1995-01-23: Philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm

Philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm

Themes of Classic Rock Music (1993)

by James F. Harris (-)

This work is written by a philosopher and musician who grew up in the Sixties. He has actually listened to the lyrics of the classic rock music of the Sixties, and has identified the philosophical background for the themes expressed there. The book emphasizes the philosophical sources, but also identifies other cultural expressions of the era, such as books and movies.

As Harris points out: “Rock music has received very little attention and practically no respect from the self-apointed guardians of American culture. … Perhaps these “serious” critics still suppose that 1960s rock music is the peculiar product of a bunch of drug-crazed hippies … For whatever reasons, rock music has been taken seriously only by a clearly identifiable sub-culture of critics and writers whose territory is limited to popular culture or, more specifically, just to rock music itself. … these have focused upon the aesthetic values which are internal to rock music, as a genre, or upon the social or political significance of rock music.”

He describes the roots of rock in 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, which he characterizes as an example of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. The lyrics of the 1950s were semantically empty, but the music was anti-social, irreverent, raucous, happy, sensuous, and a threat to the “dominant culture”, maturity, responsibility, respectability, and decorum. Especially, it was non-serious.

Harris uses the term “The Sixties” for the period roughly from 1962 (The Cuban Missile Crisis) to 1974 (the resignation of President Nixon). The well-known events of this period were serious, and got the attention of the young people of the time in a way the events of the 1950s did not. The impingement of the serious world, and the reaction of the young, is amply shown in the lyrics.

Harris supposes that decades are a useful way to sum up significant stretches of history, and believes The Sixties are one of the great decades of American history, along with 1776-1786, 1860-1870, 1912-1922, and 1935-1945. He doubts that the Seventies or Eighties will ever have a similar identity.

His list of significant events includes: the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John Kennedy, the Poor People’s March, the Civil Rights Movement (really many events), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Watts riots, the Vietnam War, the Detroit riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the 1968 National Democratic Convention, the bombing of Cambodia, Kent State, the resignation of Spiro Agnew, Watergate, the resignation of Richard Nixon. His second list (in a note) includes: Russia’s downing of the U-2 spy plane, the beginning of the Peace Corps, the March at Selma, the murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, the murders of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, the Free Speech Movement, Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, Woodstock, the moon landing, My Lai, the Charles Manson murders, and the breakup of the Beatles.

Certainly there were enough events to get the attention of any rock ‘n’ roller. Harris goes on to describe and dissect the alienation of The Sixties. He recognizes that generational alienation has been around a long time, but finds that of The Sixties associated with a cultural crisis (his italics), whether as cause or effect is hard to say. It was unlike the student protests of France and Germany in the 1960s (which were radical and violent) and the social unrest and violence that accompanied the rise of labor unions. “The target of the dissent and the cause of the alienation was not simply the government or universities or management. The scope of the rejection and alienation ran across the entire fabric of American culture – including the received political, social, personal, religious, economic, and moral views of the dominant culture. The general, inclusive nature of the alienation left no Archimedean point to provide a foothold or beginning point for leverage against the dominant culture. So, much of the alienation and anger and rebellion seemed pointless or aimless since it was so general and unfocused.”

“A good case can be made that American culture was headed for a crisis anyway, and young people in the 1960s – the activists, the hippies, the flower children, the counter-culturalists, the commune dwellers – were simply the first people to realize this and act upon it.” He mentions several works produced or popular during the Sixties that support this view. (p 29)

In his philosophical dissection of alienation, Harris identifies the following types:

Alienation in Personal Relationships:

With the advent of popular psychology and “self-help” books, the American public turned its attention upon “relationships” in the 1960s in a way which was previously unequaled. Self-examination and psychological examination of self and others became the order of the day. …

Personal alienation is alienation that results from the failure of a personal relationship or betrayal by another person. Such failures occur frequently enough to suggest a particular view of human nature which is frail and fickle (while perhaps not being really corrupt) and which explains why such relationships are limited and inevitably, or nearly inevitably, lead to disappointment, alienation, and loneliness.

Parent-Child Alienation:

The alienation which frequently results from familial relationships is episodic: it occurs at certain periods in a person’s life and is caused by or directed toward another individual or group of individuals (such as parents or children). In other words, such alienation is not alienation from society at large or people in general, and is not aimed at the political, social or religious systems or authorities.

Romantic Love and Alienation:

If there was any single characteristic which was used more frequently in the 1960s to describe romantic relationships, it was an emphasis upon male-female alienation. Now, of course, the battle of the sexes has been waged since the dawn of time, but the alienation which is frequently described in the literature and music of The Sixties is both more deeply seated and more general than the usual conflicts between men and women.. The alienation is more of a fear of a fundamentally monotonous and boring existence with another person. … There are more varied and conflicting depictions of romantic relationships and their advantages and disadvantages to be found in rock music than of any other topic.

Social Alienation:

… the kind of alienation that results from one’s position in life and society, determined by one’s class, race, sex, occupation, and social or economic status. We find in both the rock music and the popular literature of The Sixties abundant expressions of anger, contempt, and frustration concerning existing social conditions. A person who regards himself or herself as victimized directs the anger and frustration at society at large or at some perceived dominant group of society. Social alienation is an example of the general, perceived view of the world where “they” are doing this to “us” – a view which is naturally socially disruptive and divisive.

Sexual Alienation:

Much of the current wave of feminism can be traced to the 1960s. The comparatively liberated position of women in our society today is as much the result of the social revolution of the 1960s as the liberated position of blacks is the result of the Civil Rights Movement. The changes in the roles of women brought about by World War II were largely reversed during the 1950s. Thus, the changes in the roles of women initiated during the cultural and social war of The Sixties constituted an importamnt episode in the continuing struggel for sexual equality and are major factors which have contributed to bringing us to where we are today.

Racial Alienation: Harris doesn’t explain what racial alienation is (presumably it is obvious), but lists several songs exhibiting it.

Political Alienation:

One of the more common themes of classic rock is suspicion towards and mistrust of political and legal authority, and when most people talk about the alienation of the 1960s, they most often have political alienation in mind. … Sometimes it is difficult to separate political alienation from social alienation or from alienation with respect to the military. President Dwight Eisenhower’s concerns about the relationship between “the military-industrial complex” and the government were certainly legitimate in the sense that, by the mid-1960s, many people had difficulty distinguishing the two.

… Conspiracy theories, not just about the political assassinations, but about government, business, and the military, abounded among the members of the radical left, student demonstrators, activists, and hippies. This is hardly astonishing: the entire of the cold war … had been a period where the government and military had adopted secrecy and deception as major components of their modus operandi. No doubt a case can be made that such cloak-and-dagger secrecy was necessary, but it took a heavy tool on the trust and confidence of the populace. The government and military certainly had their conspiracy theories as well – such as, in foreign policy, the myths of monolithic, “world-wide” communism and the domino theory and, in domestic affairs, the myths of communist conspiracy and “outside agitators”.

The election of 1964, which pitted incumbent Lyndon Johnson against “hawk” Barry Goldwater, along with the incidents which immediately preceded and followed it, could serve as a good case study of the suspicion and divisiveness which would eventually erupt into the major confrontations of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the various marches on Washington.

No other single event of the 1960s was more of a lightning rod for mistrust of the government and the military than the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 1964. According to the administration, two American warships were attacked by North Vietnamese boats. … Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave Johnson practically unlimited powers in waging the undeclared war in Vietnam. It also allowed Johnson to respond to Goldwater’s accusations. The “credibility gap” had been created.

Suspicion concerning the reported events of the “incident” were almost immediate and widespread. But the administration didn’t back down, and .. many of those who later opposed the war came to feel as if they had been duped. Trus and confidence in the government eroded, and the credibility gap widened. Big Brother was alive and well and had set up camp in Washington, DC.

… Much of this is now “ancient history”. The importance of these events is to help us understand both the intensity, and the pervasiveness of the sense of betrayal which was felt at the time by so many people.

Existential Alienation

In the case of personal, sexual, racial, social, and political alienation, the alienation originates out of a person’s distinctive circumstances in life or because of particular reasons. Such alienation is also directed towards particualr circumstances or specific individuals thought to be responsible for those circumstances. Existential alienation … arises from what we might call “the human condition”. Such alienation is universal: it is an alienation in which all human beings share, and it is simply our “humanness” which is responsible for this “condition”. Existential alienation is thus more of a vague sense of unhappiness. It is not directed at or caused by some particular individual or group or circumstances. It is a dread directed against all of a person’s existence, everything and everybody in a person’s life.

I can’t agree with this statement, but recognize that it was and is influential on many people.

Harris finds many themes occurring in response to the various kinds of alienation. The forms of alienation led people to ask fundamental, philosophical questions, and seek answers that could organize their lives. The themes he finds in the “Greening of Rock Music” include


One of the answers expressed in many classic rock songs is friendship. These are relationships which are not structured or constricted by a person’s occupation or professional life nor are they the result of other socially structured patterns for relating to other people. These relationships are represented as genuine friendships – based upon the values and affection of the “real” people involved; the are “person to person”. These friendships also represent the highest form of human relationships – more intimate and permanent that romantic relationships.


… the increased “secularization” of American culture – the loss of the kind of spirituality and sense of “other-worldliness” which many forms of religious belief provide … contributed to the emphasis on friendship in The Sixties.

… modern, secularized human beings must take control of their lives and make them meaningful themselves. We must face our existence and our future without god, without religion or any other system of beliefs which provides an objective meaning and set of values for human existence. One possible … refuge from the terror of facing an existence alone is other people. If god is dead, we either face our lives and future alone or together. Human relationships thus provide the opportunity for recapturing something of the special, “holy” nature of the lost relationship with god.

Again, I disagree with major points here, but recognize the influence of the position on many people. Among the expressions of secularization he includes the Time magazine cover feature story of August 8th, 1966, asking “Is God Dead?”; a resurgent interest in utopian living; a preference for “Freedom” over control (which led to failure of many utopian attempts). The notion of Freedom led to connections with early American philosophical and political writers, such as Jefferson and Thoreau, and their sources, and to increased emphasis on the “social contract” nature of government.

He gives considerable attention to the occurrence of themes concerning sex and drugs, as espousing the hedonistic philosophy of seeking immediate pleasure, or refusing to defer pleasure in favor of long-term considerations. He describes the 1950s social attitudes toward sex and makes a case that the 1950s were (for young people) less a period of “fear of the bomb” than “fear of pregnancy”. To illustrate how society can accept much if it can be turned to social benefit, he uses the Playboy philosophy, that made extra-marital sex acceptable, as long as it was based on consumerism. His comments on drugs indicate some personal knowledge of the subject.

Other themes are thoroughly American, including the Rugged Individual and the Majority of One, from our frontier roots, and Thoreau’s Civil Disobediance. Other threads, such as Neitzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil also appear in this context.

The rejection of received Judeo/Christian religious traditions opened doors to other religious ideas, including mysticism, the I Ching, Buddhism (particularly as described in the novel Siddhartha), astrology and the age of Aquarius, the Book of the Dead, Zoroaster, and other apocalyptic sources.

The ending of an era is often difficult to fix, and Harris doesn’t find one. Several song writers expressed the notion of the “end of the dream” in various ways, acknowledging that The Sixties was over, and its hopes were out of reach.

The book is useful for cataloging the significant songs and writers of The Sixties, a task I had despaired of doing. Harris’s analysis seems generally accurate, with allowance for personal taste. Of course the more interesting issues for me concern the ways in which idea-complexes and communities form. For this reason, I was disappointed that there was no mention of the themes of pre-Sixties communities and idea-complexes, such as the folk music that was a big part of the early “serious” component of rock music, and the anti-social themes of the Beat writers and the communities that formed around their ideas.

[the above was written 1994-09-07]

Harris defines “hedonism” as “an uncontrolled indulgence in pleasures of various sorts”. Then, apparently to soften this characterization, he dredges up the etymology and philosophy of hedonism, beginning with

Epicurus (341 – 270 BC), and Epicureanism has come to mean, to most people, pursuing a life of pleasure. Basically, hedonism is the belief that pleasure is the only thing which is intrinsically worth pursuing. By saying that something is intrinsically worth-while or desirable, I mean that it is valuable, not because of some utility value it might have fro some other purpose or because of some consequences which might follow from it, but simply that it is valuable in and of itself.

… Most philosophers have their own interpretations of what “pleasure” really means, and there are many difficult issues about human nature involved here. … Consider a pleasure of a purely sensory nature, … and an “intellectual” pleasure …. (In everyday usage, a distinction is sometimes maintained between hedonism, as the pursuit of the coarser pleasures, and Epicureanism as preoccupied with refined, civilized, and delicately nuanced pleasures.)

Many philosophers have thought that philosophical hedonism, as a prescriptive theory about how people ought to act, is based upon psychological hedonism, a descriptive, scientific theory about human nature. Psychological hedonism maintains that human nature is such that the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are what actually motivate human behavior. … So, psychological hedonism maintains, there must be something about human beings, just as biological organisms, which motivates us to behave in the ways that we do. …

Adult human beings, the theory goes, are merely a little more complicated with a broader array of different kinds of pleasures available to us. As more sophisticated organisms, both emotionally and cognitively, we adults can enjoy and be motivated by the desire of such things as love, friendship, security, or success. According to Herbert Marcuse … some of our needs and desires for pleasure are “natural” and “true” (since they are a part of our basic human nature) while others are “social” and “false” since they are superimposed upon the individual by society. (note 1) If a society is successful in “redefining” the natural needs of the individual into the “false” needs of the society, then the individual internalizes those “false” societal needs and identifies them as his or her own. The individual will then willingly support and participate in and work for that society. Such “control” of the individual was the theme of several prominent works of popular culture in the 1960s, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange”, and Paul Simon’s song, “Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine”.

1. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), pp 4-5, 245.

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