Seeing the Music Circus revival of the rock musical “Hair” last week (see E. Haig’s review, also posted at 51c.fcf.myftpupload.com today) got me thinking about all the counter-culture issues that are depicted in the show. In the almost fifty years since Gerome Ragni and James Rado attempted to capture the idealism and revolutionary spirit of their generation in their musical, much has changed in American society and much hasn’t.
Here’s where I think we are now compared to where we were then (circa 1968) on the issues that mattered so much to those of us who lived through that era.
Vietnam – Richard Nixon was elected as an anti-war candidate in 1968, or at least that’s how he sold himself to the electorate, claiming he had a secret plan to end the war. That plan was Vietnamization, which saw U.S. forces gradually reduced from the high point of 550,000 when Nixon took office. With the signing of the peace treaty in 1973, the last U.S. troops left the country. Two years later Vietnam was united as the South surrendered to the North.
The U.S. stayed out of another shooting war for seventeen years (discounting minor engagements in Grenada and Lebanon during the Reagan administration). Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait led to the first Gulf war; 9/11 led to the war in Afghanistan; and George W. Bush, clearly no student of history, initiated the war in Iraq.
Student protests against any of those conflicts have been nearly non-existent, suggesting that Dubya wasn’t the only one who learned nothing from the debacle of Vietnam.
Civil rights – Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated the week that “Hair” opened on Broadway. His struggle has moved forward, to be sure. Miscegenation, for example, was still prevalent in 1968, with many states only having had their laws against inter-racial marriage declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court a year earlier.
Today, pockets of the country today still harbor bigoted attitudes. In parts of the rural south, the Ku Klux Klan still exists. The recent police killings of black men in cities throughout the country confirm the belief that to be black in America one has to abide by a different code of conduct. And voter suppression laws, while they may be politically motivated, have the clear effect of reducing black enfranchisement.
Black power is no longer the code for the most radical elements of the civil rights movement, but in the current “Black Lives Matter” protests, there are tinges of the same desire to find acceptance and equality. That young white people seem to be less than fully engaged in the cause is not the legacy that the young people of the “Hair” generation would have wanted.
Of course, the major thrust in civil rights in recent years has been for equality for the LGBT community, and in that area, clear advances have been made that would make the attitudes prevalent in 1968 appear almost incomprehensible. The closest identification with homosexuality in “Hair” is in the semi-comical portrayal of Woof, who is madly in love with the image of Mick Jagger. Yes, we’ve certainly come a long way in that particular struggle.
Sexual liberation – The outbreak of AIDS certainly put a crimp in the new attitudes about sex that grew out of the anti-establishment tenor of the times. It just wasn’t all that healthy to be promiscuous when your sex partner might be infected with a communicable disease that would kill you if you caught it. That fear has been largely eliminated with the drug cocktails that have been developed to fight HIV, but I’m told that condoms or other forms of protection are still de rigueur for casual mating.
Even so, the old mores and taboos that the sexual revolution sought to destroy are largely rejected by most young people today. At least that would be my assessment, what with “hooking up” even passé for many. The new catch phrases might be, “if it feels good, do it”; “if it looks good, go for it.” And while the right to marry has been a big deal for the gay community, straight Americans seem much more concerned about their right to un-marry or not to get married at all.
Sexism – Women have definitely come a long way in the last five decades. Then, the thought of a woman making a serious run for the presidency was pretty much a dream and little more. Women had barely started to hold major positions in large corporations. Law schools and medical schools were scantily populated with female students. Women still suffer from unequal pay in many corporate positions, but the glass ceiling has been cracked if not shattered.
Religion – Fewer Americans subscribe to traditional religions now than ever before, which marks a sharp turn from the attitudes prevalent in 1968. The Hare Krishna phase came and went. Ditto the nothingness of Zen. Catholicism is dominant on the Supreme Court (where six of the sitting Justices are practicing Catholics), but it is far less popular in the rest of the country.
Non-belief is still a political third rail, but the numbers of non-believers (especially when coupled with the “nones” and “decline-to-states”) may be creeping towards a significant percentage, if not the majority, of the religious identities recognized in the country.
At the same time, religious fundamentalism is still strong in parts of the country, so strong, in fact, that the anti-abortion movement (largely fueled by religious convictions) is successfully pushing for restrictive legislation in many states.
The environment – Earth Day was a quaint way to recognize the desirability of protecting the environment, but the movement it was supposed to spawn was pretty much a flop. At some point, global warming became a legitimate concern, but the backlash against it was intense. Now we talk about “climate change” and note the ever increasing world-wide temperatures and the melting glaciers. Meanwhile the rain forests continue to disappear at alarming rates, more and more species are declared endangered, if not extinct, and water is becoming a commodity more precious, and in some regions far less plentiful, than oil.
Drugs – Marijuana acceptance is gaining slowly but steadily in mainstream America, but use of it has largely been either accepted as a basic rite of passage for young people or is largely ignored in favor of the newer synthetics or the heavier old standbys like cocaine, meth, and heroin.
But make no mistake, alcohol is still the prime drug of choice for most Americans, and where beer commercials in 1968 were largely limited to Budweiser and Miller Lite, now Sam Adams alone offers upwards of 80 different brews. Wine drinking has also become a major economic driver, with wineries cropping up in every nook and valley.
Hair – Long hair was stylish for a while; now it’s returned to counter-culture status. Fashion is in; retro is out. Today’s version of a hippie, if there is such a thing, is far more likely to have tattoos all over his or her body than to be concerned about the length of his or her hair.
Fashion – At the height of the Vietnam protests, it was hip to wear Army fatigues and jeans with peace symbols on them. You don’t much of that anymore, unless one of the hot spots like Urban Outfitters are carrying something akin to those togs with a designer label.
Rock – Call me an old timer, and by my chronological age I certainly qualify as one, but the era of “classic rock” has passed into the realm of golden oldies. In its place, we have the second or third generation of hip hop, and the fourth or fifth iteration of glam rock and its ilk. The legacy of the sixties rock scene may have reached its zenith in the mid-70s with groups like Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Steely Dan and Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders and solo artists like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.
Since then, as with much of the idealistic passion of the Hair generation, it’s been pretty much all downhill.