Friday, February 20, 2009


Over the last year or so I've been thinking a great deal about countercultures, or more specifically, the countercultural legacies of the 1960s. What first prompted me to do so was Fred Turner's outstanding book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture (University of Chicago Press, 2006), which I blogged about here back in January 2008.

Since then I've had the good fortune of reading a number of books, all of which explore the persistence of countercultural practices and sensibilities from the 1960s. These include: Preston Shires' Hippies of the Religious Right: From the Counterculture of Jerry Garcia to the Subculture of Jerry Falwell (Baylor U.P., 2007), a wonderful book that I just finished, about the meteoric rise of evangelical Christianity in the late-20th century and its roots in the 1960s counterculture; and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's Nation of Rebels: How Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (Collins Business, 2004), a provocative look into how an anti-establishment, "rebel" ethos has come to pervade what used to be called mass culture.

Most recently I broached Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (University of Chicago Press, 1997). I'd been putting it off for some time, mostly because I know Frank looks unfavorably on cultural studies (my primary intellectual identification). Rightly or not, he claims that cultural studies, in its concern for "resistant" readings and uses of mass cultural artifacts, mis-recognizes the politics of culture. Since the late 1950s, Frank shows, advertisers have been touting not only their own anti-establishment sensibilities but infusing them into their advertising campaigns. Advertising, he argues, is a principal--and unusually effective--site where the critique of mass culture has been waged. Of course, this critique exists not for the sake of tearing down "the system," as it were, but rather for encouraging ever more consumption vis-à-vis product and consumer differentiation.

Frank may caricature cultural studies, but the larger point he makes is a compelling one. The so-called "creative class" about whom Richard Florida has written so much in recent years has its origins in the late-1950s and early-1960s, when (in the case of Frank's book) upstart ad men and women lashed out against the stultifying organizational and scientific structures within which they worked.

But what's also intriguing to me is how it wasn't simply advertising per se that led the way. Indeed, there was something of a countercultural, "creative revolution" happening in any number of other industries at the same time. Last summer I blogged about Gerard Jones' history of the comic book industry, Men of Tomorrow. I didn't realize it then, but Jones tells a story similar to that of Thomas Frank. Before the 1960s or 70s, most comic book companies employed writers and artists whom they treated like hacks. A good deal of the material was formulaic and dictated from on high, and the "creatives" were meant merely to execute that vision. And though I'm less familiar with the music industry, I gather that there's a similar story to be told there as well. If Tom Hanks' silly little movie That Thing You Do! (1996) is any indication, record producers of the 1950s pretty much ran the show, subordinating talent to what they knew--or thought they knew--they could package and sell. Is it any surprise that, at the end of the film, the character Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech) breaks from Mr. White's (Tom Hanks) Playtone record label to pursue a successful solo career making serious rock 'n roll? He's the film's embodiment of the creative revolution that was about to happen in music.

I'm not sure where all this reading is going, honestly. Nevertheless, all of the books I've mentioned suggest that we now live, as it were, in the long shadow cast by the 1960s. That makes me wonder: what, if anything, will be the unique contribution of this moment in which we're now living? How does one create, let alone "rebel," when the dominant ethos is already "anti-establishment" and throw-out-the-rules "creative?"

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