Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 14-16.
It’s not often that one leaves a movie theater feeling speechless, but anyone on the right side of the culture wars who views the recent film Blast from the Past will find his jaw scraping the sidewalk—and not out of disgust. This little romantic comedy, coming straight out of lefty Hollywood, is a stunner not for its special effects or its acting, but because it is an unabashedly conservative film. It’s also indicative of a larger cultural trend that should give heart to those who think American pop culture is irredeemably decadent.
Blast from the Past tells the story of Adam Webber, played with winsome innocence by Brendan Fraser (George of the Jungle, The Mummy). Adam is raised in a bomb shelter for the first thirty–five years of his life after his eccentric–inventor father (Christopher Walken) mistakes a plane crash for the big one during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In a reversal of the Tarzan fable, Adam is sheltered from the wilds of the outside world and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. He is taught ballroom dancing by mom (Sissy Spacek), boxing by dad, and impeccable manners by both. He learns Latin and French in the shelter’s makeshift classroom.
Cut to the nineties. It’s thirty–five years later, long enough for the half life of radiation to dissipate, and Adam’s dad ventures to the surface to hunt for survivors. Here is where the film becomes remarkable. Rather than indulge in a predictable fish out of water tale wherein Adam and his parents are forced to encounter the modern world and are made better for their experience—à la last year’s Pleasantville—the filmmakers have depicted modern liberal America as exactly what Adam’s father says it is: a toxic purgatory. Emerging from the shelter, Mr. Webber encounters gun–brandishing gang bangers, New Age religious fanaticism, an adult book store where their house once stood, and a transvestite hooker. "It was horrible," Mr. Webber wails to his wife after beating a hasty retreat. "They can change their sex! They’re mutants!"
Problem is, Adam is now a young man with desires. His parents decide to send him to the surface for supplies with orders to bring back a wife. Once up, Adam encounters Eve (okay, so this isn’t The Seventh Seal). Eve (Clueless’ Alicia Silverstone) is a thoroughly modern woman—promiscuous, terrified of commitment, and unwilling to settle for anyone who isn’t a jerk. She rejects Adam, turned off by what she sees as his squareness and goofy, excessive politeness. Praying is "always a good idea," he beams. He’s stunned to find out that "everyone’s divorced," and tells Eve’s roommate that "manners are a way of showing other people we respect them." He’s delighted when he finds out one of Eve’s friends is "gay"—"thank you for being happy all the time," he tells him.
Then Eve begins to see Adam through the eyes of the civility–starved modern world. His daily dance lessons from mom pay off big time when they go to a swing dance club and Adam wows two beautiful blonds with his footwork. While other men gawk at Eve’s body parts, Adam compliments her eyes. It dawns on Eve that it isn’t Adam who’s abnormal, but the culture she lives in. "This street used to be little houses and gardens," her roommate notes as they search a grimy alley behind a porn shop for the entrance to Adam’s bomb shelter. "Boy," Eve replies sarcastically, "we’ve come a long way." (As if you didn’t know, Adam and Eve end up together.)
Twenty or even ten years ago, Blast from the Past would have been dismissed by liberal critics and pop culture watchers as reactionary. Yet in the last few years a new ethos has taken hold of the popular culture, or at least a small part of it, and its ascendance has changed the rules. Generations X and Y—those in their twenties and thirties and the "echo boom," teenage kids of baby boomer parents—are experiencing an almost fanatical appreciation and longing for "classic America," roughly the years 1920 to 1960. This movement’s most obvious manifestation has been the explosion of swing dancing. Spawned by the 1996 film Swingers and reflected in a 1998 Gap clothing commercial, swing dancing has made a stunning comeback. Neo–swing bands like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which just won two Grammies, are racking up gold and platinum sales, while all across the country, dance classes are full and clubs that formerly hosted rock and rap are converting to swing. I’m a Gen–Xer and swing dancer myself—I began just ahead of the boom, in 1995.
Writers in these pages have frequently observed that culture—that is to say what we eat, wear, watch, what we do for leisure and how we date and marry—is more important and affects us more deeply than the Dow Jones or who runs Congress. In this sense, the swing and retro–culture boom is more than a little significant. Surely some of it is nothing more than fashion–conscious nostalgia, but a close reading of the phenomenon reveals that swing is providing more to young people than long skirts and wingtips. A twenty–year–old named Katti Ehoff had this to say to a writer from Smithsonian magazine, whose March cover story was on the swing renaissance: "At ordinary nightclubs, if you dance with a man, he thinks you’re going home with him. [At a ballroom] you’ll touch thirty–five men in one night but it doesn’t mean anything. You’ve come to dance." A young man at the same dance claimed that when he’s dressed for a night of jitterbugging he finds himself opening doors for ladies.
Such apparently small things contribute to the winning of the culture war. In fact, many of the neo–swingers claim that they are advocates of a "movement" and a "lifestyle," not a fad.Their attitude is deeply countercultural, considering that the dominant youth culture is suffused with the anger and nihilism of punk rock and the rage and narcissism of rap. Simply by advocating nice dress, traditional gender roles, civility, talented musicians, romanticism, joy, and adulthood, swing is the first fad that has kids looking to grandparents for what’s hip. Neo–swing is nothing less than a pop culture revolt against the youth cultures of the last forty years. And unlike those youth fads, this is a movement that can flower as its practitioners age.
Unsurprisingly, the swing wave has already touched off reaction in the rock culture. There have been blasts from Rolling Stone, but the most scalding indictment came this spring in the pages of the Stranger, a Seattle–based weekly paper: "What does it mean that [young Americans] are fetishizing a period before rock and roll, before women’s liberation, before civil rights?" asks writer Juliette Guilbert.
The answer? That kids these days are women–hating racists who wish Donna Reed was their girlfriend and Amos ’n’ Andy were still on TV. Guilbert equates the sharp–dressed Sinatra worshipers of the ’90s to the blazer–and–tie neoconservative Buckleyites she avoided on her college campus in the 1980s: "They are all wearing suits, the same tyrannous outfits their fathers fought and bled and wore bell bottoms to get away from." In other words, the clothes make the culture: "Every level of our culture, from Monday Night Football to the New Yorker to people’s choice of bathroom fixtures, reflects and inflects social structures and attitudes about things like—to cite the Big Three—race, class, and gender." And as such, the current nostalgia is deeply racist: when told by one martini–sipper that she liked the idea of "a time when we were all together," Guilbert snaps, "The ‘we’ of this rose–tinted ’40s and ’50s included returning soldiers, pinup girls, housewives, bandleaders, the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, bobbysoxers, greasers—but not blacks."
Yet one thing that becomes clear after spending even one night on the dance floor is that these people are not racists; indeed, these kids positively adore black culture, almost to a fault. They worship original lindy–hopper Frankie Manning, still going at eighty–five, to say nothing of Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, and other golden age swing heroes. A few neo–jitterbuggers have made it their personal mission to see that these artists get the honor today that racism made difficult while they were alive.
But this isn’t good enough for Guilbert. OK, she writes, these people love black jazz, but only as represented by the mindless bounce of Dixieland and swing, the two earliest forms of jazz, and not the more esoteric and free–form bebop music of jazz giants like the late sax legend John Coltrane. "When John Coltrane gets left out of retro, it’s not just because you can’t dance to his music, but because he was a black intellectual, and intellectuals cannot be portrayed as instinct–driven darkies who let go of intellect. As has happened so often in the past, black culture is made into a simple–minded inoculation against the disturbing complexities of modern life. . . . It’s a rebellion against the ’60s." Astonishingly, Guilbert thinks the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong is not intellectual—as if the linear, Apollonian ride of a great swing chart is not as cerebral as the wilder Dionysian flights of bop. The real problem for rock and rollers who reject swing is that retro culture is striving not for a return to racism—the new dancers really are hooked on beats, which is why Coltrane doesn’t grab them—but a retreat from the kind of overcooked self–consciousness and smugness championed by rock ’n’ roll. If it wasn’t always, rock has become in its own way oppressive, with MTV preaching never–ending rebellion. Rap stars insist on "keeping it real," which often means never losing the anger and illiteracy found on the street.
What swing says, in a nutshell, is that the kids are sick of anger and irony. Somewhere along the way we discovered they like dancing, dressing in nice clothes, and having rituals to gradually get to know the opposite sex. On a recent PBS special celebrating Duke Ellington, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis noted that many old–time jazz musicians are coming up to him and delightedly asking, "Man, do you believe these kids are out here swingin’?"
You better believe it. This could be the start of something big.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is a contributing writer to New York Press and the author of a forthcoming book, The Home of Happy Feet: Swing, Suburbs, and the Rebirth of American Culture.