This summer I am teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey. Instead of assigning a survey textbook, I am having the students read the late Paul Boyer’s marvelously concise sketch/summary of U.S. history from the Oxford “Very Short Introduction” series. The five or six pages they read from this for each class give a basic chronological / thematic scaffolding to help them situate their main readings, which are all taken from primary sources.*
However, I am assigning my class one substantial reading from a secondary source: the fourth chapter of Michael J. Kramer’s Republic of Rock. This chapter, titled “A Soundtrack for the Entire Process,” details the journey of rock music and rock culture from the streets of San Francisco to the battlefields of Vietnam. Kramer writes:
Rock was a crucial cultural form that linked the two places. From the escalation of American intervention in Indochina in the middle of the 1960s to the end of the war in 1975, the music circulated from the home front to the war zone. GIs brought recordings, instruments, and rock paraphernalia with them, plugging rock into the daily waging of war at unofficial levels….The music also arrived on official frequencies: on the airwaves of the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN), in programs organized by the Entertainment Branch, and even among non-Americans who listened to and played the music. Never banned or forbidden, rock was encouraged as a leisure activity. Tolerance, even support, for it by the Armed Forces revealed how the managers of the US military transferred the latest consumer strategies from domestic culture to military life. Paralleling the appearance of hip capitalism at home, what I call hip militarism emerged in Vietnam as a tactic for raising morale within the U.S. Armed Forces. It turned out there was much more to entertainment during the war than just Bob Hope’s famous Christmas Tours. (135)
There is much more to Kramer’s chapter, of course. Thankfully, he writes with unpretentious expert clarity, so this should be not only an interesting read for my students, but a pleasant one as well.
Nevertheless, one of the reasons I am assigning this chapter is not for its fair prose but for its wonderful photos, from wire service stock shots to GIs’ snapshots. There’s a photo of a GI listening to LPs on a portable record player; the soldier’s gun and ammo vest are propped up against the wall nearby. But my favorite photos in the chapter, the ones that I think will help most in conveying the distance and difference between the present and the past, are the shots of GIs, kicking back in their down time, listening to their transistor radios.
Before music “in the cloud,” before satellite radio, before YouTube, the iPod, the Walkman, the battery operated cassette player — before all these technologies, the transistor radio made music portable past the reach of a power cord. Portable, and only minimally personalizable. Turn the dial, tune in to a different frequency, and take what you get. If it’s not what you want, turn the dial some more. That was how soldiers and civilians alike took their music with them to the mountains, to the beaches, to the parks, groovin’ in the grass, or goin’ down the Old Man with a transistor radio.
One of the things I struggle with as an intellectual historian is how to be attentive to materiality in the ideational environment without drifting into materialism. To teach my students that rock music was an important cultural influence in Vietnam and San Francisco alike, without teaching them anything about the channels and devices through which that influence flowed would be to give them only the part of the story which they already assume: people need their jams. Instead, attention to the technology of music transmission allows us to emphasize those aspects of youth culture and rock culture and counterculture that are experientially inaccessible to 21st century music aficionados — the heavy reliance upon alternative stations and astute DJs to spin the good stuff, the much greater commonality and simultaneity of the listening experience that came from tuning in with others to the same channel.
The material conditions of music transmission were not identical to the ideas conveyed in the songs — or, to be duly logocentric, in the lyrics. But to what extent did they shape or reshape those ideas? What does due attention to the transistor radio render legible about this cultural moment? One answer, I think, has to do with that sense of commonality that comes from a shared listening experience.
During the height of the Occupy protests, there was a rash of internet memes with captioned / labeled photos with arrows pointing to all the iPods, smartphones, iPads, laptops and other portable (and presumably pricey) technologies in the possession of the protesters. The implication, I think, was that these protesters were affluent hipsters with money to burn on their toys. But another implication of the infinitely customizable and personalizable portable music library is the unlikelihood that one particular kind of music might symbolize or mobilize a shared political movement. This raises some interesting questions:
Does an effective political movement require a shared soundtrack for the entire process? Does a shared soundtrack signify anything beyond the realm of taste? What makes music matter? What work does it do? What work does it undo?
These are questions for the present, but for the past as well, and Kramer’s study explores them masterfully. I will be interested to see what my students make of his answers, and what answers they arrive at on their own. What I wonder is this: will they arrive at their own answers together? And what difference, if any, would that make?
*I am posting links to selected primary sources on my personal blog, Saved by History.