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Finders Keepers

THE CONQUEST OF COOL: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. By Thomas Frank . University of Chicago Press: 272 pp., $22.95 : COMMODIFY YOUR DISSENT: Salvos From the Baffler. Edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland . W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $25 hardcover, $15 paper

November 30, 1997|DEBRA GOLDMAN | Debra Goldman writes a column on advertising and culture for Adweek magazine

From our perspective at the close of the 20th century, it seems that everything in history happens three times; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the third as a theme park. Thus, the Woodstock Nation greeted this summer's announcement that the hallowed ground of Yasgur's farm was to be turned into a performing arts center, complete with state-of-the-art amphitheaters, lifestyle shops and first-class bathroom facilities with a fatalistic shrug. For the counterculture, this was the final insult.

Thomas Frank tells us he's too young to remember much about the '60s. So he writes in "The Conquest of Cool" that "[i]t was and remains difficult to distinguish precisely between authentic counterculture and fake. . . . Its heroes were rock stars and rebel celebrities, millionaire performers and employees of the culture industry; its greatest moments occurred on television, on the radio, at rock concerts, and in movies." Was the counterculture "co-opted" as its veterans claim? Or was it just "a colorful installment in the 20th century drama of consumer subjectivity?" It is time, he figures, "to hold the beloved counterculture to the harsh light of historical and economic scrutiny."

This is perhaps a bit melodramatic. There is, in fact, no shortage of scrutiny of the counterculture, much of it harsh indeed. For the right, the upheavals of the decade represent the disastrous wrong turn that eroded the very foundations of Western civilization. For the left, the period is little more than an albatross or an occasion for revisionist memoirs, providing even the faithful with neither guidance for the future nor comfort in the present. "Baby boomer" is now a code name for every kind of noxious personality trait: self-absorption, self-indulgence, disloyalty, irresponsibility, covetousness, wastefulness, arrogance, narcissism. Of course, boomers still thrive in the marketplace; the self-absorbed and covetous always do. But boomer history already has been pretty much discredited as either a mistake or a fraud.

Yet the traditions of this "dead generation" weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Except that, for Frank and his contemporaries, the nightmare isn't metaphorical; it is the three-dimensional dreamscape of contemporary consumer culture, the world of virtual reality rides, lifestyle stores and branded experiences. "The Conquest of Cool" and "Commodify Your Dissent," a collection of essays from the journal the Baffler, of which Frank is editor in chief, are calls to wake from that nightmare.

Created in 1988 by Frank and Keith White, the Baffler began as a "cultcrit" equivalent of a garage band. Its original "20-nothing" cri de coeur has since given way to a journal grappling with the possibility (or is it impossibility?) of politics in a post-political age. Both volumes under review here are attempts by the Baffler staff to answer the question posed in the title of a Frank essay from "Commodify Your Dissent": "Why Johnny Can't Dissent."

"The Conquest of Cool" is the answer from a historical perspective. Seeking the origins of the countercultural critique, Frank finds them not on the campus or in the commune but in the business management books and ad agency creative departments of the 1950s. In the business world Frank sees a "parallel revolution," a revolt against the constraints of scientific management and creativity-killing rules that would find echoes in Jerry Rubin and Herbert Marcuse's "One-Dimensional Man." Indeed, by Frank's own account, the book's title is a bit of a misnomer. Business didn't conquer the counterculture. It invented it.

It was advertising, not the underground press, that first gave voice to Americans' dissatisfaction with the confining conformity of the Organization Man's world. More specifically, it was an ad campaign devised in 1959 for Volkswagen by the agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach. Here was an ugly little car whose selling point was that it was an ugly little car, without the bombastic tail fins and techno-gewgaws of the cars rolling off the Detroit assembly lines. It was practical, unpretentious, different: a critique of mass consumerism that you could buy.

The man behind the Volkswagen ads, Bill Bernbach, is venerated in the ad business as the main architect of the Creative Revolution, as the industry dubbed the overthrow of its methods and conventions during the 1960s. But he was also, possibly, mass culture's most successful critic. Frank credits Bernbach with providing "the answer to the problems of consumer society: more consuming." In the wake of DDB's phenomenal success, the ad business grasped the key to the market's expansions, "a hip consumerism driven by disgust with mass society itself."

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