Boogie Rites

Cultural Scholars Hustle to Discover Whatever Happened to The '70s.

The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture, ed. by Shelton Waldrep. Routledge, $22 (paperback).

IN THE RETRO-Cuisinart that is contemporary pop culture, few recent historical epochs have inspired such an ambivalent response as the 1970s. Mocked and derided while simultaneously repackaged and peddled to an irony-drenched consumer culture, the decade continues to both attract and repel, its outlandish excesses worshipped as both liberating and ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the current, tired '70s revival, from That '70s Show to the endless Brady Bunch spin-offs, has aimed low and focused primarily on the decade's most outrageous external elements. Yes, Virginia, there was more to the '70s than 8-tracks and Pet Rocks, but the revivalists have virtually ignored the decade's often radical socio-political upheavals, which still reverberate today.

Now comes The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture, in which a group of scholars has banded together to sort through the cultural rubble of an era "bookended by the Watergate hearings in 1973 and the premiere of Saturday Night Fever in 1977." They have constructed a historical perspective for a decade in which sexual hedonism, political cynicism and cultural self-awareness reached critical mass and forever altered our social identities.

Positioning '70s culture as the last gasp of radical potential wrought by forward-looking American idealism (before late capitalism reached full bloom in the "greed is good" '80s), The Seventies offers fascinating insight into the significance of a truly weird era using the critical tools of late-'90s cultural theory. But fear not--this is academic in scope, but far from stodgy in execution. With essays taking on the Black Panthers, glam rock, porno chic, suburbia, Jonestown, blaxploitation flicks, '70 body types and more, these scholars boldly straddle the highs and lows of American culture, unafraid to wallow in a little "trash."

Refreshingly, The Seventies steers clear of the shallow waters typically traveled by most purveyors of retro-hell, allowing Eldridge Cleaver, David Cassidy and Patty Hearst to bump booties with Karl Marx, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze. If examinations of the "subversive, democratizing" effects of polyester leisure suits, the "trisexual self-reflexivity" of glam rockers The New York Dolls, or the "queer heroine" status of black action queen Cleopatra Jones strike you as intriguingly offbeat, this collection is for you.

Editor Shelton Waldrep's claim that the '70s may actually have been more culturally seismic than the "radical" '60s (especially in terms of liberating gay, black and female power movements) flies in the face of most cultural scholarship, and offers a refreshingly against-the-grain slice of revisionist history. It also signals the rise of a young generation of scholarly writers looking to challenge the sacred cows of their elders, and seeking to reclaim the culture of their formative childhoods.

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