Growing up Weird in the 70s

Robin Wallace

I’m writing this as a counterpoint to Jonathan’s impassioned column on disco. Don’t worry; I’m not going to jump to disco’s defense. I didn’t like it either. I just didn’t care that much.
See, I was that genuinely oddball phenomenon: somebody who really did grow up listening to practically nothing but classical music. Sure, I enjoyed the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel; they just didn’t take up that much of my listening time. Then, when disco took over, I stopped paying attention to pop music. Period.
Not that that was easy. Reading the thread on disco on the ams-list, I’ve once again been impressed by the extent to which people—even musicologists—define their identity in terms of their tastes in popular music while they were growing up. That music was everywhere, and my music wasn’t. Nevertheless, my musical memories of the late 60s and 70s are roughly as follows: in 1966 I discovered Debussy; in 1968, Mozart; in 1969, Beethoven; in 1970, Mahler; in 1971, late Beethoven. That was enough to keep my going for a while, but in 1975 I discovered Haydn, and in the late 70s, while doing my PhD coursework, a cappella choral music. If I registered the fact that popular music had gotten more formulaic and commercial, I just figured I was noticing it more as my musical knowledge base expanded.
It wasn’t as lonely as it probably sounds. I went to college at Oberlin, and there were plenty of people there with similar tastes. The reason I’m writing this is that, looking back, I’m wondering if I really did miss something. The academic climate has changed to the point that musicologists feel free letting their hair down about their youthful musical tastes, and for many of us, it’s apparently a really big deal. Somebody even wrote in to the ams-list observing as much, apparently with some surprise.
When I got my first teaching job in 1984, moving me across a continent, I received a radical suggestion from a close friend. If I was going to be teaching non-music major courses to Californians, I should learn something about the music they were listening to. I spent much of that summer with a Sony Walkman (anybody remember those?) listening to her compilation tapes of current and past pop music and expanding my knowledge base further. That’s when I discovered I really did like the Grateful Dead and didn’t particularly like Michael Jackson, who was then at his all-time peak of pre-extreme weirdness superstardom. As for disco, I still don’t think it registered.
At that point, though, I honestly had no idea that most of the music majors I taught would also have identity-defining tastes in popular music. As I’ve learned about this, I’ve also learned to capitalize on it in my teaching. I can now say plainly that Brahms enjoyed music that was played by lowlifes in the backs of cafes, and that the unprecedented divergence between popular and art music is the most significant fact in the musical history of the 20th century. I’ve started pushing classical musicians to improvise, and when a student wants to do a thesis on blues guitar or Paul Simon’s post-S and G years, I regard it as a learning opportunity. Baby steps, perhaps, but ones I never expected to be taking.
By the way, I admire Jimmy Carter and I admired him then. I still think the fact that he was a failure as president was a sad commentary on the vacuity of the 70s, not a reflection of his qualifications. And I still can’t think of much of anything good to say about disco, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Sound. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Growing up Weird in the 70s

  1. Jonathan says:

    Well, Robin, you’ve given me my next blog idea.
    May I bounce a quote in your direction, though, re Jimmy Carter?:
    “States are not ruled with paternosters.”–Cosimo d’ Medici.

  2. Eric says:

    I hate being an apologist for disco, because most of it was pretty ridiculous, but I must mention that some of those studio arrangers really had some chops (by commercial music standards, of course). I think ‘The Hustle’ has some fairly nice contrapuntal ideas floating over that insipid 4-on-the-floor drum groove; also, I think ABBA consistently put out really lush productions with competent arrangements. For me, disco went in the pits when producers started incorporating those sterile late 70s electric keyboards and drum machines, and dumped the studio orchestra, e.g. ‘Funky Town.’
    With respect to ‘connecting’ with the popular music of one’s youth, I grew up in and Eskimo Village 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle! Thus, as a kid I heard the wildest concoction of music imaginable: 80s pop radio, Presbyterian hymns, Eskimo ceremonial chants, Elliot Carter (via my band director), etc – apparently a kind of unintentional postmodern aesthetic. It, of course, only makes sense that now I’m a freelance jazz bassist!

  3. Elaine Fine says:

    Your experience with pop music from the 70s is a little bit like mine. Thank you for putting it in such clear terms. I was busy with Brahms, Mozart, Bach, and Ives during the time when most of my contemporaries were listening to whatever music was popular during the 70s. This current generation of 30-something musicologists are very eager to give intellectual merit to popular musical genres that I managed to completely ignore while they were happening (unlike some of the 70s clothing fashions that were impossible to ignore). I also cannot seem to understand (and never seemed to really notice when it was popular) the appeal of “punk” music, and disco never meant anything to me, other than the fact (or so I’ve been told) that it was a reaction to disco.

  4. Kip W says:

    Without disco, we never would have had disco polka, or The Ethel Merman Disco Album, for that matter. (Excerpts of both can be found online. I’d give a link, but the things are so long, it’ll mess up your comments page.) And what about Hooked On Classics, of which an audio magazine said “Sound Quality: Excellent, Music Quality: Numbing”?
    Ha. I rest my case.

  5. Galen says:

    Kip’s comment is funny, but it is also true that without Disco you don’t get Industrial music or Techno, both of which are pretty significant, and both are better-respected genres than Disco.

  6. Eric says:

    Hip-Hop also grows out of Disco — do you all recall “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message?” Both tunes use samples (analogue, of course) that are taken from prominent Disco hits.

Comments are closed.