What We're Missing Out On: A Conversation About Beats, Hippies, and Punks

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If you want to talk to an authority on American subcultures, you should talk to Dr. Bruce Conforth. The man has a PhD in Folklore, Ethnomusicology, and American Studies. He was the founding curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He was born in 1950, grew up in New York City and has been playing in bands for years and years and years. He is currently teaching a class at the University of Michigan called, “Post WWII American Subcultural Groups: Beats, Hippies and Punks.” It’s quite popular with students. Sometimes too popular.

We originally contacted Dr. Conforth for our roundup of expert opinions on what will come after the hipster in American subcultural history but were so fascinated with what he had to say that we called him up to talk more about common misconceptions of past subcultures, the politics of new aesthetics, and what the youth of today are missing out on.

Flavorwire: To start, how do you define the term subculture?

Dr. Conforth: Well, there’s several different ways people look at subcultures. I use the model that the sociologist Kenneth Westhues put together. In it, he claims there’s basically seven characteristics of subcultural behavior:

1. Their relationships tend toward communism with a little “c.” 2. Their interpersonal relationships deviate from the nuclear family and monogamy. 3. They’re only marginally political. 4. They reject the rewards and status of mainstream society. 5. They look to tribal elders or spiritual leaders. 6. They believe that what they’re doing is superior to mainstream society, which they consider morally or philosophically bankrupt. 7. They exist apart from mainstream society by creating their own folkways, mores and ways of living.

But there’s also psychological ways of viewing subcultures. The psychologist Nathan Adler put forward the idea of the antinomian personality. This type of individual has a preoccupation with sexual experimentation, altering consciousness and seeking a return to a golden age of innocence.

Go all the way back to the Transcendentalists — Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville — and you get the same things. I mean, who spoke more about rejecting the rewards of mainstream society then somebody like Thoreau? Who spoke more about returning to a spiritual innocence than somebody like Whitman? These are not necessarily new ideas; they’ve been around as long as people have been going off into the wilderness in search of their own way.

So subcultures have existed for a long time.

Sure. Look at all the utopian societies that people tried to develop in the United States during the 1800s, like the Oneida community in New York. Even the Shakers rejected the mainstream and went off to create their own community. But these groups aren’t necessarily countercultures; they’re subcultures. They’re not interested in overthrowing anything. They just wanted to exist by themselves and do their own thing.

The difference between countercultures and subcultures is something many people often get confused. They look back at the ’60s and the think about the protests. Those were countercultures, and they differed from subcultures. Hippies, to a large extent, were not political. You had the anti-war activists and then you had the hippies. Hippies were pretty much content to just groove in their own thing. They didn’t necessarily go out and protest mainstream society. This aspect about being marginally political is a hard one for a lot of people to get their heads around.

You think about the Beats, too. The Beats didn’t really have a political ideology at all. They had no political underpinnings. Jack Kerouac was probably one of the most apolitical individuals that you’d ever meet. None of those guys, except maybe for Allen Ginsberg, took part in anti-war protests or campaigns or any of that stuff.

But I wouldn’t say someone is only “marginally political” because she doesn’t vote or call her local congressperson. Isn’t the very creation of new music, fashion, poetry, and ways of both existing with and relating to other people a political act in itself?

Absolutely. The idea of being “marginally political” means being marginally political within mainstream society. Everything people do, in some way, can be interpreted as a political act. Certainly, if you think about the ’60s, one of the main ideas was the Politics of Consciousness. The idea that everybody should have the right to “turn on, tune in, drop out” is a very political idea. There was even a takeoff on The Declaration of Independence called A Prophecy of a Declaration of Independence that the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury put together. It basically declared that they held these rights to be self-evident: life, liberty, and the pursuit to alter consciousness. That’s a very political thing, but it’s not mainstream politics.

What makes post-WWII subcultures different from the subcultures that came before?

Post-WWII subcultures are vastly different because think of everything that happened after the war.

You’ve got Penicillin, so you don’t have to worry about venereal disease. You’ve also got the pill in 1960. With those two things, sexuality is completely altered unlike anytime before. Women no longer have to worry about getting pregnant and nobody has to worry about venereal disease. This was long before the idea of AIDS. As I tell my class, back in the ’60s I don’t even remember anyone talking about herpes. I’m sure it existed, but when you talked about the consequences of sex back in those days it was either crabs or the clap. Either one could be cured very easily. But the implications of this don’t just alter sexuality — they alter women’s place in the world, the idea of the family and so on.

These people are also the first generation to grow up with television. They’re the first generation to grow up with the idea that the world is a global village, like Marshall McLuhan said. I can remember vividly, for instance, being a kid watching this television broadcast that had a split-screen view of the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. They were both live shots. This was a big deal. It sounds naive and mundane today, but think about it: This was the first time that any human had ever seen both oceans at the same time. Stuff like that is mind-blowing.

Furthermore, we had all these things that we were shooting up into space. Science fiction was becoming science fact. There’s the invention of the transistor radio. What a mind-blower that was: “Holy crap! You can take music with you.” There’s the war in Vietnam. There’s Civil Rights. There’s psychedelic drugs, and LSD is legal. Good Lord! It’s legal until October 6, 1966. There’s the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the coming of The Beatles.

I mean, for a number of years there, it was one thing after another that was turning the world on its head. Any subculture is a response to its particular moment in time. Post-WWII subcultures were, and still are, responding to rather remarkable events and circumstances.

So how do current subcultures respond to our almost constant state of technological and social change in 2012?

Like I was saying in my contribution to the article “What Comes After The Hipster?,” it’s harder for subcultures now because there is too much to respond to.

Were there any interesting subcultures in the latter half of the 20th century that most people today haven’t heard about?

I’m sure there were. I think at any given time there’s a whole host of subcultures being created, existing, going away, morphing into other things. We don’t know about them because they don’t get the publicity that followed the Beats, hippies, or punks, but I’m sure they’re here right now.

The thing that made these three aforementioned groups so visible was that the media was just beginning to understand what media was all about. Like I said, television was just coming into its glory. There were only three stations competing for ratings — CBS, NBC, and ABC. Magazines were at the peak of their power. You had Time, Newsweek, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post all constantly competing with each other for attention. And so, what are they gonna do? They’re going to look for things that they can exploit and capitalize on. They’re going to look for the sensational. And what’s more sensational than a bunch of young people running around looking really crazy doing all these strange and unusual things?

What are some common misconceptions that people had, or still have, of these post-WWII subcultures?

One misconception is that there were a lot more people involved in these movements than there actually were. The media would have had you believe that almost every young person was a hippie. This is largely through the glorification of Woodstock. The vast majority of people at Woodstock were not hippies; they were just young kids who were following a fashion trend. Some of them had long hair, but a lot of them didn’t. If there were 500,000 people at Woodstock, I’d be willing to bet that 75% of them weren’t hippies. They were just kids going to a concert to have a good time. But the media makes you think that everybody was a hippie. They weren’t.

The hippie scene (and that’s very different than hippies themselves) only existed for a very, very short period of time. The hippie scene emerges roughly in late 1964, and it’s pretty much over by early 1967. It’s actually over before Woodstock even comes around. Now, does that mean that hippies stopped existing? No, of course not. Hippies still exist. But the scene, as a specific entity existing as a coherent culture, was pretty much over because it had been co-opted to such an extent by mainstream culture that the people who originally started it had left for greener pastures. People went to New Mexico and other places to start their communes, like the Hog Farm. By 1967, almost all the original hippies had moved out of the Haight, leaving behind heavy drug dealers, crazy-ass people like Charlie Manson, and young people who didn’t know how to support themselves.

The scene lasted for a very short period of time. This was the same with the Beats, as well. Most people think that Kerouac’s On the Road was about the 1950s, since it wasn’t published until 1957. But it was written in 1951, chronicling the America Kerouac knew right after WWII, primarily from about 1947 to 1950. In fact, when Kerouac tried to retrace his steps and do another cross-country trip after On the Road was published, he found that the scene and the America he knew no longer existed. By the late ’50s, the true Beats had been replaced by the cultural commodity, Beatniks. As influential as all these scenes were, they really didn’t involve that many people and they really didn’t last for that long.

While the Beats and hippies seemed to have an optimistic view of humanity, would it be fair to say that the original punks didn’t share this belief?

By the time we get to the 1970s, the punk subculture emerges as a very diverse grouping of cultural forms.

Unlike the Beats or hippies who grew organically out of certain ideological responses to mainstream culture, punk was almost more of a response to the previous subcultures than it was to the mainstream. Punk responded to the excesses of the hippies, for instance, by becoming simultaneously more minimalist (punk music was severely less virtuosic than hippie rock and centered around the basic roots-rock philosophy that you only needed three chords to play rock ‘n’ roll) and more ostentatious. After all, hippies had opened the door for long hair, flamboyant fashions, and a free sense of style. What was left for the punks to say, “This is mine”? And so punks turned to an idea known in art as bricolage: using whatever happens to be available in a “do-it-yourself” approach to alter the meaning of things. Hence, safety pins and dog collars become fashion statements.

This is really a shift in subcultures from modernism to postmodernism, and reflects a more fragmented culture where style predominates substance. Punk may have been the first subculture that was overtly self-conscious of its presentation: a theatrical attempt to provoke outrage. The extreme excess and non-allegiance to any given ideological structure or philosophy (punk ran the gamut from nihilism to socialism to anarchism to whatever seemed to fit on any given day), coupled with the affection for harder drugs, such as heroin, rather than the psychedelic “God-inducing” substances of the hippies, made punk as a scene almost self-destructive in its basic underpinnings.

What draws young people into subcultures to begin with?

Well, first, it’s verboten. It’s antithetical to what your parents are doing. One of the things young people are supposed to do is differentiate from their parents. That’s an important psychological dimension to growing up. So naturally, anything that’s going to separate you from your parents, at least to a lot of kids, is going to be something very cool to do.

Then there’s also the exotic nature of it. Something different than what the kids grew up with. There’s the allure of the taboo. There’s an otherness to it that’s very glamorous.

And, usually, subcultures develop around new technologies. Young people are always the ones who embrace new technology. The hippies had rock ‘n’ roll and television. You could say that even LSD was a new technology. I mean, who are the people most into computers today? Are they people my age or people 20 years old?

Is there any spiritual component to the formation of subcultures? We’ve already mentioned the intent to change one’s consciousness and build utopias, so is making a religious comparison that much of a stretch?

Young people are inherently naive and innocent. I mean, they are and they should be. It’s a beautiful thing. They have faith that older people have lost to a larger extent. Think about the crazy things that young people have believed in their subcultural philosophies: “If everybody turned on, man, the world would be a groovy place.” No, it wouldn’t. Nothing would get done. Who the hell would take care of business? It’s a dumb idea, but those are the kinds of ideas that are so easy to pick up on when you’re young because you don’t understand the consequences of actions. You don’t understand the idea of responsibility. It’s very easy to say, “Everybody has the right to do whatever they want.” It’s a whole other thing to take the quantum leap to get to, “Yes, but if everybody does what they want, somebody’s gotta pay the price.”

Embracing the spiritual and the out-there and the different is very easy to do. It’s a natural thing.

Our society seems to prize the individual over the group. Has this shift changed the dynamic of modern subcultures?

Absolutely. In my class I talk about the way technology has created this individualistic approach to things. Back in the early ’60s, there were no cassette players. If people wanted to hear music, they’d take their guitars or flutes or drums or whatever and sit out on the lawn and play their music. On any college campus at that time, you’d see people playing music. Then boomboxes and portable tape players came in. They’re physically large things. So people are no longer making as much music, but they’re still sharing it in a sense because nobody’s walking around with headphones or anything. And what comes next? The Walkman. All of a sudden you can take your music anywhere. I remember being astonished seeing the early ads when Walkmans first came out. I remember one ad in particular had a picture of some guy standing on a cliff overlooking this unbelievable scenic vista in Yellowstone National Park or something. And he’s got his headphones on because he’s listening to his Walkman. I remember thinking how bizarre that was because wouldn’t you want to pay attention to what you’re looking at? I thought that was a disconnect there, and it was.

But anyway, when Walkmans first came out you either had to buy a pre-recorded cassette or have a good enough tape machine and a record player for you to make your own tapes. But still there was a connection to this process of music making. And then when the iPod came out and you could download music on the Internet, how much more divorced can you get? So I used to make music with people; now I don’t even listen to the whole album. I’m choosing one song and I’m listening to it. That not only isolates me as a consumer, it destroys the idea of an artist’s aesthetic in actually placing songs in the order he or she wants. It destroys the context.

Society is a lot more tolerant of behaviors that it used to condemn. How has this permissiveness affected today’s youth-based movements?

It’s not that there’s nothing left to rebel against — you can still go out and protest a lot of things that are happening — but how many norms are there left to non-conform against? They’re certainly still out there, and people like Rick Santorum want to bring back those norms even more, but we’re almost to the point where gay marriage is legalized on a national level. I have a hard time imagining the Supreme Court saying that it’s unconstitutional for gays to get married. So gay and lesbian and transgender and bisexual lifestyles — that’s all out in the open now. Engaging in that lifestyle is no longer being a non-conformist. Shaving your head, dying your hair, growing it long, spiking it out, putting it in a mohawk — been there, done that. Really, what norms are left to non-conform to? There aren’t a whole lot. It’s almost gotten to the point where the most non-conformist thing a young, affluent, educated urbanite can do is vote Republican. Why? Well, because most young people still tend to be Democrats.

How are today’s subcultures different than the subcultures you study in your class? What are today’s youth missing out on?

I think, and perhaps this is just the old fogy in me, it’s the face-to-face interaction. There’s always an interface in today’s interactions. Whether it’s a computer or a cell phone or an iPad, there’s always an interface first. I don’t see the spontaneous human interaction existing much anymore. Even something like Occupy Wall Street, which is undoubtedly a subculture, was brought about not by spontaneous fact-to-face interaction, but by spontaneous interface interaction. It was brought about by the computer.

Now, that’s a good thing in a lot of ways. I mean, think about it: Occupy is one of the first real inter-generational subcultures that we’ve probably ever had. It’s inter-generational, inter-economic, inter-gender, inter-race. And I don’t think that would have been possible without something like the computer. I don’t think that would have been possible in the ’60s because those groups back then were so sufficiently isolated that there really was nothing to get them together the way you can now.

Then again, isolation begs for a new definition because if you’re talking to somebody in Singapore at the same time that you’re talking to someone in Finland, are you really isolated? And while it’s great to have your friend in Singapore and your friend in Finland, what are you gonna do? Just talk to one another? Maybe send pictures back and forth? What kind of real interaction are you going to create? I don’t know; maybe there’s something there that I’m missing. But to me it would seem that that can only go so far.

Ultimately the next step once you meet someone on the computer is to what? To meet them in person. That’s the only logical next step. So even though computers can bring us together, they still can’t take the place of that actual face-to-face interaction where you can touch each other and have sex with each other and any other form of social intercourse you can think of. That will never be replaced by the computer.

Perhaps the concept of subcultures itself is ultimately going to need revision. The new definition is probably going to have to allow for virtual subcultures. I think it would be quite erroneous to completely rule out the possibility of people linking up via computers in a subcultural way. Obviously something has to change if there’s no longer face-to-face interactions.

Have you ever heard of the subculture seapunk?

I’ve heard of steampunk, but not seapunk. All this stuff is becoming even more transient than it was in the past. It’s so ephemeral. I mean, things go viral so quickly because there’s this ever-increasing need for newness and change. You know that AT&T commercial where those two guys are sitting there telling people who come up to them, “Oh, that was so 27 seconds ago”? That’s a perfect indictment of what I’m talking about. Twenty-seven seconds ago is not soon enough. If it’s not right this second, it’s passé.

I don’t think that there’s anything innate in the human being that says we need change this rapidly, but this is the sales pitch that we’ve been given, and this is the hype that surrounds all the technology that’s being marketed. This is the stuff that people are buying into. If you have commercials that are selling that kind of idea, that it’s so 27 seconds ago, well, who are you to say that they’re wrong? The more that kind of stuff is sold, the more people buy into that idea. But ultimately I can envision a subculture coming along to say, “Enough is enough.”