Peace sign and bullet bandolier on marine at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968. Photo: Tim Page.
a response to review of the republic of rock in journal of popular music studies.
Another pairing of The Republic of Rock and Devon Powers’ wonderful Writing the Record, this time by John McMillian in the latest issue of Journal of Popular Music Studies. I appreciate John’s review and respect his critiques. For instance, he wants plain-spoken language and less metaphor, which for him amounts to words without ideas; I think history could use a good dose of more metaphor, which to me is chock full of ideas and pushes language to access the full interpretive possibilities of the past—particularly when it comes to something as wild and strange and weird as psychedelic rock. Fine, we disagree about this. He thinks this kind of “high-falutin” language is directed at academic elites within the profession (maybe, though my experience is that academic historians in particular still favor a more dull and workmanlike prose); I think his argument that we need to write about rock ‘n’ roll in faux-populist rhetorics masks a kind of condescension to readers, assuming that they can’t handle or won’t like weirder and stranger prose. Hey, c’mon, we’re talking about people who might actually sit through all of Bathing at Baxter’s here! Again, fine, we disagree.
But I think there is one major flaw with his analysis that leads the review quite astray. He implies my book argues that, in his words, “It’s true that for many youths in the late ’60s, a predilection for Jimi Hendrix or the Jefferson Airplane could serve as an identity marker, or totem, through which a person could telegraph certain beliefs and attitudes.” This assertion allows him to contend that “it’s not always clear what this has to do with citizenship.” But the point of my book is precisely the opposite from describing rock as an “identity marker, or totem.” In the sense that when I looked at evidence from the psychedelic rock heyday of the 60s counterculture, rock was precisely neither of these. This is the hackneyed interpretation of rock as a stable, subcultural style—a kind of psychedelic badge of music and fashion that you could simply purchase and don with pride (or brandish with infantile rebelliousness). Of course rock and its accoutrements could be used this way—and often were.
But what I found in my source materials was something else that is far less commonly recognized: psychedelic rock also destabilized and undermined identity markers for many listeners. It disoriented. It de-totemized. We tend to conceptualize sixties rock either as meaningless, indulgent hedonism, escapism, and “blowing your mind,” or that it was all about putting on bell bottoms, buying a few Crosby, Stills, and Nash albums, and going to the Fillmore on the weekends to feel that you were part of what was “happening.” It was negationist, even nihilistic—or it was naively affirmational (and hence easily commodified) and dope-ily (in all senses of the term) optimistic. Yes, it was all those things. It was also about something else, something rather more sophisticated in its way: the music became, for many, a tool, even a technology, certainly a medium and a kind of access point, for thinking—and deep deep thinking at that. It sparked critical inquiry, and did so with a far broader and more integrated understanding of what constitutes “thinking” (body as well as mind, concrete and experiential as well as abstract, dystopian as well as utopian, etc.).
In particular, my evidence suggested that many used rock most of all to ask themselves questions about self and society. Who am I and who are we? These were the central questions that rose up from the fun—the serious fun in all senses of the term—that rock provided. And they were exactly what made the music about citizenship. But not citizenship narrowly defined through state power (which is how McMillian wants to define it). Rather, citizenship as it linked to culture—not only to a Cold War consumer culture that shifted during the 1960s toward niche marketing and the new marketing approaches of hip capitalism, but also to notions of public belonging and membership within these economic and cultural transformations. These were notions of citizenship that might, in an almost anarchistic way (in the political theory sense of anarchism as a vision of society without the state), push beyond the state to a sense of democratic solidarity constituted—through music— diversely, pluralistically, with multiplicity, from the bottom up, if not exactly organized against the state, then circulating through the apparatus of the state (and market for that matter) with other energies of social life.
Not that this was a utopian form of citizenship, nor an achievable one practically. It was problematic on many counts, which many participants in the counterculture quickly realized and (again) used rock to address (precisely because it was part of the very system against which it generated opportunities for critique; also because it was at once ideational and embodied, blurring the lines—getting closer to the intersections—between thought and action, reasoning and experiencing). It’s a picturing of a citizenship of the multitudes that resounded in psychedelic rock, that made it not just a music that appealed to affluent American youth yearning to enter the borders of Woodstock Nation (and to US GIs in Vietnam who certainly were directly implicated with questions of citizenship and state power as members of the military who longed to join Woodstock Nation as well!), but also a sound that had tremendous meaning for young listeners around the world who wanted to join a kind of stateless Woodstock Transnational.
What I think of as the ultimate failure of this alternative construction of citizenship as a stateless, anarchistic “imagined community,” one that was felt and thought through sound, makes it no less fascinating as a historical phenomenon. And we should get it right in terms of what that phenomenon was historically, even if that means following the historical record—through metaphors that, with hope, hit the groove—to its oddest, most uncanny and strange dimensions of truth.