Rock Music and Counterculture

The development of Counterculture that took place between 1960 and 1973 is attributed to a number of social and political agents. Counterculture saw the change in general public opinion over social and political issues (Frank 1998). For the first time in the American history, views over many issues tended to be generational-based. Such issues included the war in Vietnam, inter-racial relations, sexual mores and change in women's rights and women’s place in the society. It also saw a hyper-increase in the use of psychoactive drugs. The growth of these changes started in United States before spreading to the Western Europe and has now come to be seen as an integral part of the Western culture. Among the important agents that brought about this change was development of new forms of music. Among these, rock music was the most instrumental. 

Popular music has had a big role in the neo-history of the United States. It has been fundamental in opposition of certain ideas and has been an important channel through which the public has voiced its views on social and political issues such as sexual revolution, Black Power, Cold War, Vietnam War, environmentalism and feminism. Popular music gained prominence as a tool for political and social struggle in the 1960s (Swingrover 2004). The 1960s also saw the immergence of rock music as the most popular genre of popular music. This coincidence propelled rock to become an important tool in the counterculture struggle.

Rock is a genre of music originating from `rock and roll’, the genre that was most popular in 1950s in the United States. Since its development, rock music has been seen as a symbol of modernity. The use of electric guitar and electric bass guitar as the basic instruments in rock served to define it as a modern genre. This is because the two instruments were fairly modern in the 1960s. Later new instruments such as piano, Hammond organ and drum kit consisting of drums and cymbals were introduced to rock music. Synthesizers were for the first time extensively used in rock. The introduction of a large variety of instruments also decidedly portrayed rock as a modern genre since previously no genre had used so many instruments together. In the mid and late 1960s, rock music developed into a wide range of distinct sub-genres. These sub-genres included jazz-rock fusion, blues rock, country rock and folk rock. The new sub-genres developed in the 1960s which came to be known as the `golden age of rock’(Swingrover 2004). The new sub-genres borrowed a lot from other genres that include blues, folk, jazz and classical genres. Since its development rock music has been exclusively associated with the youth. As such, rock music came to be associated with the youth’s rebellion against the traditional mainstream views and had a big hand in the immergence of the youth as a distinct subgroup of the society with a distinct sub-culture that deviated from tradition.  

The fact that the development of rock coincided with growth of counter culture in the 1960s has left researchers and analysts with little doubt that rock music had a causal- effect relationship with the development of the sub-culture. One of the biggest roles of rock music in the counter-culture is that it served as a unifying factor for the youth. Being exclusively for the youth, rock music provided a basis for unification and helped in making the young Americans identify themselves as a distinct group. It led the youth into thinking along the same lines and collectively revolting against adult conformity. It is this rebellion in political and social issues that defined the development of counter- culture. Rock lyrics tackled a large variety of themes in great contrast to the earlier genres of popular music and, thus, enabled the youth to express their views on different topics that affected them such as sex, life styles and social concerns. The earlier genres had traditionally been centered on love and romance. Rock, therefore, became a tool of expression for the youth. Currently, the use of the term rock as an umbrella term for all modern genres of music including pop, reggae, soul and hip hop, underscores the fact that rock is a symbol of modern music and by extension, a symbol of modern life (Swingrover 2004).

The 1960s saw a change in the youth’s way of thinking and subsequently their lifestyle. The changes were largely advocated for by the new left group and the Hippies. The New Left was primarily a group of middle-class university students that identified with Left-wing politics whose activities started at the University of Michigan with the formation of Students for a Democratic Society in 1960. The members of the left wing were opposed to limitation of individual freedom and the bureaucracy in government operations and advocated for participatory democracy. They became the most vocal opponents of the Vietnam War and were involved in widespread protests. In the demonstrations, slogans and songs were popular among the youth, thus, defining the protest as youth based and its voice as that of the youth. Rock music was widely used in protest songs and came to be associated with activism over time. The New Left movements were the first platform where the youth acted as a block and openly aired their views. The police attempted to quell the demonstrations with untold brutality that resulted to deaths of many protesters. This brutality meted upon the demonstrators further enhanced the solidarity among the youth.

Hippies were also mostly middle-class but unlike the new lefts they lacked political drive. They considered conventional dressing and lifestyle old-fashioned (Gair 2007). They dressed in jeans, sandals and kept long hair and beard. They embraced a lifestyle marked by sexual permissiveness and used drugs such as LSD and marijuana. They advocated for sexual permissiveness that included homosexuality. This was in great contrast to the conventional culture of the time where jeans were considered work clothes, and long hair and beard was frowned upon. Traditionally, sexual permissiveness such as homosexuality and sex outside marriage were considered the height of immorality (Swingrover 2004). Use of recreational drugs was also considered a social evil. The hippies challenged all that. Many rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s were hippies and advocated for hippy lifestyle through their music and dress. Rock bands such as Holy Modal Rounders, Jefferson Airplane Country Joe and the Fish, The Grateful Dead and The Great Society openly advocated for use of LSD which all their members used. Rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix became symbols of the hippie lifestyle.

Rock music and counter-culture created awareness and solidarity among the youth and was instrumental in the fight for and achievement of basic human rights, minority rights of the handicapped, homosexuals and women were addressed. The architects of counterculture thus managed to create an all-inclusive and tolerant society (Sirius & Joy 2004). All these achievements notwithstanding, the detriments brought about by counterculture cannot be ignored. A good example is the effects of the Woodstock Festival, a counterculture event dubbed “three days of peace, music and love” where several deaths occurred from accidents largely caused by a heavily intoxicated crowd and drug overdoses (Kaiser 1997). Sexual revolution brought about by counterculture brought about new and more operative birth control methods. “Recreational sex” with no risk of unwanted pregnancy fundamentally changed the social order as it permitted women and men freedom in the selection of their sexual lifestyles as opposed to the societal dictates that expected sexual relationships in marriage only This change in attitude, led to a dramatic increase in the ratio of children born out of wedlock which 1990 had risen from 5% to 25% among Whites. The rise in the African-Americans was much higher and was estimated to be 66% up from 25%. This has brought social disorder. The number of abortions has also greatly increased in the era sexual revolution. Increase in crime resulting from drug abuse is also another adverse effect of counter revolution and rock music.

Rock music has always had distinct style that challenges the values of the dominant culture. Psychedelic rock music popularized in the 1960s by musicians such as Jimi Hendrix advocated for use of LSD which went against the conventional values. The hard rock sub-genre has been known to encourage atheism and glorify evil and crime. Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" for instance, looks down upon social order and encouraged a chaotic society.  Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesties Requests glorifies evil.The personal lifestyles of rock musicians and the names adopted by many rock bands have also been a subject of debate on their morality. Such names include those of bands such as The Grateful Dead and The Killers. This has earned the genre countless critics. Most vocal of these have been a cross- section of Christian leaders who have described rock as immoral and anti-Christian. Some church leaders have even branded rock as demonic.

Counterculture can be viewed as an attempt to appropriate dominant culture. Many laws on human and minority rights were formulated or enforced as a result of counterculture. These laws that led to a more integrated society redefined the American Dream and corrected the historical social injustices against minority groups within the dominant culture. The continued spread of the ideals of the counterculture to other parts of the world suggests that many such ideals were superior to those existing in the dominant culture. Countercultural movement, therefore, had a wide range of effects ranging from creating a new meaning of democracy to revolutionalizing the mode of dressing. It brought out the youth’s feelings as anti-war. Protests in opposition Vietnam War and invasion of Cambodia by American forces portrayed the youth of the day as lacking the traditional blind patriotism that dictated that one was to support their country in war even if the aggression was uncalled for. It also portrayed the youth as favoring more developed methods of conflict resolution as opposed to armed confrontation. It also ushered in a new era of expression of opinion.        

Rock music was an important aspect of counterculture and remains a symbol of modernity and progressiveness to many (Perone 2004). It remains as a symbol of identity for the youth. However, to some, rock music is a symbol and agent of moral decadence and loss of values. One thing remains clear though. Rock music has had a bigger hand in history and in the evolution of the current American society than any other genre of music. Today, the impacts of counter of the 1960s are stronger than ever. On the other hand, rock music which was fundamental in the growth of counter culture remains as popular as it was back then. It remains a source of entertainment and evolves with evolution of the society.

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