3. America’s Counterculture: Sex, Drugs, and Progressive Rock

The counterculture of the 1960s is one of the most iconic eras of American history, rife with hippies, psychedelic drugs, and progressive rock. The characteristic notions of non-conformity, peace promotion, and increased student protesting that define this period reside in its origins of the beatnik movement of the 1950s, popularized by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The beatnik’s affinity for jazz, poetry, and romantic anarchism directly influenced the  anti-war retaliation of American counterculture largely united by opposition to the war in Vietnam. The role of music within counterculture is undeniable, further uniting participants of the movement with the unapologetic political undercurrents of psychedelic and folk rock, with leaders such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Despite this strong sense of identity and yearning for progress and equality among its followers, the music industry surrounding counterculture still manifested traditional, sexist notions of gender and femininity, marginalizing women and dictating musical styles, clothing choices, and even sexuality. In contrast with past depictions of women in music, such as the “gold-digger” archetype of the 1930s or the perfect icon of womanhood popularized in the 1940s, Sheila Whiteley describes women in popular music of the 1960s idealized as “romanticized fantasy figures, subservient earth mothers, or easy lays.” As I discussed in my article concerning 1930’s popular constructions of women in music, the “goddess” imagery was proliferated throughout lyrics of the time period, yet in the 1960s it is modified to take on a more magical, mystical, and otherworldly image as opposed to a “goddess” of the home. Take Joan Baez, for example, who is consistently pictured with long undone hair parted down the middle and no makeup, characterizing her natural beauty as the embodiment of the”earth mother”archetype and reflecting the societal expectations and ideals of the 1960s. Her concert in 1965 (link included below) demonstrates the acceptable notions of femininity in popular music, with Joan’s distinct, not overly zealous or crazed style, but rather a meek, humble, and talented performance that highlights her natural voice and beauty, an attractive aspect for women of the time period. Baez sings traditional, folk music and wears modest clothing with simple hair, makeup, and jewelry, further enforcing a traditional notion of women as upright, virtuous, and wholesome “goddesses.” The immense popularity, as seen in the featured concert of the video, showcases the public’s willingness to adopt and promote Baez’s projection of beauty within the realm of popular music.

Listen to Joan’s concert here, 1965

The feminine imagery of the counter culture traveled from the outskirts of culture and into the mainstream, as exemplified by the pop group the Mamas and the Papas. The group’s style choices directly reflect the characteristic “hippie” clothing of the era, with bell-bottom jeans, floral prints, and psychedelic patterns, taking underrepresented values and messages and proliferating them throughout popular media, generating new notions of normalcy. Cass Elliot, of the Mamas and the Papas, is an example of a prominent female cultural figure of the 1960s manipulated by gender norms and pressures within the music industry, specifically regarding her weight. Being a heavyset woman in the midst of the promotion of the slender, boyish figure of the 1960s, audiences coped with Cass Elliot’s anomaly of a character in popular music by giving her the nickname, “Mama Cass.” The utilization of the motherly colloquialism, a name not given to her female co-singer Michelle Philips, accepts Elliot into the mainstream media by depicting her within the boundaries of motherhood and traditional femininity. While the sexual revolution of the 1960s increased the amount of tolerance surrounding the conversation of sexuality and sexualization, it was only within certain societal limits and ideals. If the woman, such as Elliot, were to proceed out of the standards of idealized feminine beauty, she still wasn’t depicted as herself but yet another social construction of feminine acceptability, in this case a mother. Other stereotypical assumptions about women can be witnessed within the performance of the Mamas and the Papas in the link below, in which the group performs “Monday, Monday.” The song starts out with the two females of the band above the males, displaying how women are constantly placed on a pedestal within the society of the counterculture movement, even in the realm of popular music. Women’s placement in society at this point in time was elevated above males in the cases of motherly figures and wives, reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s. Cass Elliot was personally frustrated with this characterization by the media, even starting her own television show entitled, Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore. The performance showcases the voices and instrumentalist talent of the male musicians, yet keeps the female voices in the background as mere accompaniments to the male performance, yet another sexist tradition within the music industry, exemplified here. Despite these inaccurate and sexist representations of Elliot throughout popular culture, Elliot still manages to represent a progressive female artist in that her contralto voice defied cultural norms, gender-bending her place within the Mamas and the Papas and her influence in writing songs and performing with the band throughout its success.

Michelle Philips, Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, and John Philips, 1966. Listen to the Mamas and the Papas here

Cher was another popular artist of the 1960s that similarly used the iconic look of counter culture within mainstream pop while simultaneously breaking stereotypes of females with her contralto voice and individualistic attitude, most notably within the group Sonny and Cher. While she employed traditional beauty ideals, she is pictured below sporting some of the counterculture styles, such as the long, middle parted hair, and the psychedelic design of her suit in the right picture, popularizing the counterculture agenda and symbolizing its movement to the forefront of political thought and illustrating society’s desire for change.

In my opinion however, Janis Joplin was the most iconic and influential female artist to arise and succeed within the 1960s, the era culminating with her untimely death in 1970. Conventional roles within the music industry still dominated women, discouraging them from instrumentalist and individualistic roles while embracing and encouraging feminine beauty as much as, or more than, musicality. At a period in American history where styles and images within popular music and culture were dictated entirely by males, the introduction of counterculture, progressive rock, and Joplin’s reaction to the two resulted in her breakthrough musical career. An unconventional beauty, Joplin’s physical appearance was constantly harassed and critiqued, critics describing her as, “pimply, puffy” with “frizzy” hair and a heightened sense of sexuality onstage, which even in the time of the sexual revolution was unexpected and unaccepted as appropriate behavior for a woman. An outspoken advocate of sex and sexuality since her time as a college student at the University of Texas, Joplin embodied the counterculture’s ideas of sexual availability within her songs and singing style. Her role as a bisexual female within the 1960s led to the more outspoken nature of variant sexualities within the 1970s. Joplin’s heightened sense of sexuality and her origins within blues directly led her to the world of rock, where promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol were embraced by men and a few women, such as Joplin. Joplin combined the intimacy of her affiliation with blues with the independence of rock to ultimately create her signature style, exemplified within her song “Piece of My Heart” from the album Cheap Thrills, in which the Joplin proudly declares, “But I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.” Another highly significant element of the counterculture that Joplin adopted was the drug culture, specifically heroin. An important and integral characteristic of the hippie lifestyle, Joplin’s relationship with heroin ultimately led her to her death as well as her permanent and immediate status as a rock legend and icon, adding a dimension of mystery and controversy to her already progressive identity. The New York Times article describing her death closely associates her with fellow drug overdose victim Jimi Hendrix, displaying how her identity as a female musician could never be separated from associations with males, even at the very end of her life. The article describes her as “flailing”, “shrieking,” and one who enjoyed being “inebriated,” perfectly illustrating the masculine and imperfect nature with which the media perceived her and her performances. Her death, however, has been advantageous in testifying against the dangers and self-indulgence of counterculture, proving the egregiousness of sex, drugs, and progressive rock. Despite this manipulation and half-story of Joplin’s life, Joplin’s innovative music styles, outspokenness, direct challenge of gender ideals within the music industry, and fierce sense of sexuality and individuality are all redeemable qualities of a commonly misrepresented and misunderstood artist who died before truly realizing the magnitude of her own work.

Read the NY Times article here, 1970
Listen to Janis Joplin’s “To Love Somebody” here







6 thoughts on “3. America’s Counterculture: Sex, Drugs, and Progressive Rock

  1. I don’t think I have ever seen Janis Joplin’s death mentioned without Jimmy Hendrix and the curse of 27 year old musicians being mentioned as well. That is too bad, she was an amazing vocalist.


  2. It had never occurred to me that even during the counterculture movement, women were still seen as secondary citizens to men, and needing to fit certain stereotypes. The hippies promoted the idea that everybody was equal, and I think they really did believe that they were striving to create a truly equal society, and that their sexist stereotypes of women were almost unconscious. That just goes to show how deeply rooted those stereotypes were, though.


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