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A Scholar Reinterprets '60s Social Evolution


It's an irony that's long puzzled Alice Echols: For all of the '60s' noble "question authority" rhetoric, the decade of the long, strange trip often gets the rose-colored glasses treatment.

As memory fades, many of us, she contends, have been swept up by a touched-up '60s that's part Oliver Stone-esque impressionistic history, part remastered "Greatest Groovy Hits."

As this telling would have it, while hippies were turning on, radicals fought on the front lines of social and political change, sparking a groundswell. And by 1969--with the violence at a concert at Altamont--it was over. Revolutionary fervor morphed into shattered idealism. Revolution had somehow become "Saturday Night Fever."

But that familiar telling is too simplistic to Echols' ear.

A feminist lecturer and historian, she has taken it upon herself to reconsider the pieces. Those seemingly jarring turn of events, she suggests, aren't as illogical as they might seem. From academia to the airwaves and beyond, Echols often sees evidence of just how well we do or don't understand the '60s. Often, in the college classrooms where she lectures, she hears the criticism or question before it's voiced: "'I just want to know how we got from people protesting in the streets to disco!'" Echols relays in a wide-eyed pantomime. "I just smile because, of course, there was no discontinuity for me. This was completely continuous."

In her new book, "Shaky Ground: The Sixties and Its Aftershocks" (Columbia University Press, 2002), Echols looks at a continuum of social change that begins in the '50s and winds its way to present day--informing race, identity, sexuality and gender movements. Along this path, she deflates some iconic truths about the '60s and reinterprets phenomena such as disco and the knotty politics of identity as extensions of social movements with '60s roots.

For Echols, disco, a key '60s "aftershock," is an engine of social revolution. "It spoke to those not included in '60s rock culture: minorities, gays, women," she says, and provided a greater possibility for interracial connectedness than the hippie movement had been able to deliver. It wasn't an aberration. It was pivotal.

The '60s, she contends, wasn't the big bang, a "golden moment when the ideas and values of dominant culture were banished." Actually, says Echols, a lecturer in the women's studies program at UCLA, it was the spark. It may have started the conversations that led to change, she argues, but it didn't obliterate strict gender roles, didn't foster sincere openness to alternative lifestyles or fully realize racial integration and parity.

Providing a Link

for Disparate Theories

Boasting prodigious footnotes, "Shaky Ground" links the scattershot theories--early feminist treatises, Civil Rights oral histories, political memoirs and studies of the long-range influence of plugged-in rock 'n' roll--that poured forth over the last 40 years but have often only existed on parallel planes. Echols, 51, hopes to create a more layered rendering of the '60s and its legacy by braiding disparate strands into one volume.

Consequently, "Shaky Ground" is a bit bumpy. The book splinters from the weight of her desire to be far-reaching and inclusive. Ranging broadly in scope and tone, the book's academic essays on cultural versus radical feminism don't always seamlessly segue into, say, her alternative press Q&A with Lenny Kravitz or conversation with Joni Mitchell.

Despite its jaggedness, the collection is compelling when Echols mines unusual spaces--the hidden compartments of sexual ambiguity, the sweaty floors of disco- theques--to trace the far-reaching reverberations of post-'60s social movements. "There were all these '60s books coming out in the '80s," recalls Echols, casual, in jeans, t-shirt and well-traveled Merrell hiking shoes, brown hair wind-tousled. And as an academic who had adopted the decade as her field of study, she was knee-deep in them: histories, memoirs and essays written primarily by white, male veterans of the radical New Left who highlighted "'60s exceptionalism" and made the case that the decade was as singular as it was exemplary.

"Not that that isn't important," says Echols. But the sameness of the perspective began to wear on her. "I wanted to look at different areas--Janis Joplin, the women's movement, R&B--that have been trivialized or caricatured in histories of the '60s and render a more complicated meaning."

Simply put, she says, "I've always been involved in moving margins to the center."

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