Youth Subculture: The Hippie Movement Of The 60s

Introduction

Amidst political and social unrest, the Hippie movement was a subculture prevalent in America between the late 1960s and early 1970s. An evolution from the iconic Beat movement throughout the 1940s and 1950s, they were a counter-culture that were combating against mainstream American institutionalized values. Adopting anti-consumerist, anti-materialistic and non-conforming attitudes, they became arguably the most iconic youth subculture movement in post-World War 2 America. Although reaching its peak as a political movement through iconic events like The Summer of Love in 1967 and the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969, it would prove not to be sustainable counter-culture. Apart from other subcultures of that era like the Black Panthers, the Civil Rights Movement and other politically charged radicals, the hippies functioned under a “politics is no politics” rule, leading what is perceived by the media as a hedonistic lifestyle and simply advocating for non-violence and peace. The lack of structure amongst their ranks, as well as the abuse of their cultural values which includes the use of drugs and ideas of sexual liberation led to their downfall in the 1970s. Despite their dilution towards the late 1970s, their acts of transgressions towards hegemonic social constructs in their time, most notably opposing and protesting the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and throughout the 1960s during the Summer of Love, were significant in the inspiration of succeeding youth subcultures. This essay will provide an analysis of the Hippie movement, beginning with their evolution from the Beatniks, their associated values and transgressions, its involvement in political issues in the United States and their declination and eventual dissolution.

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Background

The idea of opposing mainstream cultural values were first originated from poets Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginserg and William S. Burroughs. They first organized meetings throughout the United States and soon settled in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Known then as the “Beat Poets”, they were considered the founding fathers of the Beat Movement. In Ginsberg’s poem Howl (1955), he explores various themes of opposing consumerism, arguing that the actions of society that attempted to appeal to mainstream establishments has led to the destruction of individual moral values. The movement has become synonymous with wild cross-country trips, drugs and open sexuality. It soon evolved through the 1960s as part of the counterculture era, and they were now known as the hippies. Their change in name was as a result of manifestations in differing forms of alternative living. As the beats, a name that evokes weariness and tiredness, were known to be literary artists, hippies were more reactive towards music, military conscription and sexual freedom. As the 1960s were marred by social and political unrest, came with it an overload of personal and collective consciousness due to social and economic power imbalance brought on by major events like the Vietnam War. Hippies were younger, mostly comprised of college students and dropouts, and constitutes a broad multitude of bohemian and student subcultures. These youth who stem from middle class families lead a very distinctive lifestyle compared to their predecessors, with a goal to support peace and non-violence amidst political turmoil (Kunkel, n.d.). Folk and psychedelic music as well as the inclusion of other forms of mass media played a huge role in marketing hippie ideologies, due in part to the participation of music and film stars. High profile celebrities like musicians Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Grateful Dead, actors Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and writers Gloria Steinem were instrumental in constructing the aesthetic of the hippie movement.

Beginning of Moral Panics

The hippies favoured growing out their hairs, developed an unconventional and unorthodox dress sense and sought communal living spaces. This was part of their mission as being part of the back-to-the-land movement, seeking to rebel the conformity of the 1950s childhood by learning particularly inaccessible skills like building their own houses and growing their own food (Daloz, 2016). The biggest change of the hippies from the beat movement however came by way of the popularisation of gateway drugs like marijuana and LSD, justifying the practice as a way of expanding the psychological horizons of the human conscience. These values associated with the subculture was widely rejected by mainstream media, citing the potential for the abuse of “wild” and outrageous lifestyles. According to Stanley Cohen (1972), whenever a group of persons comes as a threat or deviation towards what is perceived as societal norms and values, the nature of the media is to present the deviation in a sensationalized fashion. In this case, the hippies were classified as folk devils towards mainstream society, due in part of their adoption of hedonistic lifestyles and as a result was seen as deviance. According to Becker (1963), the concept of deviance is generally defined as the “failure to obey group rules”, one that differs from social interests, norms and severe enough to garner disapproval from the majority of society. The values associated with drug use and open sexuality were portrayed in society as what defined the hippies, and the fear of their expansion and influence has led to the media quickly fanning public indignation and soon enough the construction of a moral panic. Although not illegal, these values encouraged many forms of social control. Social control is defined as any behaviour by the society and its members communicates his or her disapproval in engaging in behaviours opposed to anti-societal norms. The hippies received primarily negative social reactions, otherwise known as negative sanctions because of their dislike of governments and authoritarian constructs, as well as formal sanctions for violence and protests which resulted in negative sanctions from criminal justice. They were being looked at by society as potheads, druggie, youths who partake in sexual activity at a young age and promoters of violent conduct. However, what the media seemingly overlooked is the positive sanctions regarding the hippies. They were regarded during the 1960s as the primary upholders of the peace movement, as well as their acceptance of multiple cultures and the simple fact that everyone loved everyone.

Presence in the Media

According to Boreham (2007), in Stanley Cohen’s study on the mods and rockers youth subculture in the 1960s, mass media reports on more newsworthy aspects of a subculture that has fulfilled the consideration of a moral panic by reporting news that is sometimes superfluous and sensationalist in order to aggravate the evil aspects of a deviant. This in turn led to the absence of sensible perspectives from society. This was very prominent in the United Kingdom. As the hippie ethos bled through to the UK, the most defining aspect of the 60s in post-war Britain was its music scene. Through English pop bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones who were widely popular and celebrated throughout America in a movement now dubbed The British Invasion, these bands returned home along with some of the counterculture ideals of the US. They started to include rebellious motives in their music. One example is the song “Revolution” by the Beatles, in which the lyrics sought to implant notions of dissent and insurrection against the authorities. Messages from their music were interpreted badly by both fans and the media, who only captured the romantic aspects of hippie culture i.e. the drugs, drinking, sex and misunderstanding of the back-to-the-land movement. British newspapers branded these consumers as being “dirty, idle, promiscuous drug users.” Common articles surrounding the hippies often contain images of nude, long-haired men who grace the streets of Britain without any purpose, with frequent uses of labels like “degrading”, “daft” and “hopeless” in media outlets. The hippie culture in Britain were not representing the whole movement in a good light because of the mere adoption of a select few values that they themselves cherry picked. News outlets were quick to pounce on the acts of a minority of the hippies in the UK and quickly painted an inaccurate picture of them because of the nature of media as a result of deviancy. Completely overlooking the movement as a whole, the misrepresentations of the hippies in the UK found its way back to America, fuelling the fire in which the hippies would soon be regarded as radicals without control.

Transgressions

Transgression in countercultures typically translates to rebellion. The actions that determine a transgression is its opposition to dominant powers and hegemonic constructs (Foust, 2010). These youth were stirred to fight for peace as a result of fears from bureaucratised academic institutions by way of expressing their feelings and thoughts through emblems, performances and the consumption of products that spoke their anger and discontent. Despite the negative reception provided by society, the ideology continued to brew under the guise of the media’s outlook of them. Establishing headquarters in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, they needed a catalyst to propel their movement onto the national stage. With the flooding of youth to the Bay Area in support of the development of hippies, it signalled the height of the 60s, by this time proclaimed The Summer of Love (Begaja, 2014). The hippies continued to congregate in major events, starting in 14 January 1967 with the Human Be-in: A gathering of youth from all over the United States, hippie pioneers ranging from psychologist Timothy Leary, poets Allen Ginsberg and many local rock music acts like Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. The Human Be-in was the first of many transgressions for the hippies. According to Jencks (2003), to transgress in to not only go beyond the limits of a set of commandments and laws, but also to announce the commandment. Which means it is both an act of denial and affirmation. The event was first proposed to combat the new law to ban the use of LSD in the state of California effective 6 October 1966. This was seen as an act of defiance but at the same time, an opportunity to assert and solidify their beliefs regarding the use of conscience-expanding drugs. The event propelled them into a nationwide audience and gave them the chance to impose their belief on a bigger stage.

The 1960s was generally a state of political unrest, mostly attributed to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Hippies saw mainstream authority as the root source of social issues, which included the war. The Flower Power movement was born. The movement was based on the subculture’s opposition to the war, and the slogan “flower power” was declared as a symbol of non-violence throughout the decade. The movement was first conjured up by Beat Generation pioneer and poet Allen Ginsberg. While organising a protest march against the Vietnam War in Berkeley in 1965, Ginsberg’s objective was to ensure that the demonstration remained a peaceful one as originally planned. He proposed the use of flowers as a visual spectacle, banking on the flowers naturally passive appearance to diffuse any possible tensions built up during their demonstrations. As seen in the above picture, a demonstrator is handing out flowers to riot police as a sign of passivity and peace: a part of Ginsberg’s strategy to simultaneously disarm opponents and influence thought. The flower power movement inspired many of the counterculture era’s aesthetics, with the popularisation and eventual commercialisation of brightly coloured tie-dyed clothing with flower patterns, design of their camper vans and the countless murals in Haight-Ashbury. Other than just aesthetics however, it welcomed accompaniments in the opposition of hegemonic constructs. One example was the peace symbol. Originally used as part of a campaign for nuclear disarmament, its popularity alongside the flower power movement has made the sign synonymous with opposition against the Vietnam War. This was contrary to the media’s depiction of them at the time. Failing to mention their positive and largely humanitarian efforts during the 1960s, emphasis was placed on the uglier aspects of the hippies, which were easier to sensationalise and generally more newsworthy.

Psychedelic and Rock-and-Roll music has been a staple among the hippie community. The growing popularity of music icons played an integral role in the development of hippie culture. Musicians include home grown acts like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Credence Clearwater Revival and bands as part of the famous British Invasion of the US like The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. These performers were key in spreading counterculture ideals, mostly in the lyrics of their songs and sometimes even through legendary performances. The Woodstock music festival of 1969 brought together a gathering of nearly 500,000 people and some of the world’s most prominent artists. Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music”, it was another one of the hippies’ major transgressions in their stance for peace. One notable performance however was during the last set on the third day. Jimi Hendrix’s composition of the US anthem Star Spangled Banner attracted the attention of a nationwide audience. Noted for his experimental and unorthodox use of guitar electrics, he simulated explosions and gunfire while playing, intending to signify the death and destruction of the Vietnam War. The song was hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as the new anthem for non-violence and opposition to the War (Martoccio, 2019). His performance as well as the whole of the Woodstock festival reached a global audience, and is considered one of the most important and iconic events in music history. However, the 3 day music festival also exposed the dark side of hippie culture. The event and the organisers encountered a slew of issues, primarily due to overcrowding. What was supposed to be a show for 100000 people, poor organization of the event lead to an excess of 500000. This caused a variety of problems from improper sanitation, food supplies and overall insufficient space. The darkest point however, involved the death of a teenage party-goer. According to an article in The Times Herald-Record by Tiber (1994), 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was runover by a tractor clearing the portable toilets while he was in his sleeping bag. He was covered in piles of soaked garbage and sleeping bags on the morning of the second day. The media continued to report and sensationalise these aspects of the festival, and it contributed to the eventual downfall of the hippies.

Decline of the Hippies

Despite what seemed like a movement on the up, its reputation as an expanding youth subculture was short-lived. In 1967, a mock funeral was led by a group of radical activists called the Diggers in Haight-Ashbury. The march, dubbed “The Death of the Hippie”, was an attempt to raise awareness of the dangers of the hippies prone to commercialisation as a result of their aesthetic. This would be in direct violation of one of their central tenets promoting anti-consumerist behaviour. According to Liberatore, it would signal the end of the Summer of Love and what is realistically a social experiment that lasted a decade. Many other factors contributed to the fall of the movement. The use of drugs and ideologies of sexual liberation was abused. In the fall of 1967, there was a considerable number of drug induced rapes and criminal activity. However, the most defining aspect of their downfall would be the media, or in this case the lack thereof. One of the core factors was the Hippies was its opposition to the Vietnam War and was what held them together. When tensions between the US and Vietnam softened and eventually drew the conflict to a close in 1975, many members of the movement found themselves aimless. Peaceful protests and other hippie related activities dissipated. The idleness of the movement gradually drew less attention from the media and therefore affected its presence as a subculture. Their movement by then only existed in the presence of American mainstream culture, as the hopes preventing their commercialisation was at an end. Although some committed to the lifestyle, most of them assimilated into the society they once detested. At the turn of the 1980s, they were considered by many a dying breed of political rebels.

Conclusion

In many ways, it is easy to regard the hippie movement as an emotionally charged attempt to express the prejudice of a minority of people who were against the motives of a hegemonic social construct. However, it can be argued that the core tenets of the movement was ultimately birthed based on the idea of world peace. Their belief in the use of conscience-expanding drugs like marijuana and LSD, the ideology behind free love and their opposition of human conflicts like the Vietnam War has inspired many American in a fight for peace and fairly draws praise for attempting to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Their perception however was severely skewed by the media, whom perceived hippies to be classic folk devils by the fabrications of moral panics as a result of their deviant behaviour, and highlighted mostly negative newsworthy occurrences to symbolise a hedonistic lifestyle. Although still a considered the most iconic and significant youth subculture movement during the 1960s, misrepresentations of the entire subculture as a result of media biasness has led to their eventual downfall.

14 May 2021

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