IASPM-US Interview Series: Michael J. Kramer, “The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture”

by Jessica Dilday on April 10, 2015

Michael J. Kramer

Michael J. Kramer’s The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture offers a deft analysis of rock music’s role in mediating questions of community and polity in 1960s San Francisco and Vietnam. Drawing from archival sources and exploring some lesser-known musical and political episodes of the 1960s counterculture, Kramer’s account pushes against popular and clichéd conceptions of “the sixties” and its music. Particularly interesting is Kramer’s conception of “hip militarism” as a correlate of hip capitalism: the concept underlines the links between American economic and military power as realized through mass mediated popular culture. A fruitful work of social history, The Republic of Rock is also a useful text for popular music scholars and those interested in the relationship between politics, media and popular music more generally. 

Republic of Rock

Chloe Coventry: You introduce a concept in relation to the role of rock music in Vietnam that is quite interesting: hip militarism. I was intrigued by the fact that the Armed Forces radio played psychedelic rock as part of morale-boosting endeavors for the troops even while, as you describe, that music also offered soldiers the means to align themselves with the anti-war counterculture and to more generally empathize and critique (neither of which seem like they have a place in the theater of war). Do you think that the Armed Forces would have been so forgiving with any other medium? I can’t imagine, say, anti-war literature being promoted through official channels. What is it that is special about music in this case?

Michael J. Kramer: First, thanks Chloe, for taking the time to engage with the book so thoughtfully. I feel very privileged.

Now to your first question. I think that a key aspect of rock music in the 1960s, when it was a strange hybrid of countercultural and consumer energies all mingled into one, was that it could travel, it could reach, to places that more overt forms of protest could not. Rock music sometimes let its freak flag fly, of course; but just as often its subversiveness was in plain sight, part of consumer culture, yet also somehow speaking on other frequencies, under the radar, as it were. It’s that strange quality that I think historians, sociologists, journalists, musicologists, participants in the counterculture, and countless others have noticed but not quite ever fully understood. The way in which what we clumsily call “criticality”—maybe even, at our most romantic, “resistance” or “revolution”—circulated as part of the very consumer processes that seemed to demand the very opposite of those modes of political consciousness, the ways in which criticality was bundled up within consumer capitalism, how with hip capitalism, criticality itself became commodified (and yet still produced uncommodified levels of questioning)—that very weird mix still eludes our full interpretive comprehension. Of course the investigation of what capitalism is, exactly, and how it relates to other kinds of sociality beyond the logic of commodification alone—that has deep roots in the Western philosophical tradition: Adam Smith, Marx, the Frankfurt School, many others grapple with these dynamics. So we are entering into one of the great puzzles of historical and theoretical analysis here. That’s a way to zoom out on the larger stakes of hip capitalism and hip militarism in relation to the 1960s counterculture and issues of citizenship that I delve into in The Republic of Rock.

Zooming in, in the case of hip militarism, a term that I map onto the Vietnam experience from the parallel development of hip capitalism by US corporations on the home front (in which, as Tom Frank and before him Susan Krieger and before her Daniel Bell have argued, capitalism’s marketers and advertisers figured out how to sell anti-capitalism as a new niche market within capitalism), the urgent need the US military had to address in Vietnam was to boost sagging troop morale, particularly after the Tet Offensive of 1968.

The traditional way the Armed Forces had done this was to import “a taste of home” to GIs (as well as provide the means for GIs to entertain themselves, which we witness with the sponsorship of soldier rock bands by the Entertainment Branch in Vietnam). Rock music slipped in to the Vietnam War, in a sense, through official channels as part of the effort of the Armed Forces to be hip to the “new, mod sounds” emanating from stateside (“new, mod sounds” was a phrase often invoked in US Army in Vietnam Entertainment Branch and Special Services literature). And in many respects the US military did successfully import the music and, as is sometimes claimed, coopt it. It was able to claim that, unlike the communists, it did not need to censor free expression—even when it contained all sorts of anti-authoritarian tones or even outright antiwar dissent.

And yet as historians, we must confront the fact that despite these efforts to raise troop morale, there was also massive disenchantment with the US military intervention in Vietnam, a disenchantment bordering at times on outright mutiny by the later years of the war. There are many reasons for this. To be sure, the injustice, the managerial incompetence, the sheer madness, of the US intervention was crucial to sagging morale. So too, as historians such as Christian Appy and others have documented, were the out-of-whack structures of command and control that had developed within the US military itself: higher echelons of enlisted officers were often older and more middle-class; the “grunts,” or lower-level troops, were often younger and more working-class. Age, class, and, I should add, racial discriminations of various sorts, greatly exacerbated the alienation many felt Americans serving in Vietnam felt. There was also an alienating sense of decadent sprawl in “the rear” (some accounts claim ten military personnel were required for every one soldier in “the field”); it’s worth thinking about the Vietnam War in this respect as an occupation, a war waged abstractly from air-conditioned trailers on huge military bases (think Green Zone in the Iraq War). The sense that something was amiss ran deep for many involved in the Vietnam conflict.

What a scholar of popular music has to ask is how music fit into this context. When rock meant to raise troop morale by bringing a taste of home to the war zone also wound up channeling into Vietnam countercultural and antiwar energies, there is an important historical experience of culture that we should not simplify to cooptation in the conventional sense. Hip militarism was militarism, but the hip part was unruly. It was not ideologically stable, but neither was it meaningless. To address the question of how rock music fit into the specific context of the Vietnam War means looking to sources (oral histories, memoirs, journals, photographs, the material culture of the time such as clothing, jewelry and paraphernalia, and audio recordings from radio broadcast to homemade tapes from the time), or reading against the grain of sources from the official archives, in search of clues about the reception of the genre in Vietnam.

What I found was an important multiplicity to rock’s reception “in-country.” First, rock was an unstable genre at this time. It was in the process of colonizing vast ranges of popular music (by the end of the 1970s, eighty percent of all pop music was being marketed as rock), but it was also still considered a distinctive genre (Armed Forces radio in Vietnam even had an “acid-rock” program called, of course, the Sgt. Pepper Show). Rock intersected with soul, with country, with pop. It was all over the place in terms of how it was marketed, and yet it retained a sense of being the hip, new thing. So questions of genre are one aspect of the complexity to rock and hip militarism in Vietnam. Its shifting genre boundaries were part of the way it arrived within the official military apparatus. Once it circulated within Vietnam, however, the music was not only a taste of home, but also a bludgeoning, loud sound used (like the marijuana or heroin many GIs consumed) to numb oneself to the atrocities one might be committing. And as we know from more recent wars in which soldiers blast heavy metal inside their tanks, it could even be used to pump up adrenaline for going into battle; Air Force and helicopter pilots in particular remember using the music in this manner.

More surprising to me, however, was that rock also often seemed to merit a mention whenever an American soldier (or a Vietnamese teenager for that matter) took a step back to reflect on the war. When socializing with fellow troops, or thinking about home, or reflecting on the Vietnamese, or in other “softer” moments, rock became not just a soundtrack for war, but also a mechanism for contemplation. In particular, it often summoned moments of hesitation about the war effort or longings to be participating in the fast-changing civilian life back in the States. These little moments seemed important to me, and easy to miss. They registered the tensions in the binary of the citizen-soldier identity (and Vietnam was, after all, the last war that maintained manpower through the conscription of male citizens; since then, the Army has switched to an entirely volunteer model, as Beth Bailey chronicles). They suggested how even as rock was coopted, it also had another dimension: it propagated a peculiar kind of public sphere of reflexivity, reflection, debate, discussion, sociality, with its own particular kind of affect. Here are the strands of a counterpublic forming in the belly of the beast, within the war zone itself.

Hip militarism is key to how rock music served as a kind of catalyst for the bubbling up of a counterpublic in Vietnam. It wasn’t really a “community” in the conventional sense, or a “tribe,” though many historians have invoked those terms to try to describe the counterculture. It was way more tentative than that, way more provisional, way more unconfirmed. Its power came, in a way, from its unconfirmability, its deniability (this is what lent rock so much of its conspiratorial, sometimes paranoid edge, I think—what links the innocent magic of connection to the farcical Paul Is Dead rumors to the far more sinister and troubling obsessions with The Beatles’s “White Album” by Charles Manson). Contrary to what historians would typically argue, those qualities of uncanny oddness—how did that sound get here, where does that sound go, something is happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear, etc.—are exactly what gave rock its power. Picture it not as a stable sign, a permanent marker, a definitive gesture, but something more like a press-on decal, a cheap adhesive sticker in the shape of a peace sign, a fake tattoo. Those temporary things have a power too. They can make an imprint that lasts affectively and ideologically even if they get scratched off or fade away.

In this sense, rock within the framework of hip militarism (and hip capitalism) asks us to rethink assumptions about what the cooptation of the counterculture was—exactly, particularly—within the apparatus of a sprawling military machine that was so entwined, as historian Meredith Lair demonstrates, with the logic of consumer capitalism during the 1960s.

Dave Rabbit Radio First Termer Broadcasts http://www.ibiblio.org/jwsnyder/rft/rft.html (scroll down)

CC: You talk about sexism at various points in the book and note that even while the counterculture offered women alternative roles (jobs as sound engineers in your chapter on the underground San Francisco rock station KMPX) and alternative types of romantic relationships (in the chapter on Ken Kesey’s acid tests) sexism was prevalent. And to generalize, rock music has historically been gendered male and pop female. I’m wondering if the sexism that you describe constituted a kind of structural flaw in the countercultural conceptions of an alternative polity? That is to say, if the republic of rock enabled individuals to envision a new kind of community and civic engagement, what did it mean about this alternative democratic vision that women were still second-class citizens even in this new context?

MJK: Great question. I think we must view the counterculture not as a normative vision of an enlightened gender equality or liberation, but rather as immanent critique within the existing sexist and gendered systems of the 1960s. If it offered a different vision of citizenship, of what a public life might be like, of how private lives would relate to that alternative public life, it only did so in bursts of bent light and psychedelic flares within the existing system. It sought out the promise of equality or liberty or freedom or power—or sometimes terror and trouble—within the system and blasted it into the sonisphere.

I start from the perspective that the counterculture was just as if not more sexist and gendered than mainstream American norms. And yet, as a number of historians and critics (Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Alice Echols, Ellen Willis, Sheila Whiteley, and others) suggest, it also presented important openings for women to assert new kinds of roles in public and semi-public spaces. What I noticed, for instance, was that on the psychedelic dance floor, the end of a strict kind of couple dancing presented moments for women to seize new forms of pleasure and self-expression on their own. Rock also allowed women to exercise expertise in new ways, to transform the role of fan, typically gendered female, into a more traditionally masculine role, as in the female engineers who were key to the success of KMPX-FM. Again, not that they did not do so within sexist frameworks. Rather, here we see moments of cultural shifts occurring in unexpected places.

In Vietnam, the story gets even more intriguing. For instance, the sisters in the family psychedelic rock group the CBC Band took up countercultural female styles to at once access the potential liberations of modernity for women and, at the same time, because they could dress in more modest dress such as blue jeans and tee shirts, to maintain a certain traditional decorum as well compared to how most women were treated in the seedy wartime nightlife of a city such as Saigon. Being a “hippie chick” in this context was a radical move: both against the place for women in traditional Vietnamese culture and against the exploitative objectification of women by the colonial West. It offered a third path, of hybridity. Again, not in an unproblematic way. Rather, we see women navigating the circumstances of their lives and using rock and countercultural style creatively, as a resource, to make important choices within a mix of constraints and opportunities.


Video CBC Band Live in 1973, performing Grand Funk Railroad’s “People, Let’s Stop the War”

CC: I’m curious about your conception of a “global counterculture” as a hybridized cosmopolitanism that is both part of the spread of American hegemony and a mode through which to resist it, do I have that right? Is it possible for rock to signify in the same ways around the world even in completely different political, economic and social settings? Is that ascribing to it a kind of transcendent element?

MJK: I think you rephrase my argument pretty eloquently. Rock, so far as I could tell in focusing on Vietnam and then surveying the literature written about its presence in places as disparate as Brazil, Mexico, Mali, Czechoslovakia, and even behind the Iron Curtain, offered access to a global countercultural imaginary. I wouldn’t describe this as transcendent, however. I would think of it as something more embedded, adaptable, mutating, viral. It did not resist commodification; rather, it demonstrates how we still do not really understand commodification in relation to the formation of dreams of alternative, even revolutionary, notions of self-making and collective belonging.

I find myself taking a position that is closer to something such as the late Adorno rather than the classic Critique of Enlightenment position. In his radio lecture “Free Time,” delivered in 1969 (no coincidence that it comes from the heart of the countercultural era?), Adorno wonders if, in the slight gap between the way the culture industries deliver commodified goods and the way audiences receive them and consume them, yet always with a slight bit of reservation, even disbelief, there is the possibility of turning what he describes as “free time” into “freedom proper” (I’m stealing this use of Adorno’s “Free Time” from James Cook’s great essay “The Return of the Culture Industry” in the edited collection The Cultural Turn in US History).  It’s that kind of gap that I think shows up around the world with rock among various youth movements.

Participants in these youth cultures take this commodified form that contains uncommodified elements too it and turn it toward their own lives, their own struggles, their own particular situations. For the proponents of Tropicalismo in Brazil, for the Plastic People of the Universe and Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, for the hippi in the USSR, for the youth clubs members of Bamako, Mali, rock was not the sound of American hegemony triumphant; it was, rather, the sound that resonated with the yearning to remake the relationship between private lives and public sociality both locally and globally, in person and across vast expanses of space. It was the sound of people, especially young people, lowering turntable needles, tuning in buzzy radio frequencies, or squeezing guitar strings and beating on drums in efforts to seize a truer freedom than either West or East, capitalism or communism, could offer.

CC: You argue that rock music’s ability to engender political resistance was precisely because it was embedded in the system of mass media and consumer capitalism that it was questioning – I believe that you cast it as having a kind of affective power that “charged” people’s questions about the failures of American democracy and civil society at the time. Of course rock operated as it did in the sixties because of the politics and economics of the time, but I wonder if, in the neoliberal present with the administration of biopolitical power in so many realms of both private and social life, there is any possibility of popular music creating a space of subversion or resistance? Are there forms of rock music or popular music today that you think are operating or could operate in a similar way to rock music in the 1960s?  Is this even a pertinent question?

MJK: I think there are certainly some important differences between the 1960s and now. There is a huge difference between the overarching political context and what we might call political economy. Mid-twentieth century consensus liberalism, informed by the Great Depression, Keynesian economics, stronger unions, and Cold War logics had its own madness (as Dr. Strangelove or any episode of Mad Men demonstrates in evocative fictionalized versions), but those strike me as quite different from the underlying ideologies at work in today’s neoliberalism. In fact, one could say that what puts the “neo” in neo-liberalism is precisely its rejection of twentieth-century modern liberalism and its call for a return to an older, more traditional (and I would argue, rather distorted) mode of liberal thinking. Neoliberalism focuses on stripping the collective down to a certain construction of individuality (the famous Thatcher idea that there is no such thing as society).

What popular music can often do as it did with rock in the 1960s—and here I’m reminded of Barry Shank’s marvelous new book on “the political force of musical beauty” and countless other recent work by popular music studies scholars—is name the loneliness that neoliberalism insists (falsely!) must be the condition for participating in the contemporary world and, at the same time, amplify continual reminders, traces, and tracks that we exist in collective social formations. Pop music, for me, continually reminds us that commodification only works because it draws upon these deeper human bonds and interconnections, these longings to find the proper relationship between individual liberty and collective obligation. Those levels of sociality are not utopian, of course. People were doing all kinds of awful things to each other, often to or with music, long before capitalism came along, and they will continue to hurt each other long after capitalism has bitten the dust. But popular music always, for me, connects to that something else—maybe we call it the search for the good life and the recognition of when it is not present—in which, from which, capitalism functions. And it is from that quality of popular music, which is the ways in which it bottles up these dreams and transmits them through the existing apparatus of business and state power, that its potential for subversion or resistance (if these are even the right words for what I am trying to describe) perhaps still emanates.


Acid Tests 1966 Audio (with Grateful Dead performing)

CC: Your book was a great read even beyond the theoretical issues it raised. I can imagine people outside the academy enjoying it, which isn’t always the case for academic books. I know you also have a blog and have written criticism and journalism and work in digital media…it seems to me that these days it might not be the worst idea for an academic to try and work also as more of a quasi public intellectual – that is to say to have a social media presence, to find outlets for one’s work that sound out in more spaces than just academia. Is this something you consciously decided to do and worked towards? What are your thoughts about the role of the academic in a broader cultural dialogue?

MJK: Thanks! I’m glad you found it a great read. These are such important questions.

For the record, I do not have a conventional tenure-track position. Like many out there, I have had to scrap and struggle on that front. And unlike those who wish to be done with academia, I would gladly welcome the increased economic security and academic status a tenured position would bring; I would even welcome the opportunity to contribute to the stewardship of an institution through what many tenured faculty members bemoan as service! That’s probably largely beside the point here, but I just had to say it because I think it shapes my position on your question to some extent.

In terms of what you ask, I think absolutely: scholars should explore multiple formats for expressing their ideas. We should do so because it forces us not to fall into formulae or rote positions. It guards against the bad aspects of specialization, in which a party line starts to develop. Multiple modes challenge us not merely to publicize our analysis, but to reshape the very ideas themselves. Form does affect content!

One way that this has occurred for me is through trying to connect the ideas in The Republic of Rock to different settings. It’s a book, first and foremost, but I also maintain a blog for further elaborations and dialogues (I plan to do more writing at the blog-level scale about the topic this coming year). I have spoken about the book with audiences at academic conferences and through invited talks at universities, but I also have spoken with groups at local libraries and in more unusual gatherings such as the Grateful Dead Fiftieth Anniversary conference (http://www.michaeljkramer.net/cr/?p=6152) in November 2014. I have served as a “talking head” for radio documentary projects (BBC’s Vietnam’s Rock ‘n’ Roll War), consulted on other shows (Australia Broadcasting Company’s “Saigon’s Wartime Beat”), and published a Spotify playlist kind of essay based on the themes in The Republic of Rock. These different media and forms have challenged me to sharpen my ideas in the book, to shift them to different registers and make them count in different contexts.

Perhaps the most weird and adventurous work I’ve done on this count—and something I have written about at the US Intellectual History blog (Dance & Intellectual History)—is my new and unexpected role as dramaturg for the Chicago-based contemporary dance company, The Seldoms. The Seldoms are interested in making dance that uses movement, the body, and multimedia dance theater to speak to social issues. My role began simply as a historical consultant on two projects The Seldoms were working on: a dance that explored the rancorous debate over climate change (Exit Disclaimer: Science and Fiction Ahead) and a dance about power and social change that uses President Lyndon Johnson and his times as a starting point (Power Goes). The Seldoms are now developing a piece based on The Republic of Rock. It is called RockCitizen, and it serves as a kind of companion piece to Power Goes in its use of historical materials from the 1960s to explore larger themes of citizenship, consumerism, culture, and community then and now.

To watch historical ideas take performative and physical form—this has been really profound for my thinking about culture itself. And of course it is pretty thrilling to watch scholarly ideas from the book—some of which are, let’s face it, pretty arcane academic arguments—be seized by a group of virtuosic and inventive dancers and artists. While of course there is the recent, fun fad for turning your Ph.D. into an interpretive dance, not a lot of academics get to have the experience of watching their book serve as a source for a dance work!

So I have wound up reaching out beyond the academy, somewhat out of necessity (no tenure-track position) and somewhat out of my own interests (I wrote a book about rock music after all! And I used to work as an arts journalist). That said, I am not one for dismantling the academy. I think, if anything, there should be expanded support for obscure study that does not seem to have any immediate use or profit. Let a thousand intellectual equivalents of too-long guitar solos bloom! To me the presence of study for its own sake is a sign of a healthy society, a culture that places value on inquiry simply as a core human practice. I just think that something such as the rich intellectual activity rock music sustained in the 1960s counterculture—its mutating dynamism between thinking and feeling, between critical reflection and hedonistic pleasure—gives us but one of many examples that gives the lie to constraints we might place on the circulation of ideas. The boundaries should be, ideally, porous. Our advanced research will be all the better for linking it to broad engagements with a more capacious understanding of public intellectual inquiry; broad engagements with the world improve through their connections to specialized scholarly study.

In fact, one thing scholars have the privilege of developing are the skills and capacities for simultaneously going deep in one area and, at the same time, moving among expertise of all sorts. We should work to expand those privileges to anyone who desires access to them while respecting that not everyone might want to do so. The goal is to foster institutional structures and cultural values that sustain both of these approaches to knowledge: going deep into one area and moving across many domains. We are not doing a great job of that currently. But that does not mean efforts to do so in all sorts of ways are not worth the effort.

What often interests me in trying to think and write across multiple modes are the shifts of scale, the unexpected movements, the surprising circulations that ideas can take: the way a really sophisticated philosophical idea might turn up in a kitschy pop song (think of Joshua Clover’s amazing book on Jesus Jones’s “Right Here, Right Now” and the political events of 1989), or how one can bring poetic or metaphorical language from cultural criticism to bear on archivally-driven historical analysis (what I try to do in The Republic of Rock).

I would say, overall, that I believe the movement between the academic garret and the public square (or even the public gutter!) can be fruitful for thinking overall. Scholars can use platforms ranging from blogs to radio to collaborations with performers, from books to casual conversations on the corner or in the hallway, from institutions of learning to the home to the office to the gallery to the museum to the sidewalk. These can all be put in service of experiencing, extending, and fostering the wonder and power of thinking, of listening, of analyzing, of modifying and elaborating, of comprehending. But it is not a top-down model. Scholars at their best do not bring down commandments from the mountaintop. Rather they can interweave different kinds of knowledge together, across boundaries.

That speaks to what I learned from listening to countercultural participants listening to rock music in the 1960s. The efforts they made (the pleasures they took!) in using music to try to make sense of the world around them occurred in multiple registers, across many different kinds of activities, through many diverse avenues of perception and analysis. One job of a scholar who wishes to contribute to public life can be to participate in multiple modes, to appreciate them, and to take part in the struggle to keep them as wide open as possible for others to access.

Michael J. Kramer teaches history, American studies, digital humanities, and civic engagement at Northwestern University and works as an editor for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. His new book project is “This Machine Kills Fascists: Technology and Culture in the United States Folk Music Revival.” It examines how folkies grappled with the possibilities and problems of modern American technological society. As part of the project, he is developing an exhibition, catalogue, and interactive website about the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place on the Cal campus from 1958 to 1970 and inspired subsequent folk music festivals around the nation. He also serves as the dramaturg for The Seldoms Contemporary Dance Company and is on the steering committee for the Chicago Dance History Project, which documents the rich history of dance in Chicago and the Midwest. His website can be found at www.michaeljkramer.net.

Chloe Coventry received her PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of California, Los Angeles, where her dissertation was on rock music in India in the post-liberalization period.



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