Sixties People. By Jane and Michael Stern. (New York: Alfred Knopf 1990). Pp. 244.

     In retrospect the sixties were as laughable as they were profound; but it would be hard to imagine a more thrilling time to grow up. --The Sterns (5)

In a nutshell.

The Sterns are highly entertaining students of popular culture, particularly American. This worthwhile book thoughtfully examines common sixties stereotypes, offering an illustrated social history of salient elements of sixties popular culture through nine essays which function as cross-sectional views of the period. The quotation above is revealing in its juxtaposition of laughs and profundity, for the Sterns attack their topic with good-natured humor, deadpan irony, outrage, or nostalgia as appropriate.

The types.

Perky Girls. You know them--Marlo Thomas in That Girl!; Mary Tyler Moore in The Dick Van Dyke Show and of course, the Mary Tyler Moore Show. The watchword here is zesty kookiness with just a hint of wholesome sexual availability. Helen Gurley Brown wrote for and about perky girls; Gidget was an icon; stewardesses travelling apostles, Barbie dolls fetish objects. The Sterns can point to people who fell short of perkiness, and who thus help delimit the category: tough, vaguely proletarian Nancy Sinatra; corny Lucie Arnaz, embarrassing Princess Margaret.

Playboys. "While many sixties people were learning to hang loose or to fight a good fight, a tireless legion of men squeezed themselves into a knife-crease, no-cuff, no-belt, no-pleat, low-rise, pipe-leg, bolero-pocket perma-press Life O' Ease trousers with Securoslax Recoil Stretch Fortrel waistband, slapped their cheeks with palmfulls of Hai Karate Oriental Lime cologne, and strode into the world searching for sophistication. For this group, the vade mecum was Playboy magazine, the icons Hef and James Bond. Austin Powers--to the extent he is a swinger--is patterned after this type, though he has significant object adaptors taken from the English Carnaby Street scene.

Young Vulgarians. That is, spirited urban proles with big hair and a penchant for ending up on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. The grooming cues of more fortunate classes were missed as these young people strove for arresting effects: the "Cleopatra look" with heaps of eyeliner, lipstick, and oddly plucked eyebrows; vast hairdos (of the sort John Waters exhibited in Hairspray, which is about precisely this social group) legendarily infested with vermin; and the look affected by the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las.

Surfers, Twisters, and Party Animals. Like the Playboy set, these people were out for a good time, but without any pretentious attempt to be suave. These people ran from the frat types parodied so effectively in Animal House to the group that apotheosized the Beach Boys and Frankie Avalon and the post-Disney Annette Funicello. These were the free spirits who put Chubby Checker on the charts, made surfing movies popular, and experimented with a wild variety of really unappealing dances such as: The Hump; The Watusi; The Swim; The Frug; and the Hully Gully. When the producers of the TV show Batman wanted to make their staid hero seem cool, they had him demonstrate a special dance in one episode--the "Batusi."

Folkniks. This was the crunchy nonconformist crowd that followed on the heels of "the despairing beatniks." These were "mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly urban youth enraptured by old-time ballads and new-style talkin' blues." "Folkniks maintained a fundamental belief that honest songs had the power to cut through commercialism, hypocrisy, injustice, inequality, war, and man's inhumanity to man." These people evolved into the group that protests globalization these days; Mel Brooks parodied the type with The Producers' Lorenzo Saint DuBois (who also straddles the hippie category). The recent movie A Mighty Wind is an affectionate parody of these people. Dylan's going electric (July 25, 1965) dealt a body blow to this group.

I'm English. Austin Powers borrowed this chapter title in the first movie; his getup is an exaggerated version of English Carnaby Street fashion. The Sterns ably point to the miniskirt (for women) and the Beatles look (for men) as the stigmata of this group. Mary Quant (inventrix of miniskirts), Vidal Sassoon, Beatle antics (aped at first by the early Stones and of course the Monkees), the Mod look, Vespas, pea coats are all emblematic of the movement. The Sterns also draw out the pathos of American midwesterners who affected the look disastrously. The penetration of drugs into this scene and the morphing of the Beatles brought on the day of the hippies.

Hippies. Badly parodied by perky girl Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In, people forget how hard and unpleasant it was to be a hippie. The Sterns' finest chapter evokes a tragic understanding of the hippies. Their drugs made them willing or unconscious victims of destructive behaviors ("feces are groovy!"). The Sterns also bring out the fascinating alliance (cohabitation?) of hippies and Hell's Angels, with the latter providing drugs and cynically exploiting the free-love ethos of the hippie women. Besides the later-60s Beatles, the Doors were also prominent figures on the edge of this movement.

Rebels. Anti-Vietnam rebels, of course. Women's rights protesters. The Black Panthers. The Weather Underground. Valerie Solanas, founder and heart of SCUM, the Society to Cut Up Men. The Sterns quote from the opening of Solanas' SCUM Manifesto: "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex." Here is also the second half of the hippie-Hell's Angel story, as the Sterns focus briefly on the equally brief appeal of the Hell's Angels as defiant antiheroes (Roger Corman's The Wild Angels helped here). This ended in December 1969 at Altamont in California when the Angels, hired by the Stones as security for a free concert, went wild, even killing an audience member. Many consider Altamont the definitive closing moment of the sixties.

Mr. and Mrs. Average. All you need to know about this group can be divined from one illustration the Sterns offer, a poster featuring the heads of these icons of mainstream American culture superimposed upon the map of the USA: John Wayne, in giant scale, above all, surrounded by 16 (?) stars; Phyllis Diller; Ann-Margaret; Lucille Ball; Red Skelton; Dean Martin; Bob Hope; and Bing Crosby. This group would surface again in the Dean Martin roasts of the 1970s. John Wayne's The Green Berets is a sort of liturgy for this group. Miss America, Ronald Reagan, Barcaloungers, bomb shelters, and the astronauts were some of their emblems. It was not a group given much to irony or penetrating self-examination.

I have hardly done justice to the Sterns, who themselves had to streamline their account of the social history of the decade by focusing on a limited number of stereotypes. Still, they succeed in showing the richness of the decade, which was by turns wonderful and horrible. I feel inexplicably nostalgic as I run through the pages of the book writing this--entirely due to the Sterns' effective presentation, for I was born in 1963 and remember precious little about those years apart from seeing hippies in Laurel Canyon, confusing (to me) images from the RFK assassination, and the moon landing in 1969.

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