rethinking columbia records “but the man can’t bust our music” ad campaign.
Does anyone ever actually look at the records listed in the infamous 1969 Columbia CBS Records’ “But The Man can’t bust our music” advertising campaign? Terry Riley’s In C. Edgar Varèse. Charles Ives. Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Moog Synthesizer. I mean, lots of people would like to bust that music! If only these difficult works of avant-garde classical music had actually been the soundtrack of the counterculture. One could, of course, argue they influenced albums such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, but really, was anyone in the counterculture or outside it or swept up in its vague waves of questioning norms really concerned about holding on to a Stockhausen album for dear life? And who would have a record player plugged into their jail cell anyway!? Did anyone, even the makers of this ad campaign, really take this ad as seriously as historians have since? Wasn’t it meant to be a gag in the first place? As such, it is evidence that consumer corporations were seeking to participate in a kind of countercultural irony—maybe even a cynicism or fatalism—that remains understudied to this day. But historians rarely go there. Instead, they choose to use this ad, still to this day, in all kinds of clumsy, shorthand ways. But if you actually look at the ad as a historical artifact, it is simply far too weird for that kind of superficial analysis.
For many historians, the ad is evidence that the counterculture substituted consumer purchasing for political activism. But how does the ad really do that? One could just as easily interpret the ad as distinguishing consumer purchasing from political activism. Leaving aside that we have very little evidence of how readers of the underground press actually interpreted the ad (I have a bit about this in The Republic of Rock on mentions of the ad in record reviews sections of the rock music press), the ad really says nothing about politics at all. It only contends that “The Establishment’s against adventure” and that it opposes “the arousing experience that comes with listening to today’s music.” This vague Establishment may “slam doors.” It may keep the music “out of concert halls.” Never, however, does the ad claim that “great sound masters such as Ives, Riley, Stockhausen, Varèse, or the Moog Synthesizer” (some Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group there!) are political in the sense of anti-policy or even anti-capitalist activism. It simply says that these “ear stretching” recordings are “sometimes transforming.” Leaving aside for a moment the meanings of the image at the top of the ad (I’ll get to that in a moment), the most political moment, textually, is the most playfully and self-consciously silly. “The Man can’t stop you from listening,” the copy reads, “Especially if you are armed with these.”
Yes, you too, countercultural consumer, can turn away from the hard work of politics if you just tuck your Charles Ives under your arms at the local record store. Did anyone really take that seriously? Historians don’t actual look at the evidence itself in the ad, certainly not the fine print. Because it is inane. And anyone who read it at the time likely relished how inane it was. And if they did go out and actually purchase one of these recordings (no bestsellers among them), we have no evidence that listeners decided that it was sufficient political activism. Many might have listened to the album and the next day gone out to join an antiwar march or civil rights protest or to vote or to conduct myriad other forms of political action. My point is that we actually have zero evidence of what American consumers of countercultural music recordings did politically. We mostly just have bad, superficial historical interpretations of an advertisement in the underground press. What kind of history is that?
Shallow history, that’s what it is. We can poke fun of the counterculture easily, but I wonder if the urge to do so by historians indicates a deeper uneasiness with the swirling confusion of the counterculture historically. What really was it? What were its boundaries? Do we limit the term to refer to an affluent, white, middle-class movement? Do we perceive the counterculture as something broader, more ambiguous and far-reaching than that?
The fact that historians use this ad campaign as shorthand for dismissing the 1960s counterculture in its entirety makes a mockery of the practices of good empirical historical research. Why is it that historians, so sharp on other material, have such difficulty with this stuff? The urge to dismiss the complexity of the 1960s countercultural moment remains strong—stronger now, perhaps, than the original urge to celebrate it as some kind of revolutionary moment. And that makes me wonder about how far historical scholarship of the 1960s countercultural really has gotten.
So here is a stab at taking this key piece of historical evidence—which is really just a bit of ephemera from a very complicated cultural and political moment—a bit more seriously historically (by also not taking it too seriously). My argument is that maybe “But The Man can’t bust our music” most of all serves as a reminder of just how unsettling the counterculture was in its historical moment and to this day. It is neither evidence of the clueless appropriation by “The Man” himself of some kind of revolutionary countercultural movement “armed” with the sounds of “Ives, Riley, Stockhausen, Varèse, or the Moog Synthesizer,” nor an example of a cynically effective “conquest of cool” (to use Tom Frank’s phrase) by Madison Avenue. No, if you actually look at the thing, the ad is something stranger: it is a testament to the power of uncertainty, flux, confusion, and weirdness itself surfacing in the everyday print culture of the historical moment of the late 1960s. We glimpse, perhaps, how countercultural ideas of something beyond corporate profit could oddly circulate precisely through the forces seeking that profit. They did so through absurdity, humor, and incongruity.
To be sure, there is an inkling of what Tom Frank and others want us to see in noticing how advertising and marketing firms of the 1960s actually produced countercultural ideas of rebellion as much as tried to coopt them. Even in the 1950s, the forces of corporate capitalism were beginning to experiment with selling rebellion against the system in order to keep the system going. Bbut there’s also so much more going on in this ad. For instance, we might see the ad as marking the growing disconnect between the corporate and liberal wings of the postwar corporate-liberal order. Behind the scenes of this extremely odd advertisement, the “market” and the state were reorganizing their relationship to each other. This required cultural reworkings alongside economic and political transformations. A detaching had to occur between capitalist firms and governmental order, at least at the symbolic level. The corporate part—Columbia CBS Records—now seeks to distance itself from the state rather than seem part of a larger American system (and soon many politicians would join Columbia CBS, both on the right and the left, in this anti-statist move). Who me? I’m not The Man. Said The Man. The ad signals a kind of warning shot fired in the culture wars to come.
Yes, the ad fits with the Tom Frank (and behind that the Frankfort School) narrative of the capitalist culture industries allowing citizens to let off steam through leisure and consumption, through the selling of rebellion. There is an element of what Herbert Marcuse famously called “repressive desublimation” at work—political energy repressed, ironically, through its harmless release in the cultural domain. But that is really too rigid a distinction between politics and culture. “But The Man can’t bust our music” reminds us that the two are never as separate as we might want them to be theoretically. Politics and culture don’t behave well, much as historians and theorists might want to bust them up and keep them in line.
There’s something else going on in the ad, too, at least to my eyes. If we really look at the the iconography it presents, the ad slips us immediately into playful countercultural fantasy right from the start. The photograph that takes up its top half, after all, features an image of young rebels (all male, sadly, but not surprisingly) who seem to have made a jail cell look as cool as a countercultural crash pad (if that’s your cup of tea). Anyone looking at the ad would know you can’t do that. And yet, in this phantasmagoric, psychedelicized dream, deeply political messages leap forth from the corporate gag, from its kitschy stranglehold. “Wake up,” “Grab hold!” the protest picket signs declare in the image.
Its as if the countercultural message to activate one’s own sense of agency, one’s own aliveness, one’s own efficacy, one’s own presence in the world surfaces erupts even from this corny, ridiculous ad. Intended to contain politics and channel it into corporate consumerism, supposedly, the ad also registers the political urgency of the time. The Man can’t bust our music, the ad purposes, but he sure as hell still can bust us if we dare to move from dreams to actions. He can make our prison cell look like a hipster’s den, with dissonant music a-blaring, but it’s still a damn prison. In this way the ad is even a kind of disciplining. Don’t you dare do more than listen to strange music or we will indeed put you in jail. “Music is love,” as another picket sign suggests, but neither music, nor love are going to get you out of jail if you challenge the powers that be too much.
In this way, the politics of the countercultural challenge to the “Establishment” really are quite alive and raging in this ad. Never mind the Jefferson Airplane (they were on RCA anyway), Ives, Riley, and Stockhausen might be pretty pleased by that fact.