The 1960s America was a time of unrest. While the Cold War raged on, the government was increasingly entangled in the affairs of Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum as deep-seated grievances over racial prejudice threatened to boil over. Waves of widespread discontent permeated the ever more restless society as the roaring counterculture grew too loud to silence. Fashion, technology, films, TV shows, art, popular music, and literary works all reflected the emotions of this period. In a time of great socio-political upheavals, the world witnessed a decade of popular culture illustrating empowerment, disillusionment and confusion. Let’s take a look at some of the most iconic moments in pop culture of the Swinging Sixties.
1. Hippies and the Swinging Sixties
Arguably the most iconic product of the troubled 1960s was the counterculture movement and the birth of hippie culture. Rejecting prevailing social norms related to family and relationships, the hippies were particularly vocal about social injustice and political strife. This included expressing their displeasure with issues concerning the US involvement in the Vietnam War, racial segregation, LGBT rights, environmentalism, and sexual freedom. Characterized by long hair, flower motifs, and the use of psychedelic drugs, the hippies attracted widespread media attention wherever they went.
One of the most important moments in hippie history was the Summer of Love in 1967. It cemented the popular impression of the hippies and their counterculture. Over 300,000 hippies from all over the United States gathered at Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood in San Francisco.
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In large numbers, the hippies settled in communes in San Francisco which would soon become known as their mecca. The unofficial anthem of the counterculture movement even said If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. Today, expressions associated with the counterculture movement such as Flower Power and Make Love, Not War continue to evoke popular sentiments.
2. Righting The Wrongs
Though they were the most iconic, the hippies were not the only ones who vocalized displeasure at social injustice. A whole generation of Americans held large-scale demonstrations concerning civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, environmentalism, and opposition to the US involvement in Vietnam. More significantly, these protests also left a considerable impact on public policy as well as the overall electoral landscape.
Many of these demonstrations, no matter the scale, had cemented the culture of protest and advocacy in the United States. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington saw over 300,000 people gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Likewise, the anti-war March on the Pentagon in October 1967 attracted about 100,000 fervent protestors. These iconic demonstrations continue to serve as beacons of inspiration for modern-day protests.
3. Life in Technicolor
While commercial color televisions had been around since the 1950s, it was only during the mid-1960s that the new television sets became a mainstay in the average household. By 1969, 19,200,000 households in the United States were proud owners of color TV sets, a staggering increase from 2,860,000 in 1965. Color television technology was said to be capable of enhancing the realism and emotional engagement viewers had with what was broadcasted.
The ability to evoke a wider range of emotions also meant that advertisements could be engineered to boost and influence consumer behavior and sales. More significantly, the mass proliferation of color television also meant that the average American would be more in tune with the ongoing social injustice. For example, the Vietnam War was widely touted as the first Television War.
In a time of widespread social unrest, a four-man British band called the Beatles would go on to revolutionize American popular culture. Already a household name in Europe, the Beatles conquered the hearts of their American fans with a number-one hit single called I Want To Hold Your Hand in 1964. The Beatles became widely popular in the USA.
Driving fans into a frenzy everywhere they went, the Fab Four played sold-out gigs and appeared on television shows that garnered record-breaking viewership. Soon, their inventive musical style, shaggy hairstyles, and unique brand of British humor would go on to leave an inalienable imprint on American culture and popular music. In the words of established CBS journalist Walter Cronkite, the dawn of Beatlemania marked an indelible start of the British Invasion of America.
5. The Miniskirt Revolution
As protests mounted over the lack of women’s rights, the second wave of the feminist movement was underway in the 1960s. This sparked a revolution in the fashion realm with the birth of the miniskirt. Designed by British designer Mary Quant, the miniskirt took the world by storm as women shook off the shackles of patriarchy through the playful garment.
American women embraced this revolutionary fashion style somewhat due to the successful import of British culture that happened thanks to the invasion of the Beatles. Celebrities, too, jumped on the miniskirt bandwagon, as starlets and singers rocked the miniskirt in their works. Most notably, Nancy Sinatra was often seen in her white miniskirt and go-go boots.
6. New Hollywood – Riding the Wave
Touted as the American New Wave, New Hollywood refers to a new generation of filmmakers seeking to redefine the old Hollywood style of cinema. Incorporating the era’s zeitgeist of the counterculture and the French New Wave, these avant-garde filmmakers desired to lead their own film direction rather than leave it in the hands of big studios. The period defined by this new group of filmmakers ran from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. Collectively, the new blood in the cinematic world spoke for a generation disillusioned and disenchanted by the Vietnam War and widespread social injustice.
As a result, their works reflected a keener sense of realism and intensity, offering a truthful critique of the rapidly evolving society. Many legendary auteurs we know today were born out of this generation, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and Stanley Kubrick. Many films of this era remain classics that are often hailed as the greatest films of all time, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
7. Pop Art: An Artistic Revolution
Despite its growing prominence in the 1950s, it was during the 1960s that pop art became massively popular in the United States. As its name suggests, pop art refers to artworks that tapped into popular culture. Fundamentally questioning the definition of what constituted art, pop art elevated the mundane into masterpieces. This includes challenging the boundaries that differentiated art from real life and in the process questioning the rigid archetypes of traditional art. Leading artists of this revolutionary movement were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and David Hockney, among others. In particular, Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans in 1962 would forever cement the image of pop art in the minds of art lovers and critics alike. Today, elements of pop art of the 1960s continue to be featured widely in mass culture.
8. Fly Me to The Moon: The End of the Swinging Sixties
That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Neil Armstrong (1930–2012)
These were the famous words uttered by the American astronaut Neil Armstrong on 20 July 1969 when he became the first person to walk on the surface of the moon. In light of the space race with the Soviet Union, the Apollo 11 mission fulfilled the United States’ national goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Labor-intensive and hugely expensive, the Apollo program cost $24 billion (amounting to about $100 billion in today’s context) and involved 400,000 engineers, technicians, and scientists. Widely remembered as one of the most iconic moments in American history, the moon landing was broadcasted on live TV to over 650 million viewers worldwide. It later cemented itself in popular culture, spawning numerous TV and film portrayals of the mission, Armstrong, and the crew. Over half a decade later, commemorative events such as anniversaries of the moon landing continue to be held to great fanfare.
The 1960s were a decade that has gone down in history as one of the most turbulent and progressive. However, it is without a doubt that the louder the voices of the American people got, the brighter the light of progress and change shone. All throughout the 1960s, Americans poured themselves into campaigning for their beliefs in areas concerning women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, environmentalism, and anti-war movements. They embraced new technologies and mediums such as color televisions, pop art, and a new wave of cinema. The decade is also best remembered for producing some of the most iconic moments such as the moon landing and Beatlemania. Loud, provocative, revolutionary, and utterly transformative, the Swinging Sixties remain a decade to remember.