The Death of Counterculture
By Wil Forbis
Nov 1st, 2012
I grew up as a teenager in the 1980s. The 80s are a decade mocked by cultural critics, dismissed as hedonistic, shallow and bereft of meaningful art and style. If the 80s had any form of culture it was generally assumed to be a corporate culture, a culture whose style and substance, icons and imagery were produced not by organic movements of creative citizens but by entertainment corporations. The music of the 80s was not raw and rough like rock music of the 60s; it was polished and slick, and heavily dependent on soulless technological accoutrements (synths and drums machines.) The movies were big budget mediocrities --- predictable, formulaic and audience tested before they hit the theaters. Nothing was left to chance; the 80s was the decade when the accountants took over.
That's the story anyway. And I suppose parts of it are true. But that wasn't my experience in the 80s. Certainly much of the music was slick (I was a great fan of the Thompson Twins), and many movies were banal (Remember “Running Scared” with Gregory Hines and and Bily Crystal?) but there was an undercurrent of... something. Rebelliousness. Rage. Not all facets of American culture were in complete agreement on the agenda. For every ten smiling faces you saw in the crowd, you caught glimpse of one seething in anger.
As a kid growing up in Hawaii, I spent a lot of time at the large shopping center, Ala Moana. In the center of Ala Moana was a courtyard area and here a different sort of teenage group would gather. These were kids riding skateboards, sporting mohawks and wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with hand drawn graphics mimicking the logos of bands. These were, of course, the punk rockers. I eventually grew to loath punk with its fascistic need for conformity but at the time I found punkers quite mysterious. And, one day when a semi cute punk rock chick came over and talked to me, I felt a strange excitement. Being that I was deathly afraid of girls (still am) the conversation did not go far, but it's entrenched in my mind as my first encounter with what I would eventually understand to be a counterculture. (Later, I did become friends with many of the punk rockers who held court at Ala Moana, but never saw that girl again. Who knows how differently my life might have turned out were that not the case? Sigh...)
There were other signs of the counterculture during my teenage years in Hawaii. In 1985, I saw ads for a movie entitled "The Return of the Living Dead," and knew it was vitally important that I see it. Critics will argue to the end of days whether “ROTLV” was a genuinely counterculture film or a shallow attempt by Hollywood to exploit the punk scene, but for me it felt different from other movies. The protagonists were all punks, but it was more the movie's attitude that set it apart. I can't get into the details without giving away the story, but the film seemed to be saying, "Fuck it! We're all doomed, so let's party!" It captured a certain teenage nihilism quite well.
But the movie that best encapsulated this spirit of the underground 80s was "Repo Man." An absurdist farce, "Repo Man" spat its bitter bile towards a cross section of mainstream America and western culture: Christians, The Military, Corporate stooges, liberals, conservatives and on and on. In a lesser film, such condescension might have seemed forced but "Repo Man" was just so fucking funny that it worked.
Devo's "Beautiful World"
Musically speaking, in the 80s, I was a great fan of the band Devo. I was first drawn to them simply because their songs were catchy. But the more I listened, the more I caught on that this was not your garden variety rock band. They spoke of a process of De-evolution in which the human existence was not getting better (as the presumption of progress inherent in most Western philosophy of the past 500 years dictates) but worse! They perhaps best expressed their disillusionment in the song, "Beautiful World," in which they sang in voices with dripping sarcasm:
It's a beautiful world we live in
A sweet romantic place
Beautiful people everywhere
The way they show they care
Makes me want to say
It's a beautiful world
Devo's pessimism always seemed a little trite to me, but there was no denying its subversive nature.
Around that time, a much darker perverse and degenerate musical rebel came to my attention. My friend Sylvain introduced me to punk rocker G.G. Allin. As a musician, Allin was a negligible force, but as a performer who aimed to shock and offend he had no equal. He battered himself bloody on stage, fought with the audience and ate his own feces. (Roughly speaking, Allin indulged in almost every offensive act one can envision.) He was so over the top that the mainstream could safely ignore him, but he's had a cultural lasting power far beyond many of his contemporaries, despite his death in the 90s.
Anyhoo... I was thinking about all this the other days and it struck me: Where is the Devo of today? Where is the "Return of the Living Dead" of today? Where are the punks of today? I'm not blind, of course. I'm aware that there are still subversive bands, zombie movies and punk rockers out there. But I can't help sense that they have lost the impact they once had. They no longer have the cultural resonance they did in my youth. What happened? Where is the counterculture of today?
It's a question one does not want to answer because one is then forced to define one's terms. What, for fuck's sake, is culture? (Are we talking bacterial culture? some might ask, muddying things further.) And what is a counterculture? The minute you attempt an answer to these questions you find yourself sounding like your community college sociology professor. (Dry, flat voice.) "A culture is the collection of art forms, belief systems and practices that define a group of people who exist within a defined geography of..." SHUT UP, SHUT UP, FOR THE SAKE OF EVERYTHING DECENT, SHUT YOUR FUCKING PIE HOLE!!!! "... Next Thursday's quiz will cover pages 122-115 in your text book."
But, as I think of it, perhaps these terms need not be defined because we already understand them. What a culture is will never be perfectly clear and the definition is ever evolving, but we - erudite individuals like you and I - get the gist of it. And a counterculture? Well, that's some kind of sub-culture that works in opposition to the main culture.
Of course, that's not quite right. I could argue that the Tea Party or deaf people are examples of countercultures. And to some degree they are. But when we discuss counterculture in America we're discussing a specific group with specific beliefs and representations. It's vaguely leftist, anti-conformist, anti-corporate, tied to rock music (specifically punk, hippie rock, and even folk) and modern art. Drugs are involved. So is sex. And fashion. Historically, it's a movement that goes back to the hippies of the 60s, then further back to the Beats of the 50s, and frankly back even further from there (to groups I know little about, nor am I willing to research them.) It's a "you know it when you see it" phenomenon. The New York Dolls were a counter cultural band. Poison, who looked quite similar to the Dolls, were not. Counterculture thrives at your local used record store. It's absent from WalMart.
There's still more to it. Part of the counterculture is a movement which has political goals. Fighting racism, ending homophobia, banning genetically modified foods, that sort of thing. But there's another part of the counterculture that is really about music (and other arts.) This is the underground music scene that thrives in almost every town. This is college radio, indie bands etc. This is "alternative" music.
I should be clear about one thing here. I don't consider myself a particularly counter cultural guy. I find punk music tedious, and I think the general counter cultural critiques of modernity, capitalism and the mainstream are simplistic and often dependent on conspiracy theories which give far too much credit to whomever they're trying to defame. (I once read an interview with Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day in which he argued that video games were part of a grand plot to induce complacency in the masses.) Despite all this, I've spent much of my life in close contact with counterculture. I lived in Olympia Washington at the moment it became the darling of the 90's underground, spawning bands like Bikini Kill and (eventually) Sleater Kinney. (I actually lived just off the street from which the band took its name.) I spent most of my twenties in Seattle when the formerly sleepy and cloudy town was exploding into global consciousness with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and a protest movement that reached an epoch with the famous and destructive WTO riots of 2000. (I actually had cops fire tear gas at me - read here for details.) I probably sound like an aging hipster trying to establish his "cool" credentials for the kids, but I think my background is relevant.
With that out of the way, there is one interesting possibilty to explore here: maybe the counterculture wasn't all that alive to begin with. Maybe my bloated sense of the glory days of counterculture (say 1960s-early 90s) was fueled by the fact that many young counter culturalists of that era moved into the media and journalism business and created narratives that overstated their movement's importance. (There were a ton of hippie movies in the 80s.) Maybe the counterculture was more myth than reality. Maybe... possibly… in fact, I think there's some truth to this. But ultimately I think the “classic” counterculture was a real force to be reckoned with and that force has declined. So the question persists: why?
To investigate this I posed this question on my Facebook profile and got a voluminous response. I was struck by the fact that many people had thought deeply about the topic and had largely arrived upon similar answers, answers which largely matched my thoughts on the subject. So what was to blame for the decline of the counterculture? That old foe: technology.
To explain, let's first consider technology's role in disseminating a culture (counter or otherwise.) At its core, a culture is about ideas --- ways of doing things, ways of thinking about things, ways of observing the world. Ideas are best expressed in words --- in treatises, in rants, in manifestos and even in fiction. But that's not the only way to express ideas. Romantic era classical music (say, works byTchaikovsky or Chopin) with its raw emotional expression was a reaction against the more restrained music of previous eras. In the visual arts, Cubism was a reaction against traditional representative arts and was even an accusation that man's senses could not be trusted. Art forms other than writing can communicate heady, sea-changing ideas.
How did average citizens of earth’s recent past encounter these art forms and the ideas they represented? Obviously, for a long time, written ideas had to be hand copied and distributed. That changed with the Gutenberg press. For centuries, listening to music required live musicians playing the music for you. The advent of the phonograph and radio changed that. The visual arts, for a long time, could only be appreciated by visiting a museum. Printing and photographs changed all that. These technologies accelerated the distribution of media and as such, what used to be only appreciated by the rich and powerful found its way to the common man. Technology also altered the production of art and its ideas (though to a lesser extant than its distribution.) In the past 100 years, the recording of music has become high art. The visual arts have expanded into multimedia. Even the lowly word processor has made writing spittle inflected tirades much easier. (Trust me. I know.)
However, in the 20th century, there was still much controlling the distribution and production of art and ideas. If you had a great idea for a book, you had to prove to publishers that it would be worthy of their monetary investment. The same went with music --- record companies wouldn't just invest in any old band. Visual artists had to struggle to be presented in established museums and periodicals. Aside from issues of money, there were issues of taste. The powers that be might decide that electro-gangsta-reggae was out and acoustic-proto-folk-metal was in and there wasn't much that could be done to change their minds. (I'm admittedly oversimplifying things here --- these powers were affected by the whims of the masses.) Artists were dependent on these greater forces for money to mass produce their product and on the blessing of the tastemakers for their art to fall in favor. In Marxist terms, record companies, book publishers, magazines, television companies, (e.g. agents of "the mainstream") controlled the means of production and distribution.
Kathlene Hannah on Zines
This control was not absolute. The underground popularity of zines - hand copied, self-written and designed periodicals that thrived in certain circles - stands as one example. So too did the thriving market for independent music that grew from the 60's onward. Underground comics also had an impact. This media gained popularity partly because they were not representative of the tastes of the mainstream, in fact they were often in direct opposition to them. This media was the music of Devo, of G.G. Allin (and most punk bands), films like "Repo Man" and "Return of the Living Dead"* and on and on.
* You might rebut and say that Devo and the films mentioned were actually produced and distributed by "mainstream" record companies. And this is true and gets us into the allegations that the mainstream co-opted elements of the underground. Certainly that did happen, but exploring that topic is outside the purview of this article.
You could say the counterculture put up a good fight, but it was a battle it was destined to (not lose but) never win. A punk band might sell a run of 10,000 records but mainstream acts were selling millions. It took years for "Repo Man" to make its money back. (I think - I'm going off memory for that one.) This was partly because underground products just kind of sucked. Photocopied zines had a certain charm but couldn't compare to a glossy magazine. Underground music was recorded on equipment that could never capture the full dynamic range of sound that a Nashville studio could. Underground movies could never provide the bang and boom of "The Empire Strikes Back."
But then something happened. In the 1990s, the internet arrived. It had a great effect on the distribution of the written word. Zines, which in their paper form cost at least dozens of dollars to produce and netted only a limited readership, could now be produced online for (close to) nothing and reach tens of thousands of readers. Underground music could now be distributed via web sites like mp3.com and Napster (now Soundcloud, Facebook, Reverbnation etc.) Film largely stayed in the realm of the mainstream, but Youtube and various sources have engendered greater distribution of counter cultural video (with more to come.)
In addition to greater ease of distribution, producing media became easier and cheaper. Web sites could be easily assembled via affordable software. The power of a million dollar recording studio was imported in Garage Band and similar products. Producing your own video project became much easier.
In short, the mainstream no longer controlled the means of production or distribution. As a result, the media marketplace was flooded... with a lot of crap, yes, but also with genuine gems and products of promise. The effect was to dilute both what the mainstream represented and what the counterculture represented. This was a double whammy as each culture --- to some degree --- defined the other (The counterculture was whatever the mainstream wasn't and vice versa.) It wasn't so much that either of these cultures died as that they split into a million sub-genres. Nowhere is this clearer than in music. If one peruses the genre names musicians are using to define their music on music distribution site Soundcloud, one sees "Chiptune, Nujabes-styled underground hip hop, Darkstep, Breakcore, Raggacore" (to name but a few.)
There was one other effect of technology worth considering. As communication technology became ubiquitous, the barriers between nations broke down. As a result a punk rocker in Iowa Springs could hear what a trance musician in Bombay was doing. Iranian independent films could make their way to your local indie theater. The neat categories that had existed in the pre-internet area were and are under constant assault. Culture has become "mushy" - hard to define and comprehend, and certainly not subject to terms like "mainstream" or "counterculture."
Is that it? Is this the end of counterculture? I would have been quite happy to say yes, until someone pointed out to me that there are still strong counterculture movements in other countries. Think of the green revolution in Iran. The social unrest in Egypt. The all out warfare in Syria. Counterculture, in its most general sense, is thriving in the Arab world. Partly because those countries had (in same cases until recently) a strong mainstream, e.g. and oppressive dictatorial force. This force is in every case worthy of opposition but also provides counterculture warriors with a means of definition: "We are not that." Doubtless the counter cultural movements of those nations are comprised of disparate groups that might not agree on all that much (as we are starting to see in Eqypt) but they are united by their opposition to the enemy. As your old sociology professor might point out, we use the "other" to define ourselves. The problem in the modern West is that the counterculture (and the mainstream) lost their other. And it’s hard to fight a war when everyone is wearing one of a thousand possible uniforms.
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.