Youth protestors in the 1960s

The formation of the countercultural movement in the mid 1960’s marked the first cultural-revolution that utilized multiple media forms to ignite society to action. It capitalized on a nation filled with youths eager to experiment with increased liberation in all aspects of life. This shift toward experimentation was backlash against cultural assimilation into middle America that had occurred so rapidly during the post WWII years. It encapsulated movements related to conflict in Vietnam, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and the Sexual Revolution, contributing to the intense passion of each cause’s respective supporters. Nowhere was this desire for societal change more prevalent than in music. Youth’s fervent desire for change in the fundamental organization of American society manifested itself through music.

Elvis Presley

The emergence of new musical genre was one of the most notable means of expression for voices of the counterculture. While music had previously been characterized as black or white, young or old, the countercultural movement shattered those norms. 1950’s Rock and Roll, characterized by Elvis Presley, morphed and diversified into sub genres including pop, folk, acoustic rock, and electronic music. This diversification of music was linked to the increasingly prominent diversity of Americans, and the desire for true freedom of expression. During the countercultural movement, African American artists became more prominent and mainstream. As a whole, music became a much more open and free field of expression, open to experimentation with new sounds and alternative instrumental arrangements. Listeners were now free to explore the wide spectrum of musical genres, breaking down stereotypical barriers that had previously limited audiences.

Another fundamental role of music within the countercultural movement was to provide female artists with the ability to forge their own distinctive place within the music business. It provided a medium through which to comment on issues specifically related to gender, like the Second Wave Feminist Movement, and the Sexual Revolution, both intrinsically linked in the counterculture. Female singing groups emerged with a new sound and a new look. The Ronettes, The Crystals, and the Shangri-Las emerged in the mid 1960’s, attracting their own concert crowds without male singers accompanying them. Later, such talented performers such as Janis Joplin and even African American songstress Aretha Franklin would challenge traditional views of femininity with their confident and innovative musical sound.

Aretha Franklin

Music during the counterculture was also increasingly politically charged and directed. Gone were the days of easy listening songs with feel good lyrics. Music became a powerful medium through which to drum up political support during rallies and protests. Artists such as Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Creedence Clearwater Revival wrote lyrics regarding specific political events, calling attention to the hypocrisy within government and calling for outrage among listeners. Music became a way of citing inequities within society and calling for an immediate countercultural response.

Woodstock crowd

Music festivals also played a tremendous role in shaping the countercultural movement. Prolific festivals in California, such as Monterey International Pop Music Festival, and the infamous Woodstock provided a musical summit for countercultural revolutionaries to express their desire for change in the American way of life. Increased experimentation with drugs like marijuana and LSD also correlated to the enormously expressionist, experimental, and rebellious desires of millions of youths.

The counterculture created a change in music that continues to play a significant role in the function of music within society today. As it relates to youth movements, political conflicts, and the emergence of new genres, the countercultural movement opened the proverbial doors to an expansive creative freedom of expression, sound, and speech. Music plays such a dynamic role in shaping American culture, and without the countercultural movement’s musical influences, music today would not possess the influence it does.