The 1970s were an odd time in America, beginning with tumult on the streets and college campuses and ending with the closest thing to a whimper this country has ever emitted. Post-Watergate and post-Vietnam, the nation sputtered sighs that mixed relief with resignation, and a recognition that—for the first time since the Depression—the American Dream might just be out of reach. The post-WWII economy that birthed the middle class and suburbia was flailing from oil embargoes, inflation and unemployment. Times were tough, in other words, and best articulated by Merle Haggard in his classic “If We Make It Through December”.
In fact, despite his many misdeeds, and there were many, my hunch is that the Watergate scandal never would’ve gained traction if President Nixon had handled the economy with the same verve as he did, say, detente with China. Instead, inflation gradually increased; and, by his last year in office, 1974, it averaged 11 percent. While there’s only so much a government can do to lessen economic woes, perception plays a pivotal role. People expect the president to address their concerns; and Nixon never did.
Of course, when they do address them, they need to do it right. With little letup in the intervening years, President Jimmy Carter lassoed the elephant in the room with his “malaise speech” of 1979: “It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
Unfortunately, the message wasn’t what Americans wanted or needed to hear. Carter would’ve been better off saying: “Times are tough, and getting tougher, but we’ll get through this. Here’s how,” and then ticking off his six-point plan, instead of hectoring the American people. Leaders lift folks up, and never chastise them about “self-indulgence” and “consumption” when, for most, such extravagances aren’t options.
Looking back, one can see why the decade’s music veered hither and yon, moving from fluff and escapism to grit and certitude. Saturday Night Fever, the movie, is a good encapsulation of the need, at times, for fluff and escapism: Tony Manero (John Travolta) leads, on a day-to-day basis, a dreary life. He doesn’t live to dance, but dances to live.
So, for today’s Top 5: Songs of the Seventies. There’s a decade’s worth of material to pull from, of course, and much that I could (and probably should) use, but these five songs – mainstream all – spoke to the hearts and minds of millions of people at the time, and have spoken to many more in the years since. They articulate the dreams and desires of and for escape, however temporary, and do so in a timeless manner while eschewing saccharine sentiments.
1) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Born to Run,” 1975.
2) Jackson Browne – “Running on Empty,” 1977.
3) Linda Ronstadt – “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” 1976. (Video from 1977.)
4) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “We’ve Got Tonight,” 1978. (Video from 1980.)
5) Fleetwood Mac – “Rhiannon,” 1975. (Video from 1976.)
And one bonus…
The Eagles – “Hotel California,” 1976.