The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s

The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s

by Mitchell Morris

ISBN: 9780520275997

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Calendars/Music

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Sample Chapter



I first began looking for ways to write about the artists discussed in this book in the mid-to-late 1990s. The timing matters for a several reasons—a vaguely discernible twenty-year cycle of rubbishing and rehabilitation in much postwar popular culture, for instance; the generational and technological shifts that enabled the appearance of a broader range of values and investments among critics, whether professional, amateur, or somewhere in between; or for that matter, a gradual shift in academic writing about popular music from a largely defensive, morally and aesthetically engagé style of scholarship to one more willing to give itself up to enjoyment.

All these shifts in critical taste were present in writings about music, but they also covered a lot more ground. The art critic Dave Hickey, for instance, begins his brilliant little book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty with a description of the ills of the academic art world and the potential balm to be found in pleasure and beauty:

For more than four centuries, the idea of "making it beautiful" has been the keystone of our cultural vernacular—the lover's machine-gun and the prisoner's joy—the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route from the image to the individual without a detour through church or state. Now, it seems, that lost generosity, like Banquo's ghost, is doomed to haunt our discourse about contemporary art—no longer required to recommend images to our attention or to insinuate them into the vernacular—and no longer even welcome to try. The route from the image to the beholder now detours through an alternate institution ostensibly distinct from church and state ... The priests of the new church are not so generous. Beauty, in their domain, is altogether elsewhere, and we are left counting the beads and muttering the texts of academic sincerity.

For Hickey, writing near the beginning of the nineties, only a full-blooded acknowledgment of the pleasure and sociality that intersect in disputatious experiences of beauty could rescue the academic art world from its arid purism. And it is worth noting that, whatever the reservations that greeted his admittedly extravagant claims, his insistence on the recovery of the beautiful gained increasing attention into the first decade of the 2000s.

The situation has been arguably better and worse with respect to music. I have often noted a disparity between the songs and styles many people seem to love to listen to—those they play in the privacy of their own homes, the ones that send them into paroxysms of delighted recollection, those they remember in remarkably detailed fashion—and the songs and styles that tend to get written about in vigorous, critically engaged terms. Even though popular music has acquired a significant measure of scholarly respectability, it has often seemed that this measure is extremely selective. An extensive section of the pop music repertory still seems resistant to the praise of critics and intellectuals. At best, we may refer to it as "bad" (a kind of scare-quote cowardice), but at the risk of falling into condescension toward the music and its admirers: falling into a serious slough of very bad faith. Among demotic listeners—the folks who haunt the Internet discussion groups, call up radio stations to hear favorites, and populate my university courses—much of this untalked-about music occasions violent reactions both for and against. I find many of the songs of this type to be among the most satisfying and intellectually stimulating I have ever spent time on, but I have often felt myself, when making such claims, to be in a very marginal position—with respect to the common grounds of discussion, not those of listenership. The music I have in mind is in a sense too popular to be impressive. But what happens if we are impressed, and we begin to say why?

The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s focuses on a group of songs in styles still significantly discounted by critics and scholars, by artists who have been as often execrated by would-be tastemakers as they have been exalted by adoring audiences. When I have mentioned writing about Barry Manilow or Cher, for instance, the most striking reactions I have received from many people have been bursts of laughter in which delight and embarrassment are equally mixed. These people then proceed to demonstrate an astounding (and tender) recollection for the songs I am interested in, but with an insistence that their knowledge and enthusiasm be taken as funny. I think it is funny, too, but I want to know more about what all this laughter defends against. A good part of this protective frivolity comes from our uncertainty about these songs' historical and cultural embeddedness. We try to talk about them, but our only languages are those of autobiography and personal response. And who among us wants to be seen so nakedly in public?

Although I think the critical usefulness of such nakedness is mostly worth the risks, I also think that we are wrong to leave these songs with no context other than our personal ones. In this introduction, I want to point out a few historical and critical issues that are relevant to my considerations in later chapters. My approach is necessarily somewhat loose-jointed; before any coherent general account of this music can be constructed—before it can have a history—a great deal of conceptual brush clearing must occur.


In 1998, Rhino Records released a compilation of seventies hits entitled Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box. This box set was the culmination of a series of 1970s recycling projects that the record label had begun early in the decade, with the release of successful retro collections such as Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the '70s and Didn't It Blow Your Mind: Soul Hits of the '70s. Avoiding self-conscious canon making and fine critical distinctions, The '70s Pop Culture Box set sought to represent as wide a range of musical styles, social constituencies, and degrees of "seriousness" as possible as an exercise in nostalgic amusement. From country to disco, from teenage rebellion to second-wave feminism, from "timeless classics" to the most fleeting of novelties (anyone remember Ray Stevens's"The Streak"?), everything could be included on the seven CDs hidden behind the shag-carpet surface emblazoned with happy faces. Although most of the songs had been successful singles, simple chart position was not the only criterion for inclusion. Rather, the box set was designed to evoke memories of the decade as they had been constructed through the mass media, especially television and radio. An additional fillip of realism came from occasional snatches of broadcast sound inserted between the tracks of the singles, detailing such resonant events as the Patty Hearst saga, Watergate, or the gasoline rationing that followed the OPEC oil embargo.

Now imagine yourself in that year, a person in your late thirties or perhaps forties, purchasing the collection and taking it off to your CD player to listen. Music you might have heard anywhere between the ages of two and twenty-two, the years when our most stubborn aesthetic tastes are significantly formed, when music often seems to be most tenacious in the memory—it is all here, the lush glories of Gladys Knight and the Pips singing "Midnight Train to Georgia" followed only five tracks later by Terry Jacks's "Seasons in the Sun." The compilers have made no differentiations of taste, so the experience of the Have a Nice Decade box set approaches your recollections of the life you experienced as you began to become an adult. You hear a stream of material that addresses you in a multitude of ways, summoning recollection and feeling to the stage as surely as that cookie of Marcel Proust's. Why are you so happy? Do this lack of discrimination and your pleasure in it compromise your aesthetic self-respect? You are safe from embarrassment because the sheen of frivolity that coats the project allows you to present yourself as much more sophisticated than your low listening habits would indicate. You are looking back with irony (ironically—imagine a mise en abyme of unserious seriousness). You can have your cake (or your cookie) and eat it too.

I imagine a listener in his or her thirties because the return of the 1970s entails the operations of generational consciousness in American culture. Perhaps the first signs of a seventies revival in pop culture came at the very beginning of the nineties. Take a mass-market book from 1990, The Seventies: From Hot Pants to Hot Tubs, which scattered a huge assortment of factoids, snapshots, and politico-sociological vignettes across more than two hundred pages in an attempt at "revisionist history." Presenting their work as primarily a collection of fun trivia, the authors nevertheless found ample occasion, amid the stories of earth shoes, pet rocks, and rolfing, to make connections between seeming ephemera and the larger stakes of individuals and society. This return of the repressed was in full flower that year, and the news media soon found themselves bemused by the spectacle of "young people" (under thirty) traipsing around in the most baroque polyester wares to be found at thrift stores, playing old vinyl records, and speaking warmly about the "excesses" of style long since left behind. By the middle of 1991, Newsweek (always a reliable indicator of mid-cult awareness) had begun to offer up little profiles of the seventies revival. Fashion and music were the most reliable indicators of this new taste, but what seemed to trouble journalists was an ambiguity of tone in the appreciation of ardent revivalists. Was it, as they asked, "ironic or perilously beyond ironic?" The question's structure pointed to part of the problem because the "either/or" could only be answered by "both/and." Another question was left largely implicit: "why now?"

It is a commonplace to note that in the post-WWII era pop culture revivals have usually occurred after a space of a decade-and-a-half or so.

The early 1970s saw the first blooming of a mainstream pop culture preoccupation with an imaginary 1950s (the 1960s career of a retro group like Sha Na Na was something of an anomaly at the time). The return of the 1950s was not only a matter of recycled music on radio's "oldies programs" and nostalgia stories on television or in the movie house—a great deal of new wave from the late 1970s, for instance, depends on complexly mediated tropes from 1950s pop culture. The imaginary 1960s began to achieve full force in the 1980s, sparking its own series of newly referential pop cultural styles. And in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a 1980s revival was successfully launched: in 2002, Rhino followed its Have a Nice Decade box set with Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box. (The accelerated recycling has continued since then, though the vast transformations wrought by the Internet seems to have made the process more sporadic and murky.)

But it was the 1970s revival that has often seemed to the mainstream media to be the most culturally fraught. As the cultural recycling proceeded in the 1990s, a relevant pop culture discussion about generational politics began to emerge. In Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, novelist Douglas Coupland imagined a label for the underemployed and perhaps oversophisticated people who were just turning thirty. The oft-hyped economic booms of the 1980s had trickled down to very few people under that age, and in Coupland's world, their future was likely to see more of the same: inadequate jobs; the wastage that came from the misfortunate parts of the sexual revolution; permanent political impotence; and, above all, the oppressive self-righteousness of earlier generations. The idealistic self-portraits of the "baby boom" generation—peace rallies, the counterculture, and extravagant proclamations of freedom—seemed to evoke derision (often mixed with sub-rosa envy). And the link between this generational identity and the 1970s revival seemed secure, as is apparent in such images as the character of Vickie Miner, the retro-obsessive character played by Janeane Garofalo in the exceedingly X-ish 1994 film Reality Bites.

The title of Coupland's novel provided one of the most common rubrics under which discussions of this "new" generational difference entered the mass media. Another important point of view came from a series of widely read books by public policy writers William Strauss and Neil Howe that sought to analyze all of American history in terms of generational periods lasting approximately twenty years each. (Adjustments may be made for large-scale political events; the argument is based on a notion of a quadripartite life cycle indirectly related to the life-cycle theories of Erik Erikson.) In the vision of Strauss and Howe, the "Boomers," born between 1943 and 1960, were at last confronting the difficult positions of the "Thirteenth generation," born between 1961 and 1981, and beginning to worry about the condition of the emerging "Millennial generation" born after 1982. The resentments and rebellions of the rising generation were the inevitable concomitants of their attempts to differentiate their culture from that of their elders.

Such arguments have been important, not because they are necessarily accurate, but because they have shown themselves to have a great deal of power to shape the terms of public perception. It is intuitively true that such a thing as a generational consciousness can be said to exist. Especially in a mass-media culture where large numbers of (young people) receive the impact of reportage on major historical events as well as ephemera, the common points of reference establish what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has called "generational objects." These shared things gradually emerge in childhood and especially in the violent self-fashionings of adolescence to become crucial tokens of temporal consciousness in young adulthood. Bollas suggests that

Although each generation passes through, interprets, and signifies the life span in its own way, its fundamental character is fashioned in the twenties. It will continue to experience and interpret new objects, but strictly speaking they are not generational ones, as they are not essential to the defining character of consciousness. Such objects are not so much mental representations as screen memories that express the nature of the generation's psychic life. Each generational object ... gives rise to a complex character of experiences peculiar to that time. They sit inside us even when we aren't thinking of them, within our unconscious in an internal world where each object serves as a generating link to the people of our time.

In one's thirties, observes Bollas, generational objects begin to be mulled over in comparison to those of older and younger generations. Obviously, a given generation's objects have significance to others—it's just that they won't have the same significance.

For example, the sexual revolution of the seventies was an important event for the Gen-Xers, the Thirteeners of Strauss and Howe, but its importance is shaped by epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases that were taking place at the time that generation was in a position to participate fully. Then, there was the Pill, and there were antibiotics to cure any minor infection one might pick up. But since the eighties, the idea of casual sex as a harmless diversion has become impossible thanks to HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and HPV (human papillomavirus). Of course casual sex occurs now. But the stakes are quite different. As a result, the fantasy of sexual liberation probably has a more mythological cast to the minds of Xers than it would to their elders. What are the effects of this difference on the ways that disco, one of the most sexually fraught musics created in the 1970s, can be said to enter the body of its would-be devotees?

Excerpted from "The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s" by Mitchell Morris. Copyright © 2013 by Mitchell Morris. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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