At a trade union convention in Rimini, on the 19th of March 2023, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was faced with a group of protestors singing “Bella Ciao”, widely recognised as the ‘Italian resistance anthem’. Originating in the 19th century, the song has long remained a symbol of public unity and anti-fascism in the country.
The use of music to voice political concerns is not a novel concept. The sphere of music was just as much a catalyst for change in the past as it is in contemporary politics. Due to public interest and its important role in daily life, political issues have often found their way into shaping realms such as the fine arts, fashion, film, literature, and music. It influences the nature of different waves of music– causing the decline of some genres and paving the way for others. One such genre born as a by-product of the political scenario of the psychedelic ‘60s was ‘protest music’. What we often see today from artists such as Childish Gambino or Beyoncè in the form of one-liner political commentaries, took place on a larger and grander scale in the 1960s.
The 1960s were a turbulent decade for American politics to say the least, with the Vietnam War reaching its peak. Ideology was not a strong enough argument to convince Americans that hundreds of thousands of lives were worth losing, especially on foreign land. As a result of this dissatisfaction and the unpopularity of the state’s decisions, the public opinion slowly shifted towards one that largely opposed the war. As anti-establishment beliefs rose higher and higher, the counterculture movement was born.
The counterculture movement, which was spearheaded by the youth, owes its name to its fundamental rejection of existing systems from the past. It can be argued that every rebellious generation is preceded by a ‘conservative’ generation. Substantiating this theory, the older age group of the 1950s possessed rigid ideals regarding how American families and society should function. As a result, the fear of a foreign ideology (communism) which would later fuel the Vietnam War and peak during the Second Red Scare, was an integral characteristic that comprised the identity of any ‘true’ American citizen. To add to the list of differences, they had little inclination towards activism.
Participants, also known as ‘hippies’, defied the aforementioned norms by upholding an alternative ideology that was in disagreement with conscription, and favoured partaking in what the Silent Generation considered an unconventional lifestyle in general. By breaking moulds, the hippies sculpted a new identity and image for themselves and their movement– one which prioritised liberty, love, and peace. As a consequence of such drastic changes, unprecedented contributions from the youth and women helped propel the movement further. Additionally, the hippies expressed their rejection and non-conformity to societal expectations through their prolific use of substances, bohemian fashion choices, a nomadic lifestyle, and their unique taste in music.
The music of the hippies strongly reflected their political opinions; centring around themes of harmony and collective action. Debatably because of the youth’s contribution, protest songs became the focal point of the counterculture movement and the face of the infamous hippies.
“Freedom freedom freedom freedom,
Freedom freedom freedom freedom,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long way from my home…”
Richie Havens, Freedom
(Performed live at Woodstock, 1969)
Besides sonically communicating and advocating for the message of the protestors, music also played a role in catalysingthe counterculture movement in achieving its purpose. “It was not so much about the music; it was about freedom,” said Debra Garvey, an attendee of Woodstock (1969), or as participants like Garvey called it, “three days of peace and love”. Accordingly, music festivals became the ground for strengthening ties between music and politics. First, they acted as forums for protestors to meet each other, and voice their beliefs by engaging in discourse at bonfires and various other activities. Second, it gave attendees the freedom to practice their rituals not only free of judgment but with unyielding encouragement. Third, music festivals legitimized the value of hippies, showcasing their standing presence in the American sphere of politics.
With the assistance of music festivals, the hippies had essentially highlighted deep-rooted problems that plagued the country, which the government desperately attempted to shun by pushing forth the ‘American Dream’.
Music festivals reduced the validity of the ‘American Dream’ which represented equality, liberty and democracy at the time, as the world witnessed the people of a superpower discontented with their own nation’s policies. The fact that the self-proclaimed ‘land of the free’ stripped its citizens of basic civil rights amid the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, second wave of feminism, and the Stonewall riots, was an utter embarrassment. The embarrassment was heightened by how overwhelmed the government was when they were met with pacifism that took form in this emerging genre of music. For instance, the political irony was visible when the hippies sought looser drug laws, while Nixon’s administration introduced stricter legislation, such as the “War on Drugs” in 1969.
Above all else, no music festival, artist, or politician could be on par with the influence of the Beatles in the 1960s. Their musical genius has already been described throughout the decades, but what many, especially in modern times, often fail to comprehend is their political outreach.
The Beatles were unmistakably hippies and central forces in the counterculture movement by 1964. They embraced Eastern cultures, as was common amongst the hippies, and even took a spiritual trip to a hermitage in the northern hills of India in 1968. This distinct identity coupled with their strategies as businessmen heavily contributed to their success and facilitated their seamless integration into mainstream culture.
Furthermore, The Beatles’ appeal to their female fanbase propagated values of the counterculture as it allowed women to express and liberate themselves from the constraints of the stringent 1950s. Women actively attended Beatles events at an unprecedented scale. This could never have happened before, but took place in the liberal environment of the 1960s. The hysteria of fans for The Beatles was coined ‘Beatlemania’, a social phenomenon which further aided in the popularity of The Beatles, and by extension, the hippie movement at large.
Besides The Beatles, artists such as Bob Dylan and Buffalo Springfield also rose to fame during this time period and assisted in weaponizing music to encourage the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War and internal racial segregation. The titles of the song themselves portray the desperate need for reform. Bob Dylan’s 1964 hit, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ for example encapsulates the people’s demand for a shift in the way politics was dealt with, and the youth as the flag bearers of a free and peaceful future. Back in the 1963 Washington March, Bob Dylan himself performed with civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. in attendance.
Various songs chose the approach of explicitly tackling the issue through vivid imagery and descriptions of the battlefront that described the futility of armed conflict. Illustrated by Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 song, ‘For What It’s Worth’. Such songs were blasted everywhere from radios on Capitol Hill to Vietnamese frontlines. The catchy rhythm of the music and simplistic lyrics made it easy to remember and chant in mass gatherings as well as protests. It was an inescapable sign of anti-war sentiments amongst Americans. A tool so powerful that its legacy goes on and manifests itself even in the 21st century.
“John and Yoko, Timmy Leary, Rosemary, Tommy Smothers, Bobby Dylan, Tommy Cooper Derek Taylor, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg
Hare Krishna, Hare, Hare Krishna,
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance”
John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band, Give Peace a Chance (1969)
On 30th April of 1975, tanks of the North Vietnamese Army took over the Presidential Palace in Saigon, ending the Vietnamese War and causing the defeated Americans to retreat. With the end of the Vietnamese War, and the ensuing period of de-escalation of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the hippie movement slowly died down.
Whether or not the counterculture movement directly impacted the Vietnamese War is debatable, but its irrefutable contribution to spreading awareness regarding non-violence and political literacy amongst the general public is more than commendable. Along with creating one of the most recognisable decades in American history aesthetically, the hippies catapulted society into becoming more progressive and fair than it had been before. In terms of culture, the hippies also shaped the identity of an entire generation, influencing the artists of today to follow in their footsteps and openly comment on political issues.
In short, music has always been the voice of the unheard sections of society. In this case, it provided a platform for the common people of America; for them to advocate for a peaceful world and a hopeful future. It proved how music can be more than just entertainment– it can be a vessel of change.
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