Sure, TV reality shows can paint a pretty naughty picture of American culture at large. And if you listen to guys like Glenn Beck and James Dobson, it certainly sounds like we're living in a modern day Sodom. Indeed, Beck routinely compares today's American society to Wiemar Germany. But I've got news for you. This is nothing, NOTHING, compared to 30+ years ago. Indeed, we look like mid-1600's New England in comparison.... and the irony is that it was Beck's and Dobson's generation that brought you the ultimate decade of decadence.
Before I say anything else, let me clarify. I'm not saying we live in an idyllic Shire, far removed from the 1970's Mordor. Nothing is that simple. However, you simply can't learn and analyze history without doing a certain amount of generalizing. Not everyone was decadent in the seventies, and certainly not everyone today is Puritanical. But that fact shouldn't prevent you from diagramming history via prevalent cultural attitudes.
Also, one could argue that we are living in a much more morally degenerate climate in that we've replaced Lust in exchange for Avarice. I'm speaking here in this post, however, about decadence only.
And another thing: I am not a "lefty pinko commie" nor a "far right radical". I'm Wooderson from Dazed and Confused - I'm just livin' man. L-I-V-I-N. And I'm just calling things as I see them. So, to all you folks out there that think we're living in The Last Days of sinful hedonism, take note. Here's a short list of ways we've gone from "decadent" to "decent".
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1. Porn Chic
As with almost everything on this list, these are topics I've covered numerous times on Retrospace. Yet it still blows my mind that pornography, for a brief moment in time, was acceptable.... to the point where movies like Deep Throat became mainstream - an unthinkable prospect today.
If you were between the ages of 14 and 40 in the 1970s, you smoked grass. If your parents fall into that bracket and tell you they didn't, they're lying. Cocaine, heroine, and LSD were used to a lesser extent, but still far beyond today's average. Everyone smelled like pot back then. One of my earliest memories is being at a wedding and seeing a group of teens out back passing a doobie around.
3. Rock and Roll
Back then, we liked our rock stars strung out and wasted. The Stones, Iggy Pop, The Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Deep Purple, Kiss, Sabbath, Bowie, etc. all took debauchery to new heights.... or lows, depending on your perspective. Today's pop stars are lightweights. Five minutes with Led Zep after a show would traumatize our wimpy emo bands for life.
4. Times Square
Look no further than this iconic intersection to get a striking picture of how things have changed. In the 70s, the streets were littered with pornos, grindhouse theaters, and prostitutes. Now, it's a tourist paradise not unlike Disneyland. My, how times have changed..... for the better, right?
5. Serial Killers
The darker side of lust and unrestraint materialized in the form of a new form of celebrity - the serial killer. Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacey, Henry Lee Lucas, The BTK killer, Richard Chase, the list goes on and on. The trend carried over into the eighties, but the "golden age" of the serial killer is long gone.
It seems the Boomers just couldn't keep their close on during the seventies. It got national attention on TV via the Oscars and various sporting events interrupted by naked men and women and massive nude marathons at our universities. Public exhibitionism became fairly commonplace, and Ray Stevens even wrote a song about it. Nowadays, people panicked in the streets when Janet Jackson showed her areola for 0.005 seconds at the Super Bowl halftime.
7. The Sexual Revolution
It's not a hyperbole to call it a revolution. The birth control pill, legalized abortion, and lax societal stigmatization of pre-marital sex combined with 75 million Boomers in their sexual prime created a veritable nationwide orgy from sea to shining sea. Swingers clubs, hot tubs, key parties, discotheques, rampant prostitution..... let's just say janitors and maids had their work cut out for them in the seventies.
Many, many great novels put out in the seventies spotlighted society's moral decay. John Updike's works were almost exclusively about this topic, as were Joyce Carol Oates'. And books of self help platitudes like I'm OK - You're OK and Jonathan Livingston Seagull were catnip to the already self absorbed generation. My favorite depiction of this is in National Lampoon Goes to the Movies where Peter Riegert and Candy Clarke literally give themselves orgasms just by talking about themselves.
The seventies were undoubtedly the decade when homosexuality went mainstream. Nowhere was this more evident than in the disco phenomenon. However, by 1983 there was a homophobic backlash and disco records were publicly burned.... the eighties were not exactly a high point in gay acceptance, and an AIDS epidemic didn't help matters. But don't get me wrong, I'm not calling homosexuality decadent. What I am saying is that an openness to that lifestyle was more prevalent in the seventies, and less likely to be deemed "decadent" or "aberrant" than it is today.
I guess I could go on and on with examples, but I probably should end an already overlong post here. I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on the subject. Leave a comment!