STAYING ALIVE The '70s are back - with a vengeance


It was the decade taste forgot, a time of Dacron and disco, "Shaft" and smiley faces, platform shoes and "The Partridge Family." We're speaking, of course, of the '70s, a time of stupid fads, silly clothes and sappy music -- an era which, for most people, seemed like 10 straight years of bad-hair days.

And suddenly, it's the hippest thing around.

Seventies chic. It sounds preposterous, doesn't it? Yet the evidence is all around us, from the astounding success of "The Real Live Brady Bunch," a stage show offering slavishly accurate re-enactments of sitcom episodes, to the inexplicable resurgence of basso balladeer Barry White, who has popped up everywhere from "Arsenio" to "The Simpsons."

Face it: The '70s are back with a vengeance. Turn on the TV, and ads for disco compilations trumpet tunes like "Ring My Bell" and "The Hustle." Flip through a fashion mag, and half the models are decked out in platforms and bell-bottoms. Some would even argue that Jimmy Carter is again among us, this time in the person of President Clinton.

But nowhere is '70s chic stronger than in the music market. In England, the hottest new rock acts are groups like Suede, the Auteurs and Denim, groups whose sound and sensibility is an unapologetic throw-back to the glam aesthetic of vintage David Bowie and Roxy Music; on MTV, Lenny Kravitz shows up in the videofor "Are You Gonna Go My Way" with a band that looks like a cross between Grand Funk Railroad and the Bar-Kays.

And that's nothing compared to the action on the re-issue front. Although Rhino Records has been praised by critics for its classy compilations of '50s rock and '60s R&B;, its best-selling titles are '70s albums -- items like the "Have a Nice Day" albums, which repackage such "super hits of the '70s" as "Rock On" and "Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast." PolyGram recently responded with a '70s series of its own, called "Funk Essentials"; collections by Cameo, Con Funk Shun and Parliament are already climbing the R&B; charts. And there seems no end of interest in back catalog by such supposedly forgettable artists as Meat Loaf, Steve Miller and the Partridge Family.

Offensive chic

Why, though? Wasn't living through this stuff the first time bad enough?

Well, yeah. And that's precisely what makes it so cool the second time around.

Seventies chic is meant to offend establishment sensibilities. It's an in-your-face to the baby boomer culture that has spent the past 20 years insisting that everything worth experiencing happened in the '60s. Think of it as the revenge of the slackers, an anti-hip aesthetic that has no interest in value-laden concepts like taste, importance and idealism.

As such, it's nothing like the camp culture that flourished in the '60s. Camp, after all, assumes a certain aesthetic superiority in its ironic appreciation of trash culture; it treasures kitsch precisely so it can feel smug about its corny charm and cloying sentimentality.

Nor is '70s chic simply another spin on the post-modern eclecticism that flourished in the late '80s. For one thing, it's nowhere near as all-embracing as the po-mo worldview, which draws no distinctions in its rush to re-contextualize; for another, it rejects outright the sort of cool detachment post-modernism demands, opting instead for genuine appreciation and heartfelt enthusiasm.

To embrace the '70s is to accept its artifacts for what they are -- shallow and pleasurable. There's no attempt to paint its songs and TV shows as aesthetically revolutionary or culturally resonant, much less suggest that the decade was any sort of golden age of popular entertainment. What matters most to the hipsters who have lead the charge into '70s chic -- the 20- and 30-ish betweeners who are too young to feel like boomers and too old to be considered part of the next generation -- is that it's fun, and it's theirs.

Start with fun. Unlike the '60s, which reveled in its artistic ambition and self-declared seriousness, pop culture in the '70s had no qualms about its cheesy commerciality. In fashion, for example, the '60s gave us the nehru jacket, an instantly ridiculous item that nonetheless was proclaimed the men's wear of the future. Whereas when the '70s brought forth the leisure suit, even those who wore them acknowledged their silliness. But hey -- silly was part of the Zeitgeist.

Likewise, the music of the '70s is mostly remembered as crude and stupid when compared to the breakthroughs of the previous decade --according to the boomers, anyway. Where the '60s had the Beatles, the '70s had Led Zeppelin; in place of the Rolling Stones, it offered Aerosmith; instead of soul, it delivered disco. And when it comes to the Top 40, need we even discuss the merits of such '70s vintage tripe as "Afternoon Delight," "Feelings" or "You Light Up My Life"?

An endearing sound

Nevermind that punk and rap, the styles which dominate today's popular music, both originated in the '70s -- that's not what makes the sound of the '70s so endearing. Rather, it's that so much '70s pop got by on sheer surface charm, instead of pretending to be something of deep and lasting value. A critic could listen to a song like Steve Miller's "Rock'n You" and hear nothing but recycled ideas, from the Chuck Berry cadence of the verses to the "All Right Now" rip-off of the guitar hook, but all a '70s fan hears is hooks.

Still, when it comes to the emotional power of '70s chic, possession is nine-tenths of the charm. That's one reason "The Real Live Brady Bunch" has been such a sensation.

At the time, TV critics complained that the Brady series was little more than a feeble update of "Father Knows Best" or "My Three Sons," with the Brady kids being about as believable as Buffy and Jody from "Family Affair." But to anyone who grew up watching the show -- both in prime time and afternoon syndication -- cliche content or credibility was never an issue. What made the Brady clan so engrossing was that it didn't try to be anything other than a TV family, going through precisely the sort of mini-crises one might expect to find in a fantasy suburb.

There was no deeper meaning to any of it, and no sense that the Bradys stood for some sort of larger truth. If anything, what has endured about Greg and Marcia and Jan and Bobby and Peter and Cindy is the utter familiarity of these characters. And though most Brady-ophiles will admit to some identification with the characters (the show did target pre-teens, after all), what ultimately draws them to the ritualized re-creations of the Brady stage show is its sense of shared memory -- that yes, there are others who remember exactly what happened when Marcia got braces and worried that they'd scare off her date for the dance.

Memories for betweeners

Granted, it's hardly the same thing as remembering Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show, or where you were when Kennedy was assassinated, or dancing in the mud at Woodstock, or seeing the moon-walk on live TV, but that's kind of the point.

Because for those who have spent most of their lives hearing about all the great stuff they missed, "importance" on that level is beside the point. Of course, "The Brady Bunch" wasn't as historically important as the March on Selma or the Fall of Saigon. But those events -- as the betweeners are forever reminded -- belong to somebody else, and the whole point of '70s chic is for the children of that era to claim some ground of their own.

Besides, wouldn't you rather bask in the idiot bliss of the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack than have to spend the rest of the decade trying to explain how a guy who sings as badly as Bob Dylan got to be a pop star?

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