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Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism pt3

By Benga, Oct 10, 2008 | |
  1. Benga
    However the conservatives may froth, this second myth comes much closer to what academics and responsible writers accept as the standard account of the decade. Mainstream culture was tepid, mechanical, and uniform; the revolt of the young against it was a joyous and even a glorious cultural flowering, though it quickly became mainstream itself. Rick Perlstein has summarized this standard version of what went on in the sixties as the "declension hypothesis," a tale in which, "as the Fifties grayly droned on, springs of contrarian sentiment began bubbling into the best minds of a generation raised in unprecedented prosperity but well versed in the existential subversions of the Beats and Mad magazine." The story ends with the noble idealism of the New Left in ruins and the counterculture sold out to Hollywood and the television networks.

    So natural has this standard version of the countercultural myth come to seem that it required little explanation when, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the historical counterculture's greatest triumph, a group of cultural speculators and commercial backers (Pepsi-Cola prominent among them) joined forces to put on a second Woodstock. But this time the commercial overtones were just a little too pronounced, and journalists rained down abuse on the venture—not because it threatened "traditional values" but because it defiled the memory of the apotheosized original. Woodstock II was said to be a simple act of exploitation, a degraded carnival of corporate logos, endorsements, and product-placement while the 1969 festival was sentimentally recalled as an event of youthful innocence and idealistic glory.

    Conflicting though they may seem, the two stories of sixties culture agree on a number of basic points. Both assume quite naturally that the counterculture was what it said it was; that is, a fundamental opponent of the capitalist order. Both foes and partisans assume, further, that the counterculture is the appropriate symbol—if not the actual historical cause—for the big cultural shifts that transformed the United States and that permanently rearranged Americans' cultural priorities. They also agree that these changes constituted a radical break or rupture with existing American mores, that they were just as transgressive and as menacing and as revolutionary as countercultural participants believed them to be. More crucial for our purposes here, all sixties narratives place the stories of the groups that are believed to have been so transgressive and revolutionary at their center; American business culture is thought to have been peripheral, if it's mentioned at all. Other than the occasional purveyor of stereotype and conspiracy theory, virtually nobody has shown much interest in telling the story of the executives or suburbanites who awoke one day to find their authority challenged and paradigms problematized. And whether the narrators of the sixties story are conservatives or radicals, they tend to assume that business represented a static, unchanging body of faiths, goals, and practices, a background of muted, uniform gray against which the counterculture went through its colorful chapters.

    Postwar American capitalism was hardly the unchanging and soulless machine imagined by countercultural leaders; it was as dynamic a force in its own way as the revolutionary youth movements of the period.


    But the actual story is quite a bit messier. The cultural changes that would become identified as "counterculture" began well before 1960, with roots deep in bohemian and romantic thought, and the era of upheaval persisted long after 1970 rolled around. And while nearly every account of the decade's youth culture describes it as a reaction to the stultifying economic and cultural environment of the postwar years, almost none have noted how that context—the world of business and of middle-class mores—was itself changing during the 1960s. The 1960s was the era of Vietnam, but it was also the high watermark of American prosperity and a time of fantastic ferment in managerial thought and corporate practice. Postwar American capitalism was hardly the unchanging and soulless machine imagined by countercultural leaders; it was as dynamic a force in its own way as the revolutionary youth movements of the period, undertaking dramatic transformations of both the way it operated and the way it imagined itself.

    But business history has been largely ignored in accounts of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. This is unfortunate, because at the heart of every interpretation of the counterculture is a very particular—and very questionable—understanding of corporate ideology and of business practice. According to the standard story, business was the monolithic bad guy who had caused America to become a place of puritanical conformity and empty consumerism; business was the great symbolic foil against which the young rebels defined themselves; business was the force of irredeemable evil lurking behind the orderly lawns of suburbia and the nefarious deeds of the Pentagon. Although there are a few accounts of the sixties in which the two are thought to be synchronized in a cosmic sense (Jerry Rubin often wrote about the joys of watching television and expressed an interest in making commercials; Tom Wolfe believes that Ken Kesey's countercultural aesthetic derived from the consumer boom of the fifties), for the vast majority of countercultural sympathizers, the only relationship between the two was one of hostility.

    And from its very beginnings down to the present, business dogged the counterculture with a fake counterculture, a commercial replica that seemed to ape its every move for the titillation of the TV-watching millions and the nation's corporate sponsors. Every rock band with a substantial following was immediately honored with a host of imitators; the 1967 "summer of love" was as much a product of lascivious television specials and Life magazine stories as it was an expression of youthful disaffection; Hearst launched a psychedelic magazine in 1968; and even hostility to co-optation had a desperately "authentic" shadow, documented by a famous 1968 print ad for Columbia Records titled "But The Man Can't Bust Our Music." So oppressive was the climate of national voyeurism that, as early as the fall of 1967, the San Francisco Diggers had held a funeral for "Hippie, devoted son of mass media."

    This book is a study of co-optation rather than counterculture, an analysis of the forces and logic that made rebel youth cultures so attractive to corporate decision-makers rather than a study of those cultures themselves. In doing so, it risks running afoul of what I will call the co-optation theory: faith in the revolutionary potential of "authentic" counterculture combined with the notion that business mimics and mass-produces fake counterculture in order to cash in on a particular demographic and to subvert the great threat that "real" counterculture represents. Who Built America?, the textbook produced by the American Social History project, includes a reproduction of the now-infamous "Man Can't Bust Our Music" ad and this caption summary of co-optation theory: "If you can't beat 'em, absorb 'em." The text below explains the phenomenon as a question of demographics and savvy marketing, as a marker of the moment when "Record companies, clothing manufacturers, and other purveyors of consumer goods quickly recognized a new market." The ill-fated ad is also reproduced as an object of mockery in underground journalist Abe Peck's book on the decade and mentioned in countless other sixties narratives. Unfortunately, though, the weaknesses of this historical faith are many and critical, and the argument made in these pages tends more to stress these inadequacies than to uphold the myths of authenticity and co-optation. Apart from certain obvious exceptions at either end of the spectrum of commodification (represented, say, by the MC-5 at one end and the Monkees at the other) it was and remains difficult to distinguish precisely between authentic counterculture and fake: by almost every account, the counterculture, as a mass movement distinct from the bohemias that preceded it, was triggered at least as much by developments in mass culture (particularly the arrival of The Beatles in 1964) as changes at the grass roots. Its heroes were rock stars and rebel celebrities, millionaire performers and employees of the culture industry; its greatest moments occurred on television, on the radio, at rock concerts, and in movies. From a distance of thirty years, its language and music seem anything but the authentic populist culture they yearned so desperately to be: from contrived cursing to saintly communalism to the embarrassingly faked Woody Guthrie accents of Bob Dylan and to the astoundingly pretentious works of groups like Iron Butterfly and The Doors, the relics of the counterculture reek of affectation and phoniness, the leisure-dreams of white suburban children like those who made up so much of the Grateful Dead's audience throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

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