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The 1970s Arts and Entertainment: Overview

The 1970s Arts and Entertainment: Overview

At the beginning of the 1970s, American society was still reeling from the political, social, and artistic upheavals of the 1960s. Artists and the public alike were experiencing unprecedented (never before seen) freedom and breaking all sorts of taboos. Change was occurring so rapidly there seemed to be little left that artists had not tried or audiences had not seen. Many critics declared that the novel was dead and that pop art had peaked. Films lost their audiences to the allure of television. And popular music, one of the great unifying cultural forces of the 1960s, began to lose its impact as its fans broke apart into small factions.

Despite the supposed death of many art forms, signs of new life sprouted throughout the decade. The ongoing civil rights movement helped minority artists to emerge as serious voices with which to be reckoned. Indeed, the 1970s marked the arrival of African American artists and entertainers into mainstream arts culture. Their performances fostered a sense of pride and identity in the black community.

At the beginning of the decade, several "blaxploitation" films were marketed as cinema created by and for African Americans. Contrary to expectations, these low-budget films were rejected by many in the black community as stereotypical and demeaning. Soon, serious actors such as James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, and Paul Winfield starred in emotional dramas to widespread critical acclaim.

Literature saw the emergence of African American women authors such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, who would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize. The black artistic phenomenon of the decade, however, was Alex Haley's historical narrative Roots, which won a special Pulitzer Prize and became the best-selling novel of 1976. The following year, Roots was transformed into a highly rated television miniseries that captivated many Americans.

The two significant musical movements of the 1970s, punk rock and disco, could not have sounded more different from one another. Yet they were born in the same place: the New York underground. Punks, originating in the "garage" bands of the 1960s, were fed up with the mainstream melodies that had come to dominate popular music. In response, they played a fast, loud, and lean style of music that contained lyrics laced with images of alienation, rebellion, and violence. On the other hand, disco featured a pulsing, sexual dance beat underneath catchy melodies and lush, percussive arrangements. This dance music reigned supreme in black, Latino, and gay nightclubs and eventually spread into mainstream culture. Disco encouraged escapism with its rhythmic, repetitive music and erotic appeal.

Movies, which had been steadily losing viewers to television, rebounded in the 1970s with the new phenomenon of the blockbuster commercial film. The Godfather, released in 1972, started the trend of big box-office records. Audiences turned out in droves to see disaster films, horror movies, science fiction films, Vietnam War dramas, comedies, violent action pictures, and "buddy" movies. All these genres were dominated, however, by the runaway success of just two pictures, directed by young filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Spielberg's Jaws, released in 1975, was a true phenomenon, but Lucas's Star Wars, released in 1977, revolutionized special effects and changed concepts of movie merchandising. Together, these young directors created a new demand by the public and film producers for ever-bigger blockbusters.

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