Cultural Receptions of Disillusionment in 1960s Suburban America

By Ava DeLonais-Dick (’22)

Romanticized in the paintings of Normal Rockwell and iconic Coca-Cola ads, the 1950s strike many today as a time when America was simpler and quaint. American nostalgia remembers the post-World War II “ideal” of the white, suburban, nuclear family. Yet, even as the culture of the suburbia came into maturity in the 1960s, the grounds for its collapse were already established. Women, confined to the home, were quickly losing sight of their purpose and of themselves. Men looked to their families to define their masculinity and struggled to maintain the image of a perfect life. Children, who were the center of their parents’ lives, couldn’t grow up and thus left behind responsibilities in favor of the counterculture. The commonality across these three pillars of the nuclear family was disillusionment with the American perfect portrait. Though the Rockwell paintings failed to illustrate the suburban crisis of identity, some artists and authors did capture this disintegration. This essay will analyze the music of Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s and put them in conversation with stories that trace the unraveling of traditional family roles including: The Graduate, Feminine Mystique, “S.C.U.M Manifesto”, Dispatches, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and “The Psychedelic Experience”.

Simon and Garfunkel’s upbringing and musical subjects make them excellent musicians to study regarding the family in the 1960s. Both men were interested in music from a young age, growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, and making music together. They both had typical American childhoods. They attended college and found jobs. These upbringings gave them the right perspective to write about the suburban problems of the 1960s, specifically about the family. The seven songs that I chose show how the average American could be impacted by the world of suburbia. “7 O’Clock News” contrasts the peaceful life in the home with the protest taking place across the country over civil rights and the Vietnam war. “The Dangling Conversation,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “I Am A Rock” describe the dysfunctional relationships between a husband and wife. “Baby Driver,” “The Boxer,” and “Flowers Never Bend in the Rainfall” show how children responded to their own uncertainty and fears during the decade. 

 “7 O’Clock News” premiered on Simon and Garfunkel’s third album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in 1966 and set the tone for the whole album, although it ends the track list (1).  The song begins as just the Christmas carol Silent Night, but in the background a muffled voice gets louder and louder until it becomes recognizable as the news and eventually overtakes Silent Night as the center of the song.   In the beginning of the broadcast, the reporter mumbles about the failings of congress and President Johnson’s Civil Rights bill. As he gets louder, he addresses the drug scene of the sixties, commenting on a 42-year-old dying of an overdose on narcotics. He speaks to King’s plans for an open housing march in Chicago and the sheriff’s response, threatening to call in the National Guard. The reporter’s voice grows louder, as he describes the horrors of the Chicago nurse massacre, anti-war demonstrators “being forcibly removed as they chanted anti-war slogans,” and Vice President Nixon announcing that the U.S. could win the war in five years, and even sooner if we stifle the anti-war efforts at home (1). The reporter’s voice then cuts out, leaving the Silent Night melody playing softly until it fades out. Simon and Garfunkel use this song to establish their relationship to the cultural changes of the 1960s. In just one song, we get a snapshot of the sixties including civil rights, the counterculture movement, anti-war efforts, and the government lying about the war.

The choice of Silent Night to juxtapose the news speaks to both the state of the country and the suburban reaction to it.  The song gives almost an eerie feeling to the news because the words being read are so violent.  In each pause between the Silent Night, when Simon and Garfunkel stop singing, the words of the 7 O’clock News were even stronger.  Either accidentally or by design, they made words and phrases like “national guard”, “stab”, “evicted”, and “the US should look forward to five more years of war” stand out.  If this was purposeful, it paints a picture of the sixties that is full of turmoil and extremely violent which makes the choice of Silent Night even more powerful. We get a picture of a quiet and peaceful suburban home around Christmas time.  The parents might be watching the television right before bed, completely detached to the violence that was rocking America.  At the end of the news, they can simply turn it off and stop hearing about the tragedy.  Through this choice, Simon and Garfunkel firmly establish which kind of unrest they will be dealing with: domestic. The American home has a set of problems that exist outside the social change. It seems like these two worlds are only connected by the nightly news. 

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique started a conversation about women in the home, and Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Dangling Conversation” came out of it (2). Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique that American marriages were troubled for both husbands and wives. She describes the “problem with no name” that was leading to unhappiness in many households (3).  Suburban housewives that were interviewed for the book shared the same sentiments about their lives saying, “‘I feel empty somehow… incomplete.’’ or “‘I feel as if I don’t exist’” (3).   Simon and Garfunkel wrote “The Dangling Conversation” in 1966, and it was released on the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album.  The song describes what the effect of the feminine mystique on women looks like from the outside, from the perspective of the man thinking about his wife.  He feels as if they live in an idealized painting, “a still life watercolor,” but he feels some shadows in the room (2).  The man can’t put his finger on what is wrong, because to his eye everything seems to be as it should be; his wife should feel lucky to have such a life.  He goes on to talk about the indifference they each feel.  They are “shells upon the shore,” their relationship drained of substance and love, left only with its pretty exterior.  He even describes their sighs as they sit together in indifference as superficial.  

The song addresses both symptoms and reasons of the mystique itself. A repeated line of the chorus is “The borders of our lives,” meaning only the borders of the man and woman’s lives overlap (2). They are no longer in union as they once were or had hoped to be. Friedan spoke about women envying their children for their youngness and ability to live out their dreams.  In the fourth and fifth stanzas, the man and woman are both measuring what they have lost. The man feels as if he has lost his love for his wife and the wife feels as if lost her life and the ability to achieve any of her dreams. Then, the sixth stanza speaks to the intelligence of these women who are expected to be housewives. They go to college and learn about philosophers and art, only to have days full of cooking and cleaning and taking care of the children. Their knowledge only serves to entertain their husband in conversation about the theatre, as the wife does in the song. The seventh stanza drives home the feminine mystique: the woman has now faded out completely, living through others and only existing to keep the home tidy. She is a shadow of who she used to be and a stranger to her husband. This song describes the emptiness of the suburban woman and the result of the feminine mystique — the falling apart of the family and estrangement of husband and wife.  

“Mrs. Robinson” addresses the feminine mystique more from the perspective of the woman (4).  The song was released as a part of  the soundtrack for The Graduate in 1968 and describes the hoops women go through to ‘fix’ their emptiness.  The lyrics include the various suggestions of men in her life on how to improve. One of the most repeated suggestions is prayer, mentioned in every chorus.  According to Friedan, women would fill their lives with anything to escape, from going to the community center to throwing themselves into church activities and events.  Religion was the backbone to the white suburban family of the 50s and reinforced the feminine mystique with male-centered teachings.  The song also alludes to psychiatric solutions. Women often sought help because they believed that there must be something psychologically wrong with them.  They had been told all their lives that marriage and motherhood were the goals, and they believed.  How can you explain emptiness if you are living the life you and every other woman has dreamed of?  In “Mrs. Robinson,” it seems as if Mrs. Robinson herself is checking into some kind of rehabilitation facility or possibly a hospital for psychological recovery. The person she is speaking to asks to “know a little bit about [her] for [their] files,” and tells her how they wish to help her help herself.  The line, “look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes” is interesting, given that those around her can sense that something is wrong but assume that it is her problem which she must fix herself, rather than a product of the environment (4).  When the narrator says, “stroll around the grounds until you feel at home,” it distinctly points to some kind of rehabilitation facility or other place to deal with her issues.  It might be a religious rehabilitation camp, with the repeating chorus about heaven holding a place for those who pray.  

These opening lines make us think there is something she must repent for or recover from.  The next verses go into the story that led her here, which might include drug use or an affair.  Freidan mentions that many women were driven mad in their suburban housewife lives.  Many sought help from doctors who prescribed tranquilizers to help make it through the day.  Mrs. Robinson seems to struggle with drugs, nodded to by the lyric “Koo-koo-ka-choo.” The nonsense word comes from the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus”, a song about and heavily influenced by LSD, that came out three years before.  Another numbing agent that women searched for in the 60s was sex.  Friedan wrote about women thinking more children would help them feel fulfilled.  She goes on to tell stories of husbands coming home and not being able to satisfy their desperate wives.  Mrs. Robinson might be using sex as a numbing device.  One line of the song points to this, “It’s a little secret, just the Robinson’s affair,” but in The Graduate, an affair is one of the main plot points.  Mrs. Robinson (a middle-aged woman) seduces the twenty-something-year-old son of one of her friends and has an affair with him for multiple months.  She and her husband sleep separately and are barely a part of each other’s lives anymore.  Their relationship mirrors that of the couple in “The Dangling Conversation.” Only the borders of their lives are known to each other, nothing deeper.  

“I Am a Rock” comments on the family like “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Dangling Conversation” but specifically on male suppression and what it is like to grow up with the expectation of men in the 60s (6). The S.C.U.M Manifesto understands how dangerous toxic masculinity and male supremacy are.  Valerie Solanas, the manifesto’s author, acknowledges that men neglect human emotions when they believe they are too feminine, writing “He hates passivity, so he projects it onto women”.  “I Am a Rock” addresses the internal thoughts of what it is like being a man who has fallen victim to toxic masculinity.  This song reflects the generation of young men who had to harden and grow up too soon, some of them beaten by the police in protest, others fighting the war in Vietnam. Far from the LSD-inspired rock songs of soldiers or protest anthems of students, “I Am a Rock” expresses emotional truth, closer to what Michael Herr stated in Dispatches and the real feelings of men in the 1960s. For those constantly losing friends to the battlefield or to drugs or to police brutality, “I have no need for friendship, friendship causes pain” rings true. The easiest way to live was to be detached and desensitized.  It was seen as a weakness to feel anything because there was always something worse and more horrifying ahead. Men were forced to “build walls, a fortress deep and mighty.” (6) It becomes easy to see how hardened men ignoring aimless women could create toxic marriages. However, how did these relationships impact children?

“Baby Driver,” written by Simon and Garfunkel and released in 1970 on Bridge Over Troubled Water, represents the children of white middle class America (9).   Friedan wrote about the effect of the feminine mystique on children, noting “a new and frightening passivity, softness, boredom” in American children (3).  Across America, middle class families faced many of the same issues. “Baby Driver” is about not wanting to grow up.  There are three families mentioned in the song, each with employed and relatively successful parents, which was the case for most white Americans in the 50s and 60s.  They are members of the establishment, whether military (“a prominent frogman,” “an engineer,” “in the Naval reserve”) or business (“a big promotion,” “a raise in pay”).  Their children, on the other hand, seem to be avoiding responsibility, whether accidentally or on purpose. In verse two, Paul Simon states “I never got a chance to serve,” even though his military family prepped him by showing him how to use a gun when he was young. The repeating chorus is just a boy singing about sex and fast “pair of wheels.” This is similar to the life of the main character, Benjamin Braddock, in The Graduate.  His parents worked hard to send him to college, and they wanted the life for him they prepared him for.  He was worried when he got home from college because he had no passion and couldn’t imagine going into something he did not care about, like his parents’ friend Mr. McGuire.  Instead, he decided to crash Elaine’s wedding, having no plans for his future. Still, he felt he was doing something right because it wasn’t what his parents wanted for him, and it was the first time he was passionate in the movie.  The same story happens with “Baby Driver”: given all his wasted potential, all the narrator wants to do is hit the open road and flirt with girls.  

In contrast to an anthem of joining the counterculture, “The Boxer” is a story about someone who was not ready (10). In class, we saw that many young people joining the counterculture came from middle class homes in the suburbs of America.  This became a problem when they had responsibilities to children or comrades, like in the film Easy Rider (11).  The hippies believed they would be okay farming because they believed in it, but over half of them starved the very first winter. Similarly, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (12), the Witch joined the bus by just following her boyfriend.  She had no idea she would be abandoned by the Merry Pranksters and end up in a psychiatric facility.  “The Boxer” is about a boy who went out on his own but was disappointed and abandoned.  In the first stanza of “The Boxer,” the narrator laments how nothing was what it was promised to be and that all his sacrifices were just “lies and jest.” In Easy Rider and The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, some of the characters were younger than 18.   They were no more than boys when they left home “in the company of strangers.”  The narrator says he was “running scared,” expressing an important dichotomy. He feels as if he must escape his comfortable family to make his own way but is too inexperienced to do so.  This lyric is followed by “laying low,” which might mean running from the police because of drugs. Hippies were infamous for never having enough money and living in communes.  When the boy says he was “seeking out poorer quarters where the ragged people go,” this could be a reference to finding a home with some hippies.

Once in the city, life for the narrator is not what he expected. In the chorus between verses, Simon sings “lie-la-lie,” which might express how the narrator became disillusioned with this new experience. In the next verse, the narrator tells us of times he took comfort with “the whores on Seventh Avenue” when he was lonesome.  This is a sentiment reflected in Easy Rider (11) when the bikers party with prostitutes after being chased out of town. After a refrain of “lie-la-lie,” the narrator tells us all he wants to do is to return home and get off the ‘bus’ of the counterculture. The last few lines, when the song shifts to a description of a boxer, depicts the struggle of what comes next. The boy left his family behind and followed his dream, but he was disappointed and is now paralyzed by shame. He tells himself he is leaving, but some part of him still fights to believe in the ideals and remain. Interestingly, the song ends with the chorus of “lie.” Is he lying to himself in believing that things can get better, or possibly lying to himself that life at home was any better?  

To complete the exploration of young people’s disillusionment, Simon and Garfunkel sing “Flowers Never Bend in the Rainfall” as a description of a trip (13).  In Leary’s “The Psychedelic Experience,” he describes similar experiences as the narrator of this song does.  Leary writes that a trip is like a “phantasmagoric multi-dimensional television set” (14). He goes on to describe hallucinations of visual, auditory, olfactory, and physical nature.   Simon and Garfunkel write about the narrator’s mind dancing and leaping and not being able to touch what he feels.  According to Leary, the narrator could be describing the first bardo.  The lyrics, “I don’t know what is real” and “I can’t touch what I feel” could be the beginning of ego loss and the feelings that accompany it, like Leary’s intangible “fire sinking into air” or “earth sinking into water” (13,14).  The narrator in the song begins to describe what he is seeing as he looks in a mirror.  All he can see are small dark images, and he cannot determine if he is himself. This is where the narrator is experiencing the Ego-Loss.  This is quickly followed by Part II of the First Bardo as Leary described, where the narrator is “blinded by the light of God, and truth, and right” (13).  This blinding light sounds similar to a passage from Leary: “the white light, or first bardo energy, may be interpreted as God the Creator” as our narrator has experienced (14).  The narrator then describes wandering in the night without direction.  This could be referencing the void in Vision 3: The Fire-Flow of Internal Unity of the Second Bardo.  This is supposed to bring you inwards and be an emotional game according to Leary, but it seems as if the narrator is still conflicted saying “I’ll continue to pretend my life will never end.”. Simon and Garfunkel capture the physical sensations of a hallucinatory trip with their lyrics.

At the same time, “Flowers” seems to comment on the whole hippie movement. Although the last stanza could still be a part of the trip, I think it is more likely the last verse is a general statement about the hippie lifestyle. The name of the song is “Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall,” and the hippie movement is often associated with the symbols of the taijitu, peace signs, and flowers.  This leads me to believe the title of the song is meant to point to the resilience of the counterculture movement and the hippies that never bend. The message the hippies are trying to convey in the last verse is that the achievement of joy outweighs social class or society’s expectations.  Earlier in the song, some lyrics seem to criticize the drug movement, saying “I hide behind the shield of my illusion so I’ll continue to continue to pretend my life will never end.” The narrator is during his trip that the counterculture is just as is doomed but he chooses to ignore it.  He seems to know he is lying to himself about the effectiveness of the movement, and this causes the trip to go bad.  In the end, however, the narrator seems more optimistic.  He says his fantasy has become a reality and then continues into the chorus about pretending his life will never end.  I think this means he has come out on the other side of the trip and is resolved to continue believing in the counterculture movement, even if he had a bad trip in the beginning and was doubting himself.  

Many Americans nostalgically romanticize the fifties today, while youth in the sixties worked so hard to unravel this supposedly ideal suburbia.  Simon and Garfunkel captured that unraveling through their music, like the juxtaposition of “Silent Night” with the nightly broadcast in “7 O’Clock News.”  The artists also detailed the struggles of the family members in suburbia.  “The Dangling Conversation,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “I Am A Rock” all describe the strained relationship of a husband and wife with each other and with themselves.  The children of suburbia are represented in “Baby Driver,” “The Boxer,” and “Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall.” These songs tell stories of children running away, doing drugs, and refusing to grow up. None of this sounds like the ideal America that is remembered today. Further study of this topic might include an analysis of the changing memory of the 1950s and ‘60s. How did political forces of the next few decades change how we remember that time? And how can music—with its unique relationship to the youth and its power to capture national sentiment—tell us more about these later years? One thing is certain: the role of the home, especially the white, middle-class home in America, remains important to our understanding of our own society.

Ava DeLonais-Dick is a Neuroscience and Behavior/Compassionate Care major. Her essay was originally written for Professor Peter Cajka’s American Studies course ‘Witnessing the Sixties.’

References

  1. Simon and Garfunkel, “7’Oclock News”, August 1966, track 12 on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, Columbia Masterworks, 1966, vinyl  
  2. Simon and Garfunkel, “The Dangling Conversation”, June 1966, track 7 on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, Columbia Masterworks, 1966, vinyl  
  3. Friedan, Betty. 2013. The Feminine Mystique. 50th anniversary ed.. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  4. Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”, February 1968, track 10 on Bookends, Columbia Masterworks, 1968, vinyl   
  5.  Nichols, Mike, Levine, Joseph E., Turman, Lawrence, Willingham, Calder, Henry, Buck, Bancroft, Anne, Hoffman, Dustin, et al. 2016. The Graduate. Two-DVD special edition.. Irvington, New York]: The Criterion Collection.
  6. Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a Rock”, December 1965, track 11 on Sounds of Silence, Columbia Masterworks, 1966, vinyl     
  7. Solanas, Valerie. 1996. SCUM Manifesto. Edinburgh, Scotland ; San Francisco, CA: AK Press.
  8. Herr, Michael. 1977. Dispatches. 1st ed.. New York: Knopf.
  9. Simon and Garfunkel, “Baby Driver”, November 1968, track 7 on Bridge over Troubled Water, Columbia Masterworks, 1969, vinyl    
  10. Simon and Garfunkel, “The Boxer”, November 1968, track 6 on Bridge over Troubled Water, Columbia Masterworks, 1969, vinyl    
  11. Fonda, Peter, Hopper, Dennis, Southern, Terry, Nicholson, Jack, and Kiselyak, Charles. 1999. Easy Rider. Special ed.. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Video.
  12. Wolfe, Tom. 1999. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Bantam trade pbk. ed.. New York: Bantam Books.
  13. Simon and Garfunkel, “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall”, December 1965, track 8 on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, Columbia Masterworks, 1966, vinyl     
  14. Leary, Timothy. 2017. Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Kensington Publishing Corporation

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