There are a variety of different sounds and genres associated with any given point in history, but the seventies will always have a remarkable place in music’s timeline. Today, the seventies are heavily romanticized; for those who didn’t experience them (myself included), we generally envision the decade as comprised of the culture presented in Dazed and Confused and That ‘70s Show. This lifestyle portrayed in the media can be summed up with a few clichés: “dad rock,” music festivals, bell bottoms, and 8-tracks. Consequently, it’s definitely a banality to glorify the seventies for being the golden age of rock music—but it did bring us iconic albums such as Pink Moon and Hunky Dory, and gave drunks the infamous “Free Bird” to scream at concerts.
‘70s music in particular was impacted by an array of events and drastic culture shifts. The counterculture movement of the late sixties, a result of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War protests, induced a booming popularity of new ideologies that influenced everyday life and redefined many aspects of traditional culture. Psychedelic rock and pop saw prosperity throughout the sixties until they faded out in the early 1970s—after the Beatles disbandment and the loss of many prominent musicians of the decade to the 27 Club including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.
I’m sure this is all just common knowledge at this point, but how did psychedelia and the hippie movement transform into the decade that saw the culmination of the likes of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, and Joni Mitchell? The hippie movement wasn’t just a drum circle of Deadheads who advocated for “peace and love”; the movement aimed to deconstruct social roles, eradicate hierarchy, and find common ground between all people.
These new ideologies overflowed from the Summer of Love into the seventies, where its significance manifested itself into music. Subgenres like art rock, progressive rock, punk, reggae—the list goes on and on—dominated the music scene as a collective. David Bowie showcased his sexuality through the glam-rock character of Ziggy Stardust, and Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell took a stab at the male-dominated rock scene. Lyricism took a turn from overdone love scenes to a more personal, diary-like style, with many artists addressing political issues. The newfound diversity in music was a parallel to the social structure in the sense that it gave people something other than four white dudes with which to associate rock music.
The accomplishments of diversifying the music scene during the seventies is substantiated by music now—almost fifty years later. It resonates with us today to see the music industry saturated with people of different races and genders making music of all genres about a variety of topics. The seventies were more than just a golden era for rock music—it was the determining predecessor of all the great music that came after it.
Want in on some of the best ‘70s songs? Listen to our playlist here.
“Walk on the Wild Side” - Lou Reed (1972)
Throughout this song, themes of gender and sex appear within short anecdotes about multiple Warhol superstars. One of them is Holly Woodlawn, who was a transgender actress, and another is Jackie Curtis, who was a drag queen. Lou Reed soothingly mumbles “Take a walk on the wild side” in the chorus in reference to the widespread glamour, sexuality, and erotica represented in the art created by Warhol and the Warhol superstars.
“22nd Century” - Nina Simone (1971)
Nina Simone presents hope and predicts a world full of change through equality of men and women, and a revolution of progressive art in the 22nd century.
“New Feeling” - Talking Heads (1977)
Talking Heads: 77 introduced the synth-art pop for which the band is so famously celebrated. Although David Byrne has explained that lyrics from the band are arbitrary rather than meaningful, the band brought influences of funk, African music, and punk into their work, inaugurating a more unique sound into the late ‘70s.
“What’s Going On” - Marvin Gaye (1970)
Marvin Gaye was inspired to write this song after witnessing an act of police brutality during an anti-war protest, wanting to promote positive change. The song addresses the Vietnam War from a pacifist standpoint in the eyes of millions who waved their loved ones off to war: “You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate / You know we’ve got to find a way / to bring some lovin here today.”
“Rebel Rebel” - David Bowie (1974)
David Bowie annihilated all boundaries of sexuality throughout his career, and “Rebel Rebel” addresses the free love that Bowie made so prevalent in the ‘70s: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl / Hey babe, your hair’s alright / Hey babe, let’s go out tonight / You like me and I like it all.”
“Everyday People” - Sly and the Family Stone (1971)
“Everyday People” carries the timeless message that everyone should set aside their differences and live together instead of categorizing people: “I am no better and neither are you / You love me, you hate me, you know me and then / You can’t figure out the bag I’m in / I am everyday people.”
“Blue” - Joni Mitchell (1971)
Joni Mitchell illustrates her melancholy in “Blue” with motifs of the ‘70s—namely “acid, booze, and ass, needles, guns, and grass.” She labels these trivial pastimes as the source of her sadness and questions why she struggles to find a deeper meaning in them. She then gives a reminder that the counterculture movement advocates for respect of differences in religion: “Everybody’s saying that Hell’s the hippest way to go / Well I don’t think so / But I’m gonna take a look around it, though.”
“Chelsea Hotel #2” - Leonard Cohen (1974)
Similar to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” Leonard Cohen discusses the misconceptions about the counterculture movement through a story of his brief affair with Janis Joplin. “Running for the money and the flesh” was what many artists did during the aftermath of the counterculture movement, and Cohen compares his short-lived relationship with Joplin to the shallowness of those who perceived counterculture as simply another trend.
“Imagine” - John Lennon (1971)
Easily one of the most famous and acclaimed songs of the ‘70s, John Lennon eradicates every idea of religion, country, and capital to bring everyone together in “Imagine.”