How Rock and Roll’s Anti-Establishment Culture Changed the World

  1. Thesis Introduction

Drug culture. In today’s day and age it is hard to imagine a westernized world without being aware of the existence of the illicit consumption commodities known as marihuana, cocaine, shrooms, heroine, Ecstasy and amphetamines to name a few. In western culture, the depiction of drug use in movies, series and music — foremost — appeal to a certain target audience, but sometimes also because the discipline as an art form aims to show a realistic view of how drug consumption in general is embedded in all layers of society; whether it is the high school kid who tries marihuana for the first time, or a story about a successful businessman who spends his money on high class prostitutes and cocaine, or the girl who is hooked on heroine and slides off into prostitution for her to be able to pay for her fix.

The aim for this paper is to relate social changes to popular culture. Starting in the 1960s with the anti-establishment movement and rock and roll music in the United States, to the latter’s conservative answer to “immoral drug use” in the mid-1970s under U.S. President Richard Nixon. From the effects longstanding and draconian drug policies have had on civil rights, to a new anti-Establishment culture in the late 1980s. From decriminalizing certain types of drugs in European countries, to how this came to relate to western popular culture. And last, how contemporary efforts by civil rights groups to decriminalize and to a certain extent even legalize marihuana in the United States, to the actions taken by the administration of current sitting U.S. President Barack Obama.

The changes that can be witnessed based on historical data of both the Netherlands and the United States in a matter of policy has been vastly different – although both cultures have a comparable affinity with pop culture. The rock and roll music genre started in the U.S. but was soon adopted in the Netherlands successfully; the 1969 hit-song Venus by the rock band Shocking Blue in the 1970s took to number one in nine countries, including the U.S. where it sold more than one million copies. Today, the Netherlands is considered to a direct market for the U.S. entertainment industry, very much interested in U.S. content (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2015).

  1. Rock and Roll And The Conservative Movement in United States

Over the course of the 20th century, drug types like marihuana, cocaine and heroine came to be prohibited and its production and consumption heavily penalized on a worldwide basis. In the United States today, 1/5 of teenagers and people in their twenties have reportedly used drugs in the past month (NIDA, 2013). Interestingly enough, the sixties are still regarded as the heydays of drug consumption (hippies smoking marihuana and experimenting with LSD). Historical data, however, indicates this may not be true. According to a Gallup poll in 1969, only 4% of American adults reported to have used marihuana in their life (Robison, 2002). So, how has this perception history come about? How do these numbers differentiate from what is generally believed in popular culture?

Rock and roll, nowadays regarded as a mainstream music genre, has its roots in the 1960s and was in the eyes of the general audience at the time affiliated with all wrongdoings in society. With anti-war messages and taking drugs and making love, rock and roll projected itself as a way to protest by combining itself with social movements. Subsequently it integrated commercialism as youth counter-culture and became a platform for business (Zhang, 2013). Deceased rock-artist Jimi Hendrix composed many songs speaking out against the war in Vietnam (1955 – 1975) but his most famous song Purple Haze became a classic due to its many insinuations to drug use. Although his earlier explanations about the song suggests a closer relation to science fiction, one could also interpret his explanation as a way to disguise the song of any correlation to drug use (at the time, doing so would have been – as some suggest – professional suicide). Some exempts with explanations:

Purple haze, all in my brain
Lately things, they don’t seem the same
(Hendrix, 1967)

Drugs have a conscious altering effect.


Acting funny, but I don’t know why
Excuse me, while I kiss the sky
(Hendrix, 1967)

Insinuates a psychedelic form of drugs as it dramatically has altered his behavior.


Purple haze, all around
Don’t know if I’m comin’ up or down
(Hendrix, 1967)

His surroundings have altered due to his changed perception


Am I happy or in misery?
What ever it is, that girl put a spell on me
(Hendrix, 1967)

He has no idea of how his emotions react to his state of being, and relates this to a girl – who could be identified as “Mary Jane”, an etymology to marihuana which in the United States is sometimes pronounced as ‘mari-juana’

Disregarding the song’s possible meaning, the affiliation with drug consumption that it came to have in popular culture is more important. Jimi Hendrix audience’s interpretation of the song is what matters most due to its impact on society and how drug culture has been responsible for this. This is important, because although drug culture only represented a fragment of the United States population at that time, businesses that gave a podium to Jimi Hendrix’ music made the song a mainstream historical artifact in popular culture. For example, in the U.S., as well as in the Netherlands, a specific type of marihuana is called after the song – because of its purple color — and is sold mainly to tourists in Coffeeshops in Amsterdam.

Then came the 1970s and much changed. Former U.S. President Nixon won the presidential election in 1968, and in 1971 he identified two anti-establishment groups that threatened his reelection; namely hippies and African-Americans (of whom many in the South – after the Voting Rights Act, turned from the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln to the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt). (Baum, 2016) (Dionne Jr., 2016) In a 1994-interview with John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, Ehrlichman reportedly admitted that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ actually was solely politically motivated:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (Baum, 2016)

This is key. Because although the anti-establishment movement in the U.S. managed to get people to vote for a more sensible approach to drugs and marihuana consequently came to be decriminalized in twelve states between 1973 and 1978, this was very soon over under the new conservative movement led by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan (Dufton, 2013). In popular culture, drug use – marihuana – was romanticized by rock and roll artists, but at the same time it vilified its users through media coverage. Namely parents – white, suburban, middle-class mothers and fathers saw the ‘growing consumption’ as a threat to the health of their child (even though mainly adults used marihuana in the late-1970s). By 1980 there were over 4000 parent groups in the United States alone and the twelve states recriminalized marihuana thanks to sympathetic media coverage and activists (Dufton, 2013)

  1. Liberalizing Drug Laws In the Netherlands and the New Anti-Establishment of the 1980s

This new conservative movement never held foot in the Netherlands. In 1973, the Netherlands became the first country in Europe to – not legalize, but – tolerate marihuana production, trade and consumption. The Netherlands’ liberal drug laws became its tool in popular culture by tolerating a limited amount to be sold in Coffeeshops. The Dutch Coffeeshop became famous in drug cultures everywhere in Europe and the U.S. First of all, because people could sit-down, relax and enjoy music while smoking otherwise illicit marihuana in the city-centers of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht or closer to the country’s borders in Maastricht or Breda (this has changed in last years, however). Second, civil disturbances by drug-dealers went down and made the city-centers of Amsterdam and Rotterdam much safer for tourists and expats to enjoy. Third, in drug culture, Amsterdam is regarded as the “high society” (with ‘high’ referring of course to the effect of marihuana) and is for every ‘drug-tourist’ regarded as a place in heaven.

In the U.S., however, in the 1980s and the 1990s, harsh sentencing laws targeting minorities of color fueled a new anti-establishment movement through hiphop music. Many artists originating in the form of rap used spoken-word either for bragging and boasting or for giving critique on aspects of society. The hiphop-group from Compton, NWA (an abbreviation for Niggers With Attitude), in 1988 released the protest song Fuck the Police, protesting against police brutality and racial profiling. Some exempts with explanations:

Fuck the police coming straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
(NWA, 1988)

Racial profiling and discriminatory sentencing laws against people of color was the product of a long-lasting media campaign in order to affiliate crack-cocaine with people of color, an illicit drug that came to be punished 100x more severe than white powder-cocaine during the 1980s (Alexander, 2010, 2012 – p92).

You’d rather see, me in the pen
Than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o
(NWA, 1988)

A lasting critique on the U.S. police and the political system that sees large parts of its population locked up in penitentiary (Kerby, 2012)


Beat a police out of shape
And when I’m finished, bring the yellow tape
To tape off the scene of the slaughter
Still getting swoll off bread and water
I don’t know if they fags or what
Search a nigga down, and grabbing his nuts
(NWA, 1988)

Stop-and-frisk programs that violate Fourth Amendment Constitutional Rights (Benz, 2013)

While the United States waged its ‘war on drugs’ under five consecutive Presidents (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama; although the last sitting President signed the Fair Sentencing Act into Law in 2010, dramatically decreasing the 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack and white powder cocaine), European countries like Portugal and Switzerland experimented with a different approach. While continuing to criminalize hard drugs, many countries reduced their harsh sentencing laws when it comes to soft drugs such as marihuana, with the Netherlands with the most progressive policies with regards to production and consumption, and also with regards to the treatment of the drug-problem as a public health issue.

  1. Drug Culture As A Soft Power

From the 1990s onwards into the 21st century, hiphop became a mainstream music genre. The genre consequently let go of its critique on society and its artists embraced their affiliation with drug consumption, as their persona came to be associated with a lifestyle relating to a more mainstream approval of marihuana and soft drugs.

Hiphop music, but also Hollywood movie-directors such as Quentin Tarantino related to contemporary changes in American society. The cult-movie Pulp Fiction (1994) is generally known for its great cast, its violence and drama, its dark humor; all in a setting where the villains are considered to be the heroes and their ‘immoral’ behavior is romanticized. The use of heroine and cocaine leaves the viewer under the impression that the random ‘hash bars in Amsterdam’ conversation between the two main hitmen in the movie, Vincent Vega (VV) and Jules Winnfield (JW), is a fact that should be well researched and therefore personally experienced. An exempt:

JW: Okay, so tell me about the hash bars.

VV: So, what do you want to know?

JW: Well, hash is legal there, right?

VV: Yeah, it’s legal. But it ain’t a hundred percent legal. I mean, you can’t walk into a restaurant, roll a joint, and start puffing away. They want you to smoke in your home or certain designated places.

JW: Those are hash bars?

VV: Breaks down like this: okay, it’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to own it, and if you’re the proprietor of a hash bar, it’s legal to sell it. It’s illegal to carry it, but that doesn’t really matter, because, get a load of this; if you get stopped by the cops in Amsterdam, it’s illegal for them to search you. I mean, that’s a right the cops in Amsterdam don’t have.

JW: Oh, man. I’m going, that’s all there is to it. I’m fucking going!

(Pulp Fiction, 1994)

At the beginning of the 21st century, rumors about rising hiphop-artist Snoop Dogg having bought a house in Amsterdam started to spread word. Other hiphop artists from that era, like Method Man and Redman, starred in the movie How High (2001). The movie tells the story about two marihuana-loving guys who discover a plant that let’s them know all the answers to life through their deceased friend and consequently manage to get into Harvard University and score A’s in all their courses.

Well-known for their love of smoking marihuana through their songs, many hiphop artists over time build a cannabis culture not previously known or affiliated with the music genre. The biggest success yet is the lifestyle brand founded by hiphop artist Snoop Dogg called Merry Jane (2015). In recognition to U.S. state Colorado’s legalizing medical and recreational marihuana, the hiphop-artist encourages responsible consumption to the citizens of the state of 21 years and above (Merry Jane, 2015) As can be noticed, Snoop Dogg seizes the opportunity to monetize legally on the growing industry of marihuana production in the U.S.

What happened in that period time? Why were both the anti-establishment movement of the 1980s led by hiphop group NWA and the marihuana drug culture backed by hiphop artists in the early 21st century important for this recent change?

In 2007, a spark in marihuana use in the U.S. was observed and the cannabis culture backed by hiphop-artists drove a new train of thought around marihuana consumption. Not only did research in the U.S. on medical marihuana positively stimulate cancer research and chemotherapy-treating programs, the laws put in place throughout the 1980s and 1990s put people of color disproportionately in jail and led grass-roots movements and civil rights activists to push for more sensible drug laws. These movements became mainstream from 2012 onwards when Michelle Alexander re-released her 2010 book called The New Jim Crow (referring to the segregating Jim Crow laws that lasted more than 100 years after the abolishment of slavery) and director Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The House I Live In (2012) opened new insights in the failed drug war the U.S. had been waging since the start of the 20th century.

The anti-establishment movements of the 1980s and the softening of marihuana drug culture were very important for this process. First, the hiphop group NWA became mainstream because of its lyrics matching the realities of communities in the suburbs who – still today – are targeted more commonly by the authorities than other communities. This brought about a culture of distrust against the authorities by those who felt that justice did not serve them as it should do. This culture of distrust continued on to the 21st century, when hiphop artist Madlib released under alter ego Quasimoto his debut album The Unseen (2000). The tracks on the album push marihuana drug culture to the exaggerated, but also give an insight in the perceived hypocrisy with which U.S. authorities regard people of color. Some exempts and following explanations from the song Low Class Conspiracy:

Get on the freeway, yo, its after dark
And guess who always pull up right behind us, not again, some narcs
(Madlib, 2000)

Refers to U.S. narcotics agents; the DEA employs more than 10,000 employees and has a yearly budget exceeding 2 billion dollars (DEA, 2014).


Letting all kinds of speeding cars pass
Just so they can harass our black asses
(Madlib, 2000)

Again, showing the disparity in how the U.S. criminal justice system operates. 1/3 African-Americans can expect to go to prison in their lifetime (Kerby, 2012)

The police pulling us over for no reason
Searching the car, like it’s nigga hunting-season
Year round, asking about where’s the pound,
Where’s the gun, are ya’all niggas on the run?
You got warrants?
Ya’all niggas ready for some torment?
(Madlib, 2000)

Refers to the racist way of policing in some parts of the U.S. (see stop-and-frisk, again)

Second, the marihuana drug culture brought about more knowledge on the supposed bad effects of the drug. In U.S. society, according to a 2015 Gallup poll, 58% of Americans support legal marihuana consumption (Jones, 2015). According to Jones, the conducting researcher, the 58 percentage in support for legalizing marihuana, is the highest Gallup measured to date and is likely to grow as 7/10 of young adults support legalization. Also, Americans born from 1951 to 1965 are more likely to favor legalizing marihuana today than they were 15 years ago (in 2000/2001 only 35%, against 58% in 2015) (Jones, 2015).

So, what does this mean? Has leadership changed due to the impact of drug culture? In recent years, U.S. President Obama has expressed his support for more comprehensive legislation regarding marihuana. And although he disavowed his marihuana use in his teenage years, I can’t help but think this was part of his play to be elected President of the United States (Sorensen, 2012). Because, not only did Obama use marihuana and cocaine in his college years as well – as is commonly known – he came to live in Chicago in his late twenties during the time ‘house music’ became big. President Obama has never been secretive about his love for house music and his affiliations with those pioneering the music genre, as he has expressed in his commemorating letter to the family of Frankie Knuckles who is considered to be the ‘Godfather of house music.’ Here an exempt:

Frankie’s work helped open minds and bring people together, blending genres to capture our attention and ignite our imaginations. He was a trailblazer in his field, and his legacy lives on in the city of Chicago and on dance floors across the globe.”

(Fact, 2014)

Moreover, in 2015, for the “Chosen Few Old School Reunion Picnic”, a yearly organized festival by Chicago’s house pioneers, President Obama congratulated the organization with their 25th anniversary. An exempt:

Michelle and I are sorry we can’t be home with all the house heads in Jackson Park today. We’re having a 4th of July get together of our own at the White House, with some of America’s finest servicemen and women, and their families, but I still wanted to wish the Chosen Few DJs and all of you a happy 4th of July, and a happy 25th anniversary, Chosen Few Picnic. Love you Chicago! Enjoy the fireworks”

(Rickinson, 2015)

House music, and its culture have been inextricably linked to the drug Ecstasy since the music genre came about in the 1980s. In the Netherlands, specifically in Amsterdam, the summer of 1988 was regarded as the tipping point in which house music and Ecstasy caused a chain reaction. As drug researcher Ton Nabben explains in his thesis-book High Amsterdam (2010): “Culturally, house music did not come from nowhere. The American ‘dance music culture’ with its disco in the seventies and early eighties was the forerunner of house and was an important source of inspiration for DJs who were looking new electronic music genres, on which with the help of hallucinogenic repetitive rhythms, could be danced to for hours without end” (Nabben, 2010). Later in his piece he quotes Reynolds (1998) in order to explain the linkage between house music and the drug Ecstasy: “All music sounds better on E-crisper and more distinct, but also engulfing in its immediacy. House and techno sound especially fabulous. The music’s emphasis on texture and timbre enhances the drug’s mildly synaesthetic effects, so that sounds seem to caress the listener’s skin. You feel like dancing inside the music; sound becomes a fluid medium in which you’re immersed” (Reynolds, 1998) (Nabben, 2010).

The reason for setting this out is not to make the plausible connection of U.S. President Obama having used Ecstasy, rather to show the environment in which Obama emerged himself in his youth. Drug cultures in the United States and the Netherlands have altered the perceptions of how people relate to them. President Obama’s latest move aiming to decriminalize marihuana consumption nation-wide is an aspect of his policies in which the impact of popular culture, and most specifically drug culture, can not be overlooked.

  1. Concluding Remarks

The main reason for choosing to write this paper in an historical context is because the impact of culture on public policy is unmeasurable without it. The impact of culture on businesses is as shown through Jimi Hendrix’ music and Snoop Dogg‘s lifestyle-brand more clear. Lines between what is regarded as popular in music of film can through its sales be measured and according to monetizing behavior of its actors be defined.

U.S. society has changed remarkably through the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s and the anti-establishment movement of the 1980s. However, with the U.S. changing its society in a fast pace, the coming of a new conservative movement (as was the case under Nixon & Reagan) that has a disregard for the newly established cultures has already managed to take form as can be observed in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections with the nomination of Republican candidate Donald J. Trump.

The unmeasurability of the influence of soft power politics through popular culture makes it much harder to predict how the U.S. will further define itself when it comes to translating societal changes to state polity. Nevertheless, that the U.S. has gone through its most darkest years in terms of waging a lost war on drugs that has disproportionately hurt communities of color and that bipartisanship in the Senate aims to abolish the draconian drug laws, shows that the U.S. is on track of regarding drug culture in, at least, a more just way.

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