Monday, November 08, 2010

The Great Funk: A Totally Shagadelic Book Review

Oh the 70s, what a decade to be alive. A time period of constantly getting around on all fours, consuming mass amounts of pureed liver, have painful object rip out of my gums, reading books upside down, and pointing or grunting rather than actually talking. Or at least, that was the 70s for me, but I am well aware not everyone was spending copious amounts of time adding a few pounds to their diapers. I was born at the tail end of 1977, which means that my memory of the decade is either fuzzy, or entirely composed of films, music, books or videos about/from the era. I don't have any memorable firsthand accounts of the decade, but as an avid history and cultural buff I have a decent idea of the decade (or at least, the interest to become more knowledgeable of it). It isn't a decade that is looked upon favourably by many, but it is absolutely indisputable that it was a very influential period of time; it could be argued this decade has had the greatest impact in shaping and forming modern times.

Thomas Hine reflects upon this decade in his book, The Great Funk: Falling Apart And Coming Together (On The Shag Rug) In The Seventies. The book attempts to look at many of the major trends, events, fads, people, fashions, and cultures (in America) from the 1970s (or more specifically, midsummer of '69 to January 1981). His main thesis is that while the '70s may in some ways be rightly remembered as sucking for most, it was also an incredibly significant time because it encouraged self expression and individuality, which in turn lead to the emergence of several formerly ignored or ostracized groups to get their voice, beliefs and values seen (such as women, African Americans, homosexuals, etc). Hines mentions how this is seen as an era of rebellion and disenfranchisement towards authority, which we've never fully recovered from, but he also argues that this is not necessarily a completely bad thing. It was a time that the previous norms and rules were questioned, and people went on journeys of self discovery and seeking new ways to gain hope and acceptance. When you read through the description of this unique decade, you can't help but see why this type of outlook was formulated among the majority of people.

Hine does offer up his perspective and analysis of the decade (and he clearly had a thesis to prove), but for the most part, he recaps or describes the significant events and things of the 70s with only snippets of commentary and opinion interspersed through the narrative. For example, it doesn't take much theorizing to come to the conclusion that Watergate, Vietnam, soaring unemployment, rocketing inflation, an oil crisis and increased crime would cause the citizens to question their authority figures. The 50s are a decade of idealization (though, I'd argue that is far more nostalgia than reality for many), and the 60s were a period of change and hope for the future, but then the 70s became the abrupt roadblock to the path of utopia and promise. It was likely the combination of baby boomers flooding a job market that was not ready for them, along with the revelation America's leader was corrupt and the first ever fully televised war was showing the troops in an unfavourable way that caused the more pessimistic outlook. This caused a society that no longer trusted or relied on their leaders to make this world better, and decided it was up to them make a difference in their own lives.

1. It is this new outlook on life and leadership that Hine believes shapes the culture of the 70s. It is an environment that encouraged people to try new things or try to form a new hegemony or create a different identity or turn back to their roots or seek new forms of fulfillment or try to solve perceived issues. It definitely is a decade where you can find numerous movements, events and trends (with some that still affects us today). You've got things like leisure suits, avocado coloured fridges, disco, rampant drug use, Studio 54, Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo midnight movies, New Age spirituality, end time Christians, OPEC oil crisis, the Twinkie defense, emergence of Japanese cars, global warming, earth shoes, streakers, mainstream pornography, gays outing themselves, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Blaxploitation, growth of feminism, Son of Sam, acupuncture, and so on. Many of these things are still key things now, but several of them became first prominent in the 70s. Everything mentioned shows a changing time, and a decade with a variety of outlooks triggered by huge events such as Middle East crisis (and others already previously mentioned).

I found the book interesting largely due to my love for both history and pop culture. The challenge for any one that tries to do an overview of a decade, is the mass amount and variety of information. It is inevitable that significant things will not only be glossed over, but outright omitted. This is definitely a challenge that plagues Hine. There are some things that he gives a fair bit of attention to, but other significant events like Watergate only warranted a paragraph or so (despite it really be a massive catalyst for Hine’s main argument regarding how public perception was formed in those years). The book avoids being a thousand plus page behemoth, thus it is forced to be very concise in its description. At times, it seems like the focus is on things that may not really be as significant as Hine’s attention to it would make you to believe. The book essentially becomes more a collection of quick snapshots at moments and trends deemed significant by the author.

If you know very little about the 1970s, but would like to get a look, then this is a decent primer type book. It outlines many key things, and then could spark your interest in wanting to know more about it. For one who loves the 70s, this book may be a bit more disappointing as it doesn't cover anything extensively; you'd probably be better served to look at the several other books about the decade (especially if you have a basic knowledge of it). The book offers a fairly straight forward outlook at the decade, but at points, it is so lacking of opinion that it almost comes off as a textbook. Though a textbook that fails to really give you a clear view of anything.

All in all, I really did enjoy the book. It sparked my interest in several subjects that I want to research further. It is a time period I've always thought about writing a book on, and I’d definitely credit this work as one that furthered my interest in doing that. It is an easy and quick read about a decade that is absolutely fascinating.

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