An old question ponders, Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It turns out there’s a pop culture analogue to that conundrum: Does popular entertainment merely reflect what’s happening? Or does it create a culture’s values?
These days, it’s fashionable for entertainers to dismiss the potential negative influence of their art. “It’s just a song … or a movie … or a game,” they say. “It can’t hurt anybody.” In 2008, a Slipknot fan killed one man and attacked three others while wearing a mask inspired by the one worn by the band’s drummer. That prompted Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor to disavow any connection between his violent verbiage and the killer’s actions. “Obviously, I’m disturbed by the fact that people were hurt and someone died,” Taylor said. “As far as my responsibility for that goes, it stops there.”
But the 1960s, I would argue, was a decade in which the connection between popular music and cultural change was so tight that no one would have tried to argue that music merely reflects culture. The tumultuous events of the so-called hippy decade coincided with an explosion of popular music and musicians who had nothing short of revolution on their minds when it came to rethinking love, sex, drugs, religion, war, work and our core conceptions of relationship. It was a 10-year span of sweeping change in which musicians marched at the vanguard of new cultural values and invited fans to fall in behind them.
Pop Goes the Culture
The idea of a youth culture is something we take for granted today. But there was a time when the concept of an independent youth culture—complete with its own lingo, values and musical heroes—was a novelty. Immediately after World War II, a generation of weary but proud American soldiers returned from Over There, married their sweethearts and started having babies. Lots of babies: nearly 80 million between 1946 and 1964. Those kids became, of course, what we now call Baby Boomers.
The soldiers’ return corresponded with a convergence of social, economic and cultural changes. Among them was a new expression of music, dubbed rock ‘n’ roll, which emerged in the mid-1950s. Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, Bo Didley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and, of course, Elvis Presley all made contributions to this fledgling form of musical expression, one that fused elements of the blues and pop music while scooping up new amplification technologies—for emphasis.
Simultaneously, the U.S. began its post-War recovery, an economic expansion that slowly trickled down to teen consumers. For the first time, marketers begin targeting teens as independent agents. Almost as quickly as you can say “generation gap,” a chasm erupted between the emerging teen culture and the parents who spawned it. In her book The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West notes, “Fixing the lens of the market on adolescence transformed society’s perception of the teen age, magnifying its social importance to match its financial potential. As the teenager was finding his voice through his pocketbook—almost literally, with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll—the adult was losing his predominance and, even more significant, his confidence. Worth noting is that the first generation to lose its collective nerve this way and cede control of the up-and-coming ‘youth culture’ was the so-called Greatest Generation, the one that had just won World War II. There is a certain poignance, and even mystery, to the fact that these victors in an epic world war returned home to lose a domestic culture war that would climax in the 1960s.”
By the time the 1960s rolled around, the post-War expansion and optimism of the 1950s began to face headwinds as racial turmoil erupted, the Cold War got colder, an idealistic president was assassinated and the United States found itself embroiled in murky conflict in Vietnam. And standing at the cultural crossroads of conflict as these winds of change blew was a remarkably diverse collection of musicians—from the America’s folk movement, the British Invasion, Motown and the psychedelia rock scene. Their songs would rally a generation bent on rethinking virtually everything the World War II generation had valued and fought for.
A Boy Named Bob
In 10 years we went from Paul Anka singing “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” in August 1959, to Woodstock’s muddy, druggy attempt to usher in the Age of Aquarius, in August 1969. So if there’s a single song that encapsulates the message of the 1960s, it’s Bob Dylan’s seminal “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Dylan carried the flag for American folk (along with the likes of Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell), a musical genre influenced by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and focused on issues such as racism, poverty, war, environmentalism and nuclear disarmament. “Come gather ’round, people/Wherever you roam/And admit that the waters/Around you have grown,” Dylan mumbled. “You better start swimmin’/Or you’ll sink like a stone/For the times they are a-changin’.”
“The issues of militarism, segregation, poverty, pollution were certainly all on the table—Kennedy and others had at least acknowledged them in the political forum—but the youthful pop music audience still consisted mainly of apolitical kids whose musical interests tended to reinforce their detachment from larger societal concerns,” writes David N. Townsend, who examines the significance of ’60s music in his online work Changing the World. “What Bob Dylan did first and most resoundingly was to inspire people. He told his audience to open their eyes; they did. He pointed out problems, hypocrisy, suffering, and expressed his personal feelings of outrage and compassion in so forceful a manner that listeners came to share those feelings, to find them within themselves.”
But even as Dylan and Co. sought to jolt the country’s conscience, another cultural tsunami was building across the Atlantic. England’s own post-War generation seized upon the American rock ‘n’ roll experiment begun in the 1950s and, as American Idol’s Randy Jackson would say, “made it their own.”
The British Are Coming!
That massive wave washed over New York City on Feb. 7, 1964. Two-and-a-half months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, The Beatles landed at the NYC airport that already bore his name. Some 3,000 hysterical, shrieking fans awaited. Two days later, the Lads From Liverpool stormed the airwaves with their live performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. An estimated 73 million viewers tuned in as John, Paul, George and Ringo performed “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
So forget about Dylan. Any way you slice it, The Beatles owned the 1960s. Between 1963 and 1969—just six years—the band released 11 of its 12 studio albums. By the time Beatlemania began to recede in the early ’70s, the band had sold nearly 550 million records. Today, the cumulative estimate stands at 1.3 billion.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of The Beatles’ achievements. While the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber occasionally inspire comparisons with the Fab Four, even a cursory glance at the statistics shows how ludicrous they are. To this day The Beatles hold the record for most No. 1 singles (20), most No. 1 albums (19), most weeks at No. 1 on the album chart (132), most weeks on the singles chart (609), most songs on the Hot 100 simultaneously (14) and most dominating week on the charts (April 4, 1964, when the band held the 1-5 slots on the Hot 100 as well as No. 1 and No. 2 on the album chart).
The Beatles’ trajectory through this wild and wooly moment in musical history to some extent mirrors the 1960s as a whole. In 1963, tame songs such as “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Love Me Do” were the band’s calling cards. By the time these mop-topped mates called it a day seven years later, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” barely concealed references to drugs and sex.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Devolution
Indeed, by the time thousands of hippies descended upon San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district for the “Summer of Love” in ’67—and certainly by the time half-a-million music fans besieged Woodstock, N.Y., in ’69—the subjects of drugs, sex, psychedelia and protest had, to a large degree, become tributaries feeding one main countercultural stream that was colored every radical hue of the rainbow by The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Jefferson Airplane.
“By 1966, with the [British] invasion nearly complete,” writes David Townsend, “The Who tossed out the last semblance of conformity, and threw down the gauntlet: ‘People try to put us down/Talkin’ ’bout my generation/Just because we get around/Talkin’ ’bout my generation.’ Now the challenge was fully revealed, as it was in many other songs and bands of the moment. Full-scale, defiant, unified rebellion.”
Not everything was about overthrowing the status quo, of course. Berry Gordy’s Motown musicians emerged as influential, potent forces, breaking down racial barriers as they proffered a steady stream of hits mostly focused on romance. Marvin Gaye released “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The Temptations sang “My Girl.” The Supremes asked “Where Did Our Love Go?” The Marvelettes crooned “Please Mr. Postman.” And there were other high-saccharine, low-content, feel-good hits swirling in the ether, too, from The Beach Boys to The Righteous Brothers.
Even acknowledging that, it’s still hard to categorize the 1960s as anything other than a revolutionary decade. Many, many musicians did everything in their power to say something with their music—to change something. “You say you want a revolution,” The Beatles wailed. “Well, you know/We all want to change the world/You say you got a real solution/ Well, you know/We’d all love to see the plan.”
And the musicians of the 1960s did offer a plan—three of them actually. 1) Make love, not war. 2) Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. 3) Turn on, tune in, drop out. But love wasn’t free, drugs weren’t safe and war didn’t end. So by the early 1970s, only a few short years later, the naive “idealism” of these revolutionary ideas had atrophied to something like mere hedonism as many in the culture began to pursue sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as ends in and of themselves, not as a means to usher in a new age.
If the revolutionary ’60s musicians failed at fully convincing everyone that their alternative vision of reality was the way to go, they did succeed at this: accelerating American culture’s disconnection from its traditional—and Christian—moorings. Much of today’s postmodern skepticism about the nature of truth and reality can be traced directly to the countercultural insurgency of the 1960s.
Can music change the world? Does a chicken lay eggs?