By Megan Volpert
[Sibling Rivalry Press]
In 1976, Atlanta-based author and social critic Megan Volpert was minus 5 years old. But for some reason she reveres “classic rock,” absolutely loves the movie Dazed and Confused, and views the year 1976 as some kind of cultural touchstone. “1976 is surely responsible for the culture into which I [Volpert} was born.”
In 1976, I was a 12-year-old, zit-squeezing geek with a chronic boner. And I was a KISS devotee. My love for KISS, circa ’76, was the closest thing to religious devotion I’ll ever experience. I loved KISS so much that I actually felt guilty about buying Heart’s Dreamboat Annie album. (My interest in Heart might have had as much to do with the aforementioned boner as the fact that “Magic Man” rocked.) My twisted logic was that by listening to another band, I would somehow be “cheating” on KISS. I was also paralyzed with fear by the media hype about the (then) burgeoning punk movement in the UK, thinking it was a crime against rock ’n’ roll. The Sex Pistols had yet to release an album, the Ramones were thought a bad joke, and Patti Smith was scary and kind of gross – nowhere nearly as boner-inducing as Ann and Nancy Wilson were for my 12 year-old self. (Gross, right?)
So here we are 40 years later. Megan Volpert is 35, an award-winning high school English teacher who has authored seven books and is a much-published reviewer and essayist. And I am, well, I’m fucking old, a creep who writes for Stomp and Stammer. If you’re bored, well, do the math.
It’s funny how the older we get, the more elastic our memories and understandings of certain eras become. I still begrudgingly love KISS, but (or perhaps because) I know that band is garbage. Heart, well, the ’80s were tough – but some of their early material rocks and they seem like cool ladies. And I’ve long since quit fearing punk. The Ramones are deities. Patti Smith is universally revered as a poet/priestess and archetypal female rocker.
1976 was basically the year where the seeds were sown for the postmodern irony that’s become the default setting for pretty much all popular culture. So, even though 1976 was five years before Megan Volpert’s birth, I can see why she chose that epoch as the unit of analysis for the ambitious, endearingly rambling tome. The book is a loosely framed treatise about American pop culture through the looking glass of the bicentennial year, a retrospective analysis of an era that was never experienced by its author in real time.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I mentioned the elasticity of memory? Yeah, I guess I was alive in 1976. But my memory is a blurry, re-re-recorded VHS tape that includes snippets of KISS on The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, Heart on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and a couple or three episodes of The Gong Show that won’t track properly. And I threw out my VCR last time I moved, anyway. This is to say that my retrospective understanding of 1976 is pretty much, at this point, only the slightest variation of everybody else’s, including Volpert’s. In other words, these days I see 1976 through the prism of the present. And it looks a lot different now than it did at the time. Well, honestly, I can’t even remember how it looked at the time. My memory, like everyone else’s, is a kaleidoscope of simulacral transparencies. If you look through that thing, it makes a pretty cool pattern – but who knows what the fuck it “really” means?
Volpert’s 1976 gives the reader a glimpse of the annum through the author’s kaleidoscope, and it looks pretty cool, too. The book is a month-by-month deconstruction of the year, using politics, literature, movies, TV shows, art and rock music as paradigmatic examples to explain – or at least attempt to parse in an entertaining way – the characteristic spirit of 1976. Or maybe the 1976 framework is just an excuse for Volpert to rattle off about cultural products from a certain year that she loves? If so, that’s just fine. Volpert is truly smart and perceptive – and damned funny. And any excuse for her to expound on, well, whatever she damn well pleases, is AOK with me.
In the introduction, Volpert briefly discusses Gore Vidal’s 1876. She writes: You have to have real cojones to title your book with just the year, to harpoon your personal human flag into the still-moving beast of time and claim your interpretation of that freeze-frame as the ultimate word on the subject. Real cojones, indeed. And there you have it.
The best parts of 1976 (both the year and the book) are about rock ’n’ roll. Volpert is among the (very) few millennials who shared their parents’ and older siblings’ (naïve) notion that rock ’n’ roll (or popular music, even) is somehow the externalization of universal, rebellious youth. Volpert writes that while music changes, “basically, sixteen year old kids believe the same things about their relationship to the world that I did when I was sixteen.” As if. These days (and here I go, again, into Old Man Grumpus rant), the proverbial “kids” rebel against nothing. And they don’t even like music. Still, I find it charming that Volpert is still something of a true believer in the transformative power of rock. Volpert is an old soul who loves Tom Petty, Aerosmith and The Ramones. My vibe is that she has a cool older sibling or a “wild” auntie with a good record collection.
The book is at times a scattered and perhaps slapdash affair. And therein lies its charm. It’s a rollicking, Proustian rant about all things 1976, delivered by an astute, witty tour guide who enjoys hearing herself “talk” via prose. Sure, there are myriad digressions along the way. To reach Volpert’s Promised Land of enlightenment (or at least witty repartee) entails decades of wandering in the desert, but who cares? And, even by the end of the book, I’m never clear at exactly what (or if) Volpert’s thesis is. But so what? Getting there (wherever) is all the fun. And Volpert is all about becoming rather than being. 1976 delivers a scathingly spot-on take on the year that was(n’t). The hangover’s probably going to be a doozie. So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999 1976. And you should too.