From College To Media
Sac State vs. The Suck State of Mainstream Media
Chapter 5: Exploring the Age of Incoherence

Introduction: A Journey Through Mass Media Education
Chapter 1: Why I Majored in Communication
Chapter 2: The Art of Radio
Chapter 3: Writing TV News
Chapter 4: Studying To Be a Rock Star
Chapter 5: Exploring the Age of Incoherence
Chapter 6: The Science of Media Persuasion
Chapter 7: How Stats Influence Perceptions
Chapter 8: Strategies for Winning a Debate
Chapter 9: Programming Music Instead of Computers
Chapter 10: My Career in Media

by Alex Cosper, November 1, 2015

I've always enjoyed feeding my brain with knowledge. There was never a time when I thought it was better to be dumb or lazy than smart. The reasons why I moved away from television and gravitated toward music was because I understood music as a vehicle to raise curiosity and awareness.

I stopped watching TV on a regular brainwashed basis by the late seventies as music clearly became much more important to me. Radio was merely a medium that delivered music, otherwise I didn't really need it for anything after I realized most news isn't that important for survival and that I could learn about the latest music by studying the charts.

Despite mostly caring about music as my top form of inspiration, I was still an overall pop culture junkie. In other words, I still mixed in time to see a movie every now and then and tried to keep up with current trends, not necessarily to buy into them, but to be aware of them. I wanted to learn more about politics, but I thought I could do that through music, since I believed certain artists had smarter messages than any politicians. I viewed John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Sting, Don Henley and Neil Young as some of the smartest musicians.

One of the all time favorite classes that fed my brain and filled in a lot of mysterious gaps was Age of Incoherence at Sac State. It combined several of my favorite topics such as music, politics, history, social consciousness and a mix of pop culture. I enjoyed the class so much I got an A in it, as I did in several other classes. If I could have majored in incoherence and knew there was a career in it, I would have pursued it. The class was about how American society had fragmented since the fifties, abandoning traditional values. In other words, it focused on radical social changes and explained why they were happening.

A big part of the course was analyzing the "generation gap" that divided parents and their kids over the emergence of rock and roll music. Another aspect was the culture shock that was occurring among the people who were taught to fit in with the old world establishment that began to crumble in the fifties.

The professor devoted an entire week to talking about The Beatles and how they went against the grain. Here's what I wrote in one of my term papers about the group for the class: "By 1967, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr had changed remarkably. They no longer toured, Lennon was becoming a spokesman for peace and absurd rumors spread of McCartney's death. At the height of this mystique, an album with no singles called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released."

The album was full of magnificent melodies and descriptive lyrics about colorful characters and counter-culture scenarios, as well as hypnotic sonic experimentation. But the most captivating element of the album was that it seemed to contain a central theme that asked the question: can people get by without illusions?"

Evidence of Incoherence

Side one of Sgt. Pepper showcased imagery of partying, escape and fixing problems that kept the mind from wandering. Side two opened with an in-depth look at the meaning of life in "Within You, Without You," which mentioned how people favor illusion over truth. From there the album explored visions of the future, more fantasies and ultimately, the symphonic masterpiece "A Day In the Life," which encountered daydreaming, death, confusion and war, culminating in the message "I'd love to turn you on."

From then on The Beatles' albums were fragmented into incoherrent puzzle pieces. Magical Mystery Tour came out at the end of 1967 as a soundtrack to a psychedelic film that definitely did not have a central theme, other than playful incoherence, which was most clearly evident in the unclear message of "I Am the Walrus." The album contained a few leftover tracks that didn't make it on Sgt. Pepper, which were "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane." The meaningful counter-culture anthem "All You Need Is Love," which contained song fragements of the French national anthem and a few Beatles hits, contrasted with the self-contradictory but catchy pop tune "Hello Goodbye."

The White Album in 1968 marked another non-thematic album. This time it was a double set that had the feel of a subconscious dream state, particularly the track "Revolution 9," which was mainly a collage of soundbites layered together. The album perhaps represented the group's widest variety that included novelties, hard rock, reggae, folk, ballads, sound effects and eclectic music. While previous albums had pictures of all four Beatles on the cover, this one was a pure white cover that simply said "The Beatles" on it. Then the inside cover had four separate photos, which went along with the direction of them each moving toward becoming solo artists.

Abbey Road marked a dramatic change in music marketing, as the group's name didn't even appear on the front cover, although it did on the back cover. The album featured song fragments that blended together as a medley, featuring "Sun King / Mean Mr. Mustard / Polythene Pam / She Came In Through the Bathroom Window / Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight." To add to the incoherence, "The End" seemed to be a grand finale with a serious message, only to be followed by the real closer, a half minute song about getting drunk called "Her Majesty."

Even though that was the end of the Beatles as far as their recorded work, they still put out one more studio album that had been shelved earlier called Let It Be. On the front cover were four separate photos, once again, hinting the four members were growing apart. Their final hit before all the repackaging began was "Long and Winding Road," which is an appropriate song to describe their journey that coincided with how dramatically society changed through the Age of Incoherence.

A Series of Disruptions

The chronology of The Beatles can be described millions of different ways, which is why they were so interesting. I doubt they set out to create a complex story about themselves to keep conspiracy theorists guessing about what their songs really meant. It was more like they were a very talented team that merged ideas together to create synergy that was bigger than the sum of their parts. In the process they were able to create incredible reflections of society in musical form, as well as studio experimentaton that just happened to penetrate subliminal levels that became wide open to multiple interpretations.

About a year after The Beatles broke up, Led Zeppelin released "Stairway To Heaven" in 1971. The album cut, which was not issued as a single, picked up where Beatle knowledge left off, explaining how "words have two meanings." Saying one thing and meaning another, of course, was understood to be part of politics, such as how Richard Nixon's big campaign promise of 1968 was to "end the war with peace and honor," only to keep it going four more years.

Another continuation of the departure from mainstream formulas was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album in 1973. The band recorded in the same place as The Beatles, at Abbey Road Studios in London. It spoke of the detachment between people and their leaders in "Us and Them" and how "Money" was the "root of all evil." Ultimately, it explored darkness more descriptively and objectively than previous music beyond the orange pylon.

In many ways it seemed logical for rock music to return to the basics after venturing so far into the unknown. That's precisely what began to happen with the arrival of garage bands who were labeled as "punk" by music critics. This raw style of louder, faster, more basic anti-establishment music had been brewing since the mid-sixties and began to get attention in the press with acts like MC5, Iggy Pop and The Ramones. By 1976 The Sex Pistols and The Clash were considered leading bands of this new genre that was supposed to be about individuality, not conformity to trends.

The biggest difference in message between the Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones versus the punk bands of the seventies was that the sixties artists were not so much tearing down the establishment as they were commenting on how society was drifting away from it. Punk, on the other hand, mocked and trashed the system while suggesting anarchy would make a better replacement.

Adding to the chaos of the times was the steady exposure of government corruption, highlighted by Nixon's resignation in 1974, followed by his unelected hand-picked successor Ford, who pardoned the disgraced president for crimes Nixon "may have committed" while in office. Those crimes uncovered by the press, Nixon's colleagues and actual tape recordings included illegal bombings, wire-tapping and bribery. Fragmented presidential terms from the early sixties through the late seventies were clear indicators that rapid political changes became the norm, at least until the Reagan Administration.

Notes On the Age of Incoherence

I saved all my important notes from the Age of Incoherence class because I was fascinated by the patterns that connected government, media, entertainment and society. Part of what made The Beatles the focal point of this era was they didn't come from wealth and power but somehow wound up at the top of the pyramid anyway. Nor did they follow established rules of their industry. Here are some of those notes from Professor Campbell's class, reflecting how the world moved into a pattern of accelerated change since the 1950s:

01. The Age of Incoherence began when the USSR revealed it tested the atom bomb in 1949, ushering in the "cold war."
02. The premise that America was number one faced challenges as the USSR exhibited its military strength.
03. This post-WWII era ushers in new trends at a much more rapid pace than in previous eras.
04. The rise of mass marketing creates built-in insecurity as a component to encourage conformity to changing fashions and trends.
05. Unwritten rules in the form of mass marketing reshape social expectations, as fashions dictate who individuals are supposed to be.
06. Football reflects industrialization: competition, time factor, aggression, strength, contact, specialization and territorial acquisition.
07. The tech industry demands constant innovation, research and design, speeding up product life cylces.
08. Getting caught between technology waves creates incoherence, tension and future shock.
09. People who are comfortable with incoherence want to be lied to.
10. One of the main goals in the Age of Incoherence is to increase emotional power.
11. An incoherent society cannot be satisfied due to lack of self-confidence.
12. As middle class adults developed paranoia of communism in the 50s, youth found it easier to move up in social status.
13. Hippies for peace were considered communists by the establishment for opposing fighters of communism.
14. The definition of hip focused on experiencing "now," as opposed to learning from the past or planning for the future.
15. The "hip generation" did not value vocabulary as seriously as the establishment did.
16. The crumbling of the established pyramid unleashed enormous amounts of youthful optimism.
17. Soul searching became a new national pastime beginning in the 1950s.
18. In the Age of Incoherence people began to view media celebrities, not so much religious leaders, as role models.
19. Attention span shortened to under ten seconds with the fast-paced scenes of television and movies.
20. Popular communications began to validate the status quo of constant change, mirroring quicker changes in public opinion.
21. Consumerism developed in the 1950s in television advertising, emphasizing family happiness.
22. In the Age of Coherence if you followed the rules, you could move up the pyramid step by step.
23. The formation of the CIA in 1947 to track down enemies injected a theme of paranoia into government.
24. Frisbee challenged the structure of traditional competitive sports because it had no winners and no one got hurt.
25. Individuals were unified by common dreams in the Age of Coherence; in the Incoherent era individuals pursued their own dreams.
26. The humor of Mad Magazine was in its counter-culture stance that mocked the establishment.
27. Marilyn Monroe was one of the first major stars in the Age of Incoherence, as her career was built on a volatile mystique.
28. JFK was the youngest man elected to the White House in 1960, redefining the path of political success.
29. The establishment was afraid of rock and roll music in the fifties, calling it "jungle music."
30. After Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union in the late fifties, America's "final frontier" became space exploration.
31. Men of the fifties were expected to wear a white shirt, dark tie and dark jacket, whereas the sixties introduced more casual attire.
32. The establishment was inspired by money, whereas the counter-culture drew inspiration from recorded music.
33. Respect for authority began to diminish in the sixties and seventies.
34. The establishment pyramid reflected order, logic and mathematics; the counter-culture celebrated protest, emotion and art.
35. The counter-culture could be compared with Dionysus (God of Wine), favoring optimism while ignoring order and insecurity.
36. Up until the 1950s parents controlled the music their kids heard by owning phonographs and records.
37. Cheap 45rpm records and pocket radios allowed kids to listen to music in their own rooms without parental censorship.
38. There were limited options in the Age of Coherence, whereas multiple options manifested in the Age of Incoherence.
39. The message of 1969 was "get back to the garden," as organic and environmental themes emerged.
40. By 1982 the message shifted toward "be whoever you want" ... as long as it's at least middle class.

Wasted On The Way

What could be more incoherent than mind-altering drugs? The sixties gave us plenty of controversial songs that hinted at recreational drugs, which led to music getting banned for "hidden messages." The Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" was an example of a hit that some radio stations refused to play because it spoke of hallucinogenic drugs, although it could also be argued as just a song about the children's story Alice In Wonderland.

As a reminder that sometimes words can have multiple meanings, consider President Reagan's "war on drugs," which was actually a slogan that started with Nixon on June 17, 1971, when he announced funding for the campaign to stamp out drug abuse. Nixon then bragged the following year that "drug addiction in the United States is under control." Under the Reagan/Bush administration this war fused with a cover-up of aid to terrorists in yet another government corruption story known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

Kind of like when a quarterback fakes like he's going to run then throws a pass to an unnoticed open receiver, the war on drugs was a diversion from a hidden subplot. It had the feel of a Hollywood movie if you were paying attention, but luckily for the government, most people were too busy partying to notice. It's accurate to say that by the middle of the decade, Reagan had "made people feel good about America again," or so the media mantra went. By deregulating media, he was able to condense it toward a shorter list of big companies, which of course, appreciated the favor. So it's no wonder that they painted the Iran-Contra mess as too confusing to figure out for the average American.

Although Reagan had campaigned on the promise he would not negotiate with terrorists, he later admitted that's what his administration did with Iran and South American rebels known as Contras in his efforts to help overthrow the government of Nicaragua. The scheme involved illegally trading U.S. hostages in exchange for weapons to aid both Iran and the Contras. Reagan admitted on national TV on March 4, 1987 that arms were traded for hostages, but that he was unaware of the deal. The scandal led to 14 administration indictments.

Years later we learned from San Jose Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb that U.S. intelligence agents allowed the Contras to smuggle in cocaine to drug dealers in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, while the fast cash was used to pay for weapons. The story gets deep and bizarre like a rabbit hole full of conspiracy facts and a list of culprits too long to mention. The government's participation in this drug scheme was confirmed by former DEA head Robert Bonner.

An extra subplot focused on how the war on drugs did lead to several drug offender convictions as a way to build up the corporate prison population, which began emerging in the eighties. The government paid corporations per prisoner as the private prison biz became very profitable for investors by the nineties, even though violent crime rates began to dramatically decline.

Reagan rebuilt a new artificial pyramid symbolic of money and morality that floated on an economic bubble based on the theory of trickle-down economics. Consequently, he convinced a "moral majority" that freedom to chase materialism up the establishment's pyramid was good after all as long as you bought into the illusions of corporate wizards while hippies who sought spiritualism through cannabis were tossed in the dungeon.

Again, America was too much in a state of drunkenness to even care about this war on drugs theme or its ironic subplots. But through the soundtrack of music we could sense some of what was going on since music was still the main driver of pop culture intelligence in the eighties. Songs like "All She Wants To Do Is Dance" by Don Henley and "Smuggler's Blues" by Glenn Frey hinted something was up. In 1982 "Wasted On The Way" by Crosby, Stills and Nash was like an epilogue to the Age of Incoherence, reflecting on youngsters questioning the answers and envying the dancers.

I still look back on the class as an earthquake that rattled open cracks throughout the fragile American dream. It really helped me explore how the system is structured and how people of all pyramid levels conspire to deconstruct it into an incoherent jigsaw puzzle. It prepared me to become a sarcastic storyteller on the outer perimeter of social brainwash theater, rather than a ridiculous participant within its blurred boundaries.

Continue to Chapter 6: The Science of Media Persuasion

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