Monday, July 1, 2013

"Mad Men" and the Myth of Counterculture

How did hip morph, in U.S. culture, from a secret code of the dispossessed to something good for selling semi-disposable furniture and hamburgers?

It seems a pressing question now that hip is so omnipresent in our lives, lurking in every Starbucks coffee cup, every Urban Outfitters store, every Volkswagen ad.  It's even found distressingly fertile ground on the Web, winking out at us from a billion images of light saber-wielding cats.

The suspicion for years now has been that the 1960s were the turning point—the moment when hip quit flirting with the mainstream (à la Dizzy and Kerouac in the '50s), abandoning its bungalows and rat-hole apartments to shack up with capitalism.  Because advertising was the medium by which so many square Americans made first acquaintance with hip's delights, Madison Avenue has often been cast as the horse whisperer that lassoed hip, made it behave, and sold it to Peoria and Levittown.

For this reason, it's inevitable we look to the celebrated AMC series Mad Men, set on Madison Avenue in the '60s, for theories about what really went on in advertising in those crucial years.  And the good news is the show doesn't disappoint, offering a sophisticated, nuanced vision of a love-hate relationship between the advertising industry and the ultra-hip counterculture headquartered just a few Manhattan blocks away.

As Mad Men sees it, '60s advertising didn't just co-opt and defang hip; it also found a soul-mate in it, was infiltrated by it, and even learned to do its bidding—just as hip learned to do Madison Avenue's.  In positing a complex symbiotic relationship between hip and consumer capitalism, not a simple parasitic one, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner throws in with such recent cultural theorists as Thomas Frank, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, and—especially—John Leland.

Thomas Frank came to prominence in the '90s by slaughtering a sacred cow: the American left's treasured story of a hip counterculture willfully poisoned by an insidious, malignant consumerism.  According to that story, a scruffy but beautiful people's movement of vast revolutionary potential was co-opted, neutralized, and re-marketed as schlock by powerful corporations that knew an existential threat when they saw one.

In his 1997 book The Conquest of Cool, Frank tells us this "standard binary narrative" imagines that "pseudo-hip" consumer goods of the '60s and after were "tools with which the Establishment hoped to buy off and absorb its opposition, emblems of dissent that were quickly translated into harmless consumer commodities, emptied of content, and sold to their very originators as substitutes for the real thing" (16).  What the narrative leaves out, Frank suggests, is that Greenwich Village hipsters had nothing on '60s executives where fear of Sloan Wilson's Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was concerned.  In fact, corporate management habitually looked to the counterculture for inspiration to save their businesses from the perils of obsolescence and group-think.  "The curious enthusiasm," Frank writes,
of American business for the symbols, music, and slang of the counterculture marked a fascination that was much more complex than the theory of co-optation would suggest.  In fields like fashion and advertising that were most conspicuously involved with the new phase of image-centered capitalism, business leaders were not concerned merely with simulating counterculture signifiers in order to sell the young demographic (or stave off revolution, for that matter) but because they approved of the new values and anti-establishment sensibility being developed by the youthful revolutionaries. (26)
Consumer-oriented corporations of the '60s didn't see hip as a threat, then; they saw it as a godsend, and they worked feverishly to amplify the signal coming down off Mt. Dylan.

If this seems strange, this willingness on corporations' part to serve as conduits for a social movement that hated them, it's only because we haven't considered the possibility that corporations understood hip better than hipsters did.  What the formerly gray-flannel-suited class realized early on was that "rebellion," as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter explain, "is not a threat to the system; it is the system" (175).

Hip generally articulates itself through ownership of "rebellious" clothes, records, and cars—emphasis on clothes, records, and cars.  Widely adopted, then, hip feeds the "system" by stoking social appetites for status-conferring consumer goods that relentlessly and conveniently obsolete themselves.  In their 2004 book Nation of Rebels, Heath and Potter point to the '60s "peacock revolution" in men's fashion as evidence that industries adopting hip as their modus operandi were well remunerated indeed (173).  This isn't surprising once we accept that
the restless, individualistic, free-spirited bohemian is, in many ways, much more in tune [than the bourgeois elite of old] with the true spirit of capitalism—where . . . commerce moves too quickly for anyone to put down roots and . . . everyone's money is the same color.  Unlike so-called bourgeois values, which are basically an imitation of feudal social norms, hip values are a direct expression of the spirit of capitalism. (202)
The '60s counterculture Mad Men presents, then, was never consumer capitalism's antagonist; it was only ever its vanguard.

If things were this easy, though, a show like Mad Men would probably depict a straightforward love-fest between a Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and hip.  But it doesn't: SCDP's white, straight male executives are eager to participate in hip on one level, but they're clearly unnerved by it on others.  To understand why, we can look to John Leland, who, in his 2004 book Hip: The History, theorizes that while hip does indeed fan consumerism's flames, it serves, too, as a perennial thumb in the eye to capitalism's ruling class, of which SCDP's executives are probationary members.  Working in Thomas Frank's wake, Leland limns two popular narratives regarding hip: a "bohemian essentialist" one about a righteous people's movement co-opted, and a "consumption ethic" one about hip's being always already complicit in consumerism (284).

Frank and Heath & Potter clearly buy into the latter narrative—but Leland hopes we're not too quick to dismiss hip's oppositional possibilities, since "these two, contradictory readings do not neatly untangle themselves" (285).  It's true, Leland concedes, that "an expanding economy needs its troublemakers and tricksters, people who invent new desires that can be satisfied by new products"—which is why, as per the consumption-ethic narrative, "hip's call to drop your old life and seek a more satisfying one [has always] sounded like ka-ching in the market" (295).  But it's no less true (here's the bohemian-essentialist line) that hip, founded in American slaves' desire to communicate and establish inner lives their masters would have been just as happy to stamp out, has always been a challenge to the privileged, reminding them constantly of the power the marginalized have to shape the social meanings on which modern markets depend.  As Leland notes, "Ever since white slave owners and overseers strained to understand what the Africans were saying, getting hip paid benefits in profit and control.  For the evaders, who needed ways to converse privately in their antagonists' presence, being hipper meant autonomy" (289). 

And autonomy for the dispossessed—or power to the people—is roughly the point at which SCDP execs begin, in their dealings with hip, to squirm.

Contradictory though they may be, Mad Men gives hallelujahs to both the consumption-ethic and bohemian-essentialist narratives.  The show theorizes hip, for instance, as always already complicit in consumerism when a disgusted Don Draper throws two square Jantzen-bathing-suit execs out of SCDP for prudishly refusing his R-rated ad.  (On Madison Avenue, it seems, it's hip's way or the highway.)  The consumption-ethic narrative is also in evidence when Peggy Olson cooks up her best ideas for Bacardi rum smoking weed in the office, or (especially) when Lenny Bruce analogue Jimmy Barrett turns hipster enfant terrible on the set of an Utz commercial, swilling from a hip flask between takes and ripping mercilessly, comedy-club style, on a woman in the studio, hip and commerce fused in the eye of a TV camera that never stops rolling.

On the other hand, Mad Men approbates the bohemian-essentialist belief in hip's fundamental opposition to capitalism in scenes featuring SCDP creatives flagrantly ripping hip off, co-opting it, concocting a version of it so laughably lite it can't help but illustrate the chasm between itself and whatever it is the Stones (whom Don fails, in season five, to lasso) are up to.  (Pitching to Martinson Coffee, an SCDP youngster tells a Martinson executive people of his generation "don't want to be told what to do . . . we want to feel," then plays from a reel-to-reel machine a bongo-laden jingle sure to make even the most wannabe beatnik scream with laughter.)

There's bohemian essentialism, too, in Don's bewilderment at his long-time Village girlfriend Midge's heroin use (a hip too far, it seems, for the man who threw out the prudes) and in an exchange he has with Anna Draper's niece Stephanie in California: when Don, goaded by Stephanie's comment that advertising is "pollution," suggests she "stop buying things," she retorts, "Don't think that's not possible"—a jab anticipating the coming communes, not exactly a hip advertiser's dream.  And all this before we note that Don, Pete Doherty, Roger Sterling, and Bert Cooper are frequently ill at ease around assertive women, black people, and queer people—marginalized Americans who will be, in many respects, beneficiaries of '60s and '70s hip counterculture, a prospect SCDP's masters of the universe seem none too thrilled about. 

Mad Men, then, both celebrates hip's proclivity for bedeviling power and exposes it as the same old consumer-society shell game, now in thigh boots and Nehru jacket.  That the show seems on the whole, though, to assert hip counterculture's munificence in American life in a way, say, Philip Roth's American Pastoral absolutely doesn't sets it in even deeper accord with John Leland, whose most salient belief about hip and markets is that "hip becomes relevant precisely when it is impure, jumping in the pit with the beast of capitalism—feeding it, resisting it, exploiting it, shaping it. Co-opting it, even as it is co-opted in return" (306).  Like Leland, Mad Men holds that hip's immersion in filthy lucre is nothing to hold particularly against it.  Where, after all, do we want social change to happen if not in the places where we earn and spend money, since that's most of what Americans do anyway? 

When Don makes his hideous and homophobic "You people" remark to Sal Romano while firing him, equally hideously, from SCDP, we as audience at least have the pleasure of knowing the days for such speech are numbered—in part because Stonewall, a watershed moment in American hip, is right around the corner.  That the same hip fostering social equality also peddles Heinz beans and Jaguar E-Types doesn't mean we have to throw out the baby out with the bathwater.  Before he's wrongfully fired, Sal creates a Diet Pepsi TV spot that's a glorious work of camp; Peggy, similarly, creates a Popsicle ad ("Take it, break it, share it") skewering the Catholic church that's harassing her in the form of a young priest who wants her confession about her out-of-wedlock child.  These ads, both hip to the bone, prefigure the coming gay-rights and feminist movements—even if they also shill for consumer goods.

Hip's innate market-friendliness doesn't change the fact that it is, as Leland says, "one of America's protections against religious or political fundamentalism" (307).  Like Leland, Mad Men knows that hip "needs the market to do this job" (307), since the market is how hip's power-to-the-people message gets broadcast.  It's like SCDP copywriter Paul Kinsey tells a bus full of Freedom Riders in season two: "Advertising, if anything, helps bring on change.  The market . . . dictates that we must include everyone."  Kinsey is a buffoon who here lucks into speaking truth—which makes him a lot like advertising when it lucks into speaking hip.

The same Don Draper who makes the hateful (not to mention unhip) "You people" remark to Sal Romano clearly understands all this on some level.  When one of his Village girlfriend Midge's hirsute friends tells him acidly, "You make the lie.  You invent want.  You're for them—not us," Don coolly retorts, "I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie.  There is no system.  The universe is indifferent."  By "the universe," he seems to mean capitalism.  By "indifferent," he seems to mean it's unfaithful—it's not intrinsically devoted to any politics, repressive or progressive.  Money can speak hip, just as hip has always spoken money.  At the moment he makes his "universe" speech, Don is Bob Dylan hip; he's Beatles or James Dean or Jayne Mansfield hip—all saints in hip's pantheon, all demonstrating that real hip has nothing to do with eschewing the marketplace: in fact, it needs the marketplace just like the flower needs the honeybee.

Six seasons in, Mad Men is shaping up to be the story of the slow, painful un-hipping of Don Draper, a straight, white, hard-boiled dinosaur whose innate smarts won't save him from cultural obsolescence, even if his story does begin in an act of radical self-invention that marks him a secret hipster.  Meanwhile, Peggy Olson, the show's quiet co-protagonist, is on the opposite trajectory, poised to ride a wave of hip feminism to a Madison Avenue corner office (possibly Don's, as we see at the end of the sixth season).  When Don says "You people" to Sal, we know he's in trouble; by the time he disses Muhammad Ali as a "bigmouth" and switches off the Beatles' "Tomorrow Only Knows" having endured only half of it, we know he's all but toast.  Meanwhile, when Peggy, joint in hand, tells two lazy male cohorts not being helpful with a Bacardi campaign, "You both can leave.  I'm in a very good place right now," we know she's just stood all the way up on her surfboard.

That Don and Peggy's stories clearly are the story of hip in the all-important '60s, and that their stories intersect in an advertising agency, tells us almost everything we need to know about real hip's relationship with commerce. 

Works Cited
Frank, Thomas.  The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.  Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1997.

Heath, Joseph, and Andrew Potter.  Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.  New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Leland, John.  Hip: The History.  New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

A version of the above was presented at the 2013 PCA/ACA Conference in Washington, D.C.