on Oct 9, 2006
Everyone knows how culture is supposed to work: You cherish the culture of your childhood, wrapping those memories in a warm blanket of nostalgia. Then you idolize the culture that exists as you become an adult, because your generation has obviously hit some sort of societal high note. Then you decry the culture that supplants it, since all these dang kids are messing things up.
But this isn’t what I’m seeing. The culture of my childhood was a wasteland. Television was rubbish. The music sucked. Things got much better in the 80’s, and have gradually improved since then. If I have any complaints about our current culture, it pales in comparison to my dislike for what things looked like then I was eight.
We tend to label things by decade, but of course the old culture isn’t thrown in the trash at the 10-year mark. When 1980 rolled around men didn’t suddenly shave off the Chuck Norris mustache, take down their blacklight / velvet wall hangings, and put on a clean shirt. It doesn’t really work that way. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to impose order on what is fundamentally a chaotic and ever-changing world. I will now carry on this tradition of pretending that culture can be measured and judged in neat, decade-sized portions.
I like the 50’s. It had class. The TV was bland, but polite and genial. I like the 60’s, when America stopped being such a stiff, and started thinking seriously about this civil rights thing and how that might be a good idea. The 80’s were ok, if a bit of a dork. The 90’s were filled with exciting technological and social changes – rising from the intertron web superhighway thing – and that was pretty great. The only decade I can’t stand is the one I’m supposed to cherish: The 70’s unambiguously sucked.
In the sixties, America loosened up, took of the tie, and cracked a smile. In the seventies it got drunk, took of its pants, and went streaking in the quad. The decade of loosening up gave way to the decade of coming unhinged, and the result was some of the most spectacularly awful culture the west has ever seen.
I’m not just talking about the music or attitudes: I’m talking about everything. The homes and buildings built in that era are dark, ugly bunkers. The clothing was an abominable smear of oddly shaped polyester clown suits which came in a broad mix of putrid earthtones. Women’s fashion seemed bent on making all every female look cheap and unkempt. Collars on men’s shirts became big enough to serve as an ersatz airfoil, and the most popular hair style for men was “Chewbacca”. The catchy tunes of the early 60’s faded away, and we were left with sulking musical misery, protest songs, and white guys who were bent on draining every last drop of soul out of rock music. The simple-living, smiling, friendly hippies were replaced with the sneering, angry, inarticulate stoner hippies. The cars – excepting a few nice muscle cars – were grotesque. The slang was stupid. The movies were bleak and bereft of entertainment value. Even the comedies – no, especially the comedies – were grim and joyless. I can laugh at funny movies made before that time, and I laugh at comedies made since then, but the humor of the 70’s eludes me. The television was rubbish, all the way to the core.
Stipulated: Star Wars was pretty great, and it came out in the 70’s. Of course, it was set in another galaxy, far away from the world where men’s pants ended mid-shin, and white people had afros. I think that was a lot of its appeal. Even so, when Luke and Han are onscreen I still struggle to supress the urge to shout “get a haircut!” at them.
What made the culture so unsavory? Was it the war? The economy? The rise of the baby boomers?
Who cares? I’m glad it’s over.
LATER: Looking back, I have no idea what prompted me to write this right now.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.