Psychedelic music and the culture of the 1960s and the music of the period had an enormous influence and impact on the way we express ourselves in the modern era. Music has always been both a barometer measuring and responding to society’s problems and possibilities, and the twentieth century was a period that witnessed the emergence of a diverse range of musical styles and genres, each seemingly in reaction to the dominant sociopolitical concerns of the day. Even when the lyrics of songs were not overtly directed towards the description of social conditions and a call to improve them, as was so characteristic of the folk music of the 1960s and 1970s, music was, and always has been, shaped by the conditions of the larger panorama of the socio-cultural moment. The diversity of styles and musical genres that emerged, particularly in the latter half of the century during the turbulent period of the 1960s should hardly come as a surprise, given the variety and intensity of certain social phenomena. There were a number of intense influences that combined to produce this music including increased government control over people’s lives coupled with the fact—perhaps paradoxical—that many people’s lives were getting worse, not better, compelled musicians to respond and integrate matters such as drugs, and they did so in creatively unprecedented ways. This music was thus a response to the dominant concerns of the day and also a reaction that would shape the way people thought and responded to their society. These are only a few reasons why the music of the 1960s is often associated with rebellion and a rebellious period, particularly among the youth population.
The music of the 1960s reflected, as music always does, the zeitgeist of the sociohistorical moment, both articulating and exploring the concerns and interests in larger society. Although critics dismissed the psychedelic music of this period as being too loud, too experimental, and, most worryingly, too tied up with the emerging drugs and the drug culture (Whiteley 33, 62), critic and historian Sheila Whiteley contends that psychedelic music was characterized both by its complexity and its paradoxes (i). While psychedelic music was closely aligned with the drugs and the drug culture—and may, in some ways, be understood as a product of that subculture—it was still, like folk music, a genre of protest, but it was a specific form of protest distinct from the lyrically imperative folk music. As Bindas wrote, “The new psychedelic music registered a protest of form rather than substance. [Psychedelic] music was sexual, highly creative, nonconformist, and clearly in protest of white middle class America” (Bindas 6; emphasis added).
While folk singers like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were strumming their guitars and singing their calls for social justice, systemic change, and freedom for all, typically appealing to love, human reason, and compassionate concern of the listener for his or her fellow human beings both at home and abroad, psychedelic musicians like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane were trying to create a similar sense of freedom, but in a totally different way (Whiteley 33). Many of the iconic psychedelic musicians had at least dabbled in drugs and drug culture, if not immersed themselves fully in it, and had, through drugs, achieved a kind of escape, relief, and freedom that did not seem possible in 1960s society, whether here in the United States or in Britain, where psychedelic music also thrived (Bindas 33). There were lots of reasons to escape. For American musicians, in particular, the specter and shame of the Vietnam War hung heavily upon them (Bindas 33). But the “mood song” came to replace the “message song,” as psychedelic musicians sublimated their anxieties and their angst by attempting to just feel better rather than examine how to create systemic change that would make everyone feel better (Bindas 6).
The psychedelic musicians were indisputably affected by the same kinds of concerns that affected their folk music counterparts, but Bindas suggests that musicians and society as a whole had reached its threshold for message music, and wanted to return to the notion of a music that could transport one away from his or her problems rather than situate him or her directly in those problems and require the listener to examine them. Bindas notes several ways in which psychedelic music responded to the sociohistorical moment it occupied. First, he points out, the psychedelic musicians were still infusing their songs with a political flavor—“if anything,” he writes, “[political] fervor had [actually] increased”—but the key distinction of psychedelic music was that “the lyrics were no longer as important, and they could seldom be heard over the music” (Bindas 6). The music itself, meanwhile, was characterized by its instrumental experimentation, distinguished from other forms by “long improvisatory passages and electronically produced sound effects resonated with stroboscopic lighting to bring about a freedom of feeling” (Whiteley 33).
Whether they were entirely conscious of the fact or not, psychedelic musicians and their insistence upon free-flowing, open-ended, electronically distorted “impure” music was a reaction against the increasing “whitewashed conformity of everyday American life” (Fairbanks 14). The Red Scare and Communist witch hunt of the 1950s had left a lingering negative aura over American society, especially for artists and musicians and other producers of cultural creativity. During that period, artists and musicians who had been deemed a threat to the social order were “blacklisted and pushed to the fringes of the mainstream” (Fairbanks 14). Pushed to the periphery, they did not simply cease creative production, however. Instead, they went underground and gave birth to a subculture that would make psychedelic expression in the United States possible.
Psychedelic music, which Johnson and Stax mark as more or less “beginning” in 1967, would ultimately be a reaction against the conformist messages of the media and, above all, the encouragement to adopt supposedly American values (411). It would permit both its musicians and its listeners to enter a parallel universe, one in which control was neither necessary nor welcome. The looping, seemingly undirected music of the psychedelic artists was coupled with lyrics that often focused on insanity, loss of control, and journeys without fixed destinations; in fact, the journeys were trips of the imagination and consciousness, not literal excursions (Johnson & Stax 411). The psychedelic musicians asserted that it was safe to join them in this limitless sphere, and their music thus gained a wide audience, appealing to a segment of the population that had themselves been marginalized and overlooked.
As the music critic Fairbanks thoughtfully observed, “The artists are the critics of culture and the visionaries that open up possibilities for the future” (14), and they are particularly powerful when they come from the underground as was the case with many of the musicians of the 1960s. By reacting to the events of their day and unique historical conditions using musical and lyrical strategies that were non-conformist, the psychedelic artists opened up new musical possibilities, particularly with respect to the traditionally expected and accepted form and function of songs. Their music was shaped by their sociohistorical moment, but it also, ultimately, would shape that moment, too.
Bindas, Kenneth J. America’s Musical Pulse: Popular Music in Twentieth Century Society. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Fairbanks, Philip. “Gonzo Lives Underground.” Afterimage 31.4 (2004): 14.
Johnson, Ann, and Mike Stax. “From Psychotic to Psychedelic: The Garage Contribution to Psychedelia.” Popular Music and Society 29.4 (2006): 411.
Whiteley, Sheila. The Space Between the Notes: Rock and the Counter-Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.