From our perspective at the close of the 20th century, it seems that everything in history happens three times; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the third as a theme park. Thus, the Woodstock Nation greeted this summer’s announcement that the hallowed ground of Yasgur’s farm was to be turned into a performing arts center, complete with state-of-the-art amphitheaters, lifestyle shops and first-class bathroom facilities with a fatalistic shrug. For the counterculture, this was the final insult.
Thomas Frank tells us he’s too young to remember much about the ‘60s. So he writes in “The Conquest of Cool” that "[i]t was and remains difficult to distinguish precisely between authentic counterculture and fake. . . . Its heroes were rock stars and rebel celebrities, millionaire performers and employees of the culture industry; its greatest moments occurred on television, on the radio, at rock concerts, and in movies.” Was the counterculture “co-opted” as its veterans claim? Or was it just “a colorful installment in the 20th century drama of consumer subjectivity?” It is time, he figures, “to hold the beloved counterculture to the harsh light of historical and economic scrutiny.”
This is perhaps a bit melodramatic. There is, in fact, no shortage of scrutiny of the counterculture, much of it harsh indeed. For the right, the upheavals of the decade represent the disastrous wrong turn that eroded the very foundations of Western civilization. For the left, the period is little more than an albatross or an occasion for revisionist memoirs, providing even the faithful with neither guidance for the future nor comfort in the present. “Baby boomer” is now a code name for every kind of noxious personality trait: self-absorption, self-indulgence, disloyalty, irresponsibility, covetousness, wastefulness, arrogance, narcissism. Of course, boomers still thrive in the marketplace; the self-absorbed and covetous always do. But boomer history already has been pretty much discredited as either a mistake or a fraud.
Yet the traditions of this “dead generation” weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Except that, for Frank and his contemporaries, the nightmare isn’t metaphorical; it is the three-dimensional dreamscape of contemporary consumer culture, the world of virtual reality rides, lifestyle stores and branded experiences. “The Conquest of Cool” and “Commodify Your Dissent,” a collection of essays from the journal the Baffler, of which Frank is editor in chief, are calls to wake from that nightmare.
Created in 1988 by Frank and Keith White, the Baffler began as a “cultcrit” equivalent of a garage band. Its original “20-nothing” cri de coeur has since given way to a journal grappling with the possibility (or is it impossibility?) of politics in a post-political age. Both volumes under review here are attempts by the Baffler staff to answer the question posed in the title of a Frank essay from “Commodify Your Dissent”: “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent.”
“The Conquest of Cool” is the answer from a historical perspective. Seeking the origins of the countercultural critique, Frank finds them not on the campus or in the commune but in the business management books and ad agency creative departments of the 1950s. In the business world Frank sees a “parallel revolution,” a revolt against the constraints of scientific management and creativity-killing rules that would find echoes in Jerry Rubin and Herbert Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man.” Indeed, by Frank’s own account, the book’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Business didn’t conquer the counterculture. It invented it.
It was advertising, not the underground press, that first gave voice to Americans’ dissatisfaction with the confining conformity of the Organization Man’s world. More specifically, it was an ad campaign devised in 1959 for Volkswagen by the agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach. Here was an ugly little car whose selling point was that it was an ugly little car, without the bombastic tail fins and techno-gewgaws of the cars rolling off the Detroit assembly lines. It was practical, unpretentious, different: a critique of mass consumerism that you could buy.
The man behind the Volkswagen ads, Bill Bernbach, is venerated in the ad business as the main architect of the Creative Revolution, as the industry dubbed the overthrow of its methods and conventions during the 1960s. But he was also, possibly, mass culture’s most successful critic. Frank credits Bernbach with providing “the answer to the problems of consumer society: more consuming.” In the wake of DDB’s phenomenal success, the ad business grasped the key to the market’s expansions, “a hip consumerism driven by disgust with mass society itself.”
In taking on the critique of mass society, the ad exec was transformed from “the most craven species of American businessman to the coolest guy on the commuter train,” according to Frank. As they gathered speed, you couldn’t tell the copywriters from the hippies. Consider Volkswagen campaign veteran George Lois, romantic and anarchist, who created the indelible image of Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian for Esquire and penned lines for his client the Herald Tribune such as “Shut up, whites, and listen.” Or Charlie Moss of Wells, Rich, Greene, whose fright-wig Afro and see-through flowered shirts brought the right touch of unfettered creativity to client meetings.
But fellow travelers such as Lois or Moss were not the only ones who embraced the youth revolution. By the latter years of the decade, virtually every product was being pitched in psychedelic-colored ads that promised nonconforming consumers freedom, authenticity and self-expression. (A quantitative “hipness index,” which Frank includes in an appendix, shows that by 1970, almost 80% of the appliance ads appearing in Ladies Home Journal were “hip.”) Business had found in the youth rebellion, with its inexhaustible appetite for the new and authentic, a “cultural perpetual motion machine.” In the name of hipness, marketers fomented a permanent revolution, extending from Volkswagen ads to the onslaught of the “Dodge Rebellion” to the random acts of coolness promoted in today’s Levi’s ads.
What does all this say about Frank’s “precious counterculture”? Once he starts out on his business history, Frank never returns to it. Having documented hipness in advertising, he plunges back into the magazine archives to do the same for the so-called Peacock Revolution, the sweeping change in the men’s clothing industry that introduced into men’s fashion the enduring marketing idea of obsolescence along with the more ephemeral Nehru suit. These chapters make “The Conquest of Cool” longer without adding anything new to the book’s arguments. The work began as a doctoral dissertation, and Frank never quite draws the larger conclusions that would have turned it into a book, content instead to simply prove his thesis that hip is capitalism’s official style.
The truth is, Frank isn’t really interested in the counterculture. He is interested in his own condition as a dissident in a culture in which disaffection is a kind of conformity, a condition he traces to the great ‘60s partnership between expansionist capitalism and rebellious consumers. His judgment of the period is no less harsh: The ‘60s counterculture was worse than a fraud; it was a mirage.
The result is a portrait of the counterculture in the image of Frank and his comrades: dissenting youth thwarted by a marketplace that preempts their every transgression. The counterculture wanted to rebel, but its rebellion only reinforced the society it was in protest against. What makes these pathetic boomer saps so contemptible is that, unlike contemporary youth, they didn’t even know it.
What is implied in “The Conquest of Cool” receives full-throated expression in “Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos From the Baffler,” co-edited with Matt Weiland. The Baffler’s creators named the magazine in mocking tribute to the baffling rhetoric of postmodern academe, which is as obsessed with the consumer as a brand manager, and in it, they unconditionally seize control of their texts: the better to make their antipathies--business culture, postmodernism, the ‘60s--clear. “And when the partisans of corporate-sponsored transgression responded by labeling us both reactionary elitists and a bunch of Reds,” write the editors of “Commodify Your Dissent” in the introduction, “we knew we had hit the interpretive jackpot.” This volume’s publication indicates that they’re right.
As would be expected, the collection features a lot of howling at target-marketed youth culture deviance, designed to exhaust itself in the purchase of the right beer or jeans or CD. And the boomers, of course, get theirs. (“You find we are lacking in idealism, but in fact all we are really missing is your farcical public display of disillusionment.”) Frank himself, whose name appears on six pieces in the collection, is, as his own book would suggest, fairly obsessed with his fate as prisoner of boomer history. But obsession often makes for good prose. In these essays, Frank pours outrage and disgust with a rhetorical inventiveness at which the scholarly sobriety of “The Conquest of Cool” only hints.
These angry plaints, although fun to read, are the most dated pieces in the collection, as well as easiest to tar with the Gen-X brush. The list of celebs and institutions that come under the Baffler’s withering scrutiny--Details and Wired magazines, Quentin Tarantino, Pearl Jam, the Beat revival and soul sisters Madonna and Camille Paglia--is in its own way as predictable as the parade of Conde Nast cover boys and Time magazine-certified cultural outlaws that the journal so relentlessly mocks.
Over time, however, Baffler editors and writers began looking at the corroding effects of business culture that are even worse than its valorization of sucky pseudo-rebellious rock bands. One essayist, Bill Boisvert, brings the management revolution into the present in “Apostles of the New Entrepreneur.” In “Lotteryville, U.S.A.,” Kim Phillips links the regressive tax of state-sponsored games of chance to cities’ surrender to business interests. In “Revolt of the Nice,” Tom Vanderbilt takes readers on a tour of the Edge City phenomenon, the business-free zones along the freeway where office towers, malls and gated communities thrive beyond the meddling interference of civic government.
This kind of analysis does not lead to a happy ending. Frank’s “Dark Age,” the book’s closing blast, is an anguished contemplation of what he calls the “Cultural Miracle” perpetrated by a metastasizing marketplace that defangs any attempt to rationally contain it. In this essay, it is not just rebellion that has become unrealizable but also politics, history and reason. “Denunciation is becoming impossible,” he grimly concludes. “We will be able to achieve no distance from business culture since we will no longer have a life, a history, a consciousness apart from it. . . . It is putting itself beyond our power of imagining because it has become our imagination, it has become our power to envision, and describe, and theorize, and resist.”
This judgment is dire, but it is not exaggerated. Cutting-edge thinkers in today’s ad agencies, as dedicated as ever to disruption without end, no longer even talk about revolution. These days, the fashionable metaphors are borrowed from biology and Darwinism: Creative breakthroughs are now mutations, a brand’s identity is its DNA and culture spreads, not by marketplace consent but like a virus that rips through the population until the antibodies (i.e., boredom) kick in. Against this organic process, as inevitable as nature and just as thoughtless, the angry and plain-speaking writing of “Commodify Your Dissent” provides an invigorating inoculation.