine the cultural revolution of the 1970s as a kind of tidal wave that inundated homes and lives ... " Frum and a handful of other writers have chosen to take the 1970s seriously, as the matrix from which contemporary culture grew. "How We Got Here" is a series of thumbnail sketches of different aspects of life in the ‘70s—detailing how people became more self-involved, how they began to fetishize nature, how paranoia took root in the public mind, how the last vestigial social values from the 19th Century finally disappeared. Frum’s account is pretty convincing, much as were Tom Wolfe’s similar observations in his famous 1977 essay "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening."

Liberals, on the other hand, also point to the ‘70s as the time when it all went wrong. But from this point of view, the cultural revolution didn’t go far enough. Rock and roll was turned into a middle-of-the-road commodity until rescued by British punks. And every other countercultural instinct was pressed to death under pet rocks. In this narrative, the ‘70s were the decade that stole the spirit of the ‘60s, and left us all the worse for wear. Where Frum sees in the 1970s the big bang of today’s Jerry Springer culture, this school, represented in period films and documents such as "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail," instead views the cooling embers of the Sixties, trod into the ground by a triumphant silent majority.

But in fact neither school had much to do with bringing the ‘70s back. The ‘70s revival was engineered by post-boom generation, born in the Sixties, and coming into its majority under George Bush. Quentin Tarantino made the ‘70s cool by taking the in-joke of ‘70s culture, which until then had been merely the lingua franca of Gen-X hipsters, and bringing it to life in his movies. It metastasized into a cottage industry with movies such as "Dazed and Confused" and "Boogie Nights." It reached its stylistic apotheosis with a whole subgenre of music video, culminating in the Beastie Boys’ "Sabotage," directed by cinematic "it" boy Spike Jonez.

These homages, so faithful and deeply felt, helped this new generational audience to define itself; and the growth of the generation exactly paralleled the rise of the ‘70s as an all-purpose totem to conjure up the endlessly, effortlessly derided recent past. The reasons don’t have anything to do with politics, really. Indeed, it’s just the opposite.

The ‘70s offer us one of the few cultural resources completely untainted by history and politics. What passes for political iconography in the ‘70s of popular remembrance is more joke fodder—the Mayaguez Incident or WIN buttons. Because of the very banality and mindlessness of so much ‘70s culture, we are free to project a childish innocence onto it—an innocence all the more convincing to influential culture makers, such as movie impresarios Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, who were children themselves during the ‘70s. There’s no "alternative" hype to apologize for, or cross-promotional synergy to make you cringe. It’s all safely in the past, and generally far more unselfconscious in its cheesiness than the hipper, cannier stuff we see in the media today.

The ‘70s are attractive to us for the very boldness of their banality, so different in spirit from the baroque, effete times we now live in. Having reached the dead-end of the experimental, emancipatory rhetoric of the ‘60s, the culture of the Seventies opted instead for mere bigness: double album " rock operas," grandiose TV miniseries such as "Roots," blockbuster movies such as "Star Wars."

Undergirding all this opulence, meanwhile, was a bone-deep cynicism, midwifed by Watergate, the Ford/Carter interlude, the OPEC debacle, and the "culture of narcissism." How could audiences in the late 1990s not be attracted to ‘70s culture? Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butthead, Bill and Ted: Throughout the ‘90s, we saw again and again the same suburban pastoral, the same innocent lowlifes saved by their enthusiasm for Queen or Black Sabbath.

It may be precisely because the ‘70s were simultaneously so squalid and superficial, with such an intoxicating admixture of pessimism and mindless sunshine, so small and so big, that we find them irresistable in the aughts. " I don’t want to be a candidate for Vietnam or Watergate," Queen’s Freddie Mercury sang in 1977. Neither do we; but we don’t have a Freddie Mercury to say it for us. Even in 2000, we have to settle for the original.

© 2000 Newsday

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