The Life and Death of the Hippie: A Dance with the Devil and the Media
The media has always had a strong propensity to influence our opinions and behaviors, creating and destroying public images for hundreds of years. For many, the media is seen as a representation of reality, an interpretation and understanding of cultures, sub-cultures, issues and ideas, however, this is no longer an acceptable approach for engaging with and evaluating what we now know to be such a powerful aspect of our society. It is not merely commentary, but in many cases, the media plays an active role in the construction, and at times deconstruction, of political and social issues, which is exactly what happened with the hippie “movement” of the late 1960s. Through historical contextualization, and a close analysis of primary and secondary texts, this paper explores the various ways that advertising, magazine publications like TIME, the music industry, and other literary publications accelerated the liquidation of the anti-consumerist, social-political community that took San Francisco by storm. To this day, the perception of the “hippie” identity has undergone significant changes -- some true to their ideology, and others not -- in a dangerous dance with mass media that illustrates the active power of these various channels.
The media has always had a strong propensity to influence our opinions and behaviors, creating and destroying public images for hundreds of years. For many, the media is seen as a representation of reality, an interpretation and understanding of cultures, sub-cultures, issues and ideas, however, this is a naïve approach to such a powerful aspect of our society. It is not merely commentary, but in many cases, the media plays an active role in the construction, and at times deconstruction, of political and social issues, which is exactly what happened with the hippie “movement” of the late 1960s. Through advertising, magazine articles, the music industry and other literary publications, the media accelerated the liquidation of the anti-consumerist, social-political community that took San Francisco by storm. To this day, the perception of the “hippie” identity has undergone significant changes -some true to their ideology, and others not - in a dangerous dance with mass media that illustrates the active power of these various channels.
The ideology of the hippie culture was a bi-product of the Beat generation, known for literary figures such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlenghetti.1 The Beat, or Beatnick, culture was born in the West Village of New York City, where they indulged in Jazz, drinks, drugs and casual sex.2 Although their behavior was seemingly careless, they were nonetheless intellectuals and their choice to partake in such activities was not without reason. The Beats rejected consumerist culture and found no satisfaction in what would come to be known as the “straight” life, much like the hippies. Ginsberg’s most famous, and notably most influential work, Howl, opens with the lines,
In fact, founding member of the Diggers,4 Peter Berg attributes his first reading of Howl as the match that sparked the flame of his belief in what would become the hippie generation: the moment that “did it”5 for him. Ginsberg’s poem is directly aligned with the Beat ideology, expressing the loss of a generation and a need for, as Berg says it, “experience,” a concept that easily translated into the foundation of the hippie “movement.” This idea of experience is deeply embedded in many Beat works, especially On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. The need for travel, greatly inspired by Kerouac’s novel, and the rejection of the American, mass-produced, cookie-cutter lifestyle of the 50s, all lead to a lifestyle breaking away from the constrictions of society, and a larger need for fulfillment derived from experience.
The need for travel, greatly inspired by Kerouac’s novel, and the rejection of the American, mass-produced, cookie-cutter lifestyle of the 50s, all lead to a lifestyle breaking away from the constrictions of society, and a larger need for fulfillment derived from experience.
In the early 1960s, the northern Californian embracement of the New York Beat culture led to a transition of the movement from the Big Apple to San Francisco, namely the North Beach district. However, the raise in property values of the North Beach district forced certain groups of this artistic and literary culture to re-locate, and they found their new home in the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury.6 By 1966, Haight-Ashbury became a haven for the hippie experiments, an area in which small communities rejected consumerism, lived in large groups of people, and emphatically believed in the importance of “doing your own thing.” This emphasis on independence and individual identity would not lend itself to the characterization of a “movement,” but the need to define what was going on in the American youth-culture led the media to classify it as such. Through the establishment of a “movement,” the media inadvertently created something to either be agreed with, or disagreed with, inciting tension between society and these individuals. In 1969, professor John Robert Howard wrote,
Howard’s characterization of the hippie ideology is an accurate, but academic one. The general conception of the hippie in mass media was not nearly as forgiving and was undoubtedly more condescending. Though there were conflicting ideas about what the hippie culture stood for,8 they were most frequently talked about in terms of their behavior and drug use. TIME Magazine wrote multiple compelling articles attempting to uncover and explain the “movement” that was taking America by storm.9 But throughout the first 11-page spread published in July of 1967,10 there appeared a current of disdain and disregard. The economic effects of the hippie experiments in Haight-Ashbury increased drug-usage in the area, and lowered property values, affecting the economic status of the neighborhood. For those not directly involved in the counter-culture, this kind of activity was bad news, providing an economic motive for the disapproval and negative spin vocalized by TIME.
Although much of the negativity in the article is subtly placed through word selection and the introduction of unnecessary information, other addresses are more direct, and the disregard for the seriousness of the movement is blatant. The first slight appears within the third paragraph, beginning,
When discussing the hippie-ideology, TIME Magazine dismissed the organic thought behind the motivation of the “movement,” implying that it is a culture and a set of beliefs originating from a drug experience. By referring to the “unreality” of hippiedom, it negates that there is anything substantial about the ideology. Although it is undeniable that drug use was a significant aspect of the culture, TIME refers only to these actions as definitive, removing the ideas from the equation. The drugs are placed first and the ideas second, in a “this is a bi-product of that” kind of scenario.
Sociologists like Howard would argue that this was not the case and that the “drugs-ideas” relationship was more symbiotic, not merely action-reaction. The importance of this distinction is not in understanding the hippie ideology, but how it is represented via mass media. By pronouncing that the origins of the “movement” do not stem from original thought, but are merely drug-induced conceptions of how to live one’s life, TIME discredited the authority of the hippies within its first published page.
Conversely, although TIME seems to relate nearly every aspect of the article to drugs, the portrait it paints of psychedelics is awesome.12 After introducing the popularization of the word “psychedelic,” TIME goes on to describe the effects of hallucinogens as a,
To an older audience, this demonstrates the powerful nature of these drugs, specifically LSD, yet to a younger reader it would certainly evoke a more curious response, highlighting the differences in interpretation between generations, a product of the generation gap. Despite the fact that the word “distorted” has negative connotations,14 it is doubtful that the use of this word would overshadow the promise of a “magic-carpet escape,” directly drawing upon fairytale imagery, or “permanently bedazzl(ing)” the imagination. And for a generation facing the Vietnam War, “Ideological verity” seemed the most enticing aspect of all, a promise of truth in a skeptical, confused and damaged era.
For a generation facing the Vietnam War, “Ideological verity” seemed the most enticing aspect of all, a promise of truth in a skeptical, confused and damaged era.
In this paragraph, TIME seems to simultaneously bring the younger reader into the hippie “movement” by glorifying the effects of drugs, what would later prove to be a problem for the hippies15, while furthering the disapproval of the older generations, highlighting the multi-faceted nature of the media with regards to different age groups.
In February of 1971,16 TIME magazine published an article titled “The Cooling of America: Out of Tune and Lost in the Counterculture.” Although they had already published articles announcing the “death” of the hippie, namely “Hippies: Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”17 and, “San Francisco: Wilting Flowers,”18 this article attempted to establish the reasons behind the decimation of the “movement.” TIME asserted that part of the shift away from LSD, and implicitly towards harder drugs such as methedrine19 and heroine, was due to the fact that “rumors linked LSD with chromosomal damage.”20
Unfortunately for them, TIME was partially responsible for perpetuating that rumor. In their summer of 1967 article, when discussing the price of LSD, they stated, “its cost in potential chromosomal damage and long-lasting psychotic aftereffects is much higher”21 than the $2.50 that was being charged in the “Hashbury.”22 Although it could be argued that the use of the word “potential” releases TIME from the responsibility of such a claim, it is more reasonable to infer that the word “potential” lends itself not to whether LSD causes chromosomal damage, but to the possibility that the user could be victim to such damage, implying that it is not rumor, but fact, when it was truly something unknown at that point in time. By helping to re-enforce an idea that aided in the downturn of this culture, it would seem that TIME played an active role in the understanding and survival of hippiedom.
Although the perception of LSD in the media played a part in the transition toward speed and heroine, drug use as a whole was becoming a problem for the hippie culture. As mentioned before, the inability to keep up with supply and demand for marijuana and LSD led to an influx of fake drugs, such as “acid burns”23 or oregano, and people were disinclined to risk losing their money. Stories of people losing their minds on LSD began appearing in publications such as Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and a level of caution arose for some. For those who were not ready to give up drugs altogether, these factors only contributed to the presence and usage of harder, needle-dependent drugs, which caused an increase in venereal diseases. The atmosphere surrounding the culture was beginning to significantly change.Continued on Next Page »