Ruthie Baker

How music television shows in the 1960s and 1970s reflected generational differences and challenged traditional family structure


Following the Second World War, there was a distinct gap between the older generation’s values and the now called “baby boomers” beliefs. The baby boomers, then children or young adults, seemed to challenge everything their parents expected of them including music taste, political views, family structure, and gender roles.

Especially in the 1960s, new ideas were emerging about gender roles and the traditional family structure.”Girl talk” music, like The Shirelle’s song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” was revolutionary in changing how female sexuality was represented publically. Romantic songs were typically sung from the male perspective, but girl Talk music allowed women to have a voice and discuss love and relationships from the female point of view, something that was previously unheard of. Around this same time, in 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, where she criticized stereotypical representation of women as meek, submissive, and content as housewives. She introduced what she called “the problem with no name,” meaning the dissatisfaction she and many other suburban mothers felt from the pressure to be homemakers and mothers. This threatened the existing ideal “nuclear family,” or the idea of having a mother, a father, and children all living happily in the same household.

Throughout the 1960s during the civil rights movement, the gay liberation movement and Stonewall riots of 1969, and into the 1970s when the Vietnam war was still being fought, the generational divide grew as protests and social justice became more mainstream. The popularity of Rock n’ Roll music, especially among teenagers created the new youth culture, and as a result, lead to the creation of new media reflecting these differences, especially in television programs intended for the youth like The Monkees and The Patridge Family. In this exhibit, I hope to analyze how music television from the 1960s and 1970s shows the conflict between generations, while also helping to challenge societal expectations of the time.

The Monkees

The Monkees Theme Song

“We’re the young generation and we’ve got something to say!”

The Monkees were a band that was created specifically for television. The show ran from 1966 until 1968 and was a comedy show inspired by the Beatles, but most of the actors could not play any instruments. Despite their lack of musical ability, the show was popular and it was more than just a show for children. Rosanne Welch, Cal State Fullerton lecturer in cinema and television, felt so strongly about the cultural importance of The Monkees she wrote a book called Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television, and American Pop Culture. She says, “In the ’60s, people in the know knew that this was something different and worth paying attention to.” The series has multiple episodes focusing on social justice, touching on the Vietnam War, communism, and poverty; all of the women on the show had jobs; the main characters were specifically designed to challenge the social expectations for men at the time right down to their hippie clothing and their long hair.

The theme song for the show even includes the line, “We’re the young generation and we’ve got something to say,” showing a clear generational gap. The theme song also has the lines, “We get the funniest looks from everyone we meet,” and “we’re just trying to be friendly.” The Monkees reflect the desire for the young generation to have a voice and be respected members of society.

Like their theme song, The Monkees have other songs that handle the separation the youth feel from their parents. Their song “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” expressed disdain with the monotonous, suburban life that has been previously considered ideal. The lyrics say,

“Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, Charcoal burning everywhere, Rows of houses that are all the same, And no one seems to care … Mothers complain about how hard life is, And the kids just don’t understand, Creature comfort goals, they only numb my soul … I need a change of scenery, Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, Here in status symbol land.”

This song clearly expresses generational differences with the line “the kids just don’t understand.” Additionally, the song shows unhappiness with the family and suburban life that the older generation worked hard to create after World War II. The “creature comfort goals,” meaning the nice house in a good neighboorhood, feel safe and numbing to The Monkees, and presumably to the young audience. Pleasant Valley Sunday recognizes the suburban ideal as meaningless and only a “status symbol” to show off who is the most wealthy, who has the most TV’s, who has the nicest garden. This song encourages listeners to challenge expectations and live outside of the safe, suburban world set up for them and does so on a television show intended for children and families.

The Partridge Family

The Original Theme Song for The Partridge Family
This song later replaced the “When We’re Singing”

Like The Monkees, the actors in The Partridge Family had little to no musical ability. Only two of the actors really sang while the rest lip-synched and pretended to play their instruments. Also like The Monkees, however, the show was very successful and well-liked. The show ran from 1970 until 1974 and followed the story of a single mother raising five children. In order to help their mom with money around the house, they decide to start a band. The original theme song as seen above features the quote,

“The five of us and mom working all day, we knew we could help her if our music could pay.”

Having the family be lead without a father present challenges the ideal “nuclear family.” Additionally, this line deals directly with economic instability and children wanting to help their parents through difficult financial times. The theme song was eventually changed to the more recognizable and more lighthearted “C’mon get happy,” but the show still deals with heavy topics. In one episode titled “My son, the feminist,” the Partridge Family Band goes to perform at a feminist rally in the neighborhood, but they face backlash from the neighboorhood’s adults.

My Son, the Feminist!

In this scene, Shirley tries to stand up for her children against the men and women who believe the feminist movement is dangerous. They worry that women will take jobs away from men, that the feminist movement is “trying to turn our girls into boys,” and even threaten to chase the Partridge family out of town.

Another episode titled “Not With My Sister, You Don’t!” deals with similar problems. The teenaged character Laurie agrees to go on a date with a boy who has a reputation for using girls. Laurie’s older brother Keith becomes overly protective, following them on their date, and telling Laurie she should not be dating a boy with such a reputation. Both Laurie and their mother Shirley tell him that he needs to back off.

Start at 4:20 and watch until 5:45

The Partridge Family dealt with real, adult conflicts in a way that was presented as a family show, challenging how women were viewed and supporting the feminist movement. Not every song or every episode of the Partridge Family deals with a revolutionary topic. Most of the songs are silly love songs, and the episodes show the kids getting into shenanigans that their mom must help them out of, but the fact that the show deals with any adult concerns like family structure and female autonomy was something very new for the time.

Happy Days

Although Happy Days did not center around a musical group like The Partridge Family and The Monkees, the television show does feature the characters creating a band and performing on the show, and the theme song reflects a desire to return to the good old days. Happy Days ran from 1974 until 1984 but takes place in the 1950s when most adults in the 70s were teenagers. Notably, the show does not challenge many societal expectations. The main character Richie Cunningham was meant to be the All-American high school boy. His parents were married; his mother was a homemaker and his father owned a hardware store. The theme song lyrics say, “These days are ours, Happy and Free, … Goodbye gray sky, hello blue, there’s nothing can hold me when I hold you.”

Happy Days Theme Song

Even though the show follows mostly traditional expectations, the generational conflict is still present. This show was designed to be a comedy for adults, rather than for children and the nostalgia for simpler times reflects the older generation’s unhappiness and discomfort with the beliefs and values of the younger generation.

Although Happy Days was meant to be lighthearted it did deal with some social issues, notably racism. In one episode, the Cunninghams have a Hawaiian luau party and Richie’s band is supposed to perform. However, when Cunningham’s friends find out that the band’s drummer, Sticks, and his girlfriend are black they refuse to attend the party. The other main character of the show Fonzie actually stands up for Sticks, even criticizing Richie for trying to play the hero.

Fonzie’s New Friend

Happy Days does reflect many outdated ideas of female domesticity and gender roles that may have offended men and women even back then, but it also tackles race in a way that was not common or expected, especially from such a “safe” show. In this scene, we see Richie Cunnighman step up to be angry and indignant saying, “If I want to have a colored person at my party then I will!” Fonzie pushes it further, however, challenging what many people then and even now would consider Richie’s appropriate response, saying that Richie should want Sticks to be at the party because he likes Sticks, not just because he wants to look good for having a “colored” person present.

Closing Remarks

The social changes of the 1960s and 70s, namely the civil rights movement, the gay liberation movement, second-wave feminism, and the creation of mainstream political protests brought about significant change in the ways race, gender, and sexuality were viewed. These changes are reflected even in the more conservative media, as I have argued with Happy Days. The generational divide and the new youth culture created new media, in particular, television programs intended for the youth like The Monkees and The Patridge Family which both reflected these generational differences and perpetuated social change in America in the 1960s and 1970s.