Albion Monitor /Commentary

Happy New Year, 1970

by Ted Rall

We still haven't gotten the '70's out of our system

(AR) NEW YORK -- As we face down the end of the decade (not to mention the century), our biggest concern seems to be whether we'll refer to the year 2001 as "two-thousand-and-one" or "twenty-oh-one." But amid all the hoopla about the big calendar change, we're forgetting something. How can we move into the Next Big Thing when we still haven't gotten the '70's out of our system?

Remember 1990? Back then, we were told that the new decade would be characterized by Americans' quiet acceptance of diminished expectations, nursing our credit card-induced hangovers with cheap pasta and pink slips. It was a logical expectation during a recession that seemed endless.

But then Clinton dispatched dour old George Herbert Hoover Bush back to his Texas hotel room. The New Democrat president hired a bunch of Reagan staffers and purloined his ideology, and the old '80's fiesta began anew. Our current nightclub culture, characterized by "swank" parties where people wear tuxes voluntarily, smoke cigars, debate martini mixes and listen to easy-listening music, picks up where the 1987 stock market crash left off.

It's the '80's all over again, only more so.

The problem is, we still haven't left the '70's.

Even our druggies are living in an early '70's Lou Reed album

Jimmy Carter proved prescient when he warned in 1980 that a Reagan victory would lead to a country divided along racial, gender and geographical lines. The Reagan-Bush era sparked a stunning realignment of political priorities, convincing the average American that the common good was an obsolete concern and the entire notion of society was a quaint relic of an easier, more innocent time before the welfare rolls became clogged with black women, and foreigners made things cheaper and better than Americans did.

Indeed, the political legacy of the 1980 election continues when Clinton trashes welfare and sells out American workers to transnational corporations.

Outside of politics, however, '70's culture lives on. Our streets are still filled with teenagers dressed like Marsha Brady carrying handbags that wouldn't look out of place during the Ford Administration. Ties are wide, skirts are high, corduroy is cool and polyester is selling again.

Cars of the '70's, especially those big Cadillac and Lincoln Continental tuna boats killed off by the 1974 energy crisis, are now considered classics. "Sports utility vehicles" enjoy hip cachet among aging Boomers, but their single-digit gas mileage and interior design harken back to that staple of '70's family life, the stationwagon with faux wood paneling.

New houses going up in the suburbs are stylistically indistinguishable from the tacky split-levels that replaced traditional tract housing back in '72. Our new skyscrapers demonstrate that the country's architects haven't been up to much lately; the wacky, over-the-top, hideous colors and angles of the '70's remain the national aesthetic norm.

Alternative rock is dominated by throwback acts like Alanis Morissette (the Suzi Quatro of the '90's) and Nirvana (described its own singer as the Cheap Trick of the '90's). During the last 16 years, the clubs have rehashed disco in the forms of dub, house and techno. Even our druggies are living in an early '70's Lou Reed album -- the logo for Ecstasy is the yellow smiley-face.

We've chosen one of the ugliest and most boring decades in memory for our cultural time warp

The '70's mentality also lives on in politics. Our nation's domestic policy hasn't evolved beyond Ford's "Whip Inflation Now" campaign; nothing matters to Herr Greenspan other than keeping the consumer price index below five percent. Americans still scream about gasoline taxes as if fuel represented a substantial portion of their spending (it doesn't, not by a long shot) and the Silent Majority is now called the "Vital Center."

Part of the reason that America still looks like the set of "Dazed and Confused" is that it hasn't done much since 1980. For example, construction of new public schools pretty much ended with Carter, which is why millions of kids attend classes while surrounded by purple walls and orange wall-to-wall carpeting.

Does any of this matter? It's bad enough that we've chosen one of the ugliest and most boring decades in memory for our cultural time warp. The real problem with our '70's obsession is that our society has evidently run out of ideas. This isn't a very reassuring way to begin the new millennium -- historically, societies bereft of imagination tend to disintegrate, either into chaos or dictatorship. As Jimmy Carter said in 1980, we're suffering from a national malaise -- but that's nothing new.

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Albion Monitor December 18, 1996 (

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