RALL: The 20-Year Time Warp: Why is America Stuck in the Seventies?

"It's the end, the end of the Seventies. It's the end, the end of the century." --The Ramones, 1980As we face down the end of the decade (not to mention the century), we Americans have wasted the past few years arguing whether the New Era begins in 2000 or 2001. 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 '70s out of our system?We shouldn't worry much about the '90s. After all, the uniquely American habit of nostalgically referring to a particular 10-year period -- the '50s of Elvis and cars with fins, the '60s of Vietnam and sexual liberation -- didn't really begin until the decades in question were half-finished. Before 1955, The King took care of business driving a truck on roads filled with finless sedans; the '60s were merely a cultural and political continuation of the '50s until hippiedom seized power during the Summer of Love of 1967.Remember 1990? Back then, we were told that the new decade would be characterized by Americans' quiet acceptance of diminished expectations. We'd "cocoon" in our old homes and watch videos on old couches covered with patched holes, 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 '80s 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 in order to be hip, picks up where the 1987 stock market crash left off. It's the '80s all over again, only more so.The problem is, we still haven't left the '70s.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, '70s culture lives on. When '70s retro hit the fashion world a few years ago, the wiser among us held out on buying hip-huggers and clogs; this trend, like '50s and '60s retro before it, would go away soon enough, we thought. But that hasn't happened. 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.'70s cars, 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 '70s 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 '70s remain the national aesthetic norm.Since 1990, the entertainment industry has fed consumers a stream of films based on such '70s TV shows as Flipper, The Flintstones, Mission: Impossible and The Brady Bunch (twice!). MTV offers dating shows that rip off The Newlywed Game while Nickelodeon gets rich rehashing the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bob Newhart. Prime-time television is dominated by the sitcom, a format developed in the early '70s. Television's most popular program, "60 Minutes," remains largely unchanged since its launch in the '70s.Alternative rock is dominated by throwback acts like Alanis Morissette (the Suzi Quatro of the '90s), Nirvana (described its own singer as the Cheap Trick of the '90s) and Stereolab (the Esquivel of the '90s). During the last 16 years, the clubs have rehashed disco in the forms of dub, house and techno. Robert Crumb, who created the ultimate '70s graphic, the "Keep on Truckin'" image, is now lionized on film. Even our druggies are living in an early '70s Lou Reed album. The logo for Ecstasy is the yellow smiley-face. Acid and heroin are back, and pot just keeps getting more potent -- all is consumed by kids wearing tie-dye shirts and working at fast-food joints where they're ordered to utter that consummate '70s greeting: "Have a nice day!"If you go into just about any department store showroom and examine the decor, the odds are excellent that you'll find the atrocious color palette (orange, brown, yellow) of the Me Generation well-represented in the cheesy sectional furniture, shag carpeting and wooden picture frames that many people apparently buy with actual money. The '70s thrive; it's like designers simply forgot to come up with a new look for the next decade.The '70s 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 5 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 '70s 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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