The 1970s (American Popular Culture Through History)

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By the middle of the century, however, many people recoiled in dismay at what had happened to the American arts, high and low, and thought that these old dreams of a common, unifying culture had been irrevocably crushed. The new technology of mass communications, for the most part, seemed to have achieved not a generous democratization but a bland homogenization of culture. Many people thought that the control of culture had passed into the hands of advertisers , people who used the means of a common culture just to make a buck. It was not only that most of the new music and drama that had been made for movies and radio, and later for television, seemed shallow; it was also that the high or serious culture that had become available through the means of mass reproduction seemed to have been reduced to a string of popularized hits, which concealed the real complexity of art.

Culture, made democratic, had become too easy.

Popular culture and mass media in the s (article) | Khan Academy

Much of the new art and dance seemed puzzling and deliberately obscure. Difficult art happened, above all, in New York City. In the United States, however, the practice of avant-garde art became a way for artists and intellectuals to isolate themselves from what they thought was the cheapening of standards. And yet this counterculture had, by the s, become in large American cities an official culture of its own.


For many intellectuals around , this gloomy situation seemed to be all too permanent. One could choose between an undemanding low culture and an austere but isolated high culture. For much of the century, scholars of culture saw these two worlds—the public world of popular culture and the private world of modern art—as irreconcilable antagonists and thought that American culture was defined by the abyss between them.

As the century and its obsessions closed, however, more and more scholars came to see in the most enduring inventions of American culture patterns of cyclical renewal between high and low. And as scholars have studied particular cases instead of abstract ideas, it has become apparent that the contrast between high and low has often been overdrawn. Instead of a simple opposition between popular culture and elite culture, it is possible to recognize in the prolix and varied forms of popular culture innovations and inspirations that have enlivened the most original high American culture—and to then see how the inventions of high culture circulate back into the street, in a spiraling, creative flow.

This argument has been so widely resolved, in fact, that, in the decades bracketing the turn of the 21st century, the old central and shaping American debate between high and low has been in part replaced by a new and, for the moment, still more clamorous argument. Since culture has mostly been made by white males praising dead white males to other white males in classrooms, they argue, the resulting view of American culture has been made unduly pale, masculine, and lifeless.

This argument can conclude with a rational, undeniable demand that more attention be paid to obscure and neglected writers and artists, or it can take the strong and often irrational form that all aesthetic values are merely prejudices enforced by power. If the old debate between high and low asked if real values could rise from humble beginnings, the new debate about American culture asks if true value, as opposed to mere power, exists at all.

Because the most articulate artists are, by definition, writers, most of the arguments about what culture is and ought to do have been about what literature is and ought to do—and this can skew our perception of American culture a little, because the most memorable American art has not always appeared in books and novels and stories and plays. In part, perhaps, this is because writing was the first art form to undergo a revolution of mass technology; books were being printed in thousands of copies, while one still had to make a pilgrimage to hear a symphony or see a painting.

The basic dispute between mass experience and individual experience has been therefore perhaps less keenly felt as an everyday fact in writing in the 20th and 21st centuries than it has been in other art forms. Still, writers have seen and recorded this quarrel as a feature of the world around them, and the evolution of American writing in the past 50 years has shown some of the same basic patterns that can be found in painting and dance and the theatre.

In the United States after World War II , many writers, in opposition to what they perceived as the bland flattening out of cultural life, made their subject all the things that set Americans apart from one another. Although for many Americans, ethnic and even religious differences had become increasingly less important as the century moved on—holiday rather than everyday material—many writers after World War II seized on these differences to achieve a detached point of view on American life.

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By the end of the decade, 95 percent of homes have at least one TV. The Beatles are heard everywhere: pocket-sized transistor radios, eight-track stereos in cars, and portable record players. Everyone with a radio can sing along to the thrilling quality of stereo FM broadcasts. Although Elvis works hard to keep up, music is changing for good.

The advent of color TV has a direct and immediate impact on drive-in movie theaters. In '62, there are 6, drive-ins in the U. Most important of all, the embargo now appears to have been the pivotal moment at which the mass upward economic mobility of American society ended, perhaps forever. Average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, peaked in Productivity—that is, economic output per man-hour—abruptly stopped growing. The nearly universal assumption in the post-World War II United States was that children would do better than their parents.

Unique 1970s Pictures

Richard Nixon resigned as President in August , and the country settled into what appeared to be a quiet, folksy drama of national recuperation. In Ronald Reagan, the retired governor of California, challenged Ford for the Republican presidential nomination.

Reagan lost the opening primaries and seemed to be about to drop out of the race when, apparently to the surprise even of his own staff, he won the North Carolina primary in late March. It is quite clear what caused the Reagan campaign to catch on: He had begun to attack Ford from the right on foreign policy matters. The night before the primary he brought a half-hour of statewide television time to press his case.

Less than a year earlier Communist forces had finally captured the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon, as the staff of the American Embassy escaped in a wild scramble into helicopters. The oil embargo had ended, but the price of gasoline had not retreated. The United States appeared to have descended from the pinnacle of power and respect it had occupied at the close of World War II to a small, hounded position, and Reagan had hit on a symbolic way of expressing rage over that change.

POP CULTURE: The Way We Were

Most journalistic and academic opinion at the time was fairly cheerful about the course of American foreign policy—we were finally out of Vietnam, and we were getting over our silly Cold War phobia about dealing with China and the Soviet Union—but in the general public obviously the rage Reagan expressed was widely shared.

A couple of years later a conservative political cause even more out of the blue than opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty appeared: the tax revolt. Howard Jarvis, a seventy-five-year-old retired businessman who had been attacking taxation in California pretty much continuously since , got onto the state ballot in an initiative, Proposition 13, that would substantially cut property taxes.

Despite bad press and the strong opposition of most politicians, it passed by a two to one margin. Preposition 13 weis to some extent another aftershock lof the OPEC embargo. Inflation causes the value of hard assets to rise. The only substantial hard asset owned by most Americans is their home. As the prices of houses soared in the mid-seventies causing people to dig deeper to buy housing, which sent the national savings rate plummeting and made real estate prices the great conversation starter in the social life of the middle class , so did property taxes, since they are based on the values of the houses.

Hence, resentment over taxation became an issue in waiting. Conservative opposition to government focused on its activities, not on its revenue base, and this put conservatism at a disadvantage, because most government programs are popular. Even before Proposition 13, conservative economic writers like Jude Wanniski and Arthur Laffer were inventing supply-side economics, based on the idea that reducing taxes would bring prosperity. With Proposition 13 it was proved—as it has been proved over and over since—that tax cutting was one of the rare voguish policy ideas that turn out to be huge political winners.

In switching from arguing against programs to arguing against taxes, conservatism had found another key element of its ascension to power. This was remarkable in itself, since it had been assumed for decades that the American middle class was, in a world-historical sense, almost uniquely lucky. The emergence of a self-pitying strain in the middle class was in a sense yet another sixties spillover. At the dawn of the sixties, the idea that anybody in the United States was oppressed might have seemed absurd. Then blacks, who really were oppressed, were able to make the country see the truth about their situation.

Meanwhile, the social programs started by Lyndon Johnson gave rise to another new, or long-quiescent, idea, which was that the government was wasting vast sums of money on harebrained schemes. Especially after the economy turned sour, the middle class began to define its interests in terms of a rollback of government programs aimed at helping other groups.

History Brief: 1960s Daily Life and Pop Culture

As the country was becoming more fragmented, so was its essential social unit, the family. In only The divorce rate went from 2. The percentage of births that were out of wedlock was 5. The likelihood that married women with young children would work doubled between the mid-sixties and the late seventies.

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  • The overall effect was one of much greater personal freedom, which meant, as it always does, less social cohesion.