Cruel Light on Schlock Decade: History’s Cheesiest Moments

How We Got Here: The 1970′s, the Decade That Brought You Modern Life–for Better or Worse , by David Frum. Basic Books, 418 pages, $25.

The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture , edited by Shelton Waldrep. Routledge, 317 pages, $20.

In his acknowledgments to How We Got Here , David Frum pays his respects to his late mother, Barbara Frum, “who glimmered glamorously through the 1970′s in her Zandra Rhodes gowns.” I felt an instant rapport with this faceless, fashionable woman. In 1974, I had stitched together a rather nelly throw-pillow from a scrap of Zandra Rhodes printed silk taffeta. But this coincidence alone could not fully explain my fixation with the deceased Mrs. Frum.

In the course of reading Mr. Frum’s fascinating book I realized I was nothing more than a down-market version of the author’s mother. I had floated through the entire decade (my 20′s) without addressing any of the serious issues of the day. I glimmered with the aid of large amounts of alcohol and poppers. I kicked off the decade at the Isle of Wight Pop Festival, where, thanks to debauched exhaustion, I slept through most of the Jimi Hendrix performance and woke up just in time to hear folksy Joan Baez belting out “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Eucch! But at least I was there.

I capped off the decade in Los Angeles with a glimmering conviction for reckless driving. I was apprehended while wearing Vivienne Westwood plaid bondage pants. The L.A.P.D. officers forced me to walk in a straight line with my legs strapped together. I can still remember them shrieking with laughter as they clung to each other like a couple of schoolgirls. Glimmer. Glimmer.

I mingled and giggled through the intervening years, never reading a newspaper or watching TV. I was more of a magazine person: Interview and Vogue were particular faves. This trendy inertia spared me the horrifying truths that are so hypnotically catalogued in Mr. Frum’s book. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who, like myself or Mrs. Frum, devoted the 70′s to funstering and is now ready to confront the decade’s appalling realities.

I always thought the 70′s were “a glorious moment of guiltless hedonism.” Mr. Frum doesn’t: “The record of the years 1965 to 1980 is blotted by the abandonment of a desperate ally to a ruthless enemy (South Vietnam to the communist North), the collapse of educational standards, the dissolution of the ideal of racial equality into rancorous arguments over special privileges, the discharge of hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people to fend for themselves on the sidewalks, rampant drug abuse, the shattering of millions of families by divorce, and the savaging of America’s cities by crime and disorder.” When I read Mr. Frum’s gritty synopsis I felt as if somebody had turned off the mood lighting at 54, slammed on the fluorescent strips and plugged in the vacuum cleaners.

Quelle horreur ! I was too busy “kickin’ down the cobblestones, lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy” (Remember “The 59th Street Bridge Song,” from the 60′s?); I had no idea America was sinking “into a miasma of self-doubt from which it has never fully emerged.” Mr. Frum shredded my myths and preconceptions like so many expired party invites.

Apparently, the 60′s weren’t so groovy, either. “Despite all that fantastic footage of stoned young people rolling in the Woodstock mud, the 1960′s were not the era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll”–”the No. 1 song of 1969 was ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies.”

Evocative trivia, skillfully deployed by Mr. Frum, adds to his punchy journalistic style. Re prudery: “Virna Lisi tore up a contract with United Artists in 1968 rather than appear in the skimpy costumes designed for Barbarella .” Re woo-woo alternative thinking: ” New York magazine reported in 1978 the case of a man who had stopped wearing eyeglasses because he had decided to ‘take responsibility’ for his bad eyesight.” Re the changing socioeconomic profile of cult members: “A 1971 study of 31 Hare Krishna devotees found that the average income of the families in which they had been raised exceeded $20,000, a solidly middle-class income at the time.” There are more juicy tidbits in these pages than there were stray pubic hairs in the shag pile at Plato’s Retreat.

How We Got Here is also enlivened by a confetti cannon of nifty statistics: “Americans who turned 18 between 1971 and 1975 were three times as likely to kill themselves as those who turned 18 between 1962 and 1966″; “The West Side Los Angeles telephone book for February 1970 discloses 135 psychologists’ offices; in February 1980 there were 233″; “One’s chance of being robbed, raped, assaulted or murdered nearly tripled between 1960 and 1980″; “Reported crime rates more than doubled between 1960 and 1970, but the total number of criminals in prison actually fell , from 212,953 state inmates in 1960 to 196,429 in 1970.” Even the less bracing stats are somehow illuminating and quite adorable: “By 1980 almost a quarter of American households contained only one person.” Sounds like nothing a bit of house-pooling couldn’t put right.

Seventies nostalgia typically celebrates the polyester esthetic–not Mr. Frum. He happily rails at the “vast tsunami of schlock” that “roared through American homes in those years.” He recalls with a certain snootiness the ” ‘Coreentheean leather’ of the Chrysler Cordoba touted by actor Ricardo Montalban in a commercial that every junior high school boy learned to mimic.” According to Mr. Frum, the average American basement is filled with, “unspooled eight-track cassettes, discarded pieces of orange modular chesterfields; spongy nylon Pierre Cardin track suits; clock radios that snapped after the third use.” Mr. Frum is refreshingly judgmental: a very un-70′s thing to be.

Like Camille Paglia, Mr. Frum shows us that insightful pop-culture dissection can, and probably should, be accessible, entertaining and straightforward; sadly, The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Pop Culture , a collection of essays edited by Shelton Waldrep, assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, proves that it is not always so. Given the ephemeral topics it covers (the New York Dolls, American Vogue , black action movies, etc.), I fully expected to inhale The Seventies in a weekend. I had not taken into account that the essays are all written by academics. Ten days later, I was still struggling, dictionary in hand, with 120 pages left to go. After a while, the juxtaposition of history’s cheesiest moments with heavy-duty analytical verbiage began to sound like an haute-couture form of academic camp.

Example No. 1, from “The Wayne’s World ing of America,” by Stephen Rachman: “Nevertheless, whether parodic or mimetic, through the performance of ecstatic listening, what was formerly Queen becomes “classic” Queen; Wayne’s World not only spawned the contemporary commercial revival of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ it initiated through an example of ritual listening the song’s canonization.” Whaaaaaa?

Example No. 2, from “Introducing the 70′s,” by Shelton Waldrep, on Sandra Bernhard’s shtick: “… credited neither to postmodernism nor the eclectic eccentricity, but to the 70′s as the time that established a performative self-definition free of naturalistic sources of intentions.” You’ve go to be joking, ducky!

Example No. 3, from “The Returns of Cleopatra Jones,” by Jennifer Devere Brody: “Cleopatra Jones seems to challenge certain cinematic practices that have circumscribed the representation of black women on film in purely domestic and domesticated spaces.” Domestic and domesticated! J’adore!

The mania for Foucaultian double-speak is a poor way of safeguarding the continuing inclusion of pop culture studies in university curriculums–i.e., “I’m writing my doctorate on Mariah Carey–but nobody will be able to question it because it will be incomprehensible. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to get back to watching MTV in case one of her videos comes on.”

Near the end of Mr. Waldrep’s book, like well-deserved rewards, are two readable contributions. There’s an interview with KC (of Sunshine Band fame), by Randolph Heard–”Our sound was bright and happy. Like sunshine is bright and happy.” And then there’s my favorite, Vince Aletti’s oral history of disco, “The Dancing Machine,” which consists of 71 short quotes from the likes of Barry White, Kathy Sledge and Loleatta Holloway. What a relief, after slogging through 317 pages of challenging verbosity, to come upon Gloria Gaynor’s response to the decade: “I like fun clothes–sparkle blouses and all.”