50 Years After The Summer Of Love, Hippie Counterculture Is Relegated To Kitsch

Oct 4, 2017

If you're into counterculture kitsch, you might want to check out the nostalgia-themed resort hotel at Walt Disney World in Florida. It features a "Hippy Dippy" swimming pool, surrounded by flower-shaped water jets, peace signs and giant letters that spell out "Peace, Man," "Out of Sight" and "Can You Dig It?"

Fifty years after the Summer of Love, that's been the fate of a lot of the language we associate with that era — faded psychedelia, sort of like acid rock and tie-dye, except that nobody ever tries to revive it.

Well, slang is like that: The words come in on one tide and are swept out again on the next. But it's striking how many words from the hippie era are still with us, from "uptight" to "bummer" to "freak show." As brief as the moment was, it changed the way we think and talk.

What people call the Summer of Love only lasted for about 10 months in all. Most accounts date its start from Jan. 14, 1967, when 20,000 or 30,000 hippies assembled in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for the first "Human Be-In." The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane performed, Allen Ginsberg chanted a Hindu mantra and Timothy Leary issued the movement's marching orders: "Turn on, tune in, drop out."

For a while that spring, it seemed as if love really could conquer all, with a chemical assist. The Haight-Ashbury district teemed with spiritual seekers and acid-heads, Berkeley radicals and old North Beach beatniks. They were trailed by journalists from Harry Reasoner to Hunter S. Thompson, dispatched by the media to explain to Middle America what was going on.

The hippies wafted on a cloud of communal sweetness and bonded over the drugs and the music. And they cemented their fellowship with blissed-out superlatives like "far out," "out of sight" and the ubiquitous "groovy," which was actually a bit of warmed-over bebop slang.

Observers found the language vague and vacuous, but that was exactly the point. If you're trying to create a sense of tribal identity, you don't want words that make your meaning explicit — you want words that presume that that isn't necessary.

The scene couldn't have lasted. It was a fleeting eye of calm in a period that Todd Gitlin once described as "a cyclone in a wind tunnel." And by midsummer it was falling apart. Grass and acid had yielded to heroin and speed, and the Haight was overrun with street people, predators and runaways. Most of the bands and the original hippies decamped for more pastoral settings.

On Oct. 6, 1967 — 50 years ago this week — a group of counterculture purists called the Diggers held a mock funeral carrying a coffin labeled "Hippie, Son of Media," and brought the Summer of Love to an unofficial end.

It wasn't the end of the hippie movement — this was two years before Woodstock and Altamont. The word "counterculture" hadn't even entered the language yet. But by that point, the media had fixed the cartoon image of the hippie as an unwashed acid-head babbling about peace and love. The slang superlatives became banal through overexposure. Within a year, the Monkees were telling their pre-teen fans that "Love is the ultimate trip."

By 1971, the New York Times' music critic, Mike Jahn, labeled "groovy" and "where it's at" as "archaic," and dismissed "out of sight" as something you'd hear in suburban boutiques. In fact, almost none of the hippies' positive terms survived the era. The apparent exception was "cool." But the beats and the hipsters had already made that part of the language a decade earlier.

But the hippies' language had a darker side, which proved more enduring. Millions of young people were embracing the hedonistic strands of the hippie lifestyle — the long hair, the music and the pot — but rarely in search of enlightenment.

Most had little interest in the "turn on" and "tune in" parts of Leary's message. But they took to heart the business about dropping out, at least in spirit. They weren't about to quit their jobs to join a commune. But they came to share the hippies' disaffection from the split-level conformity of middle-class American culture, and they borrowed the hippies' words to express its failings: the "hang-ups," "cop-outs" and "uptightness," the "plastic people" and "rip-off" artists who "do a number on your head."

Even the positive words were given new negative twists. When the Grateful Dead first sang "What a long, strange trip it's been" in 1970, the word suggested a spiritual journey, but now it more often conveys an unwholesome obsession, as in "ego trip," "power trip" or "guilt trip."

The fact is that we're all fluent speakers of hippie now. Yet the most persistent single pejorative term to come out of the era is "hippie" itself. Half a century after the Summer of Love, the only honest-to-God hippies left in America are off growing pot in Mendocino County, Calif., or baking artisan bread in Asheville, N.C.

But people are still using "hippie" and "hippie-dippy" as condescending adjectives for a stock sitcom character, somebody who's into tofu, drives a Prius, lives in a nuclear-free zone and names their children River or Willow --and who has an excessive faith in the power of love. I suppose that says something about the persistence of the original hippies' vision. Even as remote and diluted as it is, it's still compelling enough so that people need to evoke it, just so they can put it down.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love when in 1967 tens of thousands of hippies flocked to San Francisco. Some people are looking back nostalgically on the vanished styles and language of that era - the music, the fashions, the outmoded expressions like far out and groovy. But as our linguist Geoff Nunberg points out, it's striking how much of the language of that period is still with us. As Geoff puts it, we all speak hippie now.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: If you're into counterculture kitsch, you might want to check out the nostalgia-themed resort hotel at Walt Disney World in Florida. It features a hippie-dippy (ph) swimming pool surrounded by flower-shaped water jets, peace signs and giant letters that spell out, peace, man, out of sight and can you dig it. Fifty years after the Summer of Love, that's been the fate of a lot of the language we associate with that era. It's faded psychedelia, sort of like acid rock and tie-dye, except that nobody ever tries to revive it. Well, slang is like that. The words come in on one tide and are swept out again on the next.

But it's actually striking how many words from the hippie era are still with us, from uptight, to bummer to freak show. As brief as the moment was, it changed the way we think and talk. What people call the Summer of Love only lasted for about 10 months in all. Most accounts date its start from January 14, 1967, when 20 or 30 thousand hippies assembled in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for the first Human Be-in. The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane performed. Allen Ginsberg chanted a Hindu mantra, and Timothy Leary issued the movement's marching orders - turn on, tune in, drop out.

For a while that spring, it seemed as if love really could conquer all with a chemical assist. The Haight-Ashbury district teamed with spiritual seekers and acid heads, Berkeley radicals and old North Beach beatniks. They were trailed by journalists from Harry Reasoner to Hunter S. Thompson, dispatched by the media to tell Middle America what was going on. The hippies wafted on a cloud of communal sweetness and bonded over the drugs and the music. And they cemented their fellowship with blissed-out superlatives like far out, out of sight and the ubiquitous groovy, which was actually a bit of warmed-over bebop slang.

Observers found the language vague and vacuous, but that was exactly the point. If you're trying to create a sense of tribal identity, you don't want words that make your meaning explicit. You want words that presume that that isn't necessary. The scene couldn't have lasted. It was a fleeting eye of calm in a period that Todd Gitlin once described as a cyclone in a wind tunnel. And by midsummer, it was falling apart. Grass and acid had yielded to heroin and speed, and the Haight was overrun with street people, predators and runaways. Most of the bands and the original hippies decamped for more pastoral settings.

On October 6, 1967, 50 years ago this week, the counterculture purists called the Diggers held a mock funeral, carrying a coffin labeled, hippie, son of media, and brought the Summer of Love to an unofficial end. It wasn't the end of the hippie movement. This was two years before Woodstock and Altamont. The word counterculture hadn't even entered the language yet, but by that point, the media had fixed the cartoon image of the hippie as an unwashed acid head babbling about peace and love.

The slang superlatives became banal through overexposure. Within a year, the Monkees were telling their preteen fans that love is the ultimate trip. By 1971, The New York Times music critic Mike Jahn labelled groovy and where it's at as archaic and dismissed out of sight as something you'd hear in a suburban boutique.

In fact, almost none of the hippies' positive terms survive the era. The apparent exception was cool, but the beats and hipsters had already made that part of the language a decade earlier. But the hippies' language had a darker side, which proved more enduring. Millions of young people were embracing the hedonistic strands of the hippie lifestyle - the long hair, the music, the pot - but rarely in search of enlightenment. Most of them had little interest in the turn-on-and-tune-in parts of Leary's message, but they took to heart the business about dropping out, at least in spirit. They weren't about to quit their jobs to join a commune, but they came to share the hippies' disaffection from the split-level conformity of middle-class American culture, and they borrowed the hippies' words to express its failings - the hang-ups, cop-outs and uptightness, the plastic people and rip-off artists who do a number on your head.

Even the positive words were given new, negative twists. When the Grateful Dead first sang, what a long, strange trip it's been, in 1970, the words suggested a spiritual journey. But now it more often conveys an unwholesome obsession, as in ego trip, power trip, guilt trip. The fact is that we're all fluent speakers of hippie now.

Yet the most persistent single pejorative term to come out of the era is hippie itself. Half a century after the Summer of Love, the only honest-to-God hippies left in America are off growing pot in Mendocino County or baking artisan bread in Asheville. But people are still using hippie and hippie-dippy (ph) as condescending adjectives for a stock sitcom character. They bring to mind somebody who's into tofu, drives a Prius, lives in a nuclear-free zone and names their children River or Willow - and who has an excessive faith in the power of love. I suppose that says something about the persistence of the original hippies' vision. Even as remote and diluted as it is, it's still compelling enough so that people need to evoke it just so they can put it down.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the influence of the NRA on state and national gun policy and politics. My guest will be Mike Spies, who writes for The Trace, an independent, nonprofit journalism site which covers issues related to American gun violence. He's been covering the gun lobby since 2015. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFFERSON AIRPLANE SONG, "IF YOU FEEL")

GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU FEEL")

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) If you feel like china breaking, if you feel like laughing, break china laughing. Break china laughing, laughing, laughing. If you feel like leaves are falling, if you feel like smiling, fall leaves are smiling. Fall leaves are smiling, smiling, smiling. If you feel like lovemaking, if you feel like flying, make love flying. Make, make, make love flying, flying, flying. Got down, not the first time, you know. Got down, got up to go, got up to go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.