If you’re like me you’ve probably grown up with the narrative that the ‘60s and ‘70s were the greatest time ever for music with artists taking inspiration from the turmoils of the moment like Vietnam, civil rights, discrimination, etc. These artists created great songs that spoke to how they and the young baby boomer generation were feeling as history lessons constantly tell us. It’s this kind of connection between music and history that you don’t see for any other era in recent music. You’re not gonna see “Smells Like Teen Spirit” show up in a textbook when talking about the end of the Cold War.
With decades of nonstop boomer nostalgia and historical remembrances, it’s easy to feel dismissive when people talk about how great music was in this era and how it tackled the serious issues of the day considering where we are now. Sure, lots of great music was coming out that spoke to how people were feeling but it’s not like music has ever solved these issues. The Vietnam War may be history but other topics like poverty, racism, and sexism are sadly still going on today with the last year showing a renewed commitment and movement toward tackling these problems that people were speaking out against 50 years ago. It’s topics like these that become a major backdrop in Apple TV’s new documentary series on the music scene of 1971 with the overly pretentious title 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything.
Despite what the title would have you believe, 1971 isn’t about the music of 1971 as it’s more about how the society of 1971 impacted the music. Adapted from David Hepworth’s book 1971: Never a Dull Moment: The Year That Rock Exploded, the series, over eight episodes, focuses on the main narrative we hear going from the ‘60s into the ‘70s in the fallout of the hippie movement with events like the Manson killings, Altamont, the Beatles breakup, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, political assassinations, Kent State massacre, the continuation of the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon in the White House bringing a dark end to the era of peace and love. All that hope and promise that the ‘60s represented was now turning into disappointment and cynicism by 1971. In music and in the larger world, people were figuring out how to respond to this uncertain reality and what was going to happen next.
We see lots of artists that were active in one way or another during 1971 with a different theme for each episode. Some were already established legends who released career-defining works like John Lennon, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Sly and The Family Stone, and The Who while some were rising superstars like Elton John, David Bowie, Bill Withers, Alice Cooper, T. Rex, and Carole King. Throughout the series, we hear from the artists and various people on the making of their music and how it related to what people were feeling in 1971. The series then shows lots of the major events and cultural battles and movements in both the United States and in the United Kingdom that went on that year trying to relate it to the music coming out.
That last part highlights my main issue with this series in how it advertises itself about music while also showing the larger society in 1971 it can come across as very unfocused as to what it’s trying to be. As a Vulture review perfectly notes, on one hand, it’s trying to be a serious Ken Burns documentary series while on the other hand, it’s trying to be a VH1 Behind The Music special. Sure, it’s cool to see and hear about these great artists and the stories behind the music they were making and how they felt about where things were in 1971 but then we’re subjected to long segments regarding British sex education battles, Stanford prison experiment, and the changing nature of the American family that doesn’t have much to do with the music that’ll make you wonder whether you’re watching a music series or a general historical series.
Not all the music and historical connections are out of place. The opening scene of the Kent State Massacre with the Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde describing her experience as a student at the university and the anti-war attitude of her generation with the fiery response song “Ohio” from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young playing immediately immerses you into the feel of the period. Most notably, they highlight the work of Black artists and how they managed to tap into the Black Power movement of the period writing songs about the struggles of Black people while playing their part in the movement. They also show the rise of glam rock and how its androgynous nature went against the macho rock scene and the conservative older generation. There’s also a cultural clash with President Nixon at a White House performance declaring his love of square music before one such act, the Ray Conniff Singers, comes on stage and rightfully goes after him on his military actions in Vietnam and Cambodia. All those moments do make you realize how in close conversation music and the larger society were in this period.
Another issue with the series comes in its accuracy in telling the story of music in 1971. These simplified tellings of history into little eras can be easy to discuss but can also be entirely misleading on the true nature of the period. As with most period pieces on the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, they tend to focus more on the more serious music coming out highlighting artists in rock, folk, and soul. While many of us remember this period as being about classic rock and R&B, when you look closely at the music charts of the period, you’ll find that the hit songs weren’t always about music that meant something despite what the boomers would have you believe. On Billboard’s year-end chart for 1971, you’ll find some of the major classics mentioned but you’ll also find a bunch of sleepy easy listening and cheesy AM pop that wind up on Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks.
The only time this music gets mentioned is when the Osmonds are profiled as a conservative backlash to the socially charged music of the period with member Donny Osmond stating that maybe people needed some wholesomeness. (He also says he really wanted to be Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Sly Stone which is funny to think about.) But what the filmmakers don’t mention is that the Osmonds were part of a wave of inoffensive bubblegum pop at the turn of the ‘70s with the Jackson 5 and the Partridge Family also leading the bunch with the Osmond brothers. The Carpenters were also scoring big heavily orchestrated easy listening hits at this time with their Close To You album ranking behind Jesus Christ Superstar and Tapestry among the best-selling albums of the year. And elsewhere other artists were getting big with mellower-sounding material showing where pop music was really going in the early ‘70s. They could have gone further on this analysis by dedicating a whole episode to the inoffensive and mellow nature of music in 1971 and how it acted as a reaction to the turmoil going on at the time.
Even within rock music, the series omits some important acts. One such omission is Led Zeppelin who released their best-selling and acclaimed fourth album in 1971 that features their most famous song “Stairway To Heaven.” There’s also no Rod Stewart who broke out as a solo artist from the Faces with one of the biggest hits of the year “Maggie May” while his album Never A Dull Moment gave the original book its title. We see John Lennon and George Harrison adapting to their post-Beatles career while Paul McCartney is dismissed as someone lost and not able to catch up to his bandmates despite releasing Ram with his wife Linda giving him his first US solo #1 with “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” Granted, the album wasn’t a critical hit like with most of Paul’s solo work at the time but its recent 50th-anniversary remembrances show that Ram has held up as an influential piece of work.
The team behind 1971, Asif Kapadia, James Gay-Rees, and Chris King, are the same team behind 2015’s acclaimed Oscar-winning Amy documentary on Amy Winehouse and from watching that you can see what made that piece work in a way that 1971 doesn’t. The two pieces share the same elements with lots of footage, voiceovers, and putting the lyrics on-screen to highlight a certain moment. Those styles do work in 1971 especially the footage with many in such clear quality that it almost looks like someone shot it today. It all looks great. But what ultimately makes Amy better over 1971 is that it has a clear focus on its subject rather than trying to connect a bunch of things that may not have much connection to each other and getting far away from its subject.
Overall, 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is a series I want to like in being a look back at the amazing artists and music that came out at a pivotal moment in world history. At some points, it does deliver giving us a fascinating insight into the year and the creative process behind many of these classic works. But at other points, it’s a series that’s too caught up in its own boomer mythology to provide an accurate depiction of music in 1971 especially when we hear people like Elton John say there won’t be a creative burst like 1971 again. A lot of the music highlighted is great and still holds up a half-century later but as someone who’s grown up hearing over and over about how music back then was the greatest it’s ever been, a series like this can feel overblown no matter how entertaining it is.
1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is currently available to stream on Apple TV+