It feels like, every seven years or so, some symbol of the ‘70s comes back. In 2008: beards, aviators, soft acoustic vocals. In 2016: bell bottoms, layered hair, disco. In 2020, Y2K. And if you ask someone between the ages of 20 and 40 what era they would want to live in, more than likely you’ll get the answer: “the ‘60s. Or, like, the early ‘70s.” What is it that draws us back to this era as this platonic ideal of the “counterculture”? Why are the hippies and yippies like our collective first cultural crush, one who is more a projection of a fantasy than a person?
Although they weren’t the first, the baby boomers made the language of the counterculture popular. It was about the “them” vs. the “us.” The “suits” vs. the “stoners.” Few have put it more bluntly than Jerry Rubin did in 1970: “America says: Don’t! The yippies say: Do it!...Whenever we see a rule, we must break it. Only by breaking rules do we discover who we are.” In other words, the identity of the counterculture exists as a response to another identity it has chosen to reject. If you’re not breaking rules like one of us, you can get the fuck out and go work for Haliburton.
This divide manifested itself clearly in the clothing and art of the time. You were either with us or against us, and it was easy to tell who was who.
Today, the line between the “them” and the “us” is still very much there, but the symbols used to differentiate between the two are not as clear-cut. Dad listens to Young Thug and mom has a TikTok. White people get dreads.
It makes sense why we look back to the ‘70s, when the youth were free, and the adults were hawkish, whiskey-drinking assholes. There wasn’t much room to mix.
Mick Jagger had yet to transform into the world’s grooviest skeleton. There were no Rachel Dolezals. To understand how this happened, it’s important to look at the life cycle of countercultures. Joseph Heath (Nation of Rebels) states that every counterculture is in a constant state of cyclical motion under the following steps:
- The movement is born.
- The movement forms its foundations.
- The movement gets absorbed into the mainstream.
- The movement gives birth to a new movement in response to itself.
- The movement dies out.
Of note is the time between steps two and three. Heath describes the absorption of the counterculture into the mainstream as a process that happens gradually, as corporations are filled with members of the counterculture, and the core of the movement eventually gets their 401(k)s. You know, the hippies of the ‘60s became the yuppies of the ‘80s.
A few things are happening that have changed this. First, when it comes to the images and symbols of the counterculture, Heath’s process occurs unbelievably fast. If a person has a new look, makes a revolutionary image or designs an object that is truly unique, because brands have a constant eye on the content we are putting out, they are only one degree of separation from mass culture.
Second, mass culture is more open to appropriating the image of the counterculture, almost immediately, even if this means erasing the subversive nature that the symbol was trying to achieve. As Andrew Potter put it, “The counterculture is no longer a threat to the system.” And as Marc Bain of Quartz put it, “Cool is an act of rebellion you can buy.”
So now we’re in a world where Bagel Bites makes dank memes. Rihanna wears underground NYC fashion labels that were started weeks before. Calvin Klein rockets radical rappers into fame overnight. Chipotle has a gay pride float, equipped with giant burrito, a phalanx of strippers and the phrase “so big you can ride it.” With constant social media updates and surveillance, the image of a counterculture is absorbed into the main culture even before it has found its foundations.
Without that distinction, the counterculture struggles to find an image that they feel ownership of, that they feel lives outside of marketing. This is not to say that we don’t live in a time of very real social change and division. However, the iconography of the subversive now can be immediately appropriated by the very structure the counterculture is trying to subvert.