Los Angeles in 1974 and the politics of culture, with Ronald Brownstein
“Let me make the songs of a nation,” the Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher once declared, “and I care not who makes its laws.” The eminent political journalist Ronald Brownstein makes a similar case in his recent book Rock Me on the Water — 1974: The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics. Brownstein’s narrative history traces the spectacular cultural pinnacles achieved in Los Angeles in 1974 in the separate industries of movies, music, and television — though often the artists responsible for those breakthroughs were working only blocks apart. These achievements helped Los Angeles in that year to exert “more influence over popular culture than any other city in America,” according to Brownstein, and indeed “the city dominated popular culture more than it ever had before, or would again.” Ultimately the breakthroughs that took place in LA in 1974 would not only transform the culture industries, they would act as a conduit channeling the radical ideas of the 1960s into the American mainstream.
In this podcast interview, CNN senior political analyst and Atlantic senior editor Brownstein discusses the creative summits achieved in LA in 1974. In Hollywood, these included the release of “New Wave” masterpieces such as Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation, along with the filming of other notable works including Nashville and Jaws. On television, 1974 was the only year that CBS broadcast the Saturday night lineup often considered “the greatest night in television history,” which included such breakthrough series as All in the Family, MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show. And in music, 1974 saw the release of career-defining albums from principal creators of the Southern California sound including Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The art across all these industries, according to Brownstein, “was socially engaged, grappling with all the changes and critiques of American life that had rumbled through society during the 1960s: greater suspicion of authority in business and government, more assertive roles for women, more tolerance of premarital sex, greater acceptance of racial and sexual minorities.” LA’s culture industries in 1974 were at the forefront of the clash between an ascending Baby Boom generation bent on change and older generations opposing that change. In the short term, conservative politics triumphed. But Brownstein argues that the clear lesson for today’s political-cultural clash of generations is that “while voices resistant to change may win delaying battles in politics, they cannot indefinitely hold back the future.”