We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 7 The Sixties

Changing Patterns of Consumption and the Challenge of Pop

CHAPTER 7 The Sixties
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


As a catchphrase, “the sixties” does not refer precisely to the decade of the 1960s. Coined in nostalgia, in resentment, at any rate in retrospect, the phrase evokes disruption, a period of social division brought on by a confluence of social transformations. First, and in the United States possibly most important, there was a newly militant and newly successful drive for social equality. The movement for the recognition of the civil rights of racial minorities coincided significantly with the phasing out of European colonial rule in Africa and scored an important victory in 1964 with the passage of a comprehensive Civil Rights Act by the United States Congress.

There was also a new impetus toward the assertion of equal rights for women in public life, coinciding with the development of new techniques of contraception (the “birth control pill”) that made family planning easier and more subject to women's control. Women now sought greater control over other aspects of their lives, including the right to compete as equals in the workplace, and the right to control childbirth. Betty Friedan (1921–2006) published The Feminine Mystique, a broad attack on the notion that women could find fulfillment only in childbearing and homemaking, in 1963. The National Organization for Women (NOW), a powerful pressure group with Friedan as its first president, was founded three years later. Women's rights proved more difficult to secure (on paper, at least) than minority rights. A constitutional amendment guaranteeing them failed repeatedly to win ratification by the states, and the guarantee of legal abortion on demand was only won through the courts in 1973.

Chapter 7 The Sixties

fig. 7-1 Civil rights march on Washington, D.C., 28 August 1963.

Among the other effects of “the pill” was a general loosening of sexual constraints, sometimes called the “sexual revolution,” and, as a corollary, a newly public questioning of the social stigma attached to homosexuality, which culminated in 1969 in a riot at the Stonewall Bar in New York, when a group of patrons forcibly resisted arrest, in a routine police raid, in the name of “gay pride.” Gay rights has been an issue in legal contention, alongside women's rights and racial or ethnic minority rights, ever since. The challenge to the idea that American society was governed by a “mainstream” consensus (often symbolized by the metaphor of a “melting pot”), or a set of norms to which all its members aspired, was one of the sixties’ signal accomplishments. The “mainstream,” especially when asserted in the realm of culture, came under increasing fire as a metaphor for an unjust status quo, or a covert locus of authoritarian domination and oppression. The pluralism thus ushered in (denounced by its opponents as amoral relativism) had a powerful impact on education and the arts.

The Stonewall riot was also an example of a new assertiveness in public protest and civil disobedience that characterized the sixties, aroused in the first instance by widespread opposition to the American government's pursuit of an unpopular war against Communist expansion in Southeast Asia. What the government and the military saw (and defended) as a natural consequence of cold-war policies was increasingly perceived as reckless intervention in the internal affairs of the “Third World,” the technologically less advanced nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, many of them (like Vietnam, the site of the American war) newly liberated from colonial rule. The Vietnam war was viewed by many as a continuation of colonialist aggression under cover of cold-war politics, as well as an unjustified threat to a generation of American men whose lives were thus put at risk—a threat that, owing to inequities in the draft laws, put a disproportionate and indefensible burden on the same minorities whose rights were a separate (but obviously not unconnected) object of contention and negotiation.

Opposition to the war, which came (especially in the eyes of those whose lives were threatened by the draft) to symbolize the general political and ethical corruption of the powerful countries of “the West,” stimulated a new political militancy. Active resistance was mobilized by, and on behalf of, a self-proclaimed “New Left” of radical intellectuals and politicians who questioned the authority of the government to impose its policies on an unwilling population. Others, who became known as “hippies” (from “hip,” a slang word meaning aware or up-to-date), indulged in passive resistance, rejecting the social mores of conventional (“bourgeois”) society and withdrawing (or “dropping out”) from the public sphere into a utopian communitarian “counterculture” devoted to the spontaneous expression of love and to spiritual introspection, the latter often enhanced by the use of narcotics or “psychedelic” (sensation-magnifying or “mind-expanding”) drugs like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), known medically as psychotomimetic, since they artificially reproduce the symptoms of psychosis, or mental defection from environmental reality.

None of these phenomena originated during the calendar decade of the 1960s, nor did any come to an end with its passing. The active struggle for racial equality went back at least to 1948, when Harry S. Truman made civil rights an important plank in his platform for reelection as president of the United States, and caused a violent split within his party that led to a rival States Rights Democratic (or “Dixiecrat”) candidate for president, Strom Thurmond (1902–2003), who campaigned in support of continued racial segregation. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, and in 1955 the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68) organized a boycott by black residents of Montgomery, Alabama, against the segregated city bus lines. He later attained national prominence by advocating nonviolent but provocative resistance to statutory racial segregation throughout the southern United States.

Opposition to the cold war and to the interventionist policies justified on its behalf also went back to the late 1940s. Popular agitation in support of nuclear disarmament, led by organizations like the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, were a staple of the 1950s, despite the political stigma attached to the “peace” movement by conservative politicians wary (not always groundlessly) of its co-option by Soviet propagandists. Contraceptive devices, including the earliest oral ones, were available before 1960. The movement for women's rights has a history extending back to the nineteenth century. Even the “drug culture” had a pre-sixties history, associated with the “beat generation,” a loosely organized group of artists and writers active in the 1950s who rejected the structures and institutions of bourgeois society and sought an intense subjective illumination that became their subject matter.

The identification of all these sociopolitical movements and phenomena with “the sixties” can be attributed in part to the general intensification they all underwent in reaction to the unrest spawned by the Vietnam war, or rather to the gross expansion of the American military presence there, and the attendant casualties, that began under President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. The “counterculture,” for example, reached an early peak in the summer of 1967—known in legend as the “Summer of Love”—when about 75,000 hippies made pilgrimage to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and turned it into a giant commune awash in psychedelic drugs and procreation-free sex. It is hard not to associate that large figure with another large figure: the 10,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam that year without any visible progress in the fortunes of an unpopular and increasingly incomprehensible war.

But reference to “the sixties” as a catchphrase in America probably owes the most to a series of violent events that shocked American society and created a watershed in collective memory. The most stunning ones, perhaps, were the three political assassinations that followed one another in short succession: first, that of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963; second, that of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968; and third, a scant two months later, that of Robert F. Kennedy, the late president's younger brother, then campaigning for election as president himself on an antiwar platform, in Los Angeles, California, on 5 June 1968.

In that same spring of 1968, student demonstrators occupied several buildings on the campus of Columbia University, and a week later were forcibly (and, some thought, brutally) ejected by the New York City police, who had been called in by the university administration. Pictures of bloody students filled the newspapers. Then, in August of the same year, prolonged violent confrontations between the Chicago police and antiwar demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention were broadcast for days on national television. The trial that followed, in which a group of New Left, hippie, and black-activist defendants known as the “Chicago Eight” did their best to mock the proceedings and provoke the judge, was an enormously polarizing event.

So searing were the impressions of the annus horribilis 1968, and so dismaying to a society that had prided itself on its capaciousness and tolerance, that the culminating—objectively worse—events that followed in 1970 (like the killing by the Ohio State Militia of four students on the campus of Kent State University; or the lethal explosion of a pipe bomb in New York by a group known as the Weathermen, who had split off from the New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society; or another activist-planted bomb that blew up the mathematics research building at the University of Wisconsin, killing a graduate student who was working late) could not dislodge “the sixties” from their emblematic status.

The meaning or achievement of all that “sixties” unrest, which accomplished no clear objective (not even the ending of the Vietnam war, which sputtered to an ignominious close in 1975), is of course a matter of furious and continuing debate. Some, emphasizing the sexual and psychedelic aspects of the era, look back on the decade as a period of hedonism and irresponsibility that did lasting damage to the social fabric. Others, idealizing its optimism and social activism, look back on it as a period of incipient, unstoppable, irreversible, and eventually positive democratic change. What all must agree on, and what the foregoing description has already tacitly disclosed, is that the era of “the sixties” was driven to an unprecedented degree by young people, chiefly students. The “counterculture” was youth culture, and so was the activism of the period.

Indeed one of the dominant descriptors of the sixties as a historical period is the phrase “generation gap,” referring to the massive exacerbation of perennial generational tensions, during that decade and its aftermath, into bitter antagonism. One of the culminating artifacts of the period, dating from 1970, was a movie, Joe, that climaxed with the vigilante massacre of a hippie commune by two disgruntled members of the older generation, one a successful advertising man, the other a blue-collar worker, turned improbably (but, in the context of the period, plausibly) into allies by their shared hatred of the young.

Significantly, one of the killers, a family man, was motivated by resentment of the hippie culture that had claimed his daughter; the other, a war veteran, was moved by outrage at student activism and the lack of patriotism it implied. The two manifestations of youth culture, while distinguishable in retrospect (and even at the time), had merged into a single provocation, even as they had been themselves provoked in large measure by a single affront. The movie opened barely two months after the shootings at Kent State, which had sparked the greatest single outpouring of rage on American campuses, with student “strikes” disrupting end-of-year exercises (exams, commencements) all over the country. If nothing else, the spring and summer of 1970 showed what a powerful force youth—or to be more precise, affluent middle-class youth—had become.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 The Sixties. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-007.xml