No, seriously, they were. In fact, the sociopolitical importance of this famous 1950s-revival act has been an active area of scholarly research for years. The notion stretches back to 1990, when the Dead Milkmen, in their smash hit “In Praise of Sha Na Na,” from the album “Metaphysical Graffiti,” took the first faltering steps towards a theoretical assessment of Sha Na Na’s crucial role in shaping the 1960s and 1970s counter-counterculture. In view of the importance of this subject, I think the lyrics are worth quoting at length:
Sha Na Na were the kings of the sixties
Deep in your heart you know it’s true
All those kids at Berkeley dressed like Bowser
They didn’t like the Stones or the Who
Sha Na Na didn’t need no flower power
They didn’t drive a yellow submarine
But they were the ones who called the shots
Yeah, Sha Na Na really made the scene
Sha Na Na . . . killed Kennedy
Sha Na Na . . . stabbed that guy at Altamont
Sha Na Na . . . started the Peace Corps
Sha Na Na . . . were the first astronauts
Sha Na Na . . . grew organic food
Sha Na Na . . . led student sit-ins
Sha Na Na . . . joined the Black Panthers
Sha Na Na . . . never seemed to fit in
Now an article in the latest issue of Columbia College Today explains how a pair of college professors have expanded on the Dead Milkmen’s insight. (Sha Na Na was formed at Columbia in the spring of 1969; the article’s authors, brothers George and Robert Leonard, were original members of the group.) In 2004 Daniel Marcus, of Goucher College, published Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics, and two years later Elizabeth E. Guffey, of SUNY-Purchase, published Retro: The Culture of Revival. Each book contains a long section on Sha Na Na, and according to the CCT article, they make the same point: Sha Na Na was responsible for shaping — in fact, inventing — the sock-hop-’n’-malt-shop version of the 1950s that became a pop-culture staple in the 1970s.
What does this have to do with politics? As Marcus explains, during the run-up to the Reagan era, “Conservatives parlay[ed] the cultural nostalgia for the Fifties that had circulated in the 1970s into the basis for a political offensive.” In other words, Reagan’s election resulted from a yearning for a simpler time — one just like the synthetic memory of the 1950s that was being widely peddled at that moment through outlets like Grease and Happy Days. As the Leonards write: “By the 1980 Presidential election, America had embraced the dream of the Fifties as a pre-political Golden Age.” And Sha Na Na were the first ones to start that idea rolling. It was a three-step progression: Bowser to Fonzie to Bonzo.
This interpretation is open to challenge at both ends. The feeling that Jimmy Carter was not quite up to snuff may possibly have had something to do with Reagan’s election, and it’s not clear whether Sha Na Na invented the Faux Fifties or whether the phenomenon was just another example of the 20-year nostalgia rule under which, for example, the 1970s were revived in the 1990s and the 1980s are being revived in the 2000s (around NRO, at least). Still, the thesis has been studied in detail by a couple of certified academics, so it must be true. And, this being Columbia, the Leonard brothers invoke Susan Sontag, Eric Hobsbawm, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Jean Baudrillard in the course of their wide-ranging discussion of Sha Na Na’s societal influence.
So move over, Hayek, Goldwater, and Buckley. Your contributions to conservative thought were helpful, but it was Sha Na Na that put Reagan in the White House.