Readers my age and older will probably remember the mercilessly schmaltzy clean-cut stylings of a musical outfit called Up With People from the Superbowl half-time shows of our youth. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a hair-raising visual reminder:
Video footage of their 1982 halftime performance is here. It’s basically totalitarian kitsch personified.
In time, Up With People was appropriately satirized by The Simpsons, who introduced a fictitious musical outfit of wholesome go-getters called ‘Hooray For Everything’. In retrospect, this seems to be of a piece with the show’s scorched-earth fight with then-president George H. W. Bush. Bush, who in fact had Up With People perform at his inauguration, announced his intention to make American families ‘more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons’. The Simpsons responded by basically lampooning him to high hell, first through several clever sneak-attacks and through then an entire episode after he was voted out of office in what was probably the most unwatchable Simpsons installment ever:
What I only learned recently, via Rick Pearlstein’s Nixonland, is that Up With People was not just some random schmaltzy irrelevancy but in fact a significant cultural artifact from the Vietnam era. Conservative youth groups, outraged at the media attention paid to war protesters, founded Up With People to provide a counterpoint. ‘If we’re going to debunk the myth of a soft, indulgent, arrogant American and show the world that we care about tomorrow, we’ve got to sing out our convictions, loud and strong,’ said a Republican organizer in 1966. In 1965, Up With People made their debut at a World’ Fair, emceeded by none other than Pat Boone (shown here in his later leather incarnation that earned him reprobation from his Christianist following:)
What’s amazing in retrospect is that, given their partisan origins, Up With People were granted the largest media platform in American culture- the Superbowl half-time show- well into the 1980s. Looking through their bio, it seems that the Bush Sr. inauguration moment was (thankfully) their last moment of cultural relevancy, after which they were doomed to a circuit of country fairs and dorky Cold War-era feelgood diplomacy missions.
Incidentally, Nixonland is also indispensable at bringing to life the 60s origins of another 80s icon, Ronald Reagan. “You know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” he gaffed, delightfully, in 1965. Then again, one must give him credit for his better lines: “He would tell young people harassing him with sings reading MAKE LOVE NOT WAR that the problem was that they looked incapable of doing either.” Credit where credit is due.