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
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
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.