The era that gave us bell-bottoms, ABBA and the Brady Bunch is coming back.
Have a nice decade.
by Ned Zeman, Karen Springen, John Taliaferro, Anthony Duigan-Cabrera and
This is not a blanket statement about the city of San Francisco, but consider
that one of the hottest acts in town is Enrique, a band that wears polyester
jumpsuits, plays the Maude theme and hands out Sybil dolls that make
different facial expressions when you rotate their heads. Band members own
Kristy McNichol posters and things like, "At our last concert we gave away a
complete dinette set!" because their mission is singular: to make sure the
1970s never, ever go away.
Clearly, America's premier irony fixation -- the swanky '70s -- is getting
out of hand. It started out a while back as a relatively benign, tongue-in-
cheek little trend in which hipsters played KC and the Sunshine Band, watched
Gilligan's Island, wore velour pullovers and developed a curious
preoccupation with Paul Lynde. Now, suddenly, a '70s behemoth, replete with
smiley-face buttons, is lumbering toward social-movement status. The drumbeat
sounds: support groups, Frank Rizzo, Wild Cherry hits, Bangladesh concerts,
heroin, Hoffas, bell-bottoms, serial killers, oil scares and the triumphant
return of Rodney Allen Rippy, who wants a sitcom vehicle.
You decide: ironic or perilously beyond ironic? On any given Tuesday night in
Chicago, a throng of giddy humans crowds into the Annoyance Theater to see
"The Real Live Brady Bunch," a stage version of the '70s epic that featured
some of the worst interior decoration this side of a Bill Knapp's. The
theater has produced 20 different Brady episodes, including "Getting Davy
Jones," in which Marcia pursues the tambourine-slapping '70s relic for prom
entertainment. "You did the best you could," intones father Mike to daughter
Marcia, who listens with the glassy-eyed vapidity of a trained gerbil. The
audience buzzes -- and it didn't even contain the family that spent $400 on
Brady memorabilia that includes a lunchbox autographed by Jan.
In fairness, who doesn't fondly remember the day Marcia broke her nose ("Oh,
my nose! Oh, my nose!")? What's jarring is the fact that Bradyphiles, while
aware of the inherent irony, see a higher imperative. Jill Soloway, 25, who
coproduced the show with her sister Faith, 26, thinks people are partial to
the Brady clan because they radiate a "moral message." No ordinary viewers,
the Soloways bandy Brady terms like "perfect symmetry," "collective
consciousness" and "Brady theory." "It was," Faith adds, "a perfect family,
which everyone wanted to be." Of course the Soloways also suggest there was a
"sexual tension" among the Bradys, but let's not get into that.
Maybe the most insidious effect of creeping '70s-ism is its viselike grip on
our most precious resource: young people like Travis Knox, 20, of Los
Angeles. "I saw Saturday Night Fever for the first time when I was 7," he
says, rather like one of the pod people from Invasion of the Body
Snatchers, "and knew that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life"
Which is why Knox now finds himself frequenting the L.A. club called 1970,
where patrons unashamedly Hustle in puka-shell necklaces, platform shoes and
synthetic hip-hugger bell-bottoms -- a zombielike army of Leif Garretts and
Farrah Fawcetts doing battle to Giorgio Moroder songs.
Worse, this mind-set is expanding. Just up the coast at San Francisco's club
1970, Berkeley student Stacie Dickey plods along, and admitted
"platform-dancing disco queen" trapped in a philosophy major's body. "I
learned the Hustle," she says, eerily evocative of Travis Knoxian thought,
"and the fascination never stopped." On Friday nights, Atlanta's Metro club
will overwhelm you with leisure suits, halters and more Afros; all are
preferred by transvestites, for whom the '70 were made. Then the glitter
balls flash, the Love Boat theme crescendos. "You think that's bad,"
threatens "Trina," a man clad not unlike Julie from the aforementioned
nautical series. "You should hear Charo's cover."
Don't these people have mothers? Who dresses them? With big-shot designers
like Norma Kamali actually encouraging people to wear bell-bottoms, it's no
wonder this thing has spread. Stores like Chicago's Flashback sell any
assortment of Cher-wear, not to mention Telly Savales albums, mood rings and
Pez dispensers. "You know," warns one Atlanta shopper, "there's a certain
kind of polyester I really like."
The sartorial message is in the music, most of which is of either the
Funkadelic-Gloria Gaynor-Ohio Players-Trammps variety or the
ABBA-Bread-Doobie Brothers-Molly Hatchet axis. Your irate letters may be
aimed at Rhino Records, which is carpet-bombing America with, among other
things, Have A Nice Day: Super Hits of the '70s, Vols. 1-15 and The Disco
Years, Vols. 1-2. That's right -- seventeen discs filled with "Billy,
Don't Be a Hero," "Shake Your Booty" and "Kung Fu Fighting." The '70s "were
the last hurrah of the single," apologized Rhino vice president Gary Stewart,
who takes no personal responsibility for today's clog-inspired soul of Deee-
Lite, the retro-sincerity of Tracy Chapman or the upcoming Rufus tour.
Ultimately, though, the '70s were about TV; in fact, the '70s were TV. As
in Welcome Back, Kotter and Three's Company and Good Times and Rhoda.
This is because those of us raised on Suzanne Somers now control TV
(Chilling, isn't it?). Flick on Nick At Nite or any number of Ginsu-hawking
UHF stations and there they are, fairly screaming: "Turn off
thirtysomething! Come back home!" Which of course we did. Now TV road kill,
thirtysomething was so very '80s: indulgent, touchy, complicated;
conversely, The Wonder Years, smooth and nostalgic, seems invincible. The
operative words for today's programmers are "safe" and "familiar." Just
think: who are Roseanne Barr and Bronson Pinchot but today's Carroll O'Connor
and Charles Nelson Reilly, respectively?
Looking back, there are many Important Sociological Reasons for this John
Davidsonization of America, but here's the biggest: we're bored. That makes
sense because what were the 1970s other than the apotheosis of boredom?
Surely America would not have watched Green Acres or worn Earth Shoes or
elected Jimmy Carter had it had anything better to do. Aside from Watergate,
Squeaky Fromme and Saigon's fall, nothing happened. It seemed as if peanut
butter and jelly in the same jar -- Goober -- got more press than Gerald
Ford. "It wasn't a decade of particularly widespread social action [or]
political activism," says Bowling Green State University pop-culture expert
Michael Marsden, who calls the '70s "bland." Social stagnation, sensible
shoes, blandness: June 1991, in a nutshell.
- Newsweek, June 10, 1991.
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