The Politics of Rock in the 1970s and 1980s

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Bruce J. Schulman's The Seventies looks at the decade as a time of transformation in America. The sixties had been a tumultuous period of radical optimism and conflict. The seventies can sometimes be seen as the death of an era as opposed to looking at it for what it was. As illustrated by the Carter administration, sometimes compromises must be made and policy gets watered down. Many radical ideas had to be modified so that mainstream America could handle it and hardcore radicals disappeared from the woodwork and decided to live in communes. On the other side of the coin, the U.S. still became more liberal in the 1970s. Schulman defines the “long seventies” as lasting from “1969 to 1984” and states that there was a lot of change occurring in the country in regards to economics, politics, and social norms (xvi). Schulman also analyzes different kinds of media as these forms can reflect, as well as go against, the mainstream. The main subgenres of music that Schulman looks at are disco, punk, new wave, and “corporate rock” and they each have different things to say about society in that era.

Disco was a blend of many different kinds of music. This could be viewed as reflecting society that was becoming more racially integrated, despite disagreements over busing policies and “reverse discrimination.” As with many kinds of popular music, disco had its roots as a mostly African American form. At the beginning of its inception, many white youths boycotted the form and tensions sometimes erupted in violence. However, as its appeal grew, it became whitened. This related to questions of the time regarding America as a “melting pot” (groups come together to create a common culture) versus America as a “salad bowl” (groups living together in harmony but still holding on to their diverse forms of ethnic traditions). In order for minority people to be included into the greater society, must they go through a whitening process? The beginnings of disco seemed to point towards the U.S. moving toward a “post-racial society” as shown with the diverse Sly and the Family Stone. However, Schulman states that as the years went on even Sly of Sly and the Family Stone would start to have a more pessimistic view on racial issues. The U.S. would not be easily integrated quickly and people are still working out racial differences with each other. Another main theme in the seventies era was the public coming to terms with the amount of influence and control American corporations had.

“Corporate rock” is a term that Schulman uses to describe many mainstream rock bands. Just as corporations had huge influence over industry and what policies the government was going to put into place, they also were influencing what kinds of music would be available to the masses. Huge corporate-run record labels were pouring a lot of money into their product (safe bands that were certain to be marketable) so that they can get back their return and then some. These formulaic bands were made up of young, white, guitar playing men who supposedly had “no soul” and “no message” (151). Records were made in top of the line recording studios, technically proficient musicians were featured, and record producers would polish off the product before being put in stores for mass consumption. Bands also put on huge theatrical shows (which can include different costumes, stage props, fancy lighting, and even pyrotechnics) which would be sure to draw large crowds. Corporations were trying to appeal to what the masses wanted to make guaranteed profits, and this in turn made for a mainstream that was devoid of creativity and variety.

Punk rock was the foil of corporate rock. Schulman states that punk rock in the U.S. was influenced by punk rock from the U.K., though U.K. punk was more overtly aggressive and political. However, just because punk rock in the U.S. did not encourage rioting does not mean that the music was apolitical. Musicians were going against the grain and diverging from the mainstream with their visual aesthetic, sound, and “un-marketability.” Some people were tired of corporate influence, over the top fashions, and huge theatrics in music. So, some people got together and put together shows themselves, wore plain jeans and leather jackets, and just went on stage without a huge light show and played their instruments (arguably). This brings me to the next point, punk brought “democracy back into music” as people could just pick up their instrument, learn a few chords, and become a musician (153). They were stepping out of a consumer/commodity system, and were instead creating d.i.y. communities. In the U.S. removing oneself from such a deeply embedded system might be more dangerous than rioting. I do want to note that (though this did not occur in the early eighties) eventually “punk rock” would also end up being “made safe” for the masses and commodified just like other forms of music.

New wave, Schulman claims, is like the punk rock of more affluent, college educated people who did not care for the mainstream “corporate rock” model (154). This kind of music has been characterized as “smug,” as irony and satire were key elements of this kind of music. These young people were no longer the optimistic hippies of the sixties. In the seventies, people were less naïve and became more hardened about the state of the world and the impact of individuals as the Watergate scandal and the Carter administration allowed Americans to see the cracks in the political system. As the seventies drew to an end, musicians were simultaneously scoffing at and celebrating present lifestyles and mainstream culture (156). Schulman did a good job at jamming a whole lot of facts into a relatively short, yet comprehensive, work on the seventies. It did open my eyes to a lot of the liberal legislation that was passed during that time period, even if a lot of it was related to demands that were made in the 1960s. I also wish that he would have gone into more detail about his periodization of the long 1970s, though I am sure it has something to do with the loss of innocence in regards to the hippie movement in 1969 and the beginning of the “me generation”/gross consumerism that occurs after 1984. Ian Svenonius's essay "The Mix Master Race" describes how economic systems relate to artistic expression and definitely rang true while reading Schulman, especially in regards to corporate versus punk rock. As music is an art form, it will always shape and reflect culture, and vice versa.

Our Band Could Be Your Life chronicles the underground rock scene during the decade of the 1980s. Azerrad opens the piece by giving a little background history about what was going on during the 1980s in the U.S. and gives some reasons as to why a do-it-yourself underground scene flourished in that era. Azerrad states that the political climate created by the Reagan administration created frustration for some people and they needed an outlet. He also states that the 1960s influenced the d.i.y. scene of the 1980s as those people had been raised to believe that music is an integral part of life (7). Azerrad also speaks about how influential corporations were in the production and consumption of music, and he also explains that popularity cannot be equated with how “good” the music is.

Azerrad claims that some popular artists had artistic control over their material in the 1960s, but that this power was diminishing in the 1970s and 1980s. Disco and “corporate rock” were genres that many people were getting tired of. Most popular music was being packaged for mass consumption by major record labels. Even though it seemed that there was a lot of the same thing being produced over and over, there was a lot of great music being made that was not being released by the majors, and a grassroots d.i.y. movement was beginning to emerge. There were several reasons why the underground scene was picking up momentum in the late seventies/early eighties. One reason the d.i.y. scene was gaining momentum had to do with the creative aspects of musical projects; when bands were releasing their albums through their own labels, they had complete creative control and did not have to modify their “product” so that it was more friendly to the average consumer. Another reason was that there was more awareness about different kinds of technology available to a Just as Greg Ginn did when creatings SST to release Black Flag albums, music can be released and distributed by going to a pressing plant and an office supply store, and by creating relationships with certain establishments to stock their music (or by completely cutting out the middle man and having fans buy at shows or through mail order).

Underground music would be brought to the surface with the success of Nirvana and the popularity of grunge in the 1990s. Many bands that had developed large followings were seen as ripe for the picking by many major labels and many indie labels either sank or swam. Even though there was such a huge upset that occurred with “indie” rock being brought to the surface, I believe that indie (or underground) subcultures still function somewhat along the same lines in the present. Instead of sticking with the now popular genre of music known as grunge, people moved onto new kinds of underground music while still retaining a similar mode of operation. Albums were still being released on small labels, local shows occurred, people were still miserable in vans doing small tours were taking place across the country in recommended small venues. There are still certain locations that are hotbeds of activity (California, New York, the Pacific Northwest). Fast forwarding to the present, there is also now the added power-tool that is the internet. There are still some physical copies of ‘zines being passed around or sold, but now free music blogs can help spread information instead. Flyering for shows is still done, but one can also create facebook events and invite people that they know would be interested in that genre of music. College radio is still a good vehicle for finding new music, but now there is free online streaming with customized recommendations that are based upon your tastes. D.i.y. is still very alive but just looks a bit different because there are now different methods in which to get the same (or better) results.

I believe that all of the authors would agree that music is a reflection of and/or a reaction to the times. Svenonius argues that music reflected the economic systems and climates of different eras. Schulman says that disco reflected American’s attitudes towards integration, and later, strained race relations. Schulman also argues that punk in the United States was groundbreaking due to their stance against corporate power and influence by creating a d.i.y. scene. When it comes to punk, Svenonius has a different perspective. He looks at those who were involved in the genre as if they were a bunch of strike breakers. Just as music artists were on the verge of having a steady income with benefits, these unskilled people come in and “anyone can become a musician!” Azerrad would side with Schulman in regards to the legacy of punk. Azerrad approached this work a bit differently than the way Svenonius or Schulman approached theirs; I believe that Azerrad mostly set out to document the impact that this kind of music has had on our culture, whereas Svenonius and Schulman were trying to document a history in which the music aspect was not the main focus. Azerrad does a good job documenting many histories of bands that were seminal to the 1980s underground as well as connecting them to the larger d.i.y. movement that has left a long term mark on America’s cultural landscape.

Sara Roth