Beyond Cooptation: A Response to Ron Jacobs

To the Editors —

Thanks to Ron Jacobs for his thoughtful review of The Republic of Rock in Counterpunch (“Rock n’ Roll Nation,” 28-30 June 2013). I am largely in agreement with how he assessed the book except for one key issue: he implies that I adopt the standard interpretation of cooptation within the system of consumer capitalism to analyze rock music in the sixties counterculture. This standard formula holds that first, an autonomous subculture of rebellion appears, then capitalist corporations coopt it to make a profit, struggle ensues, capitalism wins, and then the cycle repeats with new subcultural formation. What I try to argue in The Republic of Rock, however, is that cooptation is the wrong way to understand the counterculture. Instead, what I contend is that rock and the counterculture were already inextricably embedded within US consumer capitalism and military imperialism. For participants in the counterculture, it was precisely this foundational complicity of rock with dominant cultural, political, and economic forces in the United States that made it so useful, so important, for grappling with all the possibilities and flaws of America during “the sixties.”

This is not rebellion and cooptation locked in a dialectical couple dance but something far more psychedelic. New kinds of “consciousness,” as it was called at the time, popped up in experiences of commercialized music from within the existing order as people used rock to explore the stakes of their lives and their surroundings at multiple levels: intellectual, emotional, corporeal, interior, external, local, national, global, political, technological, economic, spiritual, ecological, and more. A swirl of engagement arose through making and taking in music. It is this swirl that I would define as the counterculture, a social formation that functioned as a kind of momentary rippling of the social order, a bending and warping of the everyday toward other perceptions of how both individual and collective life might be lived, an unsettling but temporary seizure of feeling (as compared to Raymond Williams’ “structures of feeling”) that generated heightened critical awareness. Even though it was fun, hedonistic, crude, transient—maybe because it was all those things—the music was also a crucial means of accessing what we might call the deep politics below the surface politics: the philosophy and psychology of the good life and the ethics of citizenship and civic belonging.

This made rock neither revolutionary, nor commodifiable. Or, better said, it made the music both revolutionary and commodifiable. In either case, the binary of rebellion and cooptation is not a very useful one analytically. It might be better to think of rock as generating a jolt of energy formulated from the very same underlying forces that it seemed to oppose and, therefore, to conceptualize the counterculture as a countercurrent that sparked up from this power surge. As the music “blew your mind,” it did not propose answers so much as raise questions. It brought to light keenly felt wonderings about core questions of democracy, community, individualism, similarity, difference, ugliness, pain, beauty, sinfulness, grace, and human existence itself.

I know this is, for some, making too much of a rather crass, overblown, juvenile mode of musical expression. I am not claiming rock was great art (nor that it was not great art). I am only contending that it mattered immensely to its makers and listeners (which I suppose could be one definition of great art). I am most of all asking why it mattered so much to them? This is simply a question that cooptation theory cannot adequately answer.

Of course, drugs mattered too, as Ron Jacobs points out, as did new mores about sex and new conceptualizations of friendship as kinship. But music was the most plugged into, the most reliant on, the most connected to the larger apparatus of electronic mediation and technological power that structured US market and military domination. So it was music that had the broadest and most intriguing ability to provide access to countercultural participation. In this sense, perhaps the sex and the drugs were merely a way to try to recover what the music first introduced most prominently and provocatively!

Hey, I wasn’t there, man. But that’s the point. One reason why rock and the sixties counterculture return again and again like a skipping LP record (or better said an MP3 file on endless repeat) is that the memory—as compared to the history—of this long-gone era continues to serve as, as Jacobs points out, a “template” for grappling with current affairs. Listening back to rock and the counterculture in a more thoroughly historical way—past memory’s “foggy ruins of time”—allows us to grasp its profound weirdness and to rethink contemporary dilemmas of where culture and politics, citizenship and consumption, civil society and militarization intersect. Which is to say that a new and more precise comprehension of how the music mattered then, in its historical moment, has tremendous intellectual, ideological, political, even economic implications for the present. We need a better and more accurate way of understanding rock and the counterculture not as rebellion followed by cooptation, but rather as a disconcerting yet persistent cluster of sensations that coursed through the existing system: born from it, part of it, questioning it, beckoning beyond it. And to address this we need a more sophisticated model of how cultural politics work and of the elusive but essential concept of citizenship. For this reason, maybe, like Ken Kesey in his infamous appearance at the 1965 anti-Vietnam War rally in Berkeley, it’s time to turn our backs on cooptation theory and say fuck it.

Rock listeners in the sixties, like so many now, were thoroughly entangled in the wires of America’s militarized, corporatized system of consumer capitalism. But even from their compromised positions, they reached for something far more intriguing than rebellion or revolution: without always having the words to say so, many pursued deep inquiries into the nature of citizenship itself; they searched for what Slavoj Zizek eloquently called, in his 10 October 2011 remarks at Occupy Wall Street, “the language to articulate our non-freedom.” This is far different from the endless ping-pong theory of rebellion and cooptation. It was—and can still serve as an historical example for—an investigation into what the structures are, exactly, that are holding everything up.


2 thoughts on “Beyond Cooptation: A Response to Ron Jacobs

  1. Interesting thesis, Michael. If I read you right, you argue that the synthesis resulting from the dialectic between rebellion and cooptation had already occurred in rock music and counterculture (or was in the process of occurring). This in itself creates a new dialectic. Something to consider.

    1. Thanks for reading my response to your review, Ron! I appreciated your engagement with the book, of course.

      Yes, my take on the history of rock and the counterculture was that it was always already commodified *as rebellion.* This has been used against the music and the counterculture by the likes of Tom Frank, bless his soul. Their arguments are convincing (and brilliant) to me in many respects, but at their worst they boil down to: hippies were dupes, and so too is anyone who takes the politics of culture seriously.

      I was struck when I went back to untold aspects of the rock/counterculture story that people knew damn well they were caught up in an American consumerism that paradoxically cultivated rebelliousness against itself. So too, they profoundly sensed how rock was part of a system of imperialistic militarism (made pretty glaringly obvious if you or someone you cared about was shipped out to Vietnam, I suspect). My point in The Republic of Rock is to try to show how rock generated robust engagements with the very predicament of establishing authentic citizenship within the paradoxes of rebellion coopted and commodified. Responses to rock in San Francisco and Vietnam revealed people trying to figure out what it meant to be a citizen in the aftermath of what Frank calls, so cleverly, the “conquest of cool.”

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