Nice review of The Republic of Rock published by the History News Network: Ron Briley, “Review of Michael J. Kramer’s ‘The Republic of Rock,'” History News Network, http://hnn.us/article/154742. Thanks to Ron for engaging with the book so thoughtfully.
One point Ron’s rightfully makes is that I do not concentrate much on the fall or decline of the counterculture. That is a fascinating issue, one that has dominated much of the scholarship on “the sixties.” I would only say that in Republic of Rock, I grew more curious about understanding what the counterculture was, exactly, than about assessing its successes and failures. The historiography of the sixties has often focused on judging it, on registering hopes and regrets about it. This is particularly the case in writing about the counterculture by and in the shadow of a generation of historians who lived through that time period and in much of their work have confronted in one way or another the story of “the sixties.”
There has always been a much disputed sense of how to define the counterculture, and it struck me that the arguments about success and failure (nevermind Bob Dylan’s notion that, to paraphrase, there is no success like failure and failure’s no success at all) rested very much on definitional questions. So what I grew curious about was almost a more elemental question than success or failure: why did rock music matter so much to certain people? Only if we could identify and register the mattering could we begin to put the counterculture in its historical place.
What I discovered, however, was that the counterculture’s historical place was often about trying to leap or flash or jump out of its historical place. The contextualized reception of rock music time and time again revealed instances in which people wanted to unfix themselves, remake themselves, undo themselves, and in the process, reimagine and recast the world around them. To catch their desires and how these longings, emotions, corporeal struggles, and intellectual engagements shaped and were shaped by rock music became a central goal of The Republic of Rock. It kept leading me to the question of citizenship and how investigations of social belonging and democratic freedom saturated the spaces in which rock music was heard. There, in those moments, among those people, rock became a vehicle for new sensations about, feelings for, and comprehensions of social life in a charged historical moment. San Francisco and Vietnam were but two poles of a larger, global proliferation of inquires into citizenship through the unlikely medium of rock.
This circuit was what I hoped to identify and probe to grasp its dynamic and what that dynamic could tell us about the relationship between self, community, nation-state, and global scales of citizenship and civics in the 1960s. Partly by emphasizing the distinctiveness, the “exceptionalism,” of the late 60s/early 70s countercultural moment, I hoped to intervene in continual and very frustrating efforts to fit all subsequent cultural rebellions into its model.
On the other hand there is something—an energy, a charged experience of human activity and engagement—that continues to matter, that surfaced in the sixties counterculture and still seems to pop up, occasionally, in different forms. “There’s something happening here and what it is ain’t exactly clear.” “There’s something happening but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Rock’s songwriters, from the Buffalo Springfield to Bob Dylan to many others, tried to name this “something” that had a historical force even if it seemed to vanish into thin air when scrutinized through conventional historical means.
It’s the effort to touch that “something,” to catch its power in action, that I think still matters to the telling of history. As much as we can identify the structures of thought and material force that limited or constrained the counterculture, as much as we can note the ironic twists and turns of this and other liberation struggles whose very search for freedom only deepened the forces of tyranny and unfreedom because of their complicity with (hip) capitalism or militarism, with misplaced utopianism, with the forces of patriarchy, racism, classism, and so on, so too we should pay attention to those moments when history cracks open a bit, when other sounds, sights, modes, and moods arise within the edifice of human history. It’s those moments of uncertainty, when something is happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear, that historians need to analyze as well. These “somethings”—questions about self and society, humans and the world in which they live, rather than answers or solutions or statements of fact—are as worthy of historical study as the fact that they usually only flash up momentarily, fleetingly, and then fade away.