The “Authentically Expressive” Late 60s

Like youth movements of the early 1960s, the counterculture of the late 1960s was concerned with idealism and authenticity; however, this later movement had its own distinct qualities which set it far apart from the early 60s. As Richard Goldstein phrases it in “San Francisco Bray”, this movement was “authentically expressive” with a “psychedelic ethic” (B&B, 249 and 248). The key word here is expressive. The musical performances became shared experiences between musicians and the audience, physical styles boldly rebelled against mainstream norms, and drug use was a tool used in hopes to expand minds and reestablish human connections. The counterculture of the late 1960s was louder, more theatrical, and more focused on mind-expansion and physical expressions of going against the mainstream. The counterculture of the late 1960s was distinctly expressive, as is clear in the theatrical performances of musicians like Janis Joplin and the psychedelic lighting and style of bands like Jefferson Airplane. The counterculture was an attempt of the youth to establish community grounded in idealism and rebellion expressed through style, music, sexuality, and drug use.

The distinct focus on overt expression of authenticity in the late 1960s counterculture was a clear departure from the youth movements of the early 60s. The differences are clear in the music of the two times. The music of Joan Baez in the early 60s, for example, greatly contrasts the later music of Janis Joplin. Watching Baez perform “I Never Will Marry,” in the early 1960s, one sees a calm performance that the audience watches; on the other hand, videos of Janis Joplin performing “Ball and Chain,” in 1967 reveal a shared experience between Joplin and her audience. Joplin’s performance is soulful and emotional. She dances with the audience, blurring the line between performer and audience as they all express themselves through dance and shared experience. A huge part of this authentic expression revolved around the concert experience. Performer-audience connection and setting were key to creating a sense of community. Danny Sugerman’s description of Jim Morrison’s performance makes this point even clearer. Sugerman details Morrison’s style and theatrical expression: “In black leather, with long brown hair and angelic features, the singer was a phantom, staggering across the stage, about to fall but somehow keeping his balance… he dropped back, and leapt forward, throwing his face at ours… the audience, who were already on the edge of their seats, were bolted and locked in the Doors’ current” (B&B, 252).

In addition to the emotional and expressive performances of musicians themselves, the backdrops to concerts were just as essential in creating the communal experience. Tom Robbins’ “To Dance” describes concerts as “multimedia sensual experiences…” noting that “lights, music, incense, and dancing… became liberating and expressive” (B&B, 255). The importance of psychedelic backdrops is clear in Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 “White Rabbit” music video, as the lighting seems just as essential as the music itself in creating the intended vibe. In “Everything Seemed Beautiful: A life in the Counterculture”, Barry Melton describes the counterculture as a vast, interconnected network “furthered by a talented community of young light-show and poster artists and musical promoters who all shared idealistic vision of a limitless future”, pointing to the importance of setting to create this shared expressive movement (B&B, 154).

Like the movements of the early 1960s, this later counterculture tried to create a community centered in idealism and rebellion; however, they did so through drug use, loud and colorful style, and theatrical music experience. Melton notes that “there was an incredible sense of community…” and that it was “a genuine attempt by a handful of young people to redefine much of what was taken for granted about the way human beings relate to one another” (Melton, 152). Goldstein adds that “hip has passed the point where it signifies a commitment to rebellion… it has become the style of youth”, pointing to the importance of physical expression (B&B, 249).

Another component among this youth movement was the tool of music in revolution and its relation to politics. In class, some students pointed out the videos we watched were less politically motivated lyrically in the late 60s; however, a few of the readings this week suggest that was not necessarily the case in the more general sense. Melton, for example, describes his continual involvement in politics, noting that his “first tour… was sponsored by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)” (Melton, 152). John Sinclair’s cry in “Rock and Roll is a Weapon of Cultural Revolution” is perhaps the reading that most clearly tries to connect the music of the time to political rebellion. Sinclair writes that the experiential quality of music makes it “the model of the revolutionary future” (B&B, 254). He argues this by explaining that bands are communities in themselves, and that they promote communal experience. Surprisingly, he calls for increased organization and decreased idle drug use, telling the reader to “get your thing together so you’ll be able to have a better time than just sitting around smoking bogus dope, dropping bogus speed-filled acid…” and to “organize… around some form of popular cultural activity like a rock and roll band… It’s time to turn on, tune in, and take over” (B&B, 254-255).

These readings suggest an interesting narrative of the late 1960s counterculture. Some may interpret the psychedelic ethic, drug use, and loud music in a negative way. Indeed, Melton himself says that “what began as unbridled idealism [was] swallowed up by an uncontrolled hedonism in just a few short years” (B&B, 156), but people like Melton still assert the positives of the immense sense of community, saying “we didn’t end discrimination, hunger, or war… but we did some really good things” (B&B, 156). Regardless, this counterculture was rebelling and creating community in its own distinct way.

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