The 1970s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News

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The 1970s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News



During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, African Americans sought political and social freedom. By the beginning of the 1970s, they were seeking cultural recognition as well. A new group identity and pride in one's heritage were sweeping over racial and ethnic minorities, and African American artists expressed those feelings in their art. They then sought venues that would exhibit their works.

In 1967, African American collage artist and painter Romare Bearden had codirected an exhibition of 150 years of African American art, the most extensive show on the subject ever presented to that time. A few years later, he helped organize a nonprofit gallery in New York City where minority artists could show their works. Other galleries and mainstream museums followed his lead, responding to public demand that works of African American artists be recognized. In 1976, New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art produced a show titled Selections of Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art, which included never-before-seen works by African American portrait painters and landscape artists. The exhibition also attempted to document slave artifacts as important early artwork.

African American painters in the 1970s also published their work in the new quarterly magazine Black Art, and they received support from the newly founded organization Women, Students, and Artists for Black Art Liberation. This group was cofounded in 1970 by African American visual artist Faith Ringgold, whose own work included soft sculptures and story quilts depicting narrative images and original stories from African American history, and life-sized, African-style masks.

Other black artists often incorporated African symbols and traditional colors (red, black, and green) in their work. Charles Searles rendered the vivid life of the African marketplace in Filas for Sale (1972), and he evoked the spirit of ritual dance in Dancer Series (1975). In Black Face and Arm Unit (1971), Ben Jones addressed the importance of body adornment and masks in African culture.

African American female artists in the 1970s, like Faith Ringgold, often found themselves straddling an artistic fence. While addressing the black experience, they also wanted to communicate a feminist message of independence and the importance of realizing one's full potential. In the 1970s, feminism, or the women's rights movement, became the most significant social movement in the country. As women in general tried to change the sexist attitudes of society, so women artists tried to change the sexist attitudes of the art world.

Similar to the experiences of African American male artists, women artists often found their works excluded from heralded museums at the beginning of the decade. In response, groups of artists banded together and opened galleries that showcased the artistic work of women. They also founded magazines like Heresis, a feminist publication on art and politics.

Many women artists created work protesting the male-dominated views of history and modern society. Edwina Sandys's bronze sculpture Christa (1975) depicted the crucified savior as a woman. Nancy Spero's collage Torture in Chile (1974) was an open protest against the treatment of women in the Bueno Pastor jail in that South American country.

Perhaps the best-known feminist work of the decade was The Dinner Party (1979) by painter and sculptor Judy Chicago. This monumental work features a huge triangular dinner table, forty-six feet long on each side. Thirty-nine place settings, each of which features a wine goblet, cutlery, and an individually sculpted and painted china plate, adorn the table. These items sit on runners of white linen cloth edged in gold and embroidered using needlework techniques taken from history. Each place setting is dedicated to and describes the life of a famous woman in history or mythology. In addition, the table sits on a floor made of twenty-three hundred handmade porcelain tiles, which are inscribed with the names of 999 other women of achievement. It took Chicago six years to complete this elaborate work, which seeks to convey the struggle for freedom and justice waged by women throughout history.


Steamy sex, corporate greed, fabulous wealth, global intrigue, romance, and horror—American readers in the 1970s could not seem to get enough of these themes that filled the pages of best-sellers. From Harold Robbins's The Betsy (1971) to James Clavell's Shogun (1975) to Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds (1977), the decade was full of epic dramatic novels.

Many of those big novels, such as Peter Benchley's Jaws (1974), also became big movies. Others were turned into television miniseries, a popular trend that began with Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man (1970). By the late 1970s, new books by best-selling authors were being planned simultaneously as hardcovers, paperbacks, and movies or miniseries. Inevitably, the book-to-movie process began to reverse itself: The novelizations of screenplays from blockbuster films such as The Omen (1976) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) became popular books after the box-office success of the movies.

While the novel as entertainment soared in the 1970s, the novel as art form seemed to collapse. Many critics and readers believed a different force was needed to invigorate American fiction; as the decade progressed, they looked to minority writers.

The 1960s had seen a rise in African American poetry and fiction, but most of the writers producing that work were men. In the 1970s, however, African American women authors gained acclaim. Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), describes a young black girl who dreams of having the features of a white girl. Morrison's strongest work of the decade, Song of Solomon (1977), was a complex study of black family life and the search for love and meaning in family history. Other African American female writers also focused on personal and social identity. In A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, Alice Childress depicted urban ghetto life with a strong sense of social commitment. Alice Walker's Meridian (1976) presented its heroine's search for self as a struggle for racial and gender identity.

The struggle for women writers to define themselves and their community helped create unique works in the 1970s. Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973) was revolutionary in its explicit handling of a female character's sexual adventures. The novel was equally frank about the character's family and career conflicts. The main character in Judith Rossner's Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975) also cannot come to terms with her ambitions, her sense of suffocation within her family, and her attraction to sexual danger. The character of the wife in Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1977) feels oppressed by her domineering husband and eventually leaves to examine the possibilities of self-reliance. Among the issues that the novel explores are female friendships and lesbian relationships as alternatives to traditional marriage.

Besides women authors, critics also recognized Latin American male writers for providing the decade with a distinctive new energy in fiction. In the 1950s and 1960s, Argentinian Jorgé Luis Borges had become the first Latin American writer to achieve an international reputation. In the 1970s, he was followed by Mexican Carlos Fuentes and Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. In his historical novel Terra Nostra, Fuentes used elements of mystery, myth, and ritual to create a layered sense of time and character. Like Fuentes, García Márquez infused his stories with a lyric sense of ancestry and mystical possibility. His One Hundred Years of Solitude, published in 1967 and translated into English in 1970, became the best-selling Latin American novel in the United States.

In the 1960s, rock music had appeared to peak in creativity, influence, and range, uniting youthful audiences with its social, political, and cultural relevance. As in the previous decade, the 1970s continued to value the contributions of the singer-songwriter. Although descended from the tradition of 1960s folk singers, these artists sang not of political protest or enlightenment, but of personal confusion, frustration, and loss. The songs of musicians such as James Taylor, Carole King, and Jackson Browne mirrored American society's own move away from social ideals to personal goals.

Bestselling Fiction of the 1970s

1970Love StoryErich Segal
1971WheelsArthur Hailey
1972Jonathon Livingston SeagullRichard Bach
1973Jonathon Livingston SeagullRichard Bach
1974CentennialJames A. Michener
1975RagtimeE. L. Doctorow
1976TrinityLeon Uris
1977The SilmarillionJ. R. R. Tolkien
1978ChesapeakeJames A. Michener
1979The Matarese CircleRobert Ludlum

The 1970s' cultural shift also began to erode the sense of musical unity. Rock music splintered into various styles, such as anthem rock,

glam rock, progressive rock, southern rock, California rock, and heavy metal, each of which sought a different audience.

The wide variety of rock music genres produced only a handful of stars. Blockbuster albums, corporate-sponsored tours, and progressive radio formats helped these select musicians make more money than ever before. Often their fame was earned not just from their music, but also from the way they looked and acted on stage. For example, heavy metal musicians Alice Cooper and the band Kiss used stage theatrics, makeup, and violent images to portray themselves as counterculture icons.

Another symbol of cultural rebellion, the punk rock movement, emerged in the mid-1970s. With its primitive, stripped-down assault of guitars, bass, and drums played fast and loud, punk rock was a refreshing revelation to some, but obnoxious noise to others. Either way, punk musicians could not have cared less. They valued seizing the moment, discarding history, breaking the rules, inventing new ones, and taking a stand (even a wrong one) whenever possible. Punk rock celebrated being young.

"Jesus" Rock

The themes of peace and love that marked popular music in the late 1960s expanded into a love of the divine when the Beatles' George Harrison released "My Sweet Lord" in 1970. The number-one hit song soon inspired other God-themed hits. In 1971, the Canadian group Ocean topped the charts with "Put Your Hand in the Hand (of the Man from Galilee)." That same year, two musicals appeared on Broadway that were based on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Each produced a pop music hit: "Day by Day" from Godspell and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar. Other holy hits during the early 1970s included the movie theme "One Tin Soldier" from Billy Jack and the Doobie Brothers' eulogy "Jesus Is Just Alright[sic]." In 1974, Janet Mead, an Australian nun, recorded a rocked-up version of "The Lord's Prayer," which sold more than one-and-one-half million copies worldwide.

As the decade progressed, however, the public seemed more attuned to rock band Judas Priest than Jesus Christ, and religious rock faded. But in 1977, Debby Boone single-handedly revived the trend with her Grammy winning mega hit "You Light up My Life." Boone claimed she sang her song, the longest-running number-one single of the decade, directly to God.

Punk first arose in New York City's East Village in the late 1960s in the sounds of the Velvet Underground (with Lou Reed), the Stooges (with Iggy Pop), and the New York Dolls. By the time these groups disbanded in the early 1970s, they had inspired a New York underground rock scene. In 1974, a Bowery bar owner opened his club to rock acts, and CBGB was born, offering a venue for bands in the growing punk movement. The definitive New York punk band was the Ramones. Musically limited (and that was the point), they unleashed primitive three-chord songs like "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue."

In 1976, the Ramones toured England, and, according to many critics, ignited the punk rock movement in that country. Other critics believe British punk rock was an eruption of pent-up rage against the royalty, class distinctions, the establishment, and poor economic conditions in England. British punk was anti-everything, and the ultimate British punk band was the Sex Pistols, formed in 1975. Led by singer Johnny Rotten and bassist Sid Vicious, their hair spiked and their clothing ripped, the Sex Pistols opened the floodgates for loud, fast bands with screaming numbers such as "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen." In contrast, however, some British punk bands, like the Clash, tried to give their lyrics social relevance and promote political change.

A Chorus Lineon Broadway

Tony Stevens and Michon Peacock, two Broadway dancers, were tired of bad parts, bad shows, and a lack of respect. In 1974, they turned to choreographer and director Michael Bennett with the thought of forming a new dance company whose productions would showcase company members. Bennett, who had wanted to make his mark on Broadway with something unique, was intrigued by the idea. He contacted dancers who might be interested in such a venture and who might have ideas about future material.

Bennett assembled a large group of dancers, and during a twelve-hour meeting, he had them pour out their life stories: some were tragic, some were comic, and most were a mixture of the two. Bennett taped the confessions. Sensing he had raw material for something new on the musical stage, he decided to work them into a musical about the life of a dancer.

Bennett interviewed more dancers and worked, bit by bit, to put the show together. Everyone in the company contributed material. Some of the dancers performed their own monologues; others were assigned segments that had been rewritten and restructured. Finally, the story for the show came together: At an audition for an upcoming Broadway production, a director and a choreography assistant choose seventeen dancers. The director tells them he is looking for a strong dancing chorus of four men and four women, and he wants to learn more about them. They are then told to talk about themselves.

The real-life tensions and deeply personal material made A Chorus Line unique. The basic idea, to let each dancer tell his or her own story, had never been tried before. Finally, after eighteen months of work, A Chorus Line opened on Broadway in May 1975. It was an instant box-office smash, receiving rave reviews from critics and audiences. Among its many accolades were nine Tony Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The show played for fifteen years on Broadway, entertaining almost seven million theatergoers.

By the end of the decade, punk had begun to fizzle out. The Sex Pistols broke up in 1978 in the middle of their first American tour; Johnny Rotten later announced that punk was dead. New wave, a pop-driven offshoot of punk, began to gain mainstream success. Bands with skinny ties and artsy attitudes soon topped the pop charts. Angered by the commercialization of its sound, punk went back underground, only to emerge in the early 1990s in the Pacific Northwest in a different form: grunge.

Whereas punk was a shot in the arm for rock, disco was a shot in the arm for dance music. First popularized in urban black, Latino, and gay clubs, disco restored a dance groove to a faltering style. Its sound was purely escapist, with a pulsing beat beneath catchy melodies and a dense, multi layered arrangement. Flashing lights and a hot, crowded dance floor combined to intensify disco's primary message: sex.

The most popular disco music was produced by African American artists, who began to have commercial success in the summer of 1974 with hits such as "Rock the Boat" and "Rock Your Baby." The following summer, with Van McCoy's classic instrumental "The Hustle," the disco movement became a true phenomenon, and black artists such as the Ohio Players and Chic were at the forefront.

In just a few years, artists everywhere jumped on the disco bandwagon; European groups Silver Connection and ABBA even had chart toppers. By 1977, with the huge success of the film Saturday Night Fever and its accompanying soundtrack by the Bee Gees, it seemed as though white pop stars had taken over disco. Despite this trend, the true diva of disco remained an African American: Donna Summer. Her sexy, full-throttle vocals produced many smash hits, from "Love to Love You Baby" to "MacArthur Park" to "Last Dance.".

By 1978, disco was so popular that thirty-six million adults had invaded twenty thousand disco clubs nationwide. More than two hundred radio stations had converted to an all-disco format. Just when it seemed there would be no stopping disco, the inevitable happened. Tired of what they viewed as empty-headed music, millions of rock fans started an antidisco backlash. Although it would continue as a popular musical form in Europe and elsewhere, disco soon lost its luster in mainstream America.

Top Singles of the 1970s

1970"Bridge Over Troubled Water"Simon and Garfunkel
1971"Joy to the World"Three Dog Night
1972"American Pie-Parts I & II"Don McLean
1973"Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree"Tony Orlando and Dawn
1974"The Way We Were"Barbra Streisand
1975"Love Will Keep Us Together"Captain & Tennille
1976"Disco Lady"Johnnie Taylor
1977"You Light Up My Life"Debby Boone
1978"Night Fever"Bee Gees
1979"My Sharona"The Knack


The Hollywood film industry was in trouble as the 1970s began. Audiences had been shrinking throughout the previous decade as television

viewing increased. By the late 1960s, only one film in six was making a profit. By 1971, weekly movie attendance in the United States had reached a low of 17.5 million, down from 80 million viewers a week in Hollywood's peak year of 1946. Yet just one year later, the movie industry's downward spiral was halted by the success of one film: The Godfather.

Within a year of its release in 1972, The Godfather had broken the previous box-office record held for seven years by The Sound of Music (1965). It eventually grossed (earned) almost $135 million. Director Francis Ford Coppola's magnificent film adaptation of Mario Puzo's best-selling novel, about a close-knit fictional Mafia crime family in the 1940s, instantly became a part of American culture. Two years later, Coppola directed The Godfather: Part II, which critics claimed was as good as or better than the original film. Together, the first two Godfather pictures were the most influential movies of the 1970s.

Other blockbusters and their sequels quickly followed. In 1973, American Graffiti grossed more than $50 million, while The Sting made more than $75 million. Helped by the success of their respective sound-track albums, both films contributed to a nationwide nostalgia craze. That same year, the horror film The Exorcist, a terrifying story about a young girl who is possessed by an evil spirit, raked in more than $85 million. It spawned imitators such as The Omen (1976) and Audrey Rose (1977).

Top Films of 1970s

1970Love Story
1971Fiddler on the Roof
1972The Godfather
1973The Exorcist
1974The Towering Inferno
1977Star Wars
1979Kramer vs. Kramer

All of these thrillers were dwarfed by a box-office smash in 1975: director Steven Spielberg's Jaws, about a giant shark that terrorizes the waters of a beach community. Jaws earned $133 million and touched off a rash of films in which ordinary citizens were threatened by huge bears, alligators, and other wild creatures. The film even spawned three sequels of its own. Spielberg followed Jaws with another blockbuster just two years later, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an optimistic and awe inspiring portrayal of alien encounters.

The biggest box-office hit of the 1970s was director George Lucas's space fantasy tale Star Wars, released in 1977. It grossed an unprecedented $175 million and became such a cultural phenomenon that it started a science-fiction movie craze in the late 1970s. Films such as Superman: The Movie (1978), Alien (1979), The Black Hole (1979), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) all followed in its wake. Star Wars set a new cinematic standard for special effects, and it forever changed the concept of movie marketing. It remained the highest-grossing film of all time until 1982, when Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was released.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

In 1975, a film musical called The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in the United States. The low-budget movie, about a young couple who become unwilling pawns in a mad transvestite (a person who dresses as the opposite sex) scientist's experiment, was an immediate flop. A Broadway version of the movie released the same year was equally disastrous. Despite its poor box office showing, the film soon developed an underground reputation, especially in the gay community, and the film reopened as a midnight movie in New York City. Other midnight screenings in other cities ensued, and a bizarre and unprecedented cult following arose.

The cult audience for The Rocky Horror Picture Show included college students, gays, sci-fi (science fiction) addicts, old movie fans, transvestites, punk rockers, and social misfits. Throughout a typical screening, audience members often dressed as the film's characters, shouted the movie's (or their own) dialogue at the screen at appropriate times, sang and danced along with the musical numbers, and threw rice or fired water pistols at relevant moments. The wildly flamboyant audience upstaged the movie, and those people who were seeing the film for the first time (called "virgins") could be irritated or even frightened by the experience.

The phenomenon that The Rocky Horror Picture Show had become continued throughout the 1970s and into the following decades.

Science fiction, disaster, horror, nostalgia, comedy—blockbusters and other films of the 1970s largely fell into these categories. Neglected were films about the black experience or films featuring black stars. African American audiences wanted more representation in film, both in front of the camera and behind it. As the Black Power movement blossomed in the late 1960s, movies needed to reflect the reality of African American life.

In the early 1970s African Americans witnessed a wave of films made by blacks for black audiences. Most of these movies, however, presented urban ghetto life in a gritty, unforgiving style. Profanity, violence, and explicit sexuality marked these films. The underlying message was usually a separatist one: Blacks and whites could not, and should not, live together. At the same time, the black characters in the films embraced white capitalist (money-making) values. The heroes were generally cool, fearless superstuds with flashy clothes, sleek cars, and big guns who treated women as casually as money. This tone was set with the release of Melvin Van Peebles's X-rated Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) and Gordon Parks's Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). Although these films were groundbreaking, they relied heavily on sex and violence and, except for Shaft, the hero was either a dope dealer or a pimp.

Despite being stereotypical or even absurd, these "blaxploitation" (black exploitation) films made incredible profits. Filmed for less than $500,000 apiece, each of these three films earned as much as $20 million. Starved for any sort of black images on movie screens, black audiences turned out in droves to see the new films. Hollywood took notice of what it believed was an unforeseen gold mine and quickly filled silver screens with black movies. Unfortunately, many of them were increasingly ridiculous: Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Black the Ripper (1973), Black-father (1973), and Black Caesar (1973).

Many African American intellectuals and political leaders criticized these blaxploitation films. They believed the films had neither artistic nor cultural value, offering only violence, reverse racism, and the creation of new stereotypes. They also complained about the films' treatment of women as sex objects to be used and discarded. In response, Gordon Parks said his films were merely fantasy and escapist entertainment that black audiences needed.

By the mid-1970s, the blaxploitation craze had died out. Although comedic films offered the greatest opportunities for black actors and directors during the decade, a few successful dramatic films featured exceptional black performers. James Earl Jones emerged as a leading actor in The Great White Hope (1970), which confronted the subject of interracial marriage. Diana Ross stunned audiences with her harsh portrayal of jazz singer Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). And Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield paired up in Sounder (1972), an honest and sensitive story of a struggling black family in the rural South in the 1930s.


After the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, the 1970s seemed less exciting. In the media (magazines, newspapers, radio, and television), however, compelling coverage unfolded during the decade. The media helped to uncover military abuses during the Vietnam War (1954–75) and exposed the corrupt administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994). Magazines vigorously promoted social reforms as they had not done before. And television, which had been introduced to American society in the late 1940s and was the dominant medium by the 1970s, began airing programs that addressed social concerns.

Commercial television had begun to flirt with socially relevant programs in the late 1960s. In 1968, Dianne Carroll starred as an independent career woman and mother in Julia, the first television show featuring an African American lead actor. The following year, the comedy-drama Room 222 debuted. Set in an integrated Los Angeles high school, the show touched on serious contemporary issues such as racism, drug use, guns in schools, illiteracy, homophobia, and teenage pregnancy.

Top Television Shows of the 1970s

1970Marcus Welby, M.D.
1971All in the Family
1972All in the Family
1973All in the Family
1974All in the Family
1975All in the Family
1976Happy Days
1977Laverne & Shirley
1978Laverne & Shirley
197960 Minutes

The show that laid the groundwork for relevant programming in the 1970s was the situation comedy All in the Family, which debuted as a mid-season replacement series at the beginning of 1971. Produced by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, the show starred Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker, a white, working-class dock foreman who supported every negative ethnic and racial stereotype. His family, especially his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike, held liberal, unprejudiced views that often clashed with Archie's. Even his wife, Edith, did not share his opinions. Race relations, feminism, sexuality, abortion, and other controversial issues were discussed on the show openly and sometimes harshly, but always tempered with humor.

For the first few months after All in the Family began airing, American audiences were not sure how to respond to the program, and it was almost cancelled. By the summer of 1971, however, the controversial show had captured a growing audience, and it became a hit. It remained in the number-one spot for five straight seasons. During its run, All in the Family inspired other popular, socially concerned shows, including Maude (1972–78) and The Jeffersons (1975–85).

The Rise and Fall of "Family Time" on TV

By the spring of 1974, a public outcry had arisen over the amount of sex, crime, and violence shown on television, especially during prime time (typically from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.). With the federal government threatening to step in, the National Association of Broadcasters established a one-hour slot at the beginning of prime time set aside for family-oriented programs. Shows that were deemed inappropriate for viewing were not to be broadcast during what became known as "family time" or "family hour."

From the very beginning, the measure did not reduce the amount of sex and violence broadcast on the small screen. Networks merely rearranged their schedules so that certain shows appeared at other times. Furthermore, writers and producers of television programs were outraged by what they believed were limitations placed on their freedom and creativity. The Writers' Guild of America filed a lawsuit challenging the policy. Norman Lear, the writer-producer of the hugely popular show All in the Family, filed another. In 1976, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the family viewing policy was a violation of the First Amendment, and the policy was abandoned.

One of the biggest television successes in the 1970s was the miniseries. Such shows, essentially made-for-television movies that extended over more than two nights, attracted millions of viewers. One of the first popular miniseries, ABC's Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), proved that such programming could work. No miniseries was more successful or socially relevant, however, than Roots.

Broadcast in January 1977 over eight successive nights, the twelve-hour Roots epic was based on Alex Haley's nonfiction work of the same name in which he traced his family history from its African origins through years of slavery and emancipation (freedom). Featuring an impressive cast (including newcomer LeVar Burton) and a vast historical sweep, Roots captivated an estimated 130 million viewers, with some episodes breaking viewer records. Ordinary people and even members of Congress changed their schedules for a week so as not to miss the next installment.

Roots had a significant cultural impact by arousing an unprecedented interest in genealogy (researching family history) in general and African American history in particular. Among other things, the miniseries quietly broke new ground in American television by briefly showing bare-breasted women, the first time a prime-time network other than public television had shown frontal nudity. A fourteen-hour sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, which aired in February 1979 and starred James Earl Jones as Haley, was also successful.

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The 1970s Arts and Entertainment: Topics in the News