14 July 2013

Culture as a Historical Problem, Part II: Rock and Roll as Mass Social Critique

“I got my own world to live through, and I ain’t gonna copy you... I’m the one who’s gonna have to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”
—Jimi Hendrix

The sixties and the rise of rock provide another interesting case in the study of culture as a historical problem. As the student-led new left, civil rights, anti-imperialist, environmentalist, and feminist movements all gathered momentum in the great counter-cultural wave that swept across the U.S. during the 1960s, commercially produced “popular” music worked as a common affective and thematic canvas for the different people involved in them. Rock was the quintessential musical genre of the decade; its coalescence and mass dissemination through analog media was financed by the culture industry, but it cannot be denied that it played a major role in channeling and expressing the basic rejection of “the establishment,” which was something shared by all the major movements of the era. What about rock music as a cultural form allowed it to have this kind of effect within the historical conjuncture in which it emerged? What allowed it to function as a vehicle for mediating a massively widespread rejection of the status quo?

Towards the end of the 1960s the global system of production we call “Fordism,” or Fordist state-capitalism, was approaching its historical limits as a regime of accumulation. As the complex result of a protracted and global passive revolution, a form of economic growth based on the incorporation of greater and greater numbers of people into a consumer economy of mass-produced goods could only maintain itself as long as people could continue to buy those goods. Barred, to an important extent, from high volume international trade – a key legacy of the economic nationalism of Fordism – market saturation at home translated into an existential crisis for U.S. corporate capital, as an economy based upon the mass production and consumption of TVs, refrigerators, cars, and so on could only remain viable if there were people within the nation-state willing or able to buy those goods. The shrinking “return on investment” in the national economy combined with the steadily increasing wage demands of the recently empowered, bureaucratized trade unions to place a sharp squeeze on profits. And thus, though it had seemed to many that the contradictions of the capitalist political economy had been contained and that the era of destructive, systemic crises was over, this system entered a sharp crisis of profitability by the end of the 60s and had reached the status of a full-blown general crisis of capitalism by 1973.

This blog has already touched upon the fact that the Fordist system gave rise to forms of subjectivity or cultural tendencies that subverted it from within and that, further, would themselves eventually become the defining aspects of social subjectivity under neoliberalism. Thus the reaction against what was experienced as the stultifying homogenization of post-War society, its bureaucratic alienation, its valorization of patriarchy and its elision of racial and gender differences took the form of an assertion of excluded identities against the established order. More generally, the massive wave of youth and student-led rebellion that swept the advanced capitalist world from roughly the mid-60s to ’69 was motivated by a rejection of the culture and institutions of mass-society and a reciprocal expression of individualism. What hasn’t been discussed on this blog as of yet is what it meant that these momentous rebellions had a deeply and specifically cultural aspect. In relative opposition to the revolutionary currents of the liberal period preceding it, the rebellions of the Fordist period were not so much focused upon overthrowing and replacing the existing order as much as simply rejecting it, withdrawing or turning away from it tout court. So, for example, the proliferation of hippie and anarcho-primitivist “back-to-the-earth” movements, the separatism of Black Nationalism, and the widespread embrace of far-out hallucinogenic drugs all in different ways point to a profound rupture with the norms and institutions of the existing society.

At the level of lived subjectivity, the crisis of Fordism manifested itself as a profound “opening up” of possibilities, of apparently new ways of coexisting and of organizing social life. This was what terrified conservatives and mainstream liberals of the time: the rebellion against and rejection of the established order was not solely based upon an inability to “deliver the goods,” though of course in an important way it was so in the case of the civil rights and feminist movements, which directed themselves to the constitutive exclusions of the establishment. It was also, plainly, a rejection of a whole way of life, of “everything that has been achieved by Western Society,” as contemporary reactionaries probably put it.

Part of the force of this rejection is illustrated by the critique of economic life in “The Port Huron Statement.”According to its authors in the SDS:The economic sphere would have as its basis the principles: that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; selfdirected, not manipulated, encouraging independence; a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility, since it is this experience that has crucial influence on habits, perceptions and individual ethics; that the economic experience is so personally decisive that the individual must share in its full determination; that the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.”

This is not a critique directed mainly at the availability of benefits or the distribution of existing wealth, but rather at the character of the work itself, its relatively humanizing or dehumanizing qualities with respect to the people who carry it out. It is not a call to seize the apparatus of work in the name of the people, but a call for a total break with the actually existing organization of production. This critique of one-sided work, already quite radical by any standard, is combined with an affirmative yet equally radical conception of human nature:

Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity. It is this potential that we regard as crucial and to which we appeal, not to the human potentiality for violence, unreason, and submission to authority. The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic: a quality of mind not compulsively driven by a sense of powerlessness, nor one which unthinkingly adopts status values, nor one which represses all threats to its habits, but one which has full, spontaneous access to present and past experiences, one which easily unites the fragmented parts of personal history, one which openly faces problems which are troubling and unresolved: one with an intuitive awareness of possibilities, an active sense of curiosity, an ability and willingness to learn. 
This kind of independence does not mean egoistic individualism — the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own. Nor do we deify man — we merely have faith in his potential.
Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty. Human interdependence is a contemporary fact; human brotherhood must be willed however, as a condition of future survival and as the most appropriate form of social relations. Personal links between man and man are needed, especially to go beyond the partial and fragmentary bonds of function that bind men only as worker to worker, employer to employee, teacher to student, American to Russian.

The statement outlines a sense of lived experience and social life that, while basically affirmative and rooted in an image of human nature, is nevertheless presented as the direct negation of the prevailing order. Life in Fordist state-capitalism is “inauthentic,” “submissive,” “violent,” “fragmented,” “impersonal”: these are but various names of the general feeling of alienation produced by the social system as a whole, elsewhere described in the “Statement” as the “American malaise.” The overall picture is of the possibility of a qualitatively different form of life, one in which merely mechanical, functional, and dessicated ways of relating to one another are replaced by something more immediate, more personal, and more genuinely human.

One of the authors of the Port Huron Statement.

These are some of the most salient ideological elements forming the sociohistorical background of the 1960s counterculture. Drugs, sexual liberation, “hippiedom” in general – far from somehow emerging ex nihilo, such phenomena articulated, for better or for worse, partial aspects of the social vision and the form of life that seemed to be fitfully coming into view for millions of people, especially during the middle and later part of the decade. This vision was premised on the idea that true freedom for the individual was to be found in a new kind of collectivity that rejected the form and content of the status quo, and it is in this sort of light that the rise of rock music as a distinct artistic genre should be considered.

Rock and roll in its classic form, from the late 1950s through the 60s, was a curious amalgam of pre-existing musical traditions whose historical roots run very deep. I already discussed one of these influences in my previous post. Like folk, rock was from the beginning a genre that emerged from and addressed a mass, popular base whose identity as a social subject was in turn indelibly shaped by it. Stylistically, it took from folk an emphasis on easy-to-remember choruses and more-or-less steady rhythmic patterns that can make the act of listening to music a profoundly social and collective experience. What is generally referred to as “the blues,” which like much else in U.S. popular culture has its roots in very old African American oral traditions, forms another pillar of this heritage. The unmistakable tonal patterns of the blues – the twelve-bar structure, the emphasis on simple pentatonic scales – still makes up the basic DNA of rock’s most distinctive melodic features today. Another element that the blues unquestionably contributed to classic rock and roll is the specific cultural form of the guitar solo, but more on that in a moment.

The economic and technological development of what contemporary commentators referred to as the “affluent society” is also key to understanding what rock is and how it came about. Economies of scale and the industrialized mass production of consumer goods meant that musical instruments, most notably the new electric guitar and the amplifier, were relatively affordable for a great number of people for the first time. After Chuck Berry at the latest, that is, roughly the mid- to late-1950s, youth across the country were forming what eventually became the stereotype of the “garage band” by playing bad music really loudly and generally pissing off the “Greatest Generation,” i.e. their parents. Probably most importantly, it was undoubtedly a blast, as the exhilaration of artistic creation – however amateur – combines with the disapproval of established authority, which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a really heady mix in the following decade and a half.

As a musical genre, during the 1960s rock became increasingly aggressive, as its audience grew, the concerts got bigger, and its apparent dissociation from the establishment became more pronounced. One feature of the genre that is indispensable to understanding its social, historical, and cultural relevance is its sheer loudness. The introduction of electrical instruments and amplification devices combined with the rhythmic and tonal characteristics of the style itself to produce a musical genre unprecedented in its volume and energy. The Organization Man of the stuffy, bureaucratized world of the post-war consensus did not know what to make of this strange new mass phenomenon, other than the fact that, whatever it was, he was not part of it. Squares need not apply. Rather, rock was the unique possession of a generation raised in relative affluence that had come to reject the terms of that very affluence as stultifying, inauthentic, and somehow not fully human. Rock, insofar as it appeared as the pure negation of that order, was consequently a powerful vehicle for transmitting this basic desire for an alternative way of living, for opening up an experience of immediacy that seemed to be frustrated by the alienation of Fordist society.

A brief analysis of the solo as a form can further illustrate the organic historical connection between rock music and 1960s radicalism. Today the solo often gets a bad rap as something superfluous to the song as a whole, as a mere onanistic exercise that only serves to gratify the soloist’s ego. After all, it does not go without saying that someone should “take the spotlight” by stepping out in front of the group and seemingly overshadowing them. But the solo as a popular art had been a major element in jazz for some decades prior to the emergence of rock, wherein it was understood not as a superfluous exercise, but as a means by which each individual member of the ensemble could step out and express his or her interpretation of the song, to accentuate it in his or her own way, before returning to ensemble play. Rock and roll basically took this democratizing aspect of the jazz solo, attached dynamite to it, and blew it the hell up, making it into a true mass medium in a way that jazz did not. In the period of its emergence it was far from irrelevant, as it was an integral element in whatever ideological and cultural force rock had as a medium.

The rock solo is a virtuoso performance of a particular kind. Volume and technical skill combine to transfix the audience’s attention on an unfolding dialogue between the soloist and her instrument, while the pulsing rhythms of a steady backbeat also compel bodily participation on the part of the audience. For a generation in search of a sense of individual freedom that could go beyond the one-dimensional social forms of Fordism, the rock solo blasted an extremely loud, inchoate negation of those forms that could, further, be collectively experienced both at the concert and with the mass-produced, vinyl LP. As such it was a technologically mediated artistic practice that bespoke the possibility of a fundamentally different form of society, one grounded in less destructive, more immediate, and more authentic forms of collective being-together. The mangled, tortured howls of Hendrix’s guitar in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in which you can almost hear the bombs dropping on North Vietnam, remains the high-water mark for rock as a politicized art: the political message is inextricable from the wildly dissonant, abrasive noise emanating from the amplifier and distorting the traditional patriotic meaning of the song beyond recognition, if not outright inverting it. The musical form and its political content are fused into one at this point.

As with my previous post, this post only scratches the surface of a rich tradition of cultural practice. And obviously I cannot get into a full discussion of the fate of the 1960s counterculture, the complex subsequent development of rock by and through the culture industry, or the historical limits of the critical consciousness that emerged alongside it. But my aims have been broadly the same: to suggest the ways in which the emergence of forms of consciousness that point beyond the present might emerge from the confluence of particular media technologies, aesthetic practices, and forms of alienation unique to the present. To better understand what was truly revolutionary about the 1960s, it is important to grasp how a potentially revolutionary critique entered the domain of practice through the mediation of mass-cultural phenomena in the realm of music and the arts.


  1. Great analysis, I think you do a good job recuperating the sense of what was really new and critical in '60s culture, which I think has been lost in retrospective views of it. There seems to be a tendency for the culture and ideology that attains hegemony under each regime of accumulation to keep fighting enemies that it long ago vanquished, so that what was critical and progressive during the crisis of Fordism became affirmative and hackneyed, if not reactionary, after the consolidation of neoliberalism. The absurd guitar solos of the '80s seem like a good example of that in culture, just as people (including Krugman) are still looking to more competition to solve problems in the economy.

    The question for a future politics (not so much a question for us today, alas) is how to break out of this pendular movement of swinging back and forth between the different dichotomies of modernity each time the system falls into crisis, and instead transcend the antinomy by attacking the fundamental structuring forms of capitalism. On the one hand, '60s culture seems to me to have had a vision much closer to what a post-capitalist society would actually look like than did the culture of the '30s (a point your analysis reinforces). On the other hand, the nature of the social forms standing in the way of realizing that vision—centrally, wage labor—remained obscure to '60s radicals, precisely because strictly economic problems had seemingly been resolved. Any thoughts on how to avoid this problem if we're lucky enough, three or four decades hence, to get back to a similar conjuncture?

  2. Great post and I appreciate, as Walker said, that you’re stressing the radical and liberatory elements of culture in the mid-century US. Of course rock and roll wasn’t just culture, it was popular culture, and it was primarily dissmeninated as a commodity, unlike the folk music of the 1930s and therefore had a more universal dimension to it. It coincided with the widespread adoption of anti-systemic ideologies, and thorough-going critiques of society, as you note.

    It’s worth going back to the fifties, if only momentarily, to contextualize rock and roll amidst the culture of the fifties. The initial power of rock and roll music had everything to do with the way that it seemed to transgress racial boundaries. But of course, the music wasn't just a reflection of races that existed at a deeper level that social relations, but actually part of the practices of social life that constitute and continually transform the social existence of race itself.

    Elvis was a representative of a newly urbanized, still upwardly mobile working class that was free to combine artistic practices (blues, country, and gospel, to name a few) in ways that hadn't been done before, and was caught up in the social upheaval of demands for civil rights and racial integration. And of course Elvis stood alongside a great number of black rock and roll musicians, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Bo Diddley (we could go on,) who seemed threatening to many whites not so much for what they sang about, but for who they were and who was listening. This was a period in which the booming post-war economy seemed to open the door for racial social mobility.

    Unfortunatley, the later course of rock and roll music could hardly be said to bear out the more radical developments that one might have imagined for it. The rock and roll music of the fifties is in many ways strange and unfamiliar to us, incoporated into our understanding of “our” past in a cozy and caricatured way, but not easily assimilable to the course of rock music from the sixties on. The musicians I mention above had strikingly divese styles that would no doubt inspire later rock musicians without really being duplicated. And the rock and roll music that would follow on the popularity of Elvis in the later fifties and early sixties would often sound indistinguishable from the bland and anodyne vocal music of the day, as Elvis’s music itself would from time to time as he became a film star.

    When rock and roll regained its teeth in the sixties it was largely a result of British musicians inspired by American blues and early rock and roll music. But it’s also in this era that rock music begins to show a certain crisis of authenticity, in which the primarily white musicians playing the music seemed to need to defend their connection to a form of music that was based in an experience of poverty and primal masculinity–that is to say–an idea of blackness that they had largely invented themselves.

  3. In contrast to the desire to go beyond certain forms of social life manifest in the current order, rock music drew on (largely fictional) images of existing society to consecrate its claims to authenticity. The image of the impoverished black delta blues musician was largely invented, and then acted out in more or less coded ways, by rock musicians from Eric Clapton to Jagger and Richards (and look forward to Patti Smith to see the continuing relevance of this trope into the seventies.)

    The irony should be clear in the fact that Muddy Waters represented the height of blues authenticity for the Rolling Stones (apart from the long dead and poorly documented Robert Johnson.) Waters played an electric guitar–a mark of post-war mass production for new consumer markets–and took pride in his status as a well paid and nattily dressed musician. Waters had achieved some of the marks of middle class success that the Stones would ostentatiously reject, but there appeared to be no contradiction here because he was black and from rural Mississippi.

    Similarly there is a revealing moment in the Chuck Berry documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll” in which Eric Clapton, preparing to play a star-studded concert with Berry, tells the drummer (who is himself black) that although he was devoted to rock and roll music, he had never seen a black man in person all through his adolescence. You are free to sort out for yourself Clapton's worship of American blues and his later support for English nationalist politics.

    Meanwhile, there were relatively few black musicians playing music recognized as rock into the later 1960s, while an artist like Otis Redding was apparently playing a different style–rhythm and blues or even proto-funk. So I wonder if rock music can simultaneously show how certain radical possibilitie–for example of greater racial inclusivity–had been foreclosed on at the same time as it expresses impulses towards freedom and the destruction of the all-dominating “system?”

    Finally, what should we say about Adorno’s critique of mass culture in relation to rock music? Here's a brief taste: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-njxKF8CkoU

    While it seems reductive to me to dismiss the radical potential of expressing anti-systemic impulses through a medium like rock music, it nonetheless would seem persuasive to argue that the failure to connect this popular dissatisfaction with the most fundamental practices of social reproduction, in other words, wage labor, guaranteed the failure of the anti-systemic movements of the sixties to do away with domination of individuals by society. I think what is called for is a better understanding of the terms in which anti-systemic movements of this period understood the forces they opposed, and why alternative or underground businesses like rock music and alternative newspapers and the sanctification of social categories like race seemed to be a promising form of resistance to so many.

  4. Some good questions here. I think Deckard's comments provide a good place to start reflecting on Walker's question about the dichotomies of modernity, and how to potentially break out of them.

    I haven't yet had the chance to study Adorno seriously, so I'm not very familiar with his critique of popular music beyond just passing knowledge of it. But in the link provided above, the translation of Adorno's comments is a bit jacked up, actually. It's not just the popular-music-as-consumption that he's objecting to, but its commodity-character (Warencharacter), which, I think, probably is referring to the more expansive idea of commodity-as-form or social relation. From this angle, the 60s counterculture understood itself as creating or participating in something entirely new - hence the idea of the liberation of a generalized human nature - when it was actually unreflectively reproducing the same, i.e. the social form of the commodity. Immersion in the logic of the culture industry and its consequences isn't something that can be accepted or rejected personally, but is an inevitability that can - and must - be reflectively thematized internally within any remotely adequate cultural politics. Otherwise you occlude what must be the ultimate object of critique, namely the form of society itself.

    So, instead of drawing the conclusion that "they didn't have this kind of critique, and if they would have things would have turned out differently," I think the question could simply and more productively be framed as "why wasn't there this kind of critique?" Deckard's point about how primarily white 60s rock centered on the performance of a largely invented set of racialized tropes is to the point, because it suggests how rock as a popular mass-medium had already been colonized by the image, so to speak, in its ostensibly "classic" period.

    This would be a productive point at which to begin to internally differentiate our understanding of the New Left and the counterculture of the era, since in the early SDS, for example, there was at least the beginnings of a critique of work, but by the late 60's you have the mass counterculture and that critique is submerged and displaced largely by the anti-war movement. Popular music played a major role in this, and so, again, we arrive at the intersection of social theory, politics and aesthetics, as in the previous post on culture. What kinds of mediated aesthetic practices or visions have the capacity to short-circuit the logic of the culture industry in such a way as to go beyond the division between "work time" and "leisure time?" Leisure time, following Horkheimer and Adorno, is today constituted simply as preparation for work time. What, if anything, could actually illuminate the increasing anachronism of that very distinction?

  5. Great formulations, Paul, thanks for framing these issues in such a clear way. I very much agree that these are the questions to be asking.

    I really liked your characterization of the rock solo (or at least the highest aspirations of the rock solo) as well. It's interesting how academic "classical music" and avant-garde jazz were both asking the same question in this period, and coming up with incredibly interesting answers, though obviously pursuing very different directions.

    For both kinds of music, it seems to me that they were very consciously trying to find a way to actualize freedom through different compositional and performative possibilities. For academic music, this meant systematizing the relationships between all pitches, timbres, etc., but also introducing some aleatoric elements (arguably this was a culmination of efforts that had begun much earlier with the inception of tonal music.) Avant-garde jazz was also breaking loose of traditional harmony (in part through drawing on other classical traditions, such as South Asian music) and pushing for more and more room for spontaneous improvisation.

    You're right, that jazz and the more avant-garde varieties in particular, never achieved the widespread popularity of rock music, but it certainly was seen as connected to black power and pan-African movements of the time. It's very interesting to me how the new left critique of society was reflected in these new musical forms. Improvisation in particular seems like an attempt to escape from the unfreedom of externally determined forms.

    Of course these connections between musical developments and anti-systemic impulses is only suggestive at this point, but it's an interesting way to consider that intersection of theory, politics, and aesthetics.

  6. What about the form of the concert as a force of liberation? Those were big, chaotic events, initially very different from the consumer circuits of the music industry that Adorno rails against. Sometimes they were free, and very often they overflowed conventional limits. The audience deliberately enacted the transgression and refusal of behavioral norms and they pushed for more revolutionary lyrics and gestures from the performers. Left theory at the time had shifted from the critique of exploitation to that of alienation, and the experience of concerts allowed war resisters and anti-racists to produce that critique in a popular way and in a mass setting. Collective disalienation and the feeling of a personal authenticity was fantasmatically equated with the national liberation of oppressed peoples. Of course all this was subject to normalizing forces that eventually imposed new control routines, but in the meantime a lot of people - and not just the artists - saw their chance and took it. Marcuse was not satisfied by the sex, drugs and music of the counter-culture, but it was clear to him that revolution in the affluent societies had to be countercultural.

    It's pretty interesting to realize that something comparable happened in the '90s with the nomadic techno-tribes in the UK, who transformed the Jamaican set-up of the mobile sound-system into a disruptive cultural force. They got radicalized under the government of John Major, which passed a really repressive law called The Criminal Justice Act. That law politicized some elements of the scene, who fed into Reclaim the Streets and then migrated across the Channel to greener pastures. The nomadic raves, which were basically a swarming technique where thousands converged on a strategically chosen spot, helped to create the basic format of the antiglobalization demos, which were a lot more extensive in Europe than here. Of course none of this was as big and influential as Sixties rock, but it shows that music is not necessrily dead as a political force in the Western societies. Now that the Internet has opened up the possibility of uncontrolled mass distribution, something like that could happen again in a really explosive way.

  7. Hmm, much of the distinctiveness of Rock and popular Western North American music has also been because of technological trends. In many ways the Jazz age accomplished some of the same things the Rock or Soul agewhatever you want to call it. The electic guitar and portable organs and synthesizers made much of it all possible.

    As someone who was a DJ and still has thousands of singles and albums, however, I think that there is a certain overemphasis on the political force of music.
    On the one hand your comments are valid, but on the other hand - it's only music...

    Much of music is at heart entertainment or fantasy. At least for me, I like it because of the melody not necessarily the words. As a devout eastern orthodox/catholic I sometimes find the excessive sexually suggestive words of particular pieces bothersome. In those cases I either ignore it or avoid playing them often - if at all.

    I'll tell you all something here.

    What stands the test of time is music that promotes family values - whatever music that may be - and I don't say what it is or isnt. But I do say that a significant amount of Rock music is exploitative/lascivious and not particular family oriented.

    Put it this way - whatever makes it to the Smithsonian Folk-life Festival has stood the test of time. Over there you have had last year the Philadelphia International Records producers interviewed and performance by the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (classic soul/disco/funk)and than also you have Hungarian gypsies playing dulcimers and men waring long boots and women in beautiful dressesses.

    I think for the past forty years in the USA one can certainly recognize the political force of "rock music" , and I do consider the 60's and 70's era to have had some great artisitic achievements with it - but in the longterm I think the anti-family attitudes present in it were exploited even more strongly.

    By the 1990's and 2000's the quality and value of much commercial pope music has been at such a low level that it is hard for me to take it seriously.

    I still listen to underground house music and bluegrass festivals and various "international folk festivals" but most newer pop and rock music is totally off my radar for good reason. Much like neo-liberalism it has I think failed to achieve much success in recent years.

    1. My main music however is church music - english adaptations of gregorian chant, renaissance polyphony, znammeny , byzantine. This is a music which is both politically transformational and pro-family and you can tap your toes or bang your drum with under certain circumstances (its not all free rhythm.) One can say the same of any ancient religious music really. Islam and Buddhism have similar situations.