Back From the Disco Inferno

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Several weeks ago, I clambered aboard an aircraft bound for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to attend the 40th birthday party of a dear old friend. Though I hold my friend Gino in the highest possible esteem and have nothing but warm feelings for the stalwart city of Milwaukee, I would probably not have made this weekend pilgrimage were it not for the dazzling entertainment my friend had promised to supply. For I and the 200-plus people who attended the party-including friends who had flown in from as far away as Oklahoma City and Sacramento-were to be feted by Lightning, the finest Neil Diamond impersonator in the entire Midwest, and his fetching wife Thunder, the most adroit ABBA and Barbra Streisand mimic those parts have ever seen. We had flown into the City That Made the Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous because we had been promised a night of Seventies nostalgia the likes of which we wouldnever forget. My friend did not fail to deliver on his promise. Take it from me, "Sweet Caroline" never sounded sweeter.

Though not everyone bitten by the Me Decade nostalgia bug is prepared to fly to the Badger State to hear an upscale karaoke rendition of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" on a brisk November evening, it is undeniable that the Seventies have come roaring back with a vengeance. Long reviled as a tragic era of bad perms, goldfish-laden platform shoes, brain-dead sitcoms, capacious bell-bottoms, and criminally inane disco, the Seventies have undergone a massive cultural reevaluation, and are now viewed affectionately as an era of bad perms, goldfish-laden platform shoes, brain-dead sitcoms, capacious bell-bottoms, and criminally inane disco. If it is true that what does not kill you makes you stronger, then the Seventies have definitely made the rest of us a lot stronger. Those of us, that is, that the Seventies did not actually kill.

Evidence of the full-blown Seventies revival is all around us. The Love Boat is back. Fantasy Island has returned from the dead. The Hollywood Squares once again patrol the airwaves. Those Kabuki-Lite metalheads Kiss have regrouped, and are now more popular than ever. Barry Manilow is hard at work on his first musical. A full-length CHiPs movie recently aired on TNT. Slackers from sea to shining sea have designated polyester as their fabric of choice, paying a king's ransom for fashions seemingly plucked randomly from the closet of Joe Don Baker. Burt Reynolds was nominated for an Academy Award for his exemplary work in the disco inferno flick Boogie Nights. Not one, but two Brady Bunch movies have made it to a theater near you. Donny and Marie have their own talk show. That Seventies Show is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal fall sitcom lineup. Debbie Harry and Blondie have re-formed and are presumably getting their act together and taking it on the road. Tony Orlando is packing them in every night at his theater in Branson, Missouri. And once again, Henry "The Fonz" Winkler is getting work. Meaningful work. Work in films like The Waterboy.

What accounts for the sudden rehabilitation of an era long viewed as one big joke? Well, for starters, as big jokes go, the Me Decade certainly was a pretty remarkable one. No one in history ever made more outrageous Top 40 music than the Village People or put on more preposterous shows than KISS. No one ever wore fashions more extravagant than the garish threads that festooned the characters in Super Fly. No one in the history of television was ever as persistently, remorselessly over the top as Ricardo ("fine Corinthian leather") Montalban. Working from the venerable premise that some things are so bad that they're good, the Seventies now seem very, very good. Because while they were going on, they certainly seemed very, very bad.

Two other factors help to explain the Seventies' implausible return from the ash bin of history. One is memory loss. Millions of Americans who really ought to know better are perfectly capable of keeping a straight face these days and saying nice things about Jimmy Carter, even though everyone alive at the time knows that he was the worst president since Warren G. Harding. Like, Iran? And people who genuinely loathed disco at the time can now look on it with a less jaundiced eye because they can no longer recall that at certain times and in certain places during the Seventies, disco seemed like it was never going to go away. The principle at work here is simple: Once things that everyone is sick of finally go away, it is possible to let them come back. As long as they promise on a stack of Bibles not to overstay their welcome the second time around.

This, however, does not explain why young people should manifest such a puzzling affection for the Seventies. Here we must examine the highly ambivalent attitude that Gen Xers feel toward baby boomers, who, in many cases, are their own parents. On the one hand, everyone under the age of 35 is sick and tired of hearing about Woodstock, "Abbey Road," the Age of Aquarius. On the other hand, everyone under the age of 35 secretly wishes that they had been at Woodstock because, let's face it, Alanis Morissette is no Janis Joplin, and nobody from Hootie & the Blowfish is ever going to get his own tomb at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Gay Paree, the way Jim Morrison did. So slackers recognize that the best way to get under their parents' skin is to profess heartfelt admiration for everything the baby boomers despised: Fantasy Island, The Brady Bunch, Burt Reynolds, CHiPs, polyester.

Irony-poor, tired fads One question that needs to be asked is whether a revival fueled almost entirely by irony can be sustained over the long haul. The answer is probably "no." Although the Fifties revival that took place in the Seventies was spawned by Grease and Happy Days, the Fifties always had a lot more going for it-as an historical era-than the Seventies. The Fifties had Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, none of whom ever went out of fashion. The Fifties were also, chronologically speaking, the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. Similarly, the Sixties had JFK, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Beatles, and various other figures who have never entirely surrendered their larger-than-life status. (Well, maybe Ringo.) The Seventies, by contrast, were dominated by clowns and cross-dressers: Billy Carter, David Bowie, the Oakland Athletics and their lurid Day-Glo uniforms. Whereas Americans have often harked back to earlier eras with reverence or affection, their attitude toward the Seventies has never deviated from thinly veiled condescension. Nobody ever thinks about the Seventies without smirking.

The way I see it, the Seventies revival will probably go on for awhile, but no one should lose sight of the fact that the meter is running and the time won't take that long to run out. For every John Travolta who comes back strong, there's a John Davidson who comes back weak. Thus far, there's been no serious attempt to reevaluate the dramatic work of Valerie Bertinelli, nor has a massive groundswell in support of a Rhoda revival yet taken place. When Seventies iconette Bo Derek tried to jump-start her career with a TV series this fall, it was one of the first shows to be canceled. The ratings for Fantasy Island have been no great shakes, that Peter Frampton Renaissance is still awaiting lift-off, and Branson may be the biggest draw down in the Ozarks, but it's still down in the Ozarks. For the Seventies revival to really take on institutional stature, we'd have to see a lot less interest in the career of Richard Simmons and a lot more interest in the career of Richard Nixon.

Frankly, I don't think that's going to happen.

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