Bitter Pill to Swallow:
1960s American Counter-Culture & Tame Impala’s Psychedelic-Revivalism
“The world was simply and sheerly divided into ‘the aware’, those who had the experience of being vessels of the divine, and a great mass of ‘the unaware’, ‘the unmusical’, ‘the unattuned.”
—Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
In December of 2019, the band Tame Impala announced a tour across North America to promote their new album, The Slow Rush. The highly anticipated tour was meant to touch down in Toronto on June 2nd at Scotia Bank Arena. The advertising for the tour was prolific, with online advertisements and pop-up ads warning of limited availability. Tour posters pasted downtown were instantly recognizable to the band among the publicity effort: a bright splash of colour, mind-alerting angles and swirls, little information. Unfortunately, the band postponed the tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the show remained cancelled, these tour posters gathered dust, losing their colorful sheen as months passed.
In my essay. I aim to discuss how Tame Impala’s 2019 Tour Poster encapsulates the expression and appeal of 1960s post-modern views and psychedelic subculture within our present moment. Tame Impala is a band indebted to 1960s American culture in sound and visual expression. From their lyrics to album covers to tour posters, they reintroduce aspects of this historical era to modern audiences more successfully than any other band today. While there may be less emphasis on artistic movements and psychedelics in our present moment, there is no shortage of activism or desire to invite change within our current political climate. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and rapid climate change, Tame Impala’s music and visual aesthetic invite comparisons to this era and its post-modern views. By analyzing their 2019 tour poster, I aim to consider how Tame Impala invites a reimagination of public discourse around activism and provides spaces for alternate ways of understanding, similar to the era of psychedelic subculture. How does the alternative band Tame Impala’s tour poster address and revitalize a nostalgic visuality for 60’s American rock culture and psychedelic subculture within the 21st-century internet age.
First, I will provide context on the 1960s American culture, illuminating the development of counterculture and psychedelic subculture. Then, focusing on the nostalgic relevance of 1960s culture and the ever-present need for social change today, I will situate the role of Tame Impala as fulfilling a need within the 21st century. As my focus, I will then introduce my object of study, the canceled Tame Impala 2019 tour poster. First, I will focus on the object of study to explore how it subverts the traditional expectation of traditional concert posters and fits the description of a psychedelic tour poster. Next, I will explore the role of the psychedelic arts in assuaging modern anxieties and providing opportunities for activism, new expressions, and community. I will then draw comparisons between the Tame Impala’s tour poster and art posters in the 1960s, expressing how my object of study meets these requirements. Finally, I will explore how in fulfilling this need, the band reintroduces psychedelic anti-authoritarian and activist views to audiences within the internet age.
- Literature Review as Time Travel
The 1960s is perhaps the most recognizable and (depending on who you ask) the most longed-for period in American history. Scholars look back on the decade and emphasize the nation’s drastic changes in geopolitics, economics, and cultural growth. Indeed, the decade and its drastic cultural changes are often summarized by singular events, from the Kennedy assassination to the Vietnam war to the Black-civil rights protests. In essence, efforts to encapsulate the change spread throughout the decade focus on the rise in “counter-culture.” Among younger generations, new social norms emerged around dress, lifestyle, and visual culture (art, fashion, photography) that increasingly disrupted conservative values. However, these new social values, which embraced colour and social activism, were dismissed by conservatives for disrupting the social order and corrupting the minds of youth. As a result, views of the decade are often split between the perspective of emergent liberal values and sturdy-conservative values.
Scholars often attribute the significance of this period to the rampant political upheaval, counter-culture, and postmodernity. According to Moist, postmodernity is “a period in which previous assumptions about rationality, science, universal truth, and progress are subjected to a critical, self-conscious questioning” (13). Important to the progression of counter-culture, anti-authoritarian, and post-modernist views was the renaissance of art taking place at the time. Art culture and activism often existed in tandem, providing “experimental staging grounds for new worldviews and new ways of relating to culture and identity that are very much a part of our lives today” (1244). Hall argues that scholarly writing on the American 1960s typically uses a “declension narrative,” discussing the decade in terms of a rise and fall (6). The declension narrative charts the liberal idealism of the early decade, inspiring activism in protest of the Vietnam war and for Black civil rights. However, these ideals soon turned rife due to the escalating war, “frustration at the slow pace of reform at home, and a growing belief that liberals were complicit in maintaining an allegedly corrupt and flawed social, economic and political system” (Hall 6).
Yet it is within this rising counter-culture and liberal idealism our cultural conception of the 1960s and psychedelic subculture derive. Among the many movements in American culture, the psychedelic subculture was an exciting and progressive exploration of postmodernity, political futures, and alternative mental states. According to Moist, this subculture focused on “an aesthetic and spiritual communitarianism” (1244). Heavily influenced by psychedelic substances, art community members sought to invent and challenge American culture through prose and poetry, music, performance art and visual art. Artists and performers were also preoccupied with experimenting with new forms of art and media, creating new multimedia experiences.
- Paper Covers Rock (and Roll)
In visual culture, the art posters and concert posters of the 1960s remain of interest to scholars. According to Moist, “the concert posters created to promote the shows were similarly unorthodox and were seen by the community as transcending mere advertisement to become totemic expressions of the collective consciousness” (1245). Further, the era of 1960s psychedelic poster art contained “the anarchic, confrontational, provocative, and dream-vision elements defining those early twentieth-century Modernist art movements” (Organ, pp. 2018). The posters for events at the time were not mere advertisements but cultural extensions that “encapsulated the social, musical and cultural inventions taking place’’ in the community. As such, rock posters forwent traditional advertising aesthetics and were created within the community, communicating the culture’s reinvention of norms and ideas. In the process, poster artistry was concerned with breaking down traditional hierarchies of Western art, questioning what counts as art and who may be involved in its production. Art and concert posters were then deeply inscribed visual and communicative tools within 1960s American culture. One of the most famous pieces of psychedelic poster art is Wes Wilson’s poster, “Are We Next” (Image #A). Montgomery argues that Wilson’s poster would come to define the medium in the psychedelic poster movement (72). The Are We Next poster was distributed at anti-war rallies and would predict the medium’s blend of art aesthetics and political activism.
- The Morning After
There is a fascination with “the 60s” in American culture in our present moment. From the music of the Grateful Dead to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the visual aesthetics, ideologies, and politics of the 1960s occupy a remote yet longing place in our present culture. Our unstated affinity for this time period seeks continual resurgence in contemporary fashion, literature, and art. Entire industries such as drive-in movie theatres, skating rinks, and themed diners rely on a residual nostalgia for this aesthetic, despite a growing age gap. Meanwhile, the advancements in medicinal psychedelics for mental health purposes would likely elicit a smug, knowing response from Ken Kesey.
To understand our nostalgic fascination with the 1960s, we should consider the development of counterculture again. Since the psychedelic sub-culture developed in response to a politically contentious present, it is perhaps understandable that such a fascination would not dissipate given the trajectory of socio-economic politics in North America. In fact, many of the issues that developed in the 1960s remain of significance today. Issues of anti-black racism that were seen as hallmarks of the 1960s under Black civil rights protests, attended by Malcom X, remain to this day in the form of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Issues at the heat second-wave feminist and gay rights movements that took center stage continue to be debated in congress. Anti-war efforts, often compounding with the movements above, formed a leftist political agenda. So, while the issues of the 1960s remain, there are far and few counter-cultural artifacts that seek to assuage these anxieties. Wait a minute? What’s that sound?
- Enter Left Stage: Tame Impala
Tame Impala is the Australian-based music project of Kevin Parker. “In just under a decade, Tame Impala have gone from a beloved psychedelic project to one of the biggest rock bands in the world.” (Pitchfork). Tame Impala is known and much admired for blending the sounds and sonics of the ’60s and ’70s with modern electronic production. The band reintroduces lush pop melodies reminiscent of The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Yet, their sound manages to exist in dialogue with the sensibilities and tastes of modern audiences. For this reason, Tame Impala reinvigorate the longing for the 1960s in America. More than any other band, they successfully capitalize on the visuality of this period.
Tame Impala’s poster art (Image #2) for their tour across North America 2019 is ample evidence of their dedication to 1960s American culture. If this weren’t enough, the 1960s comparison is further solidified, ironically, by the fact that the tour was cancelled due to social unrest brought on by the spread of a deadly virus amid the height of anti-Black protests. Not only that, but Tame Impala’s 2019 tour poster contains many of the same elements and aesthetics of the early psychedelic poster artists. With respect to Wes Wilson’s iconic Are We Next poster, the Tame Impala poster employs a similar approach. Both images require the eye to follow the image downward, appealing to the message as it is given. In both cases, the information is obscured. The name, Tame Impala, appears center frame in the poster (Image #1). The font is in a 3D-printed boxed format, mixed red and pink. The bottom of “Impala” drags downward throughout the poster until it is encapsulated by a swirling desert landscape, passing vertical clouds shaped in by red parameters.
The Are We Next poster was distributed at anti-war rallies and would predict the medium’s blend of art aesthetics and political activism. In Wilson’s poster, the warning “BE AWARE” appears boldly yet hidden within the red-and-white-colour scheme of the American flag. Doing so conflates the idea of national pride with racial/cultural paranoia. In Tame Impala’s case, there is no hidden political message (nor could have anyone expected the political protests and global pandemic). Yet colours and psychedelics are employed to forgo traditional advertising efforts. In fact, the tour dates are barely registerable among the wind-stream effect visuals. In this poster, the band approaches a post-modern understanding of community and activism hold over from the 1690s. Its splash of colour, use of stretched lines and hypnotic whirls communicate the sounds of the 60s the band is deeply indebted to.
In fulfilling this need, the band reintroduces psychedelic, anti-authoritarian, and activist views to audiences within the internet age. Tame Impala’s tour poster address and revitalize a nostalgic visuality for 60’s American rock culture and psychedelic subculture within the 21st-century internet age. As we have seen, the desire for escapism through psychedelics, rock music and the 1960s revivalism exist plenty.
© Copyright 2022 Matthew Hanick, Ryerson University
- Works Cited
Hall, Simon. “Framing the American 1960s: A Historiographical Review.” European Journal of American Culture, vol. 31, no. 1, 2012, pp. 5-23
Moist, Kevin M. “Visualizing Postmodernity: 1960s Rock Concert Posters and Contemporary American Culture: Visualizing Postmodernity.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 43, no. 6, 2010, pp. 1242-1265
Montgomery, Scott B. “Pioneers of Psychedelic Art: An Appreciation of Bonnie MacLean and Wes Wilson.” The Sixties, vol. 13. no. 1, 2020, pp. 72-76
Organ, Michael. “Confrontational Continuum: Modernism and the Psychedelic Art of Martin Sharp.” The Sixties, vol. 11, no. 2, 2018, pp. 156-182.
Tame Impala. “Tame Impala with Special Guest Perfume Genius.” 2019. Found, Pitchfork, 11 March, 2022, https://pitchfork.com/news/tame-impala-and-perfume-genius-announce-tour/
Wilson, Wes. Are We Next. 1965. https://www.wes-wilson.com/ww-writings/are-we-next