Whatever Happened To Counterculture?

From Mad Men to FKA Twigs, Alex Frank unpacks the week that counterculture went up in coke.

Do you remember when you realized there was such a thing as a counterculture? And realized too that, perhaps, you could join in? I sure don't—culture is murky, and deciding to be a punk or queer or a feminist doesn't necessarily have an enrollment date like college. All I remember are faint rumblings of wanting to rebel as a teen and hoping to find people who wanted to rebel with me. More than a decade later, with a savings account and bourgeois desires for $4 iced coffee, I don't even remember what I was rebelling against: maybe, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, it was just a case of "whaddya got?"

Last week, I was moved almost to tears at a book reading by the wonderful rock critic Jessica Hopper, who knows exactly where and when—to the very song—that she decided to be a punk. Hopper was reading from her new book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, a collection of pieces she has written over the years about everything from Courtney Love to Miley Cyrus, all of which have the passion and unrelenting fervor of a woman who has spent a lifetime being a punk and feminist and queer. The piece she chose to share at the reading was about how she first came to have a political consciousness, admitting that, in fact, she actually came to counterculture through the back door. Hopper was a kid, hoping to impress a group of high school guys by seeming grunge (the important subculture of her era) but she consequently embarrassed herself one day by not recognizing a song by a particular band that all true grunge fans worshipped. Her rejection by the cool grunge guys led to tears, as all youthful rejections do. In her misery, she bought a Kill Rock Stars compilation to in order to listen to Nirvana in the hope she could still be grunge, but instead she stumbled on a track by Bikini Kill, the feminist punk band that helped give a voice to a whole generation of activists. The sound of Kathleen Hanna's piercing voice, she remembered, was like a lightbulb going off her in head. Poof—Hopper had been a grunge phony but all of a sudden she'd become a real riot grrrl. She went on to make feminist zines, trade mixtapes, and attend riot grrrl meetings. Subculture saved her, at least from high school hell, and she found where she belonged. As she read this aloud, my legs quaked. I smiled.

Don Draper was smirking not because of the satisfaction of self-discovery, but because he'd thought of a way to turn enlightenment into a brilliant ad.

By the following Sunday, all those gushy punk feelings I had been feeling were wiped clean when I, along with seemingly everyone else in America, watched the depressing Mad Men finale. By now, you must know that Sunday's episode, the show's finale, hinged on a different kind of smile than the one that Jessica Hopper inspired in me: Don Draper, our decade-long anti-hero, is seen in the final scene smirking with some kind of enigmatic self-satisfying realization. After spending the series navigating the emerging countercultures of 1960s life (beatniks, hippies, Stones fans) and wrestling with his American demons, in the finale we see Draper meditating on a cliff at a hippie commune in California in 1970. He seemed, after seven seasons of soul searching, close to finding some essential truth up there on that hill with a bunch of hippies. Could counterculture save alcoholic, adulterer, and all-round fraud Don Draper, perhaps? But as Draper's smile faded, it was replaced by a Coke commercial, a famous one from 1971 that traded off of hippie sentiment by filming a bunch of beautiful youngsters in folk apparel sharing a Coke. Draper was smirking not because of the satisfaction of self-discovery, but because he'd thought of a way to turn enlightenment into a brilliant ad—just another way to sell things. It's a cruel ending, but a knowing one: show creator Matthew Weiner understood that all of us wanted some kind pay-off, we wanted to believe that Don could grow and discover himself and become good. So he tricked us: he gave us that smile and then he rotted it away by making it about Coke. We got a sugar rush followed by a stomach ache.

Sugar water certainly was in the mix this week: the next night I headed down to Sunset Park in Brooklyn to watch the spectacular FKA Twigs perform at a Red Bull sponsored concert in Brooklyn—and it was as if Don Draper's ad had come to living, breathing life. Except now, soda ads not only ape the counterculture, they literally recruit it. Twigs is, if anyone is, an artist worth believing in. But now one of my key memories of her will always be an ingenious marketing moment brought to me by an even more toxic beverage than Coke. That's ok on its own—good for Red Bull for helping young important artists realize their creative visions, as they have been all month as part of their yearly arts initiative. But so many of the cultural experiences we have are sponsored. So many of my memories will have commercial interruptions. Twigs is a radical: radical in her presentation, radical in her sound, radical in her attitude. This show was particularly potent for its inclusion of a team of incredible voguers, that queer subculture at the very heart of what it means to use art to express something beautiful and ballsy. But what will I tell my proverbial children? I was there when Red Bull and Twigs changed the world? Maybe that's fine.

Sometimes, great power can go hand and hand with great responsibility: this week, news surfaced that Beyoncé and Jay Z spent thousands of dollars bailing out protesters in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray protests; a moment of retroactive solidarity (Bey and Jay didn't march in the streets themselves) but solidarity nonetheless. Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte—two freedom fighting musicians who committed their entire careers to Civil Rights—they are not, but even with billion-dollar careers built on savvy branding, Pepsi cash, and empire creation at its most capitalist, they spent some of their unholy pile of money on something great. It was a shadow of the kind of celebrity involvement that the Civil Rights era inspired, but it still felt good in the shade.

Maybe these days, the point is that you never really are wholly counterculture or wholly bourgeois. Maybe you're always both, constantly oscillating between good and bad, ugly and beautiful, radical and boring, and doing your best with each moment to do the right thing, to win small victories when it feels right to you to fight at all. Twigs weighs her options and makes choices, and so do you. The world is too complicated and expensive to be idealistic or radical in entirety. We find shreds of resistance in music where and when we can, in a Nicki Minaj twerk or a Kanye West rant or Frank Ocean Tumblr post or a nihilistic Lana Del Rey lyric or a defensive Madonna Instagram or a Kathleen Hanna revival. In the past. On television. In a memory that might not even have happened how we remember it.

Coke made a follow-up commercial to their '70s ad in 1991, where one of the original actors, now an adult, tells her own child that she was there when history was made on that beautiful hilltop. That was her youth, so I guess good for her for having fond memories of it and getting paid to rehash it. But I keep thinking: no matter where you were, was there ever a "there" there at all? Maybe it all leads nowhere at all, just to the peak of a hilltop and back down again, with only a fading smirk for a memory of something, anything, wonderful. Maybe I do not remember when I became a rebel because I never really and truly did—I just have random sweet moments when it tasted like the real thing.

Lead image: Screenshot from the finale of AMC's Mad Men: Season 7.

Whatever Happened To Counterculture?