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The Myth of the Sixties
It has been said that of all the artificial concepts of the twentieth century, the sixties have the greatest hold on the imagination. The decade has come to take on mythical proportions, a time in the history of the world where “everything changed,” and whether for good or for naught depends on which side of the fence you stand on. The hippies, artists and bohemians, then and now, regard it as a magical time, while the “squares,” conservatives, members of the mainstream and the like view it as a nightmare. And whether one was too young or too old to participate, or, in fact, was not even born, holds no relevance; the legend of the sixties will never die. However, the truth is that the decade and its participants were nothing more than the embodiment of three powerful myths: the myth of the hippies as “dirty scum,” as orchestrated by the media and the politicians; the myth of the hippies as world-changing revolutionaries, as created by the hippies themselves; and the perpetuation and extension of this last myth by marketers and advertisers for profit. This paper will examine the sixties with these three myths in mind.
Before we can fully decipher the first myth (the role the media played in the creation of the hippy counterculture), it is necessary to look at the movement’s precedents. The late 50s and early 60s saw the arrival of three “subcultures,” the Beats, the Teds and the Mods, all of which received more media attention than they deserved; that is, practically every aspect of these groups (the number of members, the extent of their activities, the duration of the movements, etc.), was exaggerated (Green, 41).
For example, the early sixties were presumably host to countless “turf wars” between two of these subcultures (the Rockers and the Mods). The first of these took place in Clacton in 1964, and although the actual turnout was low, the rival groups were quickly labeled as “gangs” by the media (Green, 46). The day after the event, nearly every national newspaper ran frenzied, front-page stories on the incident, urging Home Secretary Henry Brooke to take action (ibid). A year later, similar scenes repeated themselves in Brighton, Weston-super-Mare and Great Yarmouth, and media reports were filled with “broken deckchairs, fleeing grannies, stern-faced policemen, outraged councilors, etc.,” which were largely embellished or outright fabricated (Green, 47).
The reality was in fact a pale imitation of the myth. It evolved later that there were no “gangs” as such, there was little evidence of premeditated hostility (most people had come just to watch), and for all the reports of “blood and violence” there was actually very little (Cohen, 1973). But the seeds had been sown, the damage had been done, and by the time the Rocker and Mod subcultures died down, there was the need for another “public nuisance” to take their place, another “group defined as a threat to societal values and interests, its nature presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media, the moral barricades manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people, diagnoses and solutions pronounced by accredited experts” (ibid). Enter the hippy.
The term hippy, on the surface, constitutes a vast array of bohemian and student subcultures, ranging from artistic-intellectuals to dropouts and dope smokers (Brake, 92). There are those who see them as romantic, childlike and pagan; others who see them as juvenile, hedonistic and offensive. The British hippie underground grew out of the “beatnik literary-artistic scene,” the peace movement and the corresponding American faction, spurred on by such pseudo-political groups as The Yippies, the Diggers and the Merry Pranksters, as well as various individuals including Ken Kesey (author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), LSD guru Timothy Leary, and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who appeared at the Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation in 1965 (Brake, 102).
However, while there were certainly symbolic precedents as mentioned above, and without a doubt small segments of the population were “tuned in” to a new way of thinking and acting, the fact was that an actual, pervasive, unifying movement didn’t really exist:
“We’ve all gone along with the illusion that Ginsberg and Dylan and Baez and the Beatles and the Stones were all part of the same thing. Well, they are part of one thing, in the sense that we’re all human beings and we are all part of the word and each other. So is Lyndon Johnson, so it the mafia head of Chicago, so are the Hell’s Angels. We’ve tended to make the distinction between Us and Them. Now if we’ve got to recognise anything, there’s not much difference between the Angles beating that kid over the head with a pool cue, and the Chicago cops beating you over the head because you’ve got long hair” (Gleason, 219).
It could be argued that if there were any changes taking place, they weren’t so much cultural as economic and social, which pegged young people against their parents, and led to vastly different worldviews and lifestyle choices (Brake, 93). While the hippies were loosely grouped around the concept of social and political change (which, in America, largely meant protestation of the Vietnam War), in Britain, there was never any corresponding social impetus. If anything, their behaviour was nothing more than a purposeful attempt to exhibit distinctly oppositional beliefs than those condoned by society, favouring “immediacy, spontaneity and hedonism” (Weider and Zimmerman, 1977). And it is these tendencies that the media jumped on.
British newspapers reported hippies as being “dirty, idle, promiscuous and drug-users” (Brake, 96). A typical report showed a nude, bearded, long-haired man with the caption: “The hippy cult is degrading, decadent and plain daft” (ibid). A story about the London Street Commune who decided to squat in an abandoned Georgian mansion in 144 Piccadilly described their home as: “lit only by the dim light of their drugged cigarettes,” complete with “drug taking…couples making love while others look on…a heavy mob armed with iron bars, filth and stench, foul language…these are not rumours but facts, sordid facts which will shock ordinary decent living people” (News of the World, 1969).
A similar report appeared in The Daily Mail on 2 August, 1969:
“It makes me ashamed to be British. They [the hippies] live around in filthy clothes, mauling in each other in the streets. No wonder our country has gone to the dogs.”
The hippies acted as convenient scapegoats, and the Tories eagerly jumped on the bandwagon in portraying them as moral degenerates who needed to be squelched so as to save the world from its baser instincts (Green, 448). The truth is that most of these hippies were not degenerates and criminals but students and ex-students, who were able to engage in a lifestyle filled with LSD, rock music and “free love” because of student grants and welfare payments (Brake, 95). Not only did the media paint an inaccurate picture of them, but the hippies believed their own hype and bought into their own myth. For while they railed against materialism, their lifestyle was only supported because of the benefits they received from living in a welfare system; while they were “anti-technology,” they had access to hi-tech stereo systems and complex light shows; in short, they “felt freedom was an individual element yet were controlled by a powerful state” (Brake, 97).
The movement was short-lived because a “full-time leisure expressive subculture can only develop in an economy with sufficient surplus and employment” (Brake, 99). When the economy plummeted, so did the membership of the subculture; the hippies faded away in the wake of unemployment and economic crisis (ibid).
However, even describing the hippies as an actual “movement” is questionable. One problem is that in looking at subcultures, it needs to be taken into account that they are actually a minority, who, because of their dramatic style, are given vast media coverage (Green, 158). Many hippies were latchers-on at best. Those who joined may have been rebellious, they may have adopted specific styles and values, but their rebellion did not embody genuine opposition (Green, 159). For many involved, it was not about social or political change at all; it was merely about fashion. As Angela Carter wrote in her Notes for a theory of sixties style:
“The nature of our apparel is very complex. Clothes are so many things at once. Our social shells, the system of signals with which we broadcast our intentions, are often the projections of our fantasy selves…clothes are our weapons, our challenges, our visual insults” (Carter, 1967).
Murdock and McCron, in a vast-raging counter-cultural study, found that most of the people they surveyed were not actually involved in local subcultures, but had adopted the styles because of the teenage entertainment industry (Murdock and McCron, 1976). The respondents “were expression and extension of the dominant meaning system, rather than deviation from or in opposition to it” (ibid). The truth is that most people are not seduced by subcultures, and only dress or act in similar stylistic ways when they have become acceptable by the mainstream. Much of the hippie culture was deliberately manufactured for marketing consumption, and much of the art and music of the sixties was commercialized and transformed into a commodity for the larger society (Brake, 99). Some of the decade’s premier acts – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc. – and rock ‘n roll in general, which had once been so threatening, had become as safe as the blue-chip companies that sponsored and sold it (Green, 446).
While the decade spawned a number of unconventional institutions, such as the underground press, it also launched substantial fortunes for such figures as Richard Branson and Tony Elliot (Green, 445). Smart, “alternative” capitalists took advantage of the period, and “transmogrified” the decade’s slogans into designer labels (Rowbotham, xiv). Furthermore:
“The ‘underground culture,’ considered so radical and pervasive at the time, shifted just as radically. The progressive and loud rock of the 60s turned into the heavy metal of the 80s, with mysticism giving way to pulp science fiction, sexual freedom to braggadocio, liberation to repression. The nudity of the underground was packaged and mass-marketed by Rupert Murdoch. In the 1960s the young dropped out; in the 1980s they are dropped out. Drugs were considered a tool to heighten reality, and became an escape from the present” (Fountain, 215).
The transformation of the hippie movement from extreme to mainstream, particularly in terms of merchandising, illustrated how well people had mastered the game, and were able to manipulate it according to their own agenda: hip consumerism had become mass consumerism (Frank, 1997).
Current reactions to the sixties are mixed. While some regard it as a “golden age,” all “dope, revolution and fucking in the streets,” others, particularly the younger generation of today, see it as “a period smacking of weakness, of airy-fairy wishy-washiness, of an ascendancy of the cranks” (Green, 449). Everyone’s youth is of course a golden age, and part of the reason for the enduring myth of the sixties is that there are so many baby boomers today. Normal Mailer has noted how often the “reverberations that follow are out of all proportion to the presumed smallness of the original event” (ibid). Perhaps no better description could apply to the sixties.
The decade is cloaked in myth, and there are no signs of this changing anytime soon. Today there is a thriving 1960s nostalgia industry, which is all about the clothes and the music, and has nothing do with politics or cultural change. This “sanitized” version of the era, safe for mass consumption, is just as much a myth as the sixties being a virtual “hell on earth.” However, whichever one you choose to subscribe to, one thing is probably certain: it didn’t actually happen that way.
Brake, Mike. The sociology of youth culture and youth subcultures. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1980.
Carter, A. “Notes for a theory of sixties style.” New Society. 14 December, 1967.
Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Albans: Palladin, 1973.
Fountain, Nigel. Underground, the London Alternative Press, 1966-74. London: Routledge, 1988.
Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter Culture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Gleason, R. “Rock for sale,” in Eisen, J. (ed.) The Age of Rock 2. Sights and Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.
Green, Jonathan. All dressed up: The sixties and the counterculture. London: Random House, 1998.
Murdock, G. and McCron, R. “Consciousness of class and consciousness of generation” in S. Hall and T. Jefferson (eds.) Resistance Through Rituals: Youth subcultures in post-war Britain. Hutchinson: London, 1976.
News of the World. “Hippies, drugs and the sordid truth.” 21 September, 1969.
Rowbotham, Sheila. Promise of a dream: Remembering the sixties. London: Penguin Books, 2000.
Weider, L. and Zimmerman, S. Understanding Social Problems. New York: Praeger Press, 1977.
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