Music as cultural shorthand | Part 2: The Sixties

Counterculture Mecca: Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, California. (Photo by flicker user “k1ng,” CC BY-SA 2.0.)

The first installment illustrated the idea of cultural shorthand through the long afterlife of Django Reinhardt’s music in popular culture, then extended this concept to nonmusical cultural shorthands such as visual art, landmark buildings and photography, concluding with a brief discussion of the 1960s.

The social movements of the 1960s drew inspiration from music and have come to be represented in historical memory through music. The retrospective use of 1960s popular music to tell a broader story has had a strange side-effect. To a significant extent, successive generations do not know what was truly popular, or at least the picture is incomplete.

As is the case with Django Reinhardt, much of what is now considered timeless is considered so because of its ability to conjure its time. When the Beatles let us know that they would love to turn us on, as an orchestra rises to dissonant crescendo (music), we are reminded that the original use of this phrase was much broader than the strictly sexual way it used now. Scott McKenzie’s 1967 hit “San Francisco” is a veritable instruction manual for countercultural pilgrims en route to their Mecca. Be sure to wear flowers in your hair! Aretha Franklin’s 1967 adaptation of Otis Redding’s “Respect” flipped its meaning, transforming it into a feminist anthem, a number one hit and Franklin’s signature song.

Viewed through a curated, retrospective lens, our perception is incomplete. In sharp contrast to the examples above, apolitical fluff like “Winchester Cathedral” has been largely forgotten, as has the continued success in the 1960s of established hitmakers such as Frank Sinatra (“My Way” notwithstanding.) Sinatra’s later hits are a case in point: many of them are arranged in a style that has become dated because it is characteristic of the 1960s, but did not embody the zeitgeist. The style gives the impression of an older generation struggling to come to terms with the staying power of rock music. It invites younger listeners with the nominal hallmarks of rock, only coated with a thick polish. Rock ’n’ roll backbeats are present, but far less forceful. Strumming guitars are plentiful, but lack the earthy vigor of the Greenwich Village folkies. Lush strings subsume what little punch remains, and gifted singers find themselves constrained to simplistic melodies. This style of music tells us little because it appears to have been born of halfhearted compromise. It lacks the integrity of music with a defined societal position, such as “Surrealistic Pillow,” “Cold Sweat” or “Only the Lonely.” But it was popular in its time — so popular that it formed the basis for a radio format: “Middle of the Road” or “MOR” for short. (“Cycles” is a good example of Sinatra’s MOR sound.) Despite this popularity, MOR was AWOL when it came time for the history to be written.

Mad Men played off of these dynamics, cutting against the standards of “authenticity” that led later historians and curators to dismiss large amounts popular music as somehow irrelevant. The show avoids obvious choices in order to showcase the broad diversity of popular music in the 1960s, using forgotten music to humanize that era’s “establishment” class. Many of those who wound up writing the history of the era came of age politically as opponents of this establishment. Music was a front in the culture wars. It is for this reason that the last gasps of traditional pop and the ascendance of MOR have been written out of many histories. These forms of music are given center stage on Mad Men. It’s safe to say that few young people today would have ever heard a song like “Lollipops and Roses” without Mad Men’s corrective curation.

The impulse to purge “establishment” culture also downplayed music that was political, but represented a right wing or pro-Vietnam War viewpoint. For example, Billboard’s number one end-of-year song for 1966 has been almost entirely forgotten today, yet it beat out such formidable contenders as the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” and the Four Tops’ “Reach Out.” The song? “Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler — a simple song with a stoic message of support for U.S. fighting forces as the war in Vietnam raged.

The above examples illustrate a major drawback of representing history through music. Historical representation can fall prey to factionalism, with one side in a social conflict (in this case, rebellious youth) excluding the culture of their adversaries from future representation. Exclusion, however, is not the only potential ill effect of this process. Even if a song or style is among the few chosen as representative, the very act of such representation alters our perception of the music. Each subsequent use of a song or a style becomes embedded in the music’s legacy, eventually becoming inseparable from it. (To be continued.)