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Contre-cultures: Utopies, dystopies, anarchie

Countercultures n°2: Utopias, Dystopias, Anarchy

Contre-cultures n° 2 : utopies, dystopies, anarchie
Sheila Whiteley
p. 8-12
Traduction(s) :
Contre-cultures n° 2 : utopies, dystopies, anarchie [fr]

Texte intégral

1Our December publication of Volume !’s Countercultures issues moves from the opening discussion on Theory and Scenes that appeared in the September edition, to articles that explore Utopias, Dystopias and Experimentations. Andy Bennett’s opening article on ‘Re-appraising Counterculture’, which also appeared in the September edition and which establishes so many of the debates, is not being repeated here, but you are urged to read this if you have not already done so. My introduction picks up, this time, on three articles that discuss the conflicting ideologies surrounding the Utopias and Dystopias of the 1960s counterculture.

III. Utopias and Dystopias

2Christophe Den Tandt’s ground-breaking article ‘Rock Culture, between a Modernist Utopia and the Construction of an Alternative Industry’ poses an important question: how do the centrifugal gestures of rock leave ‘residual traces’ in the cultural field, in the form of works, but also specific practices, places and institutions? Den Tandt begins by examining the paradoxes inherent in rock. As he notes, there is no consensus on its aesthetic vocation or on the social function of its supposed rebellion, albeit its frequent interpretation as ‘resisting through rituals’ and the Adornian-like criticisms if it fails. His identification of ‘the utopian’ (as theorised by Jameson and Hassan) opens out the possibility that ‘in rock, the refusal of any form of appropriation (social, academic or even aesthetic) expresses the aspiration to exceed a condition lived as alienated, thus opening up a utopian perspective’ that can be interpreted as ‘apocalyptic’ (revelation requiring the annihilation of the present). For academics, this dimension enables a historicisation of rock within broader twentieth-century trends. Hassan, for example, interprets the desire to free oneself of a social universe perceived to be non-authentic as one of the fundamental features of early twentieth-century modern art. By the late 1950s, the aesthetic disqualification of the social world loses its virulence and with the emergence of the Beat movement, John Cage, Pop art and psychedelics, everyday life is no longer rejected and becomes, instead, the source of artistic experimentation. Rock’s violence is thus expressive of the desire both to master the industrial environment and its own violence. Yet as Den Tandt observes, ‘it is of the essence of rock to never fulfil its desires – its project can only be evaluated from the residues it leaves in its wake: practices, works, social changes that its liberating moment makes possible’. As such, ‘the remnants of artistic utopia aren’t the works themselves, but the liberating gestures that redraw the social and cultural field’. Den Tandt then questions how a utopian model can be applied to profit-based mass culture, providing examples drawn from rock and roll and the ways in which emancipation was synonymous both with rhythm and blues sensuality and the praise of consumerist pleasures, and the hippie movement’s satire of ostentatiousness (Chuck Berry’s “Cadillac Coupe” v. Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz”). Musical excellence is also cited as both a mark of autonomy (The Beatles, ‘Eleanor Rigby’) and punk rejection. Rock’s structures of production and distribution are then subjected to scrutiny, so offering a further point of discussion on issues of authenticity and the market, with some small independent labels trying to make profit, while the majors enable Bob Dylan to emerge, thanks to commercial experimentations1. Den Tandt concludes by exploring rock as a culture of professionalism, aimed at a social integration characterised by non alienated work – so continuing mass culture’s meta-industrial dimension. Its comparison with literature (thrillers) and film (westerns) suggests that its heroes preserve their existential and economic autonomy by fighting against structures of authority while proposing conservative models of masculine aggressiveness, homophobia, racism, and misogyny.

3Den Tandt’s discussion provides a compelling backdrop for the issues raised in this section. Mark Jones and Gerald Carlin explore the heritage of the Beatles’ 1968 track, ‘Helter Skelter’ and its association with the psychotic killer, Charles Manson. As they reveal, in ‘“Helter Skelter” and Sixties Revisionism’, ‘the “dark” sixties – gore films, bad trips and Satanism – were never entirely dispelled by the enlightenment ideals of the counterculture, and they would flourish in the seventies mélange of paranoia and camp’. (p.) As a continuing figure in this resurgence of the sinister sixties, Manson becomes the ‘tabloid bogeyman, the subject of numerous pulp treatments in various media, as well as in heavy metal where he is used to invoke the devil or to herald the apocalypse’. Initially difficult to classify, ‘Helter Skelter’ assumed a growing notoriety due to its subsequent associations with the Manson Family. As the authors reveal, while ‘Helter Skelter’ was largely overlooked for several years, the existing early covers are, stylistically, hard rock. Later, the song was covered in more diverse and/or deviant idioms, so reinflecting the original as a critique of the sixties and its legacies. While Paul McCartney’s 2009 live album Good Evening New York City has exorcised many of its demons, ‘Helter Skelter’ nevertheless remains one of the few cultural objects that can still summon forth its revolutionary spectre. Yet as Jones and Carlin tellingly observe, ‘after over forty years in which “Helter Skelter” has variously signalled the failure of the sixties, a hard rock heritage, metallic origins, schlock horror and apocalyptic race war, it now communicates an institutionally respectable radical chic’.

4The Book of Revelations is also central to Shawn Young’s discussion of ‘Apocalyptic Music and Countercultural Christian Influences’. As his research suggests, the development of the so-termed Jesus Movement became ‘a critical part of the decade rather than an aberration’, (Luhr, 2009: 74), allowing the counterculture to be ‘reintegrated into the continuing American consensus’ (Ibid.: 68) . The conversion to Christianity of such iconic musicians as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Barry McGuire, Johnny Cash and Fleetwood Mac’s Jeremy Spencer – ‘the latter to the rigid and controversial commune the Children of God, a notable doomsday group’ – as well as such songs as the Byrd’s ‘Jesus is Just Alright With Me’, Ocean’s ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’ (1970), Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (1969), and Norman Greenbaum's ‘Spirit In The Sky’ (1969), suggested that the counterculture was beginning to change its focus, but as tales of Judgement Day were woven into lyrics by what Young terms the ‘minstrels of the apocalypse’ the doomsday feel intensified. Catastrophic global events were interpreted as predictors of Armageddon, with heavy metal drawing on the rhetoric of chaos rooted in Judeo-Christianity. Meanwhile, ‘musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell added to the already spiritually drenched atmosphere of countercultural Christendom, bringing what was, to some extent, a vestige of Christian thinking into every sphere of the counterculture: ‘a cosmology that was both triumphalist/postmillenialist (God’s kingdom can be realised on earth as Christianity gains global influence) and premillennialist (Jesus would return in the Rapture to escort believers to Heaven)’.

IV. Sonic Anarchy and Freaks

5It is no coincidence that the four articles that follow provide both an in-depth analysis of key bands associated with what Jay Keister terms ‘freak culture’, while referring outwards both to other articles in this section and to those mentioned earlier in ‘Theorising Countercultures’. Stanley J. Spector and Shelina Brown confirm the relationship between anarchy, chaos and noise discussed earlier in my previous introduction.

6Jay Keister’s opening article, ‘The Long Freak Out: Unfinished Music and Countercultural Madness in Avant-Garde Rock of the 1960s and 1970s’ provides a thoughtful context for album tracks where sonic anarchy creates an underlying connotation of madness, and where amateur techniques suggest conceptual absurdity, so highlighting their significance within the discourse of rock rebellion. However, as Keister subsequently points out, while the blend of anarchy and the absurd are distinguishing characteristics of freak, ‘amateurism is clearly by design’. Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable and The Velvet Underground’s ‘feedback-drenched track “European Son”’ , The Grateful Dead’s album Anthem of the Sun (1968), Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s Two Virgins (1968), and Freak Out! (1966) by The Mothers of Invention led by Frank Zappa all providing examples of avant-garde techniques. Post-punk, industrial and post-industrial groups that celebrated the destruction of song form, both in amateurish values of musicianship and conceptual absurdity, were also indicative of the enduring attraction of freak out, while hallucinatory insanity, as boosting creativity, was exemplified in the improvisational approach of The Grateful Dead who, as Stanley J. Spector observes, was ‘the quintessential psychedelic rock band’. Spector’s identification of associative improvisation during musical explorations, and transformational improvisation during the climax of that exploration provides new insights into The Grateful Dead’s improvisational techniques, which culminated in what David Malvini terms a ‘transformational’ quality, which he traces to ‘the space and tension’ between the hierarchical and associative forms of improvisation (2007: 5). ‘The Grateful Dead and the Counterculture: Transformation in Music and Consciousness’ is a thought-provoking introduction to The Dead’s psychedelic rock, stressing ‘scarifying, chaotic feedback’ , an abandonment of structure and form, and the exploratory space that was to characterise their acid-drenched improvisations during 1968-1969.

7While Keister includes Yoko Ono within his discussion of freak, Shelina Brown identifies her experimental musical works within a framework of revolutionary feminist politics and Julia Kristeva’s writings on abjection. As ‘Scream from the Heart. Yoko Ono’s Rock and Roll Revolution’ tellingly observes, ‘Ono’s screams emerge from the depths of her body, unleashing a subversive vocality that threatens to destabilise not only the boundary between music and noise, but also the gendered and racialised sonic codes that delineate acceptable modes of vocal musical expression. In their politicised interpretation, Ono’s unruly vocalisations thus point back to the deepest reaches of her own unique, albeit gendered and racialised body’. Brown’s analysis of Ono’s extreme vocalisations situates the scream as sonic abjection, ‘focussing awareness of Yoko’s very real existence’, ‘a sense of a fragmented bodily interiority’ as exemplified in, for example, her lament for her lost daughter, ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mommy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)’. It was, however, her collaborative work with John Lennon (Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, 1968), an avant-garde tape composition, spliced together over the course of a night-long acid trip, that most attracted attention both to her role as an avant-garde artist and as a formative influence on the counterculture. As Brown observes, ‘In many ways the tumultuous political milieu of the late 1960s marked an historical moment of rupture. The fraught borderlines between self and other, centre and periphery, black and white, man and woman were now being called into question … [and] it is fitting that Yoko Ono, a Japanese woman, would surface as a powerful public figure in the US at this historical moment.’

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Hassan, I. 1987. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus: Ohio University Press.

Hein, F. 2012. ‘Le DIY comme dynamique contre-culturelle ? L’exemple de la scène punk rock’, Volume ! la revue des musiques populaires, vol. 9, n° 1, “Contres-Cultures 1 : Théorie et Scènes”, edited by S. Whiteley. Nantes: Éditions Mélanie Seteun, 105-126.

Jameson, F. 1993. ‘Postmodernism and consumer society’, in Postmodern Culture, edited by H. Foster. London: Pluto Press, 111-125.

Luhr, E. 2009. Witnessing Suburbia: Conservative and Christian Youth Culture. University of California Press.

Malvini, D. 2007. ‘‘Now Is the Time Past Believing’: Concealment, Ritual, and Death in the Grateful Dead’s Approach to Improvisation’, in All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon, edited by N. Meriwether. Newcastle, UK. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 1-18.

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1 A topic that Fabien Hein explores in his paper on DIY ethic in punk (2012).

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Sheila Whiteley, « Countercultures n°2: Utopias, Dystopias, Anarchy »Volume !, 9 : 2 | 2012, 8-12.

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Sheila Whiteley, « Countercultures n°2: Utopias, Dystopias, Anarchy »Volume ! [En ligne], 9 : 2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2012, consulté le 21 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sheila Whiteley

Sheila Whiteley a publié et dirigé des ouvrages de référence sur les musiques populaires, autour de questions aussi diverses que le genre, les femmes, la sexualité, les drogues, les scènes et les contre-cultures (The Space Between the Notes, Sexing the Groove, Music, Space and Place,Queering the Popular Pitch…). Elle fut Secrétaire Générale de l’IASPM de 1999 à 2001 et obtint la Chaire de Musiques Populaires à l’université de Salford en 1999 – premier poste dédié à cet objet d’études. Elle est aujourd’hui Visiting Professor à la Faculty of Creative Industries and Society de l’université de Southampton Solent ainsi qu'à la Bader International Study Centre, et Visiting Scholar à la Drake University (Canada), à Hailsham (East Sussex). En 2010, elle fut nommée Professeur émérite à l’université de Salford. Elle finalise actuellement l’Oxford Handbook of Music and Queerness ainsi qu’un autre ouvrage sur les musiques populaires et le virtuel.en

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