In Funky Denim Wonderland

Rock Me on the Water
Ronald Brownstein

I was feeling more kvetch-y than usual when I started this post, a state I attributed to the unusually cold temperature and my self-imposed house arrest.  Fast forward a couple of weeks and my mood has improved along with the weather.

So I may end up being more charitable than when I started writing. We’ll see about that.

One thing I will not do is abandon my decision to declare war on 19th-century-style subtitles, such as the one visible on the nearby book jacket. These turgid statements are really nothing more than questionable marketing messages and I have too much respect for copywriters to let such nonsense pass any longer.

I am going to type the subtitle, though, because it really is the book’s thesis statement. Mr. Brownstein intends to show us that “1974 [was] The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics.”  I’d bet even money a lot of positive adjectives greeted the unveiling of that squib. I’d also bet that one appropriate description–preposterous–was never mentioned.

Downtown LA circa 1974
Photo by Bruce H. Cox, Los Angeles Times

Allow me to digress in the service of demonstrating just why that word is warranted. In many countries, there’s only one metropole that matters, like Paris or London, at least in terms of government, high finance and culture. In the U.S., the centers of finance and government sit just over two hundred miles apart and our cultural centers lie in two cities separated by a continent.

Each of our cultural capitals engages in the full range of fine and performing arts. But the Western capital, rooted in Los Angeles, dominates film and television production while the visual arts, live theatre and publishing (and even arguably the performing arts) look to New York as the lodestar. You could pick at this–for example, there are a number of regional music hubs–and you might argue LA depends on the Big Apple’s capital markets, but in broad strokes, the model approximates reality.

Why, then, Los Angeles and why 1974? Here’s what Brownstein says,

“The great art produced in early 1970s Los Angeles was socially engaged, grappling with all the changes and critiques of American life that had rumbled through society during the 1960s. …  Popular culture became the bridge between the mass American audience and once-insurrectionary ideas that developed on the vanguard of the social and political movements of the 1960s.”
(from the Introduction)

That’s a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of the entertainment business. Taken literally it suggests that entertainment’s cultural functions, presumably including the creation of “great art,” transcend its reality as a business.  A proposition like that can only be offered by someone who has never had to make a payroll.

El Lay’s (or is it 1974’s?) #1 fanboy, Ron Brownstein.

Speaking less charitably, it’s also the argument of a besotted fan holding a particular set of values that are apparent even if never explicitly stated.

Ron Brownstein, in case you didn’t know it, is a well-regarded political analyst. A guy from the neighborhood, he grew up in Queens and is a SUNY Binghamton grad. For many years he served as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. His work regularly appears in publications like The Atlantic and you can see him in appearances on CNN and other broadcast outlets. I’ve generally found him to be a thoughtful interpreter and explainer of electoral data.

Parsing poll results, however, is not a typical route to covering popular culture at column- let alone book-length. It also may not be the most fertile background for explaining, rather than describing, a national mood. Journalists like to say theirs is the first draft of history. By definition, it’s a relatively short draft and it’s likely to be abandoned before it is ever revised let alone refined.

Take another look at the excerpt above. Maybe it’s me, but it contains a bunch of words and phrases that are in no way objective. Here are just a few: “socially engaged, grappling with all the changes and critiques of American life,” “the bridge between the … audience and once-insurrectionary ideas,” “the vanguard of the social and political movements of the 1960s.” Oh, brother.

One decade, two worldviews.

Like many people, most of whom are smarter than me, I look at our current socio-political mess and see a straight line that starts with the counterculture of the 1960s. Brownstein seems to suggest the mainstreaming of countercultural perspectives demonstrates an inevitable and proper outcome, as though the marketplace for entertainment was the marketplace of ideas.

I hate to break this to him, but enduring ideas stick around. Like democracy or turning the other cheek, both of which have persisted for a couple of millennia now. This is a perennial blindspot of liberally-oriented Baby Boomers.

Such a deficiency seems especially unwelcome in an analyst. The most favorable interpretation of the available data indicates the number of Boomers who served in-country in Vietnam is similar to the number that took part in the Summer of Love, Woodstock, Altamont and the rest.  There’s your 50/50 country: different experiences, different conclusions.

On some level, even Brownstein recognizes this. There isn’t enough data to support his thesis. By design, the back stories of the figures he’s chosen to illustrate why we should be believe him all begin in the mid-1960s or earlier. Even he admits that by 1976 this cultural flood tide had ebbed and the soupy marsh of mainstream entertainment had again emerged.

What if this 1974/LA thing is like AMC’s 1974 muscle car, appealing at first glance but …

Two years doesn’t represent a sea change. In the end, you can’t make an argument for posterity based on a couple of movies, Governor Moonbeam and The Eagles. The Eagles! A few years earlier, Jefferson Airplane sang of revolution. The Eagles asked us to “Take it Easy.” Never has a call to the barricades been more genteel.

I understand the appeal of these nostalgic round-ups, but they, too, are merely entertainment. If Brownstein were serious he would have had to cast a wider net. Maybe LA in the mid-1970s was lily-white. If you were trying to explain, though, rather than celebrate, you’d have to address that rather obvious gap.

When it comes to popular entertainment, I prefer music to movies. In 1974,  music was much more interesting almost any place other than LA. That’s my bias. I’m glad Mr. Brownstein has such affection for his adopted hometown.  But I’m not buying that it defined a cultural moment of long-lasting significance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.