The Tug of Gravity: Co-option, Absorption, and Shlock Rock


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Introduction

Underground in the Fifties

The Angry No

The Transcendent Yes

Alternative Life Styles

The Tug of Gravity:Co-option, Absorption, and Shlock Rock

Artiness, Absurdity, and Excess

The Seventies: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Suggested Recordings

Music Quiz

Suggested Links

"Don't try to get yourself elected: If you do, you had better cut your hair." - David Crosby, "Long Time Gone"

The capacity to absorb: Western society's most salient characteristic, the key to its longevity, the source of its prevalence. Almost never does Western society reject alternatives outright; very infrequently these days does it exchange in one-on-one, head-on Athens versus Sparta struggles to exterminate.

They are discovering new ways to divide us faster than we are discovering new ways to unite" -- Eldridge Cleaver, 1969

Absorption depends on three basic tactics used by the establishment in dealing with threats to its ascendancy. Each would be persuasive in itself, but together they have proven virtually overpowering.
Ken Kesey, author of 'One flew over
the cuckoo's nest', at his farm

Tactic A, exercised only when an alternative is exceptionally threatening and exceptionally impotent is the naked rub out. You shoot the bastards, or you lock them in a dungeon eighty miles underground, or perhaps lobotomize them or send them scurrying into self imposed exile. Like what happened in One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Easy Rider, or Chinatown. Like what happened in real life to the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, Martin Luther King Jr. or to John Kennedy.

This doesn't happen often, because there are so many other, more genial means of co-option. Tactic B is the buy-off, usually an unsubtle combination of punishments on the one hand, rewards on the other, with an offer that no sensible person could refuse."Why, we could really use you, son, and here, have some money, and besides, you wouldn't want your arm broken, would you now?" The kind of trip they laid on Ken Kesey: fame and dough while he behaved; then one bust then another when he started dabbling too publicly in acid; then being pinched by the FBI; and then jail. And then the big sting: if Ken will do some public-spirited, noble, good, establishment like calling all his followers together and telling them to lay off dope and be good Americans, then he can have his freedom. In music the buy-off amounted to plenty of air play, television exposure, dough, women, and contracts for good little boys and girls. As long as you cooperated in public, you could do damned near anything in private.

The Beatles
"I found I was continually having to please the sort of people I'd always hated when I was a child" -- John Lennon

Tactic C is no option at all. It is pure co-option, and it goes on every day, every year, so constantly as to be a standardized process. This tactic is the most effective and the most commonly exercised of all: you flood the market with cheap, harmless, and manageable imitations; soon enough the original can neither be heard nor recognized.

"Everybody screwed everybody in those days." -- Phil Spector

The history of the sixties, of rock music, is one continual tug between forces pressing out and gravity which pulls back. It hurts to see how the flower children were conned by the comfortable, to see exits become entrances, to see how successful the establishment can be in the process of absorption

Co-option is a natural product of systems. Which brings us to two rules.

  • Rule one: representatives of the system, no matter how genial, are not on your side.
  • Rule two: there is no such thing as half a loaf. There is no such thing as working within the system. All the alternatives developed by children of the sixties were gobbled up.

And then there was shlock music against which the sixties revolted. Shlock was/is akin to pop music. It was completely commercial with songs written for singers and not by them. It was mass produced, cheaper and less creative than rock music. Voice lessons, make-up, new clothes, new accents, new teeth, maybe even a good song and a lot of hype. Shlock was the biggest single pollutant of rock music.

"Total lack of nutrition" -- Albert Goldman


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