Saturday, September 15, 2007

Forty Years Later, the Times Is Still a Bit Befuddled by the 1960s

Sunday's New York Times (Arts & Leisure section) contains a feature that neatly sums up the middle-class, middlebrow myopia that characterizes the paper. It's an article by Charles Isherwood about the fortieth anniversary of the musical Hair, which is being restaged at the Delacorte Theater next week.

Isherwood describes the history of the show, praises its "musical charm," notes how firmly rooted its lyrics, themes, and tone are in the world of 1967, and otherwise competently sums up Hair's place in the cultural firmament as Times readers are likely to see it. What makes the piece such a perfect reflection of the goofy worldview of the Times is Isherwood's apparent assumption that Hair actually reflected "youth culture" of the rebellious 1960s. Thus, he is baffled by the negative review the show received in The Village Voice (which was then fairly "radical" in its political and cultural sympathies):
Back in 1967 the critic for The Village Voice, a publication you might think would be whole-heartedly supportive of a "tribal love-rock musical," took umbrage at [its] comprehensive "with-it"-ness, writing that the show was "bald opportunism" that "exploits every obvious up-to-date issue--the draft, the war, even negritude--in a crass effort to be both timely and tidy." (Negritude!)
I'm not going to defend that weird word "negritude," which I vaguely recall as reflecting some fleeting political attitude of the moment. But I find it faintly amazing--and actually a little touching--that a writer for the Times should fail to recognize what should have been obvious to anyone under the age of 27 in 1967: that the notion of a Broadway musical supposedly capturing the hippie ethos was just plain silly.

Then as now, the vast majority of Broadway theatre-goers were suburban ladies and their executive husbands. They went to see Hair in the same spirit as midwestern visitors taking tours of the East Village to gawk at black-light poster shops and street-corner incense salesmen from the safety of a double-decker bus. Under the circumstances, the idea that Hair could be anything other than a Disneyesque vision of what a "tribal love-rock musical" would be is obviously comic.

Hair is in fact an interesting cultural artifact--not as a reflection of the youth culture of its time but rather as an example of how actual youth culture got transformed into a sanitary commodity for middle-class consumption, on a par with The Monkees, The Partridge Family, and the long sideburns worn by people like Ed Sullivan and Bob Hope in the 1970s. Recognizing this does not make me particularly sophisticated or "hip"--just one notch more sophisticated than anyone working at the Times.

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