Over the years most socialists have argued that in order for the radical transformation of capitalist society to take place, the emergence of a “new man” would be necessary. To them this meant a socially conscious man who understood the contradictions of capitalist society as traditionally conceived — i.e., a man who understood his role as an alienated laborer, who understood the reasons for that alienation, and who would move to end that alienation through radical political activity. These men failed to see man in his totality as an economic, social and cultural being.
The latter half of the 1960’s saw the beginnings of the development of a new historical approach which was primarily focused on the youth culture. This culture, as well as the political practice of the New Left, can be viewed as insurgent in the sense that it almost totally rejected the values associated with bourgeois culture. If we are to accept the thesis of Herbert Marcuse, this insurgent culture in the face of advanced industrial capitalist society becomes extremely important in the context of the real possibilities for making a revolution in this country. It is therefore important in the following sense: man is more than just a factory laborer. The bourgeoise recognized this very early in the development of the American political economy. With the movement towards shorter hours and higher wages in the early years of the 20th century it became clear that in order to maintain the capitalist system two things would be necessary: (a) the control of man outside the factory in order to desensitize him for factory life as worker; and (b) the creation of new domestic markets in order to perpetuate capitalist modes of production — which meant creating consumer man.
The important point here is to understand that this “cultural consciousness” or coming-to-consciousness through culture does have a history, ahistory that is the result of the dialectical tension between a particular social group coming to consciousness in and through their cultural praxis and an oppressive and manipulative bourgeoisie constantly attempting to seize the culture and turn it against itself. For the bourgeoisie, control of the culture means not only controlling man outside of the factory (in the case of youth outside the school and family), but it also means producing new social relations; creating a new man — a mass consumer man. What I therefore propose to do is examine the history of the development of the youth culture in terms of its music (“rock culture,” if you will) in light of its relationship to the emergence of social consciousness within the broader context of monopoly capitalism and twentieth century history.
II – THE ROOTS
Rock culture begins in exploitation and appropriation. In the late 1940’s, the big band era, which had carried a generation through one war and was readying them for another, was on the decline. Much of the black big band sound had been effectively co-opted by the Paul Whitemans of the day in order to make it palatable to the white consciouness. A sound that began around the turn of the century in New Orleans ghettos, which evolved into ragtime and ultimately into the black big bands, had been, in effect, turned into its opposite — music by whites for whites — and drained of any critical social content. A more contemporary example of a similar phenomenon is the Boston Pops treatment of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
At the same time this sound was collapsing, the more vibrant elements of black music were coalescing with what was left of the big band into a new form. These elements included blues both rural and urban. The urban blues were simply the rural blues ghettoized as the blacks went north in search of the promised land and found Chicago instead. Out of these roots came the great black rock ‘n’ roll artists of the 1950’s — Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles and others. The other elements were gospel, which had always been a part of black history and was very close to the blues; jazz, which again was very close to the blues and also was the black version of the big band sound; and lastly, the boogie piano. Those elements coalesced in the late 1940’s, and in the early 1950’s they were given the name rock ‘n’ roll.
At the same time a large social group was developing whose consciousness was the receptive element for this music — the youth. Their backgrounds were predominantly new working class. With the exception of the blacks this group was perhaps the most disenfranchised at the time.
These were the formative years of the knowledge factory (the incipient megaversity) and the defense industry as institutional safety valves for surplus manpower. As the Rowntrees state in The Political Economy of Youth:
While civilian employment during 1950-65 increased only 2% as a proportion of adult population, students and military personnel during the same period increased by 6.4% as a proportion of adult population. The defense and education industries are particularly suited to absorb workers almost indefinitely, and the workers they absorb are primarily young. In 1965, almost three-fourths of the armed forces were under thirty and 56% were under twenty-five. Almost all students are under thirty-five and about 95% are between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four. The task of absorbing the surplus of the United States economy has therefore increasingly fallen on the shoulders of young people.
In 1950 the need to go to college was not as great among working class youth as it was to be ten years later. This meant for many of them dropping out of high school. In fact it was almost a status symbol to drop out and take a job in a service station. The defense industry was of course hard at work in Korea, but the level of social consciousness was so low that it was almost a status symbol to join up and fight the Communists! These attitudes are not uncommon in many traditional working class areas today; however, among the working class youth in the factories or in the armed forces, strong positions against the draft, racism and U. S. imperialism are developing.
Needless to say, under McCarthyism organized labor and the Old Left had either retreated or moved to the right of liberalism. There was little happening that spoke in any way to the actual lives of these young people. Rock ‘n’ roll came into being in opposition to this bourgeois culture and although able to relate to youth, the relationships that were formed were for the most part controlled by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie recognized the necessity to control something which was potentially dangerous to them. They also saw the potential for new markets. The latter meant the attempted destruction of the liberating aspects of culture and the construction of repressive social relations in order to meet productive needs.
In the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll this practice on the part of the bourgeoisie took the form of exploitation and appropriation. As indicated, the music was appropriated from blacks and performed by whites primarily for whites. An obvious example is Big Mama Thornton’s song “Hound Dog.” She sold her rights to the song for $500.00. Elvis Presley sold over two million copies and Big Mama Thornton never received another penny.
This type of exploitation and commoditization served a number of purposes from the point of view of the bourgeoisie. First, it took what was potentially some of the most critical and subversive music (namely, black blues), drained it of its critical content and turned it into its opposite to buttress the status quo. Secondly, it provided for new domestic markets. What could be better? Once could control people through their culture and even make a profit from it. However, for the capitalist there were a number of contradictions involved which outline the beginnings of the struggle by youth to find themselves in and through their cultural practice in the face of bourgeois manipulation.
III – NEW FORMS, OLD CONTENT
Around 1953-54, the contradiction between what the songs were originally and what the songs were as presented by the media was becoming apparent. The static styles of those who passed for rock ‘n’ rollers were no longer tolerable to growing numbers of young people. As Jonathan Eisen put it: “Rock music was born of a revolt against the sham of Western culture; it was direct and gutsy and spoke to the senses. As such, it was profoundly subversive. It still is.”
This change signalled the recognition of black influence in rock ‘n’ roll, but it was not at this time the recognition of black as black, but black as white. That is to say, with the exception of a few artists, almost all of the black rock ‘n’ roll artists who achieved any notoriety whatsoever did not sing about anything that was even remotely related to the black experience. Many of the songs projected an idealism that was almost religious. What had developed was a new form, but this form was infused with the old content. First of all, most of the problems dealt with in the songs were false problems in the sense that they centered around “boy-girl” relations in a false way. The situations were superficially romantic and tended toward the view that all the problems in the world would be solved “When We Get Married.”
The focus on interpersonal and boy-girl relations worked well in the interest of the bourgeoisie who could control the youth and at the same time create the mass consumer man, or in this case, youth. All of one’s energies were channelled into these pseudo-problem areas, and the biggest problem was not the kind of society that forces the fetishization of one’s sexuality, but simply can one make it with Marsha on Saturday night? Furthermore, the social relations were of course not healthy ones. There was almost no real sexuality and everything was defined as neat and clean — “malt-shop romances.” Given this, the control factor for the bourgeoisie was not very problematic. In “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” Marcuse puts it rather well when he states:
Release of sensuality would be release of enjoyment, which presupposes the absence of guilty conscience and the real possibility of gratification. In bourgeois society, such a trend is increasingly opposed by the necessity of disciplining discontented masses. The internalization of enjoyment through spiritualization therefore becomes one of the decisive tasks of cultural education. By being incorporated into spiritual life, sensuality is to be harnessed and transfigured. From the coupling of sensuality and the soul proceeds the bourgeois idea of love.
At the same time the consumerization of youth was progressing well. Besides the usual cultural items such as radios and records, one had to have the “right” commodities (mouthwash, acne cream, hair tonic, etc.) in order to make it socially. Mass consumer youth was being created. As Gordon H. Allport, the noted existential psychologist, stated: “Our consciousness of ourselves is largely a reflection of the consciousness others have of us. My idea of myself is rather my own idea of my neighbor’s view of me.”
IV – PROGRESSIVE DIRECTIONS
Nevertheless, there was struggle, and in the face of “malt-shop romanticism” there emerged with and through this music two progressive elements: sensuality (though channelled) and rebellion (though primitive), and concomitantly a growing sense of community; that is in the struggle of the youth to become itself, to seek an identity over and apart from the mass consumerization, can be found the beginnings of social consciousness.
The sensual element came primarily through the musical form and especially in the work of black rock ‘n’ roll artists. The heavy upbeat rhythms, shouts and screams, and bodily movements in the face of a somber and rational white culture that was totally anti-sensual, was a progressive step. Dancing was serving to bring to consciousness the recognition of one’s body; it was an unsophisticated attempt to overcome mind-body alienation. Eldridge Clever wrote in Soul on Ice: “Bing Crosbyism, Perry Comoism and Dinah Shoreism had led to cancer, and the vanguard of white youth knew it.”
The history of rock ‘n’ roll dance is the history of the emergence of a more liberating sensuality until in the late 1960’s the dance began to almost totally reject all traditional western forms and refused to be structured even within the standardized confines of more extreme forms.
Most white and black rock ‘n’ roll groups evidenced this emerging sensuality in terms of form. Probably the best example artistically was Little Richard. His performances in person were an attempt to introduce the subject into what was purely an object-to-object relation. The song was Little Richard — he moved, sweated and screamed. Some of his songs were overt in their sexual references and were banned from the radio. The following are examples of some of the more reactionary measures taken at the time:
Houston — The Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Commision
banned over fifty songs in one of its weekly purges.
Chicago — A radio station broke rock ‘n’ roll records over
the air as a daily ritual.
Washington — A Senate subcommittee began looking into the
correlation between rock ‘n’ roll and juvenile
New York — Variety, in an editorial entitled “A Warning to
the Music Business,” said “The most casual look at the current crop of lyrics must tell even the most naive that dirty postcards have been translated into song.”
The other element that has been termed progressive in this music was the primitive rebellion that helped build a sense of youth solidarity. Most of the social commentary was very low-level with an almost total lack of historical analysis. But it spoke to the youth who were experiencing a tremendous sense of estrangement. The comments were primarily directed at the authority figures — parents, teachers, and the social system in general. Those groups, most notably the Silhouettes, the Coasters, and Fats Domino, were speaking to a frustrated youth, but once again contained within the traditional structures of dissent.
It must be mentioned that one artist, Chuck Berry, did transcend this. While never quite reaching the level of protest songs of the 1960’s, Berry “told it like it was.” His song “No Particular Place to Go” sang of youthful alienation. “Almost Grown” told of having to give up the youth scene in order to make it in the establishment. As the Rowntrees put it: “. . .the young have taken the mark of their oppression — their youth — and turned it into a signal by which to recognize the fellows with whom they wish to express solidarity.”
Chuck Berry was a self-conscious rock ‘n’ roll artist. He was one of the few who had a sense of history and intuitively grasped the tension between the culture which contained the rudimentary elements of liberation and the society which repressed these possibilities. This is captured well in Berry’s song “School Days,” from the album “Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade.”
Soon as three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books
Get out of the seat
Up to the corner and around the bend
Right to the juke joint you go in.
With this kind of music it was very easy to see how a sense of community was beginning to develop. People began to recognize that the problems they were experiencing were not just their own individual ones. This musical social comment evolved dialectically. The form of the music came into being in opposition to the traditional forms. The new form thus required an alteration of the content and as the musical history proceeded and the content became more meaningful, new forms were again required, as we shall see.
V – HEROES
The individualism and inarticulateness of the 1950’s were objectified into a number of “heroes.” Marlon Brando in the Wild Ones was such a hero. James Dean was another. Dean was an anti-hero who saw sham and phoniness for what it was. He experienced in his own life, as well as on the screen, the social problems that youth were confronting, but again it was on an individualistic and internalizing, or inarticulate, basis: “James Dean expressed in his life and films the needs of adolescent, individuality which, asserting itself, refused to accept the norms of the soul-killing and specialized life that lay ahead.”
As the title of one of his films indicates, James Dean expressed A Rage to Live against a society that was dehumanizing people every day. In James Dean, youth was able to identify authenticity and relate to it, albeit on an individualistic level, in terms of their own lives.
Another hero of the ’50’s was Elvis. His major contribution to the devloping culture was the emphasis on a well controlled sexuality. However, his negative contributions surpassed his positive ones. Elvis Presley served first of all as excellent testimony to the individualistic ethic that in this society, any poor boy can make it. Most of Elvis’ movies used this as a theme. This was an attempt to give further credence to a system that was becoming suspect to many youth. Needless to say, Elvis being drafted was still another buttress to the system in the form of the rapidly developing defense industries. Secondly, since the myth was that anyone could make it, many of the youth attempted to. This resulted in a further consumerization of culture in that musical instruments, sheet music, copyrights, and the like became important cultural necessities. This type of consumerization grew to tremendous proportions during the late 1960’s. One almost had to belong to some sort of singing group or own an electric guitar in order to maintain social acceptance. Thus, new needs were created and met within the dominant structure of advanced industrial capitalism. Moby Grape put it well in their song “Naked If I Want To,” from their first album, in which they sang: “Can I buy an amplifier / On time? / I ain’t got no money now / But I will pay before I die.”
Although rock ‘n’ roll was the dominant popular musical trend in the 1950’s, there were a number of other cultural and musical thrusts that should be mentioned. First, there was the Ginsberg/Kerouac phenomenon, which was essentially a very parochial middle-class rebellion on an intellectual level. Their rebellion took creative forms. Instead of beating up a school teacher, they dropped out, took drugs, read, wrote poetry, and hit the road. Second, there was the urban blues, which did not gain any real audience until the 1960’s. Third, was the other “popular” musical form — country and western. Country and western, like rock ‘n’ roll, contained many contradictions. On the one hand its roots were honest, straight-forward and human, as witnessed in the early Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams, but much of it was to be perverted by country and western entrepreneurs and turned into a commodity. It was to be all form and no content.
In the late 1950’s “ordinary” rock ‘n’ roll had reached perhaps its all-time low, both in form and content. Chuck Berry was in jail and Little Richard had “found” religion. The best rock ‘n’ roll music at this time had its expression in country and western. The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly are the two best examples, being able to convey an honesty in both form and content. Parallel with this was the emergence of Hollywood folk music by such groups as the Brothers Four, the Highwaymen, Christy Minstrels, Chad Mitchell Trio and others. It was, to be sure, a new form, but one that could easily be controlled and channelled. The music of the folk singers was semi-hip and sometimes funny, but rarely political in so far as they did not embody the frustrations and imbalances of their generation. They were neat, well-scrubbed and certainly all-American with a capital “A.”
The new musical forms beginning to emerge in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s reached out to a rediscovery of new cultural roots. Lawrence Goldman put it this way:
. . . the folk music world was composed to a large extent of the rebellious children of ex-radical middle-class families. These families had once been active, often in support of causes associated with the Communist Party. They were still sympathetic to radicalism and regarded themselves, whether they were active or not, as “progressive.” It should be remembered in the 1950’s the Left consisted of a small band of harried and desperate people, divided by ancient quarrels, persecuted by the McCarthyites, abused by the cold war liberals and betrayed by the Khrushchev Report and the Hungarian Revolution. They were tired, impotent, and unsure of where they were going.
To protect and preserve itself, the Left created a series of myths which, though originally based on a careful analysis of the political situation, had become, after a time, a means of avoiding reality. The Left came to talk of the Negro rather than Negroes, of the Worker, rather than Workers, of the Thirties, rather than the Fifties, and of the People, rather than people. The folk music world was one of the few places left in American cultural life where those myths still retained their emotional force.
This abstract analysis, while reflecting a more advanced level of social awareness than that of the 1950’s, was basically a liberal view. The system in general was fine; all that was necessary was the integration of the disenfranchised (usually thought of as the “Southern Blacks”) into it. Once again we see the control of the politically disenfranchised, through the culture that itself was kept within the context of reformist politics.
The new music, nevertheless, was clearly an advancement over the old. Much of the thrust of the folk scene can be viewed as a part of the cultural struggle to overcome the enforced capitalist consumer society. The immediate appreciation of, for example, the Kingston Trio, and their eventual rejection in favor of more “authentic” folk singers accomplished two things. First, it indicated the culture was evolving to new and greater artistic standards, and secondly, it led to a recognition of a totally different set of social values which were almost untouched by the advanced technology and led to more human ways of being. Instead of the immediacy of jumping around to loud music, folk music can be seen as the mediation between the fundamentally inarticulate rock of the ’50’s and the heavily articulate rock of the ’60’s.
VI – DYLAN
The form of the newly emerging folk music was of the traditional folk form and the consciousness transmitted by these songs were for the most part the aspirations of moderate liberalism. One of the new young folk artists who was able to break through these restrictions was Bob Dylan. Dylan’s development from the early 1960’s to the present remarkably parallels the development and consciousness of the youth culture and the concomitant development of the New Left. In this sense, Bob Dylan was making history and history was making Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s move to the East was primarily a result of his disenchantment with the barrenness of Minnesota. His own history was one of a constant search for new cultural and musical forms. He therefore came East as an eclectic who was well-versed in almost all the musical strains of the 1950’s. He had a strong feeling for the blues, country and western (particularly Hank Williams) and the best of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll. His folk hero was Woody Guthrie, who represented perhaps the best of the Old Left folk tradition (“This guitar kills fascists,” was a Guthrie motto) but Dylan himself, along with other young people, was developing a new genre which struggled against the bourgeoisification of popular music and culture, but also against the old folk forms themselves. This new form was the urban folk culture.
During the early stages in the development of this movement, Dylan seized upon the traditional forms and contents. Dylan, however, had a tremendous sense of history. He was acutely aware of the contradictions of society and the limitations of confining oneself to a style that was historically obsolete in form and content. About his subsequent move to more topical music, Dylan wrote in a letter to Dave Glover:
I’m singin’ an writin’ what’s on my own mind now — What’s in my own head and what’s in my own heart. I’m singin’ for me an a million other me’s that’ve been forced t’gether by the same feeling. . . Don’t think I go way out a my way not t’ sing folk songs — that ain’t it at all — The folk songs showed me the way they showed me that songs can say somethin’ human.
As Dylan’s consciousness grew in and through his songs, so did his following. It was through the infusion of contemporary content into traditional forms that Dylan was able to begin to build a mass base of young people who felt essentially the same way. Antonio Gramsci, the noted Italian Marxist, describes this phenomenon: “It is still the culture of a narrow intellectual aristocracy which is able to meet the youth only when it becomes immediately and topically political.”
Many of the folk people were socially involved; that is, their praxis reflected the distaste for the problems of America and the attempt to correct them — usually within the system. A great many of these people refused to work, though many did engage in what they considered to be meaningful work, such as social projects, Southern voter registration and writing for topical folk magazines, including Broadside and Sing Out, which were the forerunners of underground newspapers. In terms of these social and musical confines, Dylan’s struggle as a self-conscious artist with a deep feeling for history can be viewed as an attempt to break through these restrictions, to explode old forms and create new ones within the context of a growing social awareness. In “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” it is the “system” that produces racism and must be brought to task. In “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol,” it is the class nature of justice that was exposed, and in “With God on Our Side” and “Masters of War,” it is the religious buttress of militarism and war profiteers that were respectively indicted. But, as Dylan’s development indicates, there was much more to be said and a larger audience to be reached.
Although the urban folk culture was growing and the limitations of both liberalism and traditional folk music were being brought into question, the youth actually involved in this folk scene only represented a small fraction of the nation’s youth. The blacks, through people like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, were also realizing that positive change in society is not effected through white liberalism, but through organized struggle and resistance by they themselves.
The Rowntrees captured the temper of the times when they wrote that:
The off-campus New Left also reached a turning point in 1965. Following Selma, S.N.C.C. moved from non-violence to self-defense and black power . . . it became clear to many young people that their emphasis on spontaneity and grassrooots activity had led them into a reformist dead end. Many saw that isolated projects, no matter how radical in themselves, could not become revolutionary. In the reassessments and reorientations of the last three years, youth have turned their attention back to the schools and to the promotion of the more militant class forms of action that have emerged in recent times.
Musically, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had hit the nation with “good old rock ‘n’ roll,” though more amplified and topical. Their early music was based on the best of the ’50’s, but was almost totally devoid of social content. This was the music of the majority of youth and since it was very easily marketed, this was where mass consumerization was concentrated. Dylan, originally a critic of this music, moved to a new position. He saw the necessity for change not just “down South,” but here in the cities as well. This realization by Dylan, that the necessity for change which was not localized but rather national in scope, precipitated a new form. This new form, electrified urban rock ‘n’ roll, was once again another instance of the old forms (in this case urban folk) not being able to support new content. Dylan’s earlier views were primarily within the liberal framework, and as his social consciousness grew so did his antipathy for liberalism. In his first major interview, in 1964, Dylan expressed this when he said:
I fell into a trap once — last December, when I agreed to accept the Tom Paine award from the Emergency Civil Rights Committee. At the Americana Hotel! In the Grand Ballroom! They looked even funkier than I did, I guess. . . I looked down from the platform and saw a bunch of people who had nothing to do with my kind of politics. They were supposed to be on my side, but I didn’t feel any connection with them. Here were these people who’d been all involved with the Left in the thirties, and now they were supporting civil rights. That’s groovy, but they also had minks and jewels, and it was like they were giving money out of guilt. . . And then I started talking about friends of mine in Harlem — some of them junkies, all of them poor. And I said they need freedom as much as anybody else, and what’s anybody doing for them.
Here was not only a critique of liberalism but an indictment of Old Left forms. Dylan was struggling not only to break out of old musical forms, but also through the old political forms. Dylan was practicing what Marcuse was later to call “the new sensibility.”
The significance of Dylan’s break should not be underestimated. Even so dynamic a movement as that centering around the Wobblies was unable to effect a break with their traditional folk forms — they simply inserted new content. See for example two of Joe Hill’s most famous songs, “Casey Jones and the Union Scab,” and “We Will Sing One Song,” whose tunes were respectively the original railroad ballad “Casey Jones” and Steven Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”
What was Dylan able to accomplish by this move? First, he was able to reach more people. Some of his songs, such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” did get on the radio and thus more people became aware that Dylan was articulating the frustrations that many young people were experiencing daily. This carried through what had begun to develop in the late 1950’s: a sense of community, the restrictions previously imposed by the internalization of problems were being shattered. A genuine critical consciousness was emerging. In this way the music also transcended the mediocrity and plasticity of the late ’50’s and early ’60’s.
It was not only what Dylan said, but also how he said it, that characterized another of his contributions to the development of social awareness. Marcuse has argued that our universe of discourse is closed and that one way of attempting to keep it closed is by a repressive language — a language that is positivistically based, static, abstract, and at almost every instance turns the abstract concepts of liberation into their opposites in practice. It is therefore clear that any culture which attempts a revolutionary change will have as one of its major tasks the liberation of language. Here Dylan was able to take the abstract language that had almost no relation to anything and reify it within the practical experience of an evolving youth culture. In almost every phrase, in almost every song on Highway 61 and Bringing It All Back Home there was some sort of critical perspective. He expressed this in a semi-surreal imagery, but to Dylan’s following, the world was surreal. Heart attack machines were being strapped across the shoulders of the people in this society; people who sang with their tongues of fire did gargle in the rat-race choir. In this context, it is interesting to note that Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were also able to relate the black experience to Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” George Metefsky points out:
[Dylan’s] surreal rock reached the mass of U.S. youth with a revolutionary message: escape from “rational, liberal discourse” into real super-intense experience. Instead of slogans, he created poetry that people listened to again and again, straining after the seductive lyric until they freaked right out of middle-class consciousness into sudden understanding.
Marcuse makes a similar point:
The new sensibility and the new consciousness which are to project and guide. . . [social] reconstruction demand a new language to define and communicate the new “values” (language in the wider sense which includes words, images, gestures, tones). It has been said that the degree to which a revolution is developing qualitatively different social conditions and relationships may perhaps be indicated by the development of a language: The rupture with the continuum of domination must also be a rupture with the vocabulary of domination.
With these breakthoughs evolved higher standards for the artists. The music had to be relevant to the developing critical consciousness. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had to relate to the times. The Beatles focused on alienation in songs such as “Baby’s In Black” and “Eleanor Rigby;” mysticism, in “Within You, Without You” and “Tommorrow Never Knows;” and fun, in songs such as “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’s Garden.” The Rolling Stones were considerably more pointed in their attacks. For example, their song “Satisfaction” was almost a complete social indictment. “Mother’s Little Helper” focused on the necessity for drugs as a buffer to an oppressive social system, and “Paint It Black” ended in a kind of nihilism. In capturing a sense of alienation, Simon and Garfunkel were perhaps the best.
However, once again the tension between a culture attempting to assert itself and a system attempting to destroy it by co-optation emerged. Just as “good old rock ‘n’ roll” was subverted as much as possible in order to further inculcate the consumer’s mentality, it was now folk-rock that became the vehicle for this process. As Metefsky says in regard to Dylan:
Dylan’s use of profit-oriented media to spread this revolutionary message established both the dominant pattern of hip activism, and the foremost contradiction within the hip movement. Indeed, the contradiction between liberation and the use of capitalist media is the basic problem for any cultural revolution under capitalism.
The Rowntrees broach this paradox when they state: “Viewed one way ‘youth culture’ is a merchandisers’ invention and a vehicle of false consciousness. However, it also offers support for many alienated youth that may make it possible for them to translate their disaffection into open revolt.”
VII – LOVE AND HAIGHT
Bourgeois culture was producing through its inherent contradictions its own grave diggers. As consumerization escalated, so did the social realities of Vietnam and a Black America, and in consequence so did the political activism of the young. More frequent and more critical attacks were being directed toward education institutions. Along with this grew anti-war organizing and draft resistance. More generally, a new life style was coming into being among American youth. This composite and amorphous ideology reached its zenith in San Francisco during the summer of 1967. Young people were trying to live a kind of utopian socialism based upon new and more human social relations; coupled with this was a refusal to work within middle-class society. People were “dropping out” and it is in this sense that a new sensibility was emerging. As Marcuse notes: “The social expression of the liberated work instinct is co-operation, which grounded in solidarity, directs the organization of the realm of necessity and the development of the realm of freedom.”
Although most of those involved held that the society is in one way or another badly in need of change, the connections between this and capitalism as the economic system underlying the society were not made. It was falsely assumed that exemplary, gentle, loving behavior could change material conditions, as if throwing flowers at President Johnson could stop the war in Vietnam. This was merely brotherhood in the abstract since it failed to take into account the historical conditions which could have served as a practical guide to these newly emerging social relations. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, while themselves more cynical and nihilistic than consciously radical, did provide in music a critique of this notion of love in the abstract and the whole “Haight” ideology in their song “We’re Only In It For the Money,” which featured such lyrics as “. . . psychedelic dungeons cropping up on every street. . . I will love everyone. . . I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street.”
The San Francisco music reflected these kinds of contradictions. On the one hand the hip entreprenuer developed new musicians and bought off others. But something new to the rock ‘n’ roll scene was developing — people’s music. This was the original anti-bourgeois culture struggling to survive in the face of middle-class co-optation and consumerization. While the entrepreneurs catered to the “plastic hippies” at five dollars a seat in downtown theatres, the people’s groups played free music in the parks. These musical groups — Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and others, were also involved in the student movement wing of the New Left and frequently performed at political rallies and anti-war demonstrations. Along with these developments and with the rise of black nationalism came the appreciation of black music as black. White youth began to see in the black blues singers a brother waging a similar struggle. As Metefsky notes: “No matter how many people exploit it, black culture is a revolutionary people’s culture, because it developed in opposition to a bitter knowledge of capitalism, and because it enabled blacks to survive cultural imperialism and grow.”
When in 1968 Dick Clark of American Bandstand observed the new dance, music, and lifestyles, he remarked: “This music is subversive; these hippies want to change society. It is not like the nice clean music of the ’50’s.” Although “Haight” failed and the love balloon burst, this cultural movement served a tremendous purpose for the New Left. As Martin Nicolaus put it:
The style and appeal of hippie subculture may well fade away, but the vision of a practical culture in which man is free from labor, free to begin at last the historic tasks of constructing truly human relationships, probably has been permanently launched and will continue to haunt the capitalist society as the specter of its own repressed potentialities.
Perhaps Marcuse stated it most cogently when in “An Essay on Liberation” he said:
The new sensibility has become, by its very token, praxis: it emerges in the struggle against violence and exploitation where this struggle is waged for essentially new ways and forms of life; negation of the entire Establishment, its morality, culture; affirmation of the right to build a society in which the abolition of poverty and toil terminates in a universe where the sensuous, the playful, the calm, and the beautiful become forms of existence and thereby the form of the society itself.
One of our tasks then should be to practice this “new sensibility” with the goal of subverting the repressive culture. I have tried in this paper to indicate the very important role which “rock culture” has played in the historical development of this social consciousness, this new sensibility. Woody Guthrie put it this way: “Our songs are singing history.”