A brief book talk given at the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University, 07 March 2014:
This book began with a seemingly simple question: why did rock music matter so much to participants in the counterculture of the 1960s? I was curious about this because while some of the music was great, to me lots of it did not actually sound that good! Why, then, had rock been so important to so many people?
The more I looked at source materials, the more it seemed that the answer to this question lurked in something that was actually quite complex and unexpected: rock music mediated issues of individual subjectivity and collective social belonging, of what we might call the cultural dimensions of citizenship. And it did so not outside or against but rather within the channels of American commercial and military empire during the late 1960s and into the early 1970s. Rock was, in particular, at the cutting edge of the new logic of “hip capitalism,” the selling of rebellion against mass consumerism as a new niche market within mass consumerism. In the key site of San Francisco, ground zero for the domestic US counterculture, rock was the very sound of “hip capitalism,” but in being so, it also fostered awareness of the implications of the hip capitalist turn for democratic citizenship.
Across the Pacific Ocean in the Vietnam War, a kind of parallel tactic to hip capitalism emerged, a sort of “hip militarism,” when the US Armed Forces imported rock in an effort to raise the morale of young, disgruntled GIs. Rock similarly proved to be the sound of cooptation and absorption, but in uses of and responses to the music by GIs themselves, rock also generated spaces and moments of thinking about the war’s injustices and the role of the American citizen-soldier in causing them. Even young Vietnamese got in on the rock action, forming their own bands to make a living in the wartime economy while also using rock to stake their claims to citizenship in the sonic territory of what became known as Woodstock Nation, or more accurately put, since it spanned the world by the end of the 1960s, the Woodstock Trans-National.
In San Francisco, Vietnam, and beyond, rock proved to be serious fun. That is, it was intensely pleasurable for many listeners, but that pleasure was also meant to be taken seriously. This has made it difficult for historians to understand rock’s importance to the story of the “sixties,” for historians are typically not very good at pleasure—neither analyzing it nor, much of the time, even having it. Participants in the sixties counterculture, by contrast, approached the personal and communal pleasures of rock as full of civic possibilities. Indeed, listeners to rock reached beyond rational-critical discourse as the exclusive mode of public engagement in their efforts to work through, and play through, where individuality and collectivity met. They sought out a far broader palette of aesthetic, emotional, sensorial, corporeal, and technological modes of thinking to grapple with what citizenship might be.
In taking seriously their serious fun, my book might best be imagined as something like an intellectual history of how hippies danced—that is, the book attempts to capture and analyze how listeners to rock moved and were moved, how they escaped into the ecstatic release of rock’s sounds, but from that escape also found themselves pulled into contemplating matters of great significance to their own lives and the lives of others. Listening intently to rock music in San Francisco, Vietnam, and beyond, participants in the sixties counterculture found themselves fundamentally embedded within the wavelengths and apparatuses of American commercial and military imperialism. And they tried to rock the meaning of citizenship from that space within.