Were the '60s a fraud?

Gary Kamiya reviews two new books of revisionist culture criticism from The Baffler editors and asks: Was the '60s the fraud -- or its critics?

Published December 22, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Pass the Thorazine, dude! The '60s are having a dreadful flashback. It isn't enough that the paisley decade has been bashed for years by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Allen Bloom and the increasingly demented Robert Bork. Now comes a band of young idealists, lefties and aficionados of radical music who should be its rightful heirs -- but instead of singing the praises of the Age of Aquarius, they are even harsher on it than the croaking elders of the right. It would appear that soon the only defenders of the '60s faith will be a handful of graybeards with old Captain Beefheart albums in their closets, and most of us dropped too much acid to remember what went on back then anyway.

For these youthful critics of the '60s counterculture, led by Thomas Frank, iminence grise of a feisty Chicago culture-criticism magazine called the Baffler, author of "The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism" and co-editor of the Baffler anthology "Commodify Your Dissent," the decade was about as "transgressive" as that ad in which vaguely loaded-looking young dudes with long hair merrily push a cart loaded with Budweiser across a golf course. The '60s, according to these new revisionists, were a fraud, a celebrity-driven media spectacle in which spoiled middle-class kids "kept the establishment gasping in collective outrage" at their "mock-threatening antics." The decade's much-vaunted music was "pleasantries" and "liberationist pap," its fabled politics "posturing" and "rosy bromides," its spirituality about as profound as a soak in a Marin hot tub with a doobie.

Like the Holy Roman Empire, of which it was famously said that it was neither holy, Roman nor an empire, for Frank the "revolutionary counterculture" was neither revolutionary nor countercultural. As he writes in "The Conquest of Cool": "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 work 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."

But this dubious era did have a point, according to Frank, although not the one that its participants, enslaved by a particularly giddy variant of false consciousness, thought it was. What the '60s really did, he says, was roll out the mandala-shaped waterbed upon which a permanent orgy of capitalist hyper-consumption could take place. "The counterculture may be more valuably understood as a stage in the development of the values of the American middle class, " Frank writes, "a colorful installment in the twentieth century drama of consumer subjectivity."

How did the '60s counterculture, with its anti-materialistic, tune in-turn on-drop out ethos, end up abetting the consumer capitalism that now rules the world? The answer is unexpected: The capitalists were hipper than the hippies! Cutting-edge businessmen, Frank argues, far from trying to repress the counterculture, actually welcomed its allegedly "subversive" teachings -- and used them to extend the dominion of business into every nook and cranny of American life. As Frank writes, "Many in American business ... imagined the counterculture not as an enemy to be undermined or a threat to consumer culture but as a hopeful sign, a symbolic ally in their own struggles against the mountains of dead-weight procedure and hierarchy that had accumulated over the years." In "The Conquest of Cool," he shows in fascinating and often hilarious detail how certain sectors of American business -- particularly advertising and men's fashion -- embraced countercultural ideas, shaking up their own ossified corporate structures and absurdly scientific notions of advertising and creating a hip, irreverent capitalist revolution. Rebel admen like Bill Bernbach, who created the self-mocking Volkswagen ads, tied into and even helped form this new, ironic Zeitgeist of Cool. Frank goes so far as to say that hipness was "the magic cultural formula by which the life of consumerism could be extended indefinitely."

Frank has hit upon an original and counterintuitive notion here, and much of what he says rings true. But his larger claims about the influence and persistence of hipness in business culture seem overblown. Does anyone really believe that consumerism, that unchallenged economic juggernaut that doth bestride our little world like a Costco Colossus, would have died without the intervention of a few "advanced" ad men in the '60s? As for his assertion that hipness now utterly reigns in advertising, Frank must either be tuned to a really slammin' station or be working with Lawrence Welk's definition of "hip." The commercial enticements on my tube, for the most part, are as cornball as they ever were -- for every Nike ad with William S. Burroughs, there are five United "Fly the Friendly Skies" manifestoes; for every unshaven-hipsters-in-the-hood Lucky Strike ad, 10 "Like a rock" Chevy truck appeals.

As for Frank's denunciation of the '60s counterculture, it isn't self-evident why the mere fact that some businessmen embraced certain countercultural ideas means those ideas weren't genuinely subversive. Wasn't the process Frank depicts simply co-optation -- The Man ripping off authentic hip culture for his own plastic purposes? Frank allows that a certain amount of co-optation took place, but he largely rejects what he calls "the co-optation theory" because he doesn't believe that '60s culture was either authentic or revolutionary to begin with. You can't co-opt something that was superficial, celebrity-driven, middle-class and apolitical.

We'll examine this argument later; for the moment, what's important to understand is that Frank and his colleagues' unflattering appraisal of the '60s is inextricably bound up with their utter contempt for contemporary American society. In truth, '60s-bashing isn't their main aim: They enjoy pouring the skanky water out of the countercultural bong as much as the next ambitious young turk, but their real target is less a 30-year-old myth than today's consumer culture, which they savage with a contempt that recalls H.L. Mencken's attacks on the "booboisie." (It also recalls the purpler revolutionary pronouncements of the '60s, a fact to which they remain oddly oblivious.)

America, they intone, is a "botched civilization" to which "the last twenty years have brought a ... physical and social decay so unspeakably vast, so enormously obscene that we can no longer gauge the destruction with words." There is no escape from the smiling nightmare: "Our collective mental universe is being radically circumscribed, enclosed within the tightest parameters of all time ... We will be able to achieve no distance from business culture since we will no longer have a life, a history, a consciousness apart from it." Forget Pol Pot, Hitler and Stalin: Wal-Mart and Disney are the real kings of thought control.

Faced with this total horror, this seamless web of late-capitalist domination, Frank finds consolation only in total rejection: The "scream of torment is this country's only mark of health; the sweet shriek of outrage is the only sign that sanity survives amid the stripmalls and hazy clouds of Hollywood desire."

Once your ears have stopped ringing, you realize that the shriek of Frank and his tormented colleagues may be sweet, but it is not exactly original. It's a round-the-clock Unhappy Hour at the Baffler Bar, but what they're pouring isn't exactly top-shelf stuff: two ounces of Generic Cultural Bile Mix, topped off with one watered '90s shot of Marcuse's Repressive Tolerance Liqueur. (The fact that Marcuse's post-consumer-society Marxism inspired many '60s radicals is somewhat inconvenient for Frank's thesis.) If this be Marxism, however, it is a Marxism that dare not speak its name, at least not in these two books. "Socialism," let alone "communism," are words that never pass the Bafflers' lips, despite their incessant savaging of business, the consumer society and capitalism itself. Frank and his colleagues prefer to speak of "solidarity," "grass roots," "a rich, collective public life that all can freely partake of" and other such meaningless left-scented pieties. (To be fair, I am told that the Baffler does frequently run pieces about concrete social and political issues: "Commodify Your Dissent," however, is all culture criticism.) The nihilistic logic of Frank's views rules out any hope: We're all trapped in an infinitely large Circuit City TV showroom forever, and the best thing we can do is scream until the boys from Official Culture come and unplug our brains for the last time.

Like all Jeremiads delivered from the prophetic heights, this one is a bit intimidating. What if Frank is right? What if next week the brazen trumpeter announces that we've all been living in Consumer Sodom and the jig is up? It will be a bit late then to try to surreptitiously return that palm-sized CD player to the Good Guys! All K-Mart shoppers will be turned into huge boxes of Morton's Salt and used to flavor the simple, yet wholesome, repast of the Bafflers. So as I reclined in what I had previously taken to be contentment before my 27-inch Panasonic and watched a Budweiser Halftime Report, I asked myself: Has the consumer society taken over my soul? Has the world already ended with a whimper? Is my brain already enclosed within the tightest parameters of all time?

I thought about it. I gave it my best shot. I considered the Poulan/Weed-Eater Bowl, and Channel One's classroom TV, and Rupert Murdoch's circus-and-gladiator programming, and "dramatic re-creations" of real events, and the increasing number of "real events" that feel like dramatic re-creations. I even thought about the unspeakable tragedy that Frank and Baffler co-founder Keith White say opened their eyes to the true evils of corporate culture and turned them into negative-dialectic-slinging rebels -- the fact that their favorite bands were prevented by "a smug alliance of hippies and businessmen" from signing major-label contracts. This last one staggered me, I admit, and I was ready to give up on this whole botched civilization. Then I said, "Nah."

Totally pessimistic, sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-ad-agency sermons like Frank's require really good preaching to convince you -- and even then, the effect tends to wear off in the morning. But Frank's version of the cultural apocalypse is much too doctrinaire, too threadbare, too lacking in either alternatives or psychological depth, to ever feel like much more than an irate gesture by a smart young guy who really, really hates advertising.

Frank has a thing about advertising. He seems to have been born without a mute button in his brain -- a serious defect in this age. Most of us are able to tune out the sales pitches, hard and soft, hip and square, smart and idiotic, that yammer incessantly from tube and magazine and peer down from billboards. We shrug them off as capitalism's 60-cycle hum, sometimes amusing, sometimes nauseating. We don't regard them as defining either our culture or our own lives. Not Frank; his vision is closer to the mordant imaginings of novelist David Foster Wallace, who in "Infinite Jest" conjures an America so hegemonically controlled by corporations that even the years are sponsored. The mechanical squeak of advertising, for Frank, is the sound of our culture's heartbeat -- and he wants to unplug the machine.

There's something salutary in this, something refreshing about the Bafflers' categorical rejection of the major corporate power-conduits of our culture. Their problem is that their worldview is too Manichaean. They're constantly denouncing, in ways that ironically mirror the overblown rhetoric of archetypal '60s rebels like Mario Savio, the Panthers and the Weathermen, not just specific instances of corporate propaganda but Big Brother-like entities that don't actually exist: "official culture," "The Culture Trust," "official America," "the Architects of the Mind Industry," "the country's official collective identity." From these paranoid constructions, it is a logical step to imagining a Master Plan for Total Control, "the great cultural project of corporate America" -- and so they are led into sophomoric, vulgar-Marxist formulations like "They [record companies] seek fresh cultural fuel so that the machinery of stupidity may run incessantly."

Well, actually record company moguls seek fresh cultural fuel so that their Mercedes may run incessantly, which is altogether a different thing. Moralizing attempts at corporate or governmental control pop up here and there in American life, usually ineffectively (see Time-Warner's dithering over gangsta rap) and are structural in certain sectors like television, but -- as the Bafflers well know and incessantly bemoan -- it's the Almighty Market that really rules. Those record moguls would sign the most "negationist" Japanese noise band that ever blew out a 200-watt Marshall stack if they thought they could make a few bucks.

And this is really what bothers Frank: You can't fight the system because the system won't fight back. You scream and scream, and at the end of the day you're a celebrated Angry Young Man and rising literary star, interviewed in Details.

Was this what happened in the '60s -- a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, a tale told by a million idiots who were absorbed by the smiling maw of the System? If you look at it from a purely structural-economic perspective, yes. The '60s counterculture was a bunch of stoned, bourgeois kids who never made common cause with the workers, not only failed to end capitalism but may have actually increased its dominion and dutifully took their place as consumers once they grew up. Confronted with this outcome, if one rejects the entire economic premises of American society, there's no recourse but the one Frank chooses: pure negation, impotent rage.

Marxist dialecticians like Theodor Adorno and Marcuse notwithstanding, pure negation is pure sterility: Nothing will come of nothing. (Actually, the Bafflers know this: Their desperate defense of the cultural importance of certain bands, silly as it may appear and contradictory to their putatively nihilistic credo as it is, is at bottom life-affirming and hopeful.) Even if one accepts the validity of negation, however, Frank's assessment of the '60s is stunningly ahistorical. There were plenty of people back then who bought Frank's negation line -- and paid for it, too, which I suspect that few of the Bafflers, despite the contumely they pour upon "middle-class kids" and "white suburban children" from their turrets in the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago, have had to, at least not in the same bitter coin. For the record, in case the Bafflers or their fellow revisionists have forgotten or never knew it: In the '60s, that "sweet shriek of outrage" led a lot of people to kill people, and get killed, and go to jail, and flee the country for years, and get shot in the eyes with birdshot in Berkeley, and get smashed in the kidneys by police with riot sticks in Chicago, and be blasted off the Birmingham streets by fire hoses.

A few of these people, the most radical of them, the hard-core revolutionaries, may have been acting out of pure negation, total rejection of capitalism, the corporate state, anything and everything American. But very few. Most of us were fighting for something -- whether it was civil rights or an end to the war or the righteous right of our hormones to vent constantly. It wasn't always clear if we knew exactly what it was -- Buffalo Springfield's mordant line about protesters "singing songs and carrying signs/mostly say hurray for our side" is irrefutable, a great thumbnail sketch of Burkean skepticism about revolutionary fervor. But all those stumbling people, led on by narcissism and idealism, by people pushing behind them and something unknown glimpsed up ahead, did achieve something. The war ended; the George Wallaces of the world were forced out of the schoolroom doors.

Frank takes the word "countercultural" too literally; he assumes that a counterculture must stand in direct opposition to the dominant culture. But in fact the relationship between the two is far more complicated. The '60s counterculture was at times oppositional, an iron wall -- but it was also a plant growing in a vacant lot, a dream drifting against a sunset, a baby beaming at the mad perfection of a pea. Unstable and erratic metaphors, but the time itself was. To reduce its meaning to politics, or even worse to economic politics, is to shrink not just one era, but the world itself.

For if Frank and his colleagues slight the political dimension of the '60s, they utterly ignore its personal, existential dimension -- the great revolution within that was as important, perhaps more, than the revolution without.

So where, the revisionists sneer, are the results of that revolution? "Crazy Horse," a white man once mocked the vanquished Sioux leader, "you once said your lands ran as far as the buffalo, as far as the birds could fly, as far as the horizon. Where are your lands now, Crazy Horse?" Crazy Horse pointed across the plains and said, "My lands are where my dead lie buried." That's one answer, the dark one -- a tribute to those who flew too close to the sun, or got trapped forever in a maze with monsters of their own imagining, in those days when we were crazy enough to think our own minds were a landscape we could change. But not everything that came up within us then died. Some of it lived on, and if it's invisible, it's because it's inside us. It's who we are.

"The revolution," Leonard Cohen once said, "has to take place in every room." It didn't, of course, and even in the rooms where some kind of psychic insurrection did take place, time and rust have corroded the swords, collapsed the ramparts. Most of us who were around back then are running on memories of memories of memories. Still, inner soil was turned, and things grew, for good and ill. To reduce that secret history to the sterile dirge of Economic Man is an intellectual and historical obscenity worthy of a Stalinist hack.

Anyone who was touched by the ferment of the '60s has to like the Bafflers, their energy and idealism. Even their dogmatic irritation is infinitely preferable to the "hip" business triumphalism and strident libertarianism of the Wired crowd. It's understandable and healthy that a new generation should want to throw off the stifling mantle of old mythology. Our mechanically nostalgic culture does market the '60s Greatest Hits endlessly, and being forced to listen to "Mellow Yellow" or even "White Rabbit" endlessly must be exquisite torture for a generation that cut its teeth on the Sex Pistols, not the Beatles. Nor is the condescending, more-revolutionary-than-thou attitude of many '60s veterans conducive to a proper passing of the torch.

But understandable as their impatience with '60s mythology may be, the Bafflers are too resentful. At a certain point, their denunciations begin to seem like a rejection of effervescence itself. There is a croaking negativity, an ahistorical narrowness, to their revisionism.

And, in a supreme irony, for all the attention they pay to ersatz "hip" messages, the Bafflers end up themselves deluded by them. Unable to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic hipness, they exemplify the very cultural myopia they denounce when they rage against Official Culture for championing Pearl Jam over the Galaxy of Mailbox Whores. A small but telling example: Frank's lumping together of Iron Butterfly and the Doors as "astoundingly pretentious" -- mentioning in the same sentence a ridiculous group that everybody back then knew to be a joke with a truly original band. (Sure, the Doors were pretentious -- what an unusual trait for a rock group! -- but they usually pulled it off.) As for Frank's facile dismissal of Dylan, one of the great pop artists of the last 50 years, for his "embarrassingly faked Woody Guthrie accents," it exemplifies the pious fetishization of class that prevents him from understanding that great artists can transcend not just their affectations, but their models: Dylan surpassed Woody Guthrie.

The Bafflers protest too much: They themselves are victims of the very image-saturated culture they decry. Everything they say about corporate culture flattening everything out and destroying cultural distinctions applies to their own monolithic historical analysis. They trash the au courant academic field of cultural studies, but they themselves commit the "semiotic fallacy" that is endemic to the field: They are unable to distinguish between the thing itself and the film of it at 11. As the Last Poets sang, the revolution was not televised. But the Bafflers, who only saw it on TV, are smugly convinced that the TV version was all there was: They get "Dragnet's" "The LSD Story" confused with the real LSD story. These cats trash hipness, but they could use a few Style Lessons themselves.

So is a counterculture possible today? Maybe not, but a countercultural life is always possible. The world feels dull and contained to the Bafflers -- so what? It was ever thus. The lesson of the '60s -- which very few of us have ever really learned -- is not just to try to change what's wrong with the world, but to change your own life, to make it as big and strange and free as in rare unguarded moments we know it is. Instead of whining about the corporate walls that surround us, the Bafflers should take a tip from the astoundingly pretentious Jim Morrison, and break on through to the other side.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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