There are a lot of cultural critics (pop- and serious-) who malign the 1970's as a vast wasteland of endless crap: an endless parade of poor taste, misbegotten values and social decay. It seems to me that this is a gross oversimplification and the worthwhile-stuff-to-utter-crap ratio wasn't really much different than any other decade.
I'd like to write a first-hand defense of the 1970's, but I was born in 1978, and I'm not sure if any of my memories from that time period would be particularly relevant. (The first draft of this mini-essay was entitled "The 1970's: The Age of Crib Mobiles and My Parents Waving Shiny Things in Front of My Face.") So everything here is based on pop culture references and second hand accounts from people I know who were slightly more aware at the time, and probably has no basis in any sort of reality.
- Books. OK, the best seller lists were polluted by soft porn. self-help books and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” but there were some classic works created in the period as well. “Gravity’s Rainbow.” “Ragtime.” John Cheever’s short stories. Hunter S. Thompson, before he became completely unreadable. Great novels by Vonnegut, Roth, Kundera and Naipaul.
- Movies. The 1970’s represented the greatest confluence between artistic achievement and commercial success in the history of American movies. Just some of the classic movies that were also major successes at the box office: “The Godfather I and II,” “Apocalypse Now,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Taxi Driver,” “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Chinatown,” and so forth.
- Music. A golden age for R&B and soul, the punk and post-punk explosion that provided a much needed shot in the arm to a fading genre, power pop, Krautrock, funk, the birth of rap music…the 1970’s had a lot of great musical trends and moments. Even the disco and dumb-as-dirt “classic” rock that dominated the charts at the time yielded some gems. Any era that features the best works by Al Green, Parliament/Funkadelic, the Clash, Steely Dan and Neil Young, to name just a few, deserves its historical due.
- Sex. If pop culture is to be believed, the 70’s were the epoch of casual sex. A shag-carpeted wonderland of singles bars, swingers parties and free clinics, where one night stands were the coin of the realm and the worst thing that would happen to you could be cured by a penicillin shot or (after Roe v. Wade) a quickie abortion. I daily curse the fact that I have to live in this incredibly Puritan, lethal disease-riddled social environment. The fact that I never got to bang a feather-haired secretary in my bachelor pad after a couple of burgers at the Ground Round is one of my great regrets in life.
- Politics. Not a great decade by any means, but subsequent years have made it look not quite as bad. I’m obviously not going to defend Nixon, but at least he was willing enough to exit the stage when the gig was finally up. Gerald Ford was kind of the proto-Bush; an inept, none too bright bumbler who became another example of the Peter Principle (and mercifully didn’t receive the artificial popularity boost that Bush did). Jimmy Carter may have been a failure, but at least he was intelligent and decent, something that’s been lacking in pretty much every major political leader since then. And the great American rightward shift that has led to the rich/poor gap widening and a return of Victorian sexual prudery was still in the future.
- Fashion. Even I won’t try to defend most of the fashion choices that were prevalent in the 1970’s, but there were a few cool things. The afro. The mass popularity of jeans, which remains with us to this day. (OK, that’s about it. Maybe the critics were right about this one.)
All in all, not as bad as you might think at first. Of course there were horrible things, too - the recession/oil crisis, Watergate, godawful clothing and design trends, having only three television networks (one of them usually controlled by Fred Silverman) - but the 1970’s had enough redeeming elements to make them worth revisiting and re-appreciating. (And not in the ironic, “gee, ain’t this quaint” sense of the word, either.)