I have been in journalism for so long that I have been in journalism for more than half of my life.
Because of that, I like to think I’m not fazed by unusual things happening. Two tornadoes hit while I’m trying to finish the newspaper? Been there, done that now. Have to move all our equipment out of the office? That’s now happened twice, the first time due not to power failure, but computer failure, two decades ago.
So when a reader walked into the office Friday morning and asked “What happened to the Age of Aquarius?”, I threatened the reader with answering his question in print.
For those too young to know what the question is about, it’s one of the signature songs of the Broadway musical “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” The ‘60s quintet The Fifth Dimension had a number one hit from “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which may be on the short list of greatest pop songs of the ’60s or any other decade. (“Hair” came out in 1967, and “Aquarius,” the first medley to reach number one on the pop charts, was released in 1969, when I was, I should point out, 4 years old.)
“Hair” depicts a group of what were then called “hippies” fighting against, among other causes, being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. It took place during the most turbulent decade of this nation’s history other than the Civil War era, during protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and conventional morality. The lyrics that define the song, and the setting of the musical, would probably be:
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
The question posed here, I think, is what happened to the idealism that made people think they could make a difference in such big areas as expanding civil rights beyond just white men, or stopping a war. You may roll your eyes at those lyrics in this cynical age of ours, but some people did think most of what’s depicted in those lyrics was possible.
Those who grew up in the ’60s grew up in a period of pretty much unprecedented post-World War II prosperity. Their parents grew up in the Great Depression and World War II (some of whom fought in World War II), and as a generation they appeared to have been determined that their children would grow up with more than they had growing up. When people’s material needs are met, they tend to focus on things besides things, even such seemingly crazy ideas as exploring outer space. So what now are called the Baby Boomers (and truth be told, not all of them, or even most of them) decided to push cultural envelopes, in personal freedom and what they considered injustices.
On the other hand, there was the Vietnam War, one of the proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, each of which had enough nuclear weapons to kill each other, themselves, and everyone else on the planet. The Vietnam War was the first American war where the American public got to see what fighting a war was like from their living room, thanks to TV. There was also the ugly trend of settling political differences by assassination, including John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy within two months of each other in 1968. And to those who saw injustice in American society, the draft may have been the biggest injustice of all.
The ’60s didn’t necessarily end in 1969 or 1970. Some might say they ended with the end of the Vietnam War in 1973; others might say they ended with Richard Nixon’s resignation ending the Watergate scandal in 1974. If you’re from Madison, you might say the ’60s ended with the UW–Madison Sterling Hall bombing in 1970, when protest against a war got an innocent person killed.
So what happened to the Age of Aquarius? The cynical would say “reality.” The ’70s featured a recession, inflation, and then a recession with inflation. The sexual freedom of the ’60s and ’70s ran into the reality of disease, sometimes fatal, as well as the disruption of families.
I am a child of the ’80s, and to some the ’80s are the ’60s in reverse — much more politically conservative and much more focused on materialism, perhaps as a reaction of the excesses of the ’60s and the economic bad times of much of the ’70s. The 2010s, to this point, lack the idealism, emphasis on personal freedom, prosperity and good music of the ’60s, while we have the widespread cultural disagreement of the ’60s, as demonstrated by the destroy-the-opposition nature of politics today. (Well, at least the draft is gone.)
A more optimistic viewpoint could be that people figured out that improving the planet, to the extent that’s possible when human beings are involved, is better done one step at time where you are now instead of trying to get government to do what you want it to do, since the government does what it wants to irrespective of what you want.
Maybe that’s the difference between the Age of Aquarius and the Age of ... whatever today. In an era of perceived plenty, optimism to the point of idealism thrives. In an age of scarcity, the opposite prevails.