what we can learn from the lawless cool of 70s new york

From Martin Scorsese's 'Vinyl' to Garth Risk Hallberg's 'City on Fire,' the music, culture, and fashion of 70s-era New York is everywhere right now.

by Jim Farber
29 February 2016, 3:15pm

courtesy hbo

Every day, it seems we're surrounded by more swoon-inducing images of New York City in the 70s. The most-hyped TV series of the moment — HBO's Vinyl — recreates a downtown rock world dominated by platform shoes and bell-bottoms. One of the buzziest recent novels by a young author, Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire, shoots us back to the crazed era when the Bronx was burning. Patti Smith's best-selling memoir Just Kids will translate its dreamy vision of revolutionary punk into a forthcoming Showtime series. And, later this year, Netflix will debut The Get Down, a Baz Luhrman-directed mash note to the early days of hip-hop and disco.

It's no coincidence that all these projects are popping up right now. There's a wealth of reasons for the surge, and they're far more complex — and vital — than a simple nostalgic exercise by 50-somethings who want to relive their vanished youth. The particular mix of politics, culture, and fashion that took place in old New York has both great resonance and deep exoticism for millennials coming to all this fresh. Though these projects were no doubt green-lit by baby boomers and Gen-Xers, their creators know they need to attract a younger audience in order to fully resonate.

Even the title of the Martin Scorsese-produced Vinyl highlights a bond between vital audiences in the 70s and those of today. According to the Record Industry Association of America, vinyl sales in 2015 hit a high unmatched since 1989 — the year before CDs came to spoil that format's party. More importantly, half those old-fashioned records sold last year were bought by fans under the age of 25. Total vinyl sales in 2015 brought in nearly $60 million more revenue than all ad-supported streaming services combined, adding up to over $221 million. For vinyl fans in their 20s, it's especially compelling to see a series set in a time when those grooves dominated decisively.

Both Vinyl and The Get Down provide another bridge between eras in their approach to fashion. In the 70s world of glam-rock and disco, putting a great deal of effort into one's grooming and personal style was all the rage (and was a clear rejection of the "natural," dressed-down hippie 60s). In a similar way, it's mandatory for today's pop stars to align themselves with fashion if they have any hope of remaining relevant. Lady Gaga would't be Lady Gaga if she wore overalls instead of couture and performance-art pieces, and Taylor Swift would never turn up on a red carpet unless she was flawlessly styled and outfitted.

At the same time, the demimonde presented in a series like The Get Down touches on issues of racial identity and gender-fluidity which couldn't be more current. Parts of Baz Luhrman's show will explore the swirl of black, Latin, and gay subcultures which took place at legendary New York dance clubs like the Paradise Garage. Gay men of colour ruled that scene, giving that demographic a dominance that will look like a fantasy-come-true to its contemporary brethren. Legendary DJ Larry Levan and his backup crew — Joey Llanos, Dave Depino, and Francois K — mixed the beats that drew luminaries like Grace Jones, Andy Warhol, and Stevie Wonder, and changed what dance music was forever.

The Get Down also promises to resurrect the early days of rap, when uptown DJs first spun, and MCs had just begun spitting words into articulated rhyme. In today's era, when hip-hop defines pop — and, so, has lost some of its outsider thrill — there's added excitement to basking in the days when it remained an up-and-coming art form, with all the attendant freshness, potential, and threat.

There's just as much built-in resonance to the central story of Just Kids. The book, and show, ruminates on the early-70s romantic and artistic relationship between Patti Smith and photographer/artist Robert Mapplethorpe. At the time of his relatively benign coupling with Smith, Mapplethorpe was simultaneously diving deep into the extremities of that era's gay-sex underworld. And that world skewed as extreme as imagination would allow, with major downtown clubs — like the Mineshaft and the Anvil — devoted to public displays of S&M and all manner of fetishes. The boundary-shaking nature of the Smith/Mapplethorpe relationship offers a perfect precursor, and parallel, to the rejection of boxed-in views discussed in any current conversation about sexual fluidity.

At the same time, Mapplethorpe's sexuality shoots us back to the time when the identity politics everyone can't stop debating today first coalesced. Before the late 60s to early 70s, "gay" wasn't something you were. It was something you did. It was the political movement of that day which pushed the notion of homosexuality from a behaviour to an identity.

The pansexual alterna-world Mapplethorpe moved through, and deified in his art, stands in thrilling contrast to the far more strait-laced and conformist concerns of contemporary gay politics. The gay and bisexual worlds of the 70s extended the free-love mantra of the hippie 60s to the new decade, equating promiscuity with liberation. That's a bracing rebuke to the sober presentation of today's gay issues, which obsess on concerns like marriage, child-rearing, and military admission. What modern pop-culture fan wouldn't be drawn to the greater flagrance, and defiance, of the 70s?

On so many levels, the milieu of 70s New York offers something enduringly edgy and cool. Back in the pre-internet world, fashion, art, and music could thrive in a true underground, outside the voyeuristic gaze and cultural co-opting of the mainstream. The advent of the web brought nearly every outsider expression to the masses in a flash. The grit of the city provides an equal lure. As garbage blows, graffiti scrawls, and street fashions strut through Vinyl and City on Fire, who wouldn't swoon? These scenes seem even more enticing now that they can no longer be glimpsed in contemporary New York.

By the same token, the creators of both Vinyl and Just Kids provide a canny lure for contemporary musicians. In an age ruled by hip-hop and EDM, rock tends to look tired. But these early trips back to punk make guitar-driven songs seem, once again, fresh with alarm.

Taken together, such a rich pile-on of lures does risk a backfire. It could well evoke in modern viewers a depressing envy. After all, the 70s was a time of "anything goes," a span of sex- and drug-fuelled abandon, sandwiched between the fractious politics and violence of the 60s and the AIDS-plagued Reaganite 80s.

But envy isn't the only emotion these shows are primed to tap. The revival of 70s New York City also lends current issues context, showing young artists, pioneers, and yearners which elements of the past they can draw upon to design their future.


Text Jim Farber
Image courtesy HBO

Grace Jones
Andy Warhol
Patti Smith
Robert Mapplethorpe
gay clubs