Close
Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

The Persistence of Sentiment Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s

Read Chapter 1
Close

Chapter 1

Introduction

I first began looking for ways to write about the artists discussed in this book in the late 1990s, a far over a decade ago. The timing matters for a several reasons-a vaguely discernible 20-year cycle of rubbishing and rehabilitation in much post-War popular culture, for instance, discussed further below; the generational and technological shifts that enabled the appearance of a broader range of values and investments amongst critics, whether professional, amateur, or somewhere in between; or for that matter, a gradual shift in academic writing about popular music from a largely defensive, morally and aesthetically engagé style of scholarship to one more willing to give itself up to enjoyment.

I think that all of these shifts in critical taste were present in writings about music, but they also covered a lot more ground. The art critic Dave Hickey, for instance, began his brilliant little book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty with a description of the ills of the academic art world and the potential balm to be found in pleasure and beauty:

For more than four centuries, the idea of "making it beautiful" has been the keystone of our cultural vernacular-the lover's machine-gun and the prisoner's joy-the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route from the image to the individual without a detour through church or state. Now, it seems, that lost generosity, like Banquo's ghost, is doomed to haunt our discourse about contemporary art-no longer required to recommend images to our attention or to insinuate them into the vernacular-and no longer even welcome to try. The route from the image to the beholder now detours through an alternate institution ostensibly distinct from church and state...The priests of the new church are not so generous. Beauty, in their domain, is altogether elsewhere, and we are left counting the beads and muttering the texts of academic sincerity.i

For Hickey, writing near the beginning of the decade, only a full-blooded acknowledgement of the pleasure and sociality that intersect in disputatious experiences of beauty could rescue the academic art world from its arid purism. And it's worth noting that, whatever the reservations that greeted his admittedly extravagant claims, his insistence on the recovery of the beautiful gained increasing attention into the 2000s.

The situation has been arguably better and worse with respect to music. I have often noted a disparity between the songs and styles many people seem to love to listen to-those they play in the privacy of their own homes, the ones that send them into paroxysms of delighted recollection, those they remember in remarkably detailed fashion-and the songs and styles that tend to get written about in vigorous, critically engaged terms. It has often seemed that, even though popular music has acquired a significant measure of scholarly respectability, this measure is extremely selective. An extensive section of the pop music repertory still seems resistant to the praise of critics and intellectuals. At best, we may refer to it as "bad" (a kind of scare-quote cowardice), but at the risk of falling into condescension towards the music and its admirers: falling into a serious slough of very bad faith. Among demotic listeners-the folks who haunt the internet discussion groups, call up radio stations to hear favorites, and populate my university courses-much of this untalked-about music occasions violent reactions both for and against. I find many of the songs of this type to be among the most satisfying and intellectually stimulating I've ever spent time on, but I've often felt myself, when making such claims, to be in a very marginal position-with respect to the common grounds of discussion, not those of listenership. The music I have in mind is in a sense too popular to be impressive. But what happens if we are impressed, and we begin to say why?

The Persistence of Sentiment: Essays on Display and Feeling in Pop Songs of the '70s focuses on a group of songs in styles still significantly discounted by critics and scholars, by artists who have been as often execrated by would-be tastemakers as they have been exalted by adoring audiences. When I have mentioned writing about Barry Manilow or Cher, for instance, the most striking reactions I've received from many people have been bursts of laughter in which delight and embarrassment are equally mixed. These people then proceed to demonstrate an astounding (and tender) recollection for the songs I am interested in, but a determination to insist that their knowledge and enthusiasm be taken as funny. I think it's funny, too, but I want to know more about what all this laughter defends against. A good part of this protective frivolity comes from our uncertainty about these songs' historical and cultural embeddedness. We try to talk about them, but our only languages are those autobiography and personal response. And who among us wants to be seen so nakedly in public?

Although I think the critical usefulness of such nakedness is mostly worth the risks, I also think that we are wrong to leave these songs without no context other than our personal ones. By way of an introduction, I want to point out a few historical and critical issues that I think relevant for my considerations in later chapters. My approach is necessarily somewhat loose-jointed; before any coherent general account of this music can be constructed-before it can have a history-a great deal of conceptual brush-clearing must occur.

on the generations of objects

In 1998, Rhino Records released a compilation of '70s hits entitled Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box. This box set was the culmination of a series of '70s recycling projects that the record label had begun early in the decade, with the release of successful retro collections such as Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the '70s and Didn't It Blow Your Mind: Soul Hits of the '70s. Avoiding self-conscious canon making and fine critical distinctions, The '70s Pop Culture Box set sought to represent as wide a range of musical styles, social constituencies, and degrees of "seriousness" as possible as an exercise in nostalgic amusement. From country to disco, from teenage rebellion to second-wave feminism, from "timeless classics" to the most fleeting of novelties (anyone remember Ray Stevens's "The Streak"?), everything could be included on the seven CDs hidden behind the shag carpet surface emblazoned with happy faces. Although the majority of the songs had been successful singles, simple chart position was not the only criterion for inclusion. Rather, the box set was designed to evoke memories of the decade as they had been constructed through the mass media, especially television and radio. An additional fillip of realism came from occasional snatches of broadcast sound inserted between the tracks of the singles, detailing such resonant events as the Patty Hearst saga, Watergate, or the gasoline rationing that followed the OPEC oil embargo.

Now imagine yourself in that year, a person in your late thirties or perhaps your forties, purchasing the collection and taking it off to your CD player to listen. Music you might have heard anywhere between the ages of two and twenty-two, the years when our most stubborn aesthetic tastes are significantly formed, when music often seems to be most tenacious in the memory-it's all here, the lush glories of Gladys Knight and the Pips singing "Midnight Train to Georgia" followed only five tracks later by Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun." The compilers have made no differentiations of taste, so the experience of the Have a Nice Decade box set approaches your recollections of the life you experienced as you began to become a person. You hear a stream of material that addresses you in a multitude of ways, summoning recollection and feeling to the stage as surely as that cookie of Proust's. Why are you so happy? Does this lack of discrimination, and your pleasure in it, compromise your aesthetic self-respect? You're safe from embarrassment, because the sheen of frivolity that coats the project allows you to present yourself as much more sophisticated than your low listening habits would indicate. You are looking back with irony (ironically-imagine a mise en abîme of unserious seriousness). You can have your cake (or your cookie) and eat it too.

I imagine a listener in his or her thirties because the return of the '70s entails the operations of generational consciousness in American culture. Perhaps the first signs of a '70s revival in pop culture came at the very beginning of the '90s. Take a mass-market book from 1990, The Seventies: From Hot Pants to Hot Tubs, which scattered a huge assortment of factoids, snapshots, and politico-sociological vignettes across more than 200 pages in an attempt at "revisionist history." Presenting their work as primarily a collection of fun trivia, the authors nevertheless found ample occasion, amid the stories of earth shoes, pet rocks, and rolfing, to make connections between seeming ephemera and the larger stakes of individuals and society.ii This return of the repressed was in full flower that year, and the news media soon found themselves bemused by the spectacle of "young people" (under thirty) traipsing around in the most baroque polyester wares to be found at thrift stores, playing old vinyl records and speaking warmly about the "excesses" of style long since left behind. By the middle of 1991, Newsweek (always a reliable indicator of mid-cult awareness) had begun to offer up little profiles of the '70s revival. Fashion and music were the most reliable indicators of this new taste, but what seemed to trouble journalists was an ambiguity of tone in the appreciation of ardent revivalists. Was it, as they asked, "ironic or perilously beyond ironic?"iii The question's structure pointed to part of the problem, since the "either/or" could only be answered by "both/and." Another question was left largely implicit: "why now?"

It's a commonplace to note that in the post-WWII era pop culture revivals have usually occurred after a space of a decade-and-a-half or so. The early '70s saw the first blooming of a mainstream pop culture preoccupation with an imaginary '50s (the '60s career of a retro group like Sha-Na-Na was something of an anomaly at the time). The return of the '50s was not only a matter of recycled music on radio's "oldies programs" and nostalgia stories on television or in the movie house-a great deal of New Wave in the late '70s, for instance, depends on complexly mediated tropes from '50s pop culture. The imaginary '60s began to achieve full force in the '80s, sparking its own series of newly referential pop cultural styles. And in the '00s, an '80s revival was successfully launched: in 2002, Rhino followed its Have a Nice Decade box set with Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box.iv (The accelerated recycling has continued since, though the vast transformations wrought by the internet seems to have made the process more sporadic and murky.)

But it was the '70s revival that has often seemed to the mainstream media to be the most culturally fraught. As the cultural recycling proceeded in the '90s, a relevant pop culture discussion about generational politics began to emerge. In Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, novelist Douglas Coupland imagined a label for the underemployed and perhaps oversophisticated people who were just turning 30.v The oft-hyped economic booms of the '80s had trickled down to very few people under that age, and in Coupland's world, their future was likely to see more of the same: inadequate jobs, the wastage that came from the misfortunate parts of the sexual revolution, permanent political impotence, and above all the oppressive self-righteousness of earlier generations. The idealistic self-portraits of the "baby boom" generation-peace rallies, the counterculture, and extravagant proclamations of freedom-seemed to evoke derision (often mixed with subrosa envy).vi And the link between this generational identity and the '70s revival seemed secure, as is apparent in such images as the character of Vickie Miner, the retro-obsessive character played by Janeane Garofalo in the exceedingly X-ish 1994 film Reality Bites.

The title of Coupland's novel provided one of the most common rubrics under which discussions of this "new" generational difference entered the mass media. Another important point of view came from a series of widely-read books by public policy writers William Strauss and Neil Howe that sought to analyze all of American history in terms of generational periods lasting approximately twenty years each.vii (Adjustments may be made for large-scale political events; the argument is based on a notion of a quadripartite life-cycle indirectly related to the life-cycle theories of Erik Erikson.) In the vision of Strauss and Howe, the "Boomers" of 1943-1960 were at last confronting the difficult positions of the "13th Generation" born between 1961 and 1981, and beginning to worry about the condition of the emerging "Millennial" generation born after 1982.viii The resentments and rebellions of the rising generation were the inevitable concomitants of their attempts to differentiate their culture from that of their elders.

Such arguments have been important, not because they are necessarily accurate, but because they have shown themselves to have a great deal of power to shape the terms of public perception. It is intuitively true that such a thing as a generational consciousness can be said to exist. Especially in a mass-media culture where large numbers of (young people) receive the impact of reportage on major historical events as well as ephemera, the common points of reference establish what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has called "generational objects." These shared things gradually emerge in childhood and especially in the violent self-fashionings of adolescence to become crucial tokens of temporal consciousness in young adulthood.ix Bollas suggests that

[a]lthough each generation passes through, interprets, and signifies the life span in its own way, its fundamental character is fashioned in the twenties. It will continue to experience and interpret new objects, but strictly speaking they are not generational ones, as they are not essential to the defining character of consciousness. Such objects are not so much mental representations as screen memories that express the nature of the generation's psychic life. Each generational object. . . gives rise to a complex character of experiences peculiar to that time. They sit inside us even when we aren't thinking of them, within our unconscious in an internal world where each object serves as a generating link to the people of our time.x

It is in one's thirties, observes Bollas, that generational objects begin to be mulled over in comparison to those of older and younger generations. Obviously, a given generation's objects have significance to others-it's just that they won't have the same significance. Let's take some specific examples.

The sexual revolution of the '70s was an important event for the Gen-Xers, the Thirteeners of Strauss and Howe, but its importance is shaped by the fact that its regrettable venereal consequences were abundantly in evidence by the time that generation was in a position to participate fully. Then, there was the Pill and there were antibiotics to cure any minor infection one might pick up. But since the '80s the idea of casual sex as a harmless diversion has become impossible thanks to HIV and HPV. Of course casual sex occurs now. But the stakes are quite different. As a result, the fantasy of sexual liberation probably has a more mythological cast to the minds of Xers than it would to their elders. What are the effects of this difference on the ways that disco, one of the most sexually fraught musics created in the '70s, can be said to enter the body of its would-be devotees?

Or take the case of marijuana, by the 1990s the most contested drug in America. Its use seemed almost an idiosyncrasy to many in the '70s. A Presidential commission recommended its decriminalization in 1972, and throughout the rest of the decade it seemed no more dangerous than booze or cigarettes-maybe even less. I recently screened the 1980 film 9 to 5, and was stunned to see a scene I'd forgotten, in which the three protagonists (played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) smoke a joint in the midst of female bonding.xi Between that scene and contemporary reality falls any number of crucial material changes-the horrifyingly excessive sentences frequently handed out to offenders, the extraordinary developments in marijuana cultivation in the wake of the War on Drugs (even everyday modern strains are enormously more potent than anything that would have been available in the '60s and '70s), and the continuing controversy over medical marijuana laws, to name a few. A scene like the one in 9 to 5 requires explicit contextualization if it is to have the impact on teenagers now it was designed to have on audiences at the end of the '70s. The changing status of marijuana affects its position as a potential generational object. To put it rather crudely, the Boomer's pot is different from that of the 13er. They both differ from the cannabis that that is now experienced by the "Millennial" generation identified by Howe and Strauss.

Differences in generational location go a long way to explain the ambivalence with which popular music of the '70s was often regarded during its period of rehabilitation. One brief example from the trade book press can stand for many. In her well-intentioned but severely limited Hole In Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, Martha Bayles demonstrated a hopeless incomprehension of music in the '70s. Speaking of disco, for instance, Bayles imagined it as having a unidimensional groove that became (aesthetically and morally) worse when the groove was produced through the rigid algorithms of a drum machine. Her beef with electronics encompassed synthesized orchestrations as well. For Bayles, irregularities (participatory discrepancies, to invoke Charles Keil) were the primary loci of musical values; the perfect regularity of electronic sound production automatically put these values in danger.xii She also claimed that disco disdained the vocal skills traditionally associated with soul and gospel, styles that carry high value for her. Throughout her account, words like "mechanical" and "cold" expressed her displeasure at the unholy triumph of the machine over the human being. At the same time, Bayles deplored the hedonistic environments in which disco flourished.xiii The defenders of the bath houses and the backroom bars might celebrate promiscuity as the means to a new form of community, but Bayles would have none of it-it was just cheap sex, dehumanized from the get-go. Her section heading, Disco: Invasion of the Sex Robots, married the values that ground her musical disapproval to those supporting her sense of sexual restraint.xiv This was perhaps the most overtly neo-conservative section of the book, but the entire project carried the resonances of an assortment of unresolved boomer bitternesses carried like gallstones in the cultural tract (yuck!).

The greatest problem with disco in Bayles's account it seems to me, arose because disco could not be anything like a generational object to her. The style's values were too different from those of the objects she treasured, and its consequent remoteness led her to refuse to look closely at the values it did carry. Early in her book she offered a mild defense against the likely accusation that she was "an aging flower child longing for the music of her youth" by claiming that it was a full tradition she defended rather than merely the music of her cohort.xv But much of the energy that drove her argument was derived exactly from the position of longing for the continuation of her generational objects as current rather than increasingly part of the past. Following Bollas, we might suggest that if a set of generational objects (let's say music) seems to be endangered, then the form of community it constitutes is also at risk. Bayles was genuinely concerned about the loss of "beauty and meaning," not least because its disappearance betokened her community's relocation from actuality into history.

It's popular music's astonishing power to mediate community that gives it such a central role among generational objects. Bollas points out that considered more abstractly, generational objects may be said to

collect within an actual object (or event) the new generation's interpretation of its identity. It is a curious mix of the fashioned and the imposed, as the musical choices and lingual inventions rub shoulders with events beyond control: a war, and economic crisis, and so on. Yet generational objects are pop art objects, fashions, precisely because they weave into historic time. It is adolescence that is curiously true to the dialectic in human life between the personal and the social, the responsible and the irrational, the premeditated and the accidental. The reality of our world and the complexity of its events are not fathomable; their simple chaos is always somewhat beyond our organization. It is the adolescent who somehow most intensely lives this tension to its fullest, and who-upon recovery in the twenties-can form ideas of culture and society that identify the group's experience of life.xvi

Generational objects are thus always powerfully copular when not actually transitive. Linking choice and compulsion, mental time and mental space, they offer intersubjective spaces that balance our individual status with our membership in a particular group. To think of a piece of music as a generational object leads us to seek the complex fabric of significances that surrounds it for a particular listenership.

In each of these cases, the generational object in question entails elaborate, sometimes elusive issues of politics, aesthetics, and most importantly, morality, insofar as these things can be disentangled from one another. Put another way, a generational object helps define a space of values understood as characteristic of a temporal cohort. A particular object is susceptible by its very structure to carrying some values more easily than others, of course, but it is never a simple matter of deciding whether the object can have been prior to the values it is held to carry. What matters most, I think, is how we attempt to unpack the generational objects-our own as well as those of others-so that we can be clear not only about the values they hold but also about the location from which our interests proceed.xvii

This never exhausts the meaning of a piece of music, of course. Music's evasive relationship to words allows it to be reinflected in the minds of multiple social worlds and time periods, not to mention individual listeners. Bollas's account sees generational objects as consolidated in early adulthood, when their working through of historical raw material creates a more or less coherent sense of temporal affiliation between contemporaries. We all have these objects, and when we are young and wrapped in "generational narcissism" we are apt to think of them as permanent; but the approach of midlife finds our objects displaced by those of our successors. We become history along with the things we have chosen to love. We are lucky when we have the chance to get old in this way before we die; we can see the objects of our (former) choice metamorphosed so that they fit into other fields of passion, serving other interests. When we encounter them thus, they show us more about the objects themselves as well as the nature of desire in self and other.

It may seem as if thinking about generational objects has taken us rather far from Rhino Records and its canny rehabilitations of what might have been (and might still be) ephemera. But the Have a Nice Decade box set is interesting precisely to the degree that it appears so "undigested." Historical narrative and canon-making are among the activities that translate generational objects out of their temporally-bound constituencies and allow them to circulate in altered forms in our metagenerational culture. Those of us for whom the '70s were crucial with respect to generational identity want to find a set of commonly-agreed-upon songs along with a story into which they will fit. Rhino's collection does not serve this purpose. It is too random. It's true that the problem of licensing may have been partly at fault: anyone who teaches surveys of rock and soul, for instance, is aware of the difficulty of gaining permissions to include music by an assortment of groups in pop music surveys. But I think that the commercial inaccessibility of major groups is less widespread with respect to music of the '70s than is the case with the music of any other decade in pop music history. The problem is more one of historiography. Any survey of standard rock music texts will show that when the '70s are considered, the customary narratives fall apart. This is a musical narrative that is, a decade after Rhino's box set, still up for negotiation and construction.

As long as they are unnarratable, the popular songs of the '70s are trapped. They cannot pass beyond the state of generational objects until they begin to lose their power to identify for listeners a particular temporal location connected with individual memory, until they can be fitted into more general stories. This does not mean that the songs float free of their surroundings; if anything, the cultural contexts of the songs become more important for discussion, because so much that was tacitly assumed as interpretive background is no longer shared by other audiences. The songs must begin to die to generational use so that they can live as other kinds of objects.xviii The Rhino box set may signal the need for this, but at most it provides raw material. The stories into which the songs may fit remain to be told. What goes for the music also goes for other aspects of the culture of the time. The Have a Nice Decade collection points up a persistent difficulty with making sense of the period as a historical narrative.

the "problem" of the 70s

The decade of the 1970s invariably seems historically opaque and confusing. Our techniques of representing the recent past as well as the media we choose to do so encourage us to assume that the '70s have a distinctive identity; we can allow the eight-year success of the popular television sitcom That Seventies Show (1998-2006) to stand in for the assortment of books, articles, and other kinds of commentary that combined with personal reminiscences from the end of the '90s into the present to create our shorthand image of the decade. Excesses of material style, dopey New Age ideas and practices, "weak" politicians, and the omnipresence of drugs and sex (both approached with little fear)-the '70s seem innocent or witless, depending on our point of view.

But when we look at all closely, the appearance of unity in the decade shatters. This is not news-it's close to a commonplace for some time to note the difficulties of maintaining a decade-based scheme of periodization for a time bounded by the social shifts that marked "the long 1960s" and the 1980s. On one end there are any number of mythologized events-potential generational objects-filling out the year 1970 that we might treat as "the end of the '60s." The Beatles broke up, the trial of the Chicago Seven ended in a guilty verdict, students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State, Midnight Cowboy won a Best Picture Oscar despite its X rating, the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate and her guests, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died . . . and so on, and so on. Just past the end of the decade, the events of 1980 include John Lennon's murder, the collapse of disco as a mainstream interest, the U. S. boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the resolution of the Iranian hostage crisis, and above all the landslide electoral victory of Ronald Reagan, which brought in its wake a number of Trad-Vals attempts just to say "no" to the social changes of the previous years. Although it may seem that most of these symbolically resonant events mattered primarily with respect to social and aesthetic values, many of them had significant political and economic consequences as well. But there are just as many objects and occasions that we could cite to prove that the '60s lingered far into the 1970s, to such an extent that we could argue that the two decades form a microhistorical whole; and at the same time, we could show that fundamental aspects of the '80s began to appear as nascent critiques of the doubled decade it would eventually try to replace.xix The '70s can be regarded as the period in which crucial cultural ideals formulated in the '60s were amplified and extended throughout American society. At the same time, however, the decade contained a strenuous impulse towards cultural retrospectivism (bolstering the significant appearance of the conservative cultural movements that marked the '80s), inasmuch as the materials of earlier moments in popular culture either persisted at the margins or were deliberately revived.

In television, for instance, Norman Lear's epochal sitcom All In The Family premiered opposite the classic '60s domestic fantasy Bewitched in January 1972. Instead of a Camp parody of witches in the suburbs (a mainstreamed and thinly disguised allegory about the place of women and queer folk in Cold War America), Lear offered a lower middle-class family fighting uninhibitedly about vexing current social issues. It's worth remembering, in fact, that before the first episode of All In The Family, CBS attached a warning notice for potential family audiences: this new show was for mature audiences only. The 1971-72 season proved to be the final one for Bewitched. It was the last of the great surreal sitcoms that had dotted the television screen during the '60s, only to be replaced by shows that wanted to manufacture a style of realism. In place of djinnis in bottles, pigs who painted, hapless castaways who never could get off that tropical island, the successful sitcoms of the '70s presented vociferous arguments about pressing political issues such as the Vietnam war, abortion, changes in gender roles or the position of sexual minorities.

The history of the '70s sitcom points up the value of "realism" on television. Politics and history were especially prized during primetime hours, often at the expense of frank entertainment. Another major occurrence in primetime programming might be describes as "The Great Variety Show Die-Off." In 1971 a given week of primetime programming would have offered no less than ten variety shows, most of them lasting an hour. Four years later, the number available was only five.xx By 1980, there were only two, and those were short-lived. (In 1982 there were no primetime variety shows at all on the three major networks.) Of the variety shows on the primetime schedule near the end of the decade, only one of them, The Carol Burnett Show, had lasted longer than five years. And the longevity of Burnett's program arguably had much more to do with the comedic brilliance of Burnett and her co-stars Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Vickie Lawrence, than it did with the appeal of the format. The sensibility of the '70s was clearly detrimental to the artifice inherent in the variety show; when Burnett broadcast her farewell, she frankly stated that she thought it classier to leave the air before she was asked to do so.

But although forms of realism were the rule in '70s TV programming, the shows they helped to make obsolete did not disappear entirely. Thanks to syndication, television programs from the '60s began to appear as reruns alongside those from the '50s. In 1970 the FCC had established the Financial Interest Syndication Rules, which took effect in 1971 and reduced network control over local stations by loosening restrictions on the rebroadcast of former primetime material and narrowing primetime to three hours per night. As a result, we could suggest that although the social values of a seeming liberal consensus dominated the sets during prime time, syndication made available several pictures of rival social values. In a given day, a family might be able to watch Father Knows Best,