Decade of Decadence #8: From Decadent to Decent

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.

A nice way to spend a weekend

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".

translation please... unless it's NSFW
So you're a woman of a "liberal, modern couple? Well, come over here to me

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.

2. Drugs
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.

Mr. Roper would not approve

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.

Vintage Movie Marquee

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.

 6. Streaking
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.

Sex in the 70s

8. Literature
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.

9. Homosexuality
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!


  1. Once (in about 1990) when talking to a guy who had delivered some buses from Indiana to California and hitchhiked back to Indy in about 1971, the stories he had. He talked about being in this park in Albuquerque or somewhere and it was FULL of stoned people. He told me "Kids today think they know about dark stuff, but they would be completely freaked out if they saw that. And that was normal."

    In some ways I agree, but porn stars can still put a book on the New York Times bestseller list, every other comedy has a gay best friend, etc. We're certainly not in the 1950s, but not as decadent as 1970s. It must all be The Beatles fault.

  2. I think the main reason why you don't see rampant sexual experimentation and drug use today is because we learned from the 60s and 70s. The baby boomers pushed the envelope and the envelope pushed back with AIDs, overdoses, and wrecked lives. In today's world, I think our weakness is our fascination with stupidity and rudeness. We reward people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian for being stupid, talentless, and materialistic. Our preoccupation with gossip while the country falls apart is what will bite our generation in the butt.

  3. I agree with you to some extent but I think there is, at least, still plenty of sex about. The FUSE music video channel has a show called something like "Top Sexiest Videos". The nearly naked women, simulated sex, and language is as bad as or worse than anything you'd see on TV in the 70s.

  4. All this stuff went on before the '70s but society was suddenly talking about it openly and, of course, making a ton of money off of it. And all this stuff goes on now but we've moved on to other lurid fascinations, as neal p points out.

    By the way, the photo for no. 6 is flashing not streaking, there's a big difference.

  5. Well put, Neal. I agree with you to a certain extent, but I'm not so sure our more prudent rockers, movies, and recreation is wholly due to a more wisened society. A cultural shift took place, but I think you're giving us all too much credit.

    You are on the money, however, with our love affair with idiocy and human trainwrecks. It's like Nero's circus to keep us preoccupied and happy; meanwhile, the nation is pillaged.

    And, finally, paradiddle. This post is not a textbook - so the images weren't meant to be spot on representations of each topic; rather just a loose relation to the topic as a whole.

  6. Not everyone smoked grass. I grew up in the '70s and early '80s and never have, nor did many of my friends. Hell, I even play drums in evil rock bands and I've only been mildly drunk once. Don't see the need for it.

    But I'll forgive the good looking chick in that last photo if she wants to drink heavily, because that's the only ways she's going to let either of those creeps touch her.

  7. Hmmmm...after reading a book published a few years ago called "Girls Gone Mild" by Wendy Shalit - who interviewed dozens of collage girls on what dating/party life is like on campuses today - I have to disagree. No one in college really gets asked out on dates anymore; according to the students she interviewed, it's all about hooking up, even moreso than during the 60s and 70s. She devotes a chapter to the sexual revolution and how it has ruined dating life for today's young women. Not to mention how young girls are bombarded with sexy images and dolls such as the Bratz line and therefore want to dress trampier than your average teenager because that's what they're being conditioned to believe is cool. The f-bomb has been dropped so many times in music, mainstream movies and live TV lately that we've become desensitized to it. No, I don't think we've gone into a decent period of history at all.

  8. Also, I forgot to mention that there's certainly no shortage of decadence when it comes to food and obese people...perhaps supersized fast food meals have replaced doobies.

  9. “. . . that fact shouldn't prevent you from diagramming history via prevalent cultural attitudes.”

    Generally you opened with a true statement Gilligan, but YOU must also be careful with how you view history. Getting your social studies from magazine ads and pictures can be as misleading as the ultra-conservative pundits you often mock. (I can’t remember your last mocking of Chris Matthews or Rachel Maddow. I am sure it has just slipped my mind.)

    For example, what you often deride as “Puritanical” has nothing to do with the Puritans at all. It is actually VICTORIAN sensibilities that you speak of. The Puritans, as stated in their works, recognized sex and lust as an active part of life. The sought the control of such passions, not the elimination of them. It was the Victorian social engineers who evoked Puritans as the ideal state, and imposed 19th century moralities on them. (It was the Victorians who said a good wife must comply with her “duties” and should just lay there and think of England).

    The “flood waters” of modern morality may have been opened in the 70s, as you suggest, but it was more of a print flood and a social trickle. Not “everybody did it” then, just like not every girl was a flapper in the 1920s and every Italian immigrant became a mobster in the 1930s. And, like every social adjustment, there was an ebb and flow of those “modern” morals.

    For example, look at your time line again. By the 1970s most “baby boomers,” your radical generation and the engine of change, were in their 30s. That is the “don’t trust anyone over the age of . . . “ 30s.

    Manson was in jail, Kent State had ended the “flower power” movement, and the Summer of Love had, as you pointed out, moved to the Summer of Sam. After the Democratic Convention in Chicago in ’68 the kids were handed the keys to the house and the disgraceful ’72 Democratic convention lead many “adults” to re-think the “kids in charge” mentality. This led to the “primary system” we are saddled with today. The pendulum had begun to swing back again.

    Mini-skirts were on T.V. and “Mary” came to epitomize the NOW woman in the public eye. However as late as 1975, even in hip, happening, California, unmarried couples still could not rent apartments in many areas. That is half way into your decade of debauchery. AND, while “Mary” was the modern woman, the first time it was hinted that she did not “go home last night,” there was a public uproar.

    Also note, while “that pornography, for a brief moment in time, was acceptable,” it was also the same time the Drive-in movies were banned from showing it. Time-Square was not only “littered with pornos, grindhouse theaters, and prostitutes,” it was also befouled by litter, filth, drug addicts and rampant crime. A situation the “baby boomers” could not deal with due to their “ I'm just livin' man” attitude, and it was left to the “Greed is good” Generation X crowed to clean up.

    Interestingly, it was also the post baby boomers that imposed PC on the world and did more to halt the “free speech” movement than anything your Beck and Dobson could ever hope to accomplish. “Freedom” has come to mean “freedom from,” not “freedom for.”

    My point, as long winded as it has been, is that the print ads you thankfully run almost daily paint one picture of the Decade of Decadence, while reality paints another. The social revolution came faster to some than to others, and in the end, the society at large picked up the pieces it liked, and discarded the others into the dustbin of history.

  10. Sounds good, Lacey, but I'm still not biting. I don't base everything on ads; I was a cognizant human being during those days. I saw and lived it.

    Banned pornos in Drive Ins? Where? Debbie Does Dallas was on every Drive In marquee in the country. And the filth of the Big Rotten Apple during the 70s doesn't in anyway take away from my point that it was indeed "filthy" in every sense of the word. I was there.

    Also, how is it that GenX ushered in the Age of Greed. Sorry, but most Boomers were "thirtysomething" during the early eighties.... you've seen The Big Chill, right? GenX came to be known as Slackers, the complete opposite of the affluent Boomers raking in huge profits on the market. Gen X is the first generation in a long, long, long time to actually be less successful and educated than their previous generation.

    And, no, not "everyone did it". I spoke in the beginning that you have to make certain generalizations in order to analyze history. If you are distracted by exceptions, you'll never be able to characterize anything.

    Chis Matthews is loud and boring, Maddow couldn't be any more yawn inducing. Glenn Beck may be a psycho, but at least he's interesting. If you get your facts from talking heads, you're probably not getting facts, but rather someone's agenda.

    And finally, Puritanical is understood to be an adjective for one who is straight laced with strict morals, and an often harsh judge of character. It's an idiom. If I said you were being "medieval" I hope you wouldn't take that literally and assume I mean you adhere to a feudal system and are a staunch believer in witchcraft.

  11. Thanks, Gilligan. Having come of age during the wild '70s I can't believe how much was in mainstream media all around us - books, t.v., movies, ads. We are very much a more nervous, conservative, modest people. And I am guessing, not comfortable with ourselves or having as much fun.

    Keep up the great work!

  12. I wonder if Glenn Beck ever stops to think that whenever he compares America's "decadence" to the Weimar Republic, he's making the same argument that Hitler and Goebles used to make in the late 1920s in regards to Germany's "decadence"? By the way, "Gangster Government" was a phrase that Hitler would use to describe the Roosevelt administration.

    Anyway, "decadent behavior" isn't really all that new in world history. Ancient cultures have used pornographic imagery for stimulation long before nations like the U.S. were populated by sanctimonious hypocrites who use their pompous behavior to deceive others in order to make themselves feel important.

    This is a great posting. I'm glad you brought this subject out in the open.

  13. "Banned pornos in Drive Ins? Where?"

    Sorry gilligan,
    I was under the impression this was a Federal ruling but seemed to be more of a local issue.


    It made such a splash in the news of the time I thought it was all over.

    This one is MY bad.

  14. I have to back up Gilligan on this issue. Part of the whole point to history is to separate the exceptional from the general. You have to do an aggregate analysis of the OVERALL cultural situation to decide whether a time period is more or less conservative. There is no way you can look soberly upon the 1970s and then compare the current period and reach the conclusion that we are not more rigid in all sorts of ways today.

  15. I have a few newspapers from the '50's (1953 I think) and I was surprised to find ads for adult movie theaters (with pictures) in the Everyday section alongside the comic strips. We are certainly much less conservative in many ways now than 30 years ago, but sex has always been with us. Look around you. Everyone you see is because someone had sex.

  16. As a late Gen X'er (I was born in '78 and graduated high school in '97), I don't have any firsthand experience of the 1970's, but in my perspective, the difference between contemporary and 1970's pop culture in terms of our relationships with physical pleasure is qualitative and not quantitative: In the 1970's, pop culture celebrated *immediacy* of bodily experience - including sex and drugs. Today, we want that experience safely filtered, more indirect - hence our current national obsession with voyeurism. I think we're afraid of pleasure as something dangerous than they were in the 1970's. We want to keep a safe distance. Depending on your perspective, you might think either they were naive in the 1970's or that we're just paranoid today... Or maybe both are true. I tend to sympathize with the former, though. In 2011, we live in a world governed by computers, efficiency, and cost-benefit analyses. We're obsessed with proving to ourselves and others that we're productive enough to merit a place on Earth. Unfortunately, you can't enjoy life while trying to prove that you *should* have the right to enjoy life. I would love to go back to Woodstock and Studio 54 and just "live." ;-)

  17. Our "Puritanical" state of mind comes about from the Baby Boomers being too busy and self-absorbed to raise their own children. Movies with nudity and violence like Planet of the Apes were rated G in the '70s; in the mid-80's, parents were too lazy to raise their kids so they clamored for rules.
    "Political correctness" was a ruse come up with by racists and the right to pretend to be the victims because they couldn't tell racist and sexist jokes in the office anymore. Let's not forget where it came from.

  18. Excuse my ignorance, but just curious what movie/show is the first picture from?