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Analysis: When and where America’s culture war was won

Los Angeles in 1974 exerted more influence over popular culture than any other city in America. In movies, music and television, the early 1970s marked a towering creative peak in Los Angeles that transformed each of those industries. The “new wave” that revitalized Hollywood, the smooth Southern California sound that ruled the album charts and radio airwaves, the torrent of groundbreaking comedies that brought new sophistication and provocation to television’s prime time: all of this emerged from Los Angeles. Working just blocks from each other in film, recording and television studios around Sunset Boulevard, living in Brentwood and Beverly Hills or amid the flickering lights of the Hollywood Hills, a cluster of transformative talents produced an explosion of pop culture mastery and innovation.

“There was a tremendous feeling of anything [is possible],” the musician Graham Nash remembered. “What do you want to think of? We can do anything. What do you want? … There was no end to [it]. We were in this pool of, like, magic stuff and it was rubbing off on everybody.”

Within those years of towering achievement, 1974 stood as the absolute pinnacle. Over those 12 months, Los Angeles produced a succession of remarkable works.

In movies, the year saw the release of “Chinatown,” “The Godfather Part II,” “The Conversation” and the great Vietnam documentary “Hearts and Minds” and the filming of “Nashville,” “Jaws” and “Shampoo,” as well as the completion of the first draft screenplay for a space adventure called “Star Wars.” In television, the transformative comedies “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” all came together that year (along with the “Bob Newhart” and “Carol Burnett” shows) on a CBS Saturday schedule that justifiably has been called the greatest night in television history. Also that year, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt all issued career-redefining albums, and both Bob Dylan and the Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, mounted record-setting concert tours.

Transforming American society

This artistic renaissance in Los Angeles during the early 1970s marked a hinge point not only in American culture, but also in the nation’s social and political life. The great works produced in Los Angeles during these years became the crucible in which the critique of American life that emerged during the 1960s was irreversibly hammered into popular culture. Ideas such as greater suspicion of authority in business and government; more assertive roles for women; more tolerance of premarital sex; greater acceptance of racial and sexual minorities; all of these are now dominant (if still not uniform) attitudes in America. But they were not widely accepted before they were infused into the movies, television and music that emerged, mostly in Los Angeles, from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. 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. That bridge has proved unshakeable over the past half century.

The irony is that these ideas emerging from the social movements of the sixties conquered popular culture precisely as Richard Nixon twice won the presidency (in 1968 and 1972) by mobilizing the voters most uneasy about them, what he called the “silent majority.” His electoral success was a reminder that cultural change and political change don’t usually unfold in tandem; the former typically precedes the latter.

The same tension is evident today in the conflicting visions of Trump — who mobilized a political coalition focused on restoring a more racially and culturally homogenous America — and the huge millennial generation (as well as Generation Z emerging just behind them) that celebrates America’s transformation into a kaleidoscope nation of ever-multiplying racial, ethnic and social diversity.

Just like the ’60s generation, the millennials and their younger siblings have changed the culture more quickly than they have changed politics. But America’s diverse emerging generations inevitably will stamp their priorities on the nation’s politics as well, even if those priorities evolve over time.

The transformation of movies, music and television in early 1970s Los Angeles offers a clear example of how rising generations stamp culture before they do politics. Even into the late 1960s, none of the entertainment industries reflected the social changes coursing around them.

Joni Mitchell, circa 1976
Like an elderly neighbor drawing the blinds against a shout in the street, Hollywood looked away from the drama unfolding around it throughout most of the decade. It responded to the sexual revolution with the cotton candy Doris Day-style comedies that had already seemed flaccid when Dwight Eisenhower was president. While protesters were marching for civil rights and chanting against the war, students were clashing with police on university quads and cities were burning with riots, Hollywood stubbornly released a steady procession of World War II movies, westerns, musicals and, above all, gargantuan historical epics.

The television industry followed the same blinkered path; operating under the theory of what one top executive labeled the “least objectionable program,” it narcotized American households with a deadening array of rural comedies for much of the decade.

Even the music industry lagged behind the changes; while rock music ruled the AM airwaves, the record labels did not accept the idea of the album as a coherent artistic and social statement until late in the decade.

The cast of the CBS situation comedy "Mary Tyler Moore," November 21, 1975.

Within a few years all of that had changed, and the artists based in Los Angeles functioned as the fulcrum of the shift. By the early 1970s, the music, movies and television centered in Los Angeles all reflected the demographic, social and cultural realities of a changing America much faster than the nation’s politics did. At a time when Nixon won his two victories with a message of backlash against the social changes unleashed by the ’60s, popular culture was ahead of politics in predicting what America would become.

In their works, the artists of Los Angeles offered an alternative to the martial and material values of Nixon’s America. Films portrayed America as suffused with hypocrisy (“Shampoo,” “Nashville”) and built on corruption (“Chinatown,” “Godfather II”); television shows (led by “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) brought tensions over the Vietnam War, the “generation gap,” race relations and the sexual revolution into the nation’s living rooms; and classic albums from artists such as Mitchell, Browne and the Eagles, while less outwardly political than their film and television counterparts, chronicled the search for new markers of meaning in life beyond the yardsticks of suburban success that their listeners had been raised on — what Mitchell, in her anthem “Woodstock,” had called a way “back to the garden.”

Across the movie, music and television industries alike, this cultural shift rested on the same economic foundation: the rising buying power of the baby boom, the massive generation born from 1946 through 1964. In 1960 about 26% of all Americans were aged between 15 and 25. By 1970 that number had soared to nearly 38%. Including everyone younger than 25 raised the number of young people in 1970 to nearly half of the entire population. Nixon’s victories had quashed the political emergence of this giant generation, but their economic force was felt as, in sequence, the music and movie industries (both starting around 1967) and the television networks (following more fitfully around 1971) reconfigured themselves to meet their cultural preferences.

Jackson Browne on idealism vs. reality

The big question threading through popular culture in early 1970s Los Angeles was what seedlings of social change from the 1960s could be sustained in the stonier political and cultural ground of the 1970s. No one examined this question more intently than Jackson Browne, the precociously brilliant young singer-songwriter. Each of Browne’s first three albums offered one song that directly contemplated the state of the ’60s dream to create a more just society. The trio of songs amounted to his apocalypse triptych, his attempt to measure what from the 1960s could be saved in the grinding environment of the 1970s.

“Rock Me on the Water,” recorded for Browne’s first album in 1971 with the social movements of the ’60s still fresh, is the most optimistic of the three. It’s filled with images of judgment and disruption — walls are burning and towers are turning — but the apocalypse seems furthest away and the possibility of salvation greatest. It shows how strongly he still believes that collective action can avert disaster and create a more just world: “Oh people look among you, it’s there your hope must lie,” Browne sings. The music, gospel-powered and propulsive, reinforces his message: Yes, it’s late, but it’s not too late. The song is less a lament than a call to arms.

Jackson Browne

The odds tilted somewhat by the time he recorded his second album’s title track, “For Everyman.” Browne wrote it largely in response to the escapist vision of his friend David Crosby. Crosby often told friends that if society fell apart, or the arms race erupted into nuclear war, he would just “sail away into the distance” on his yacht. That was all well and good, Browne would answer, but what about everyone who couldn’t afford a yacht?

In “For Everyman,” Browne puzzled through the answer to his own question. The song begins with his friends planning to leave society because they “believe that they’ve heard their last warning.” But Browne can’t join them, because he’s still waiting “for Everyman,” his phrase for the social movements of the 1960s that sought change through collective action.

Intellectually he recognizes the mounting evidence that the possibility of social transformation is flickering, but he’s not ready to inter the dreams of his youth. In a powerful image, he acknowledges that in clinging to those hopes he may be only “holding sand.” But he holds them nonetheless and defines himself as the song concludes as “Just another dreamer/Dreaming ’bout Everyman.”

The “Late for the Sky” album, written mostly in 1974 with the ’60s receding further into memory and the Watergate scandal at high tide, catches Browne in a more pessimistic moment, especially in the album’s cinematic closing song, “Before the Deluge.” The song’s imagery was inspired by the darkest jeremiads of the emerging environmental movement.

Like “For Everyman,” “Before the Deluge” begins with the few who are sufficiently attuned to the coming danger to seek an escape from civilization and a “journey back to nature.” But this time, Browne offers no prospect of escape. While “Rock Me” centered on salvation and even “For Everyman” stubbornly held to the dream of change, “Before the Deluge” offers less chance of renewal or even survival. Now, in Browne’s telling, “when the sand was gone and the time arrived … only a few survived.”

The message that made it through

Millions of baby boomers who had marched in the 1960s could recognize the dialogue that Browne conducted with himself over these three albums. What of their ’60s idealism could be preserved as their lives moved deeper into the bruising realities of the ’70s?

Looking back at these songs, Browne says he was not trying to bury the ’60s. “I’m not trying to pronounce the dream dead,” he said. “I’m trying to identify the part that lives on in us, and has to.”

Like so many of his contemporaries, Brown through the mid-1970s found a way to look forward more often than he looked back. Over time, it became clear that the guarded optimism of “Rock Me on the Water” and stubborn determination of “For Everyman” better reflected the convictions that guided his life than the tempest-tossed pessimism of “Before the Deluge.”

Rather than lament the flickering of the old dreams, Browne, as he reached his peak commercial success into the early 1980s, plunged himself into new causes: the environment, human rights, opposition to nuclear energy. It was easy in the early 1970s, he recalled, for those who responded to “the idealism of the ’60s” to feel “a kind of disappointment and deflated” because change had not come as fast or as comprehensively as people hoped.

“But the thing is that struggle continues,” Browne went on, alluding to the title song of his next album in 1976. “That’s why I say in ‘The Pretender,’ ‘were they only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening?’ I’ve always been trying to express, from ‘For Everyman’ to ‘The Pretender’ and even some recent songs, the idea of arriving someplace with more consciousness and with more purpose than we have had in the past. So, if I was talking about something that was burning out and flickering, it was people’s hope or ideals. But you don’t give up that kind of thing.”

He spoke for all those who built meaningful, productive lives long after their dreams of fundamental social change, what Browne had called “the fitful dreams of some greater awakening,” had faded.

The passing of Los Angeles’ cultural preeminence captured a much larger change in American life. LA’s great popular culture in this era emerged from the collision of ’60s optimism with the mounting cynicism and pessimism of the ’70s. The most memorable works of early 1970s Los Angeles all exposed the hypocrisy and inequity of modern American society. But almost all of them also clung to the hope that society could still change for the better.

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These works derived much of their energy from the friction between the harsh truths they exposed and the gentle hope for a better world that they nurtured, as if cradling a dying flame. But with each passing year the hard realities of life in the 1970s — from gas lines to political scandals to defeat in Vietnam — made that hope harder to hold. Once the cultural balance tipped from optimism to resignation around 1975, the LA renaissance flickered. When the last hopes faded that America might fundamentally transform after the 1960s, so too did Los Angeles’ moment as the center of popular culture.

And yet the imprint of LA’s golden hour remains with us. The ascent of the baby boom never produced the larger political transformation that liberal youthful activists once anticipated. Instead, a decades-long struggle between the liberal wing of the baby boom, which dominated the generation’s identity during the 1960s, and its more conservative and traditional elements, which grew more assertive over time, fueled the heightening polarization that reshaped American politics after the 1960s. (The baby boom has so far produced four presidents: two Democrats — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — and two Republicans — George W. Bush and Donald Trump.)

But while the liberal baby boomers never achieved a lasting political victory, the changes in cultural attitudes that they set in motion — suspicion of authority, greater personal freedom, more respect for marginalized groups and increased tolerance of difference — have become so embedded in the nation’s mental assumptions that later generations could hardly imagine a time before them. And it was, above all, through the brilliant popular culture produced mostly in LA in those years that these ideas crossed into the mainstream.

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, January 20, 2021, in Washington

That precedent offers a powerful message for today. One clear lesson from American history is that while the voices resistant to change may win delaying battles in politics, they cannot indefinitely hold back the future. Trump twice demonstrated that he could mobilize a powerful coalition around a message of resistance to the way America is changing demographically, culturally and even economically. But he could not amass a national majority for that backward-looking vision of restoration — Make America Great Again — in either of his campaigns, and that math will only grow more difficult in the years ahead.

In 2024, for the first time, the diverse younger generations born in 1981 or later will outnumber the predominantly White generations born in 1964 or earlier as a share of eligible voters. The messages emerging from the popular culture that rivets these younger generations — or for that matter, 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman‘s soaring affirmation at President Joe Biden‘s inauguration of “a country committed to all cultures” — will probably tell us more than studying last November’s election returns about what America will be thinking in 2030 and beyond.

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