Look magazine gets the future hilariously wrong (2007)

The other day I wandered into a second-hand furniture store in downtown Victoria. The retro-bric a brac didn’t interest me, until I saw a stack of old magazines on a teardrop-shaped, Eisenhower-era coffee table.

The cover of a
Look magazine from 1964 caught my eye. A motion-blurred photo of dancing figures bore the legend: “The Twisted Age: today’s dances are only symbols of a mad and often frightening era.” You couldn’t make this stuff up, even back then. I snapped up the mag for five bucks.

Newsprint slowly burns up over time (the yellowing of the paper is through oxidization) but magazines can weather decades in dry storage environments. That’s good, because I consider weeklies and monthlies to be bonafide time capsules. Because they’re aimed at contemporary readers rather than archivists, magazines offer entertaining x-rays of their times’ most cherished shibolleths.

For a while, Look was serious competiton to Life magazine, with more than 75000,000 in circulation. By 1964, the editorial gatekeepers of this middlebrow mag sensed some troubling signs on the horizon. “It looks as if a new Jazz Age has arrived,” the cover story began. “Americans are dancing again, staying up late in night spots to do so, as they have not for many years. Girls are showing their knees, as they did with their rolled stocking tops and flying short skirts in the twenties.”

The horror. The author’s reefer madness angle on the twist, frug and funky chicken, is supported by “an expert on human behaviour,” insisting that ungrateful youth “are codifying language” into cliquish catchphrases and jargon. “The bop and bebop talk of a number of years ago, the names of current dances, are examples. So are the sick comedians, the fads for silly jokes like elephant stories, and the topless bathing suits.”

Judging from the many liquor ads in my copy, Look’s readers of yore were encouraged to get hammered on a regular basis. In the golden age of America’s dominator culture, it appears men were more in touch with the liquor cabinet than their own feelings. Perhaps a certain desire for oblivion was understandable at the time, given the early carnage in Vietnam, and the deadly marksmanship in Dealy Plaza. (In 1964,
Look and every other respectable publication genuflected before the Warren Commission, pronouncing the JFK assassination the isolated work of an ex-Army misfit.)

It’s easy to laugh at the schoolmarmish tone of Look’s writing, and the essayist’s inept triangulation of social trends that would soon explode the comfortable, Ozzie and Harriet cosmos of the postwar generation. But old magazines like Look have a lesson for us. We may pride ourselves on our retrospective smarts, but how silly will our official North American culture seem fifty years from now?

Years before Look’s
Twisted Age, the Boston newspaper reporter H.L. Mencken nailed it: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Two major, media-massaged fears of the sixties - the threat of international communism, and a “missile gap’ with the Soviets - proved to be based on deliberately exaggerated intelligence estimates. But what about today’s newshour dreads? It seems inevitable that one day many of them will be regarded as more laughable than legitimate.

Or perhaps not. Canada could stay on its present course for decades to come, playing spearcarrier to the US Globocop. We could end up with a shrunken middle class and a command economy driven by military procurement and private security. In which case, we probably won’t have the opportunity or the inclination to look back on our blinkered past, being stuck with a future that’s a bizarro fusion of Huxley’s
Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Then again, things might work out. At some point, our leaders at home may choose to grow up and stop signing us on to foreign campaigns and resource-gobbling trade deals. With luck, the thing under the bed (Bird flu, the human papillomavirus, al Qaeda) will seem as dated and daffy as Look magazine’s dancefloor apocalypse.

In some ways, the world is better than it was in 1964. On the plus side, we have far more media options today than our parents ever did. We have the Internet, with all its mixed blessings. Long gone are the days when National Geographic was the family resource for foreign lands, and Walter Cronkite was the kindly uncle speaking from a glowing corner in the living room. 1964 was nice place to visit, via a magazine from a used furniture shop, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I’m hoping fifty years from now, another generation will be able to say the same thing about our own twisted times.

Geoff Olson