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

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.