Age of Discontent

March 6, 2020 / Ben Scarborough

Psychedelia is back — and we need it now more than ever.

Throughout my life, I’ve felt an institutional pressure to know more about myself and about life than I do (and, I think, more than I possibly could). What is the right way to act? What will be my future? How do I become more acceptable, more accessible to people? I was presented with answers I couldn’t make sense of, that felt more like rules for fitting in. Be social, but not overbearing. Be interesting, but not strange. Don’t deviate from expectations; don’t cause a disturbance. Keep your head down. It took me until very recently to realize that I never asked myself why I wanted to know the answer to any of those questions in the first place. I did, however, know what appealed to me. Privately exploring my own tastes, I soon discovered that I had an affinity for the bizarre and psychedelic.

The more I talked to people, the more I understood that I was far from alone. I learned that I am part of an entire generation that is, at least in significant part, generally unhappy with the rules of life. The single most important thing I’ve realized about these individuals is that we are entirely unwilling to reshape ourselves to fit what we are told is the right way of talking, acting and existing for our society. We long for a world in which we are accepted for who we are — individuals, each with a unique story, each with an incredibly intricate and interesting way of thinking and existing. We long for a world where free expression of self is accepted. We long for the privilege of descent into blissful decadence on occasion without fear of being shamed or ostracized by employers, the government, professors, parents or society at large. Having given up on the circumstances of our present, we have no choice but to look back.

Fifty years ago, the youth counterculture of the sixties (disdainfully dubbed the “hippies” by both their Beat Generation predecessors and their traditionalist conservative opposition) had everything I think I’m looking for in this time — most specifically, a willingness and desire to fight against the establishment and for the unique self as an end to be pursued. Wherever these dissenters gathered, a palpable atmosphere of benevolence, acceptance and individual expression could be found. Nowhere was this more visible than at Woodstock. Exuberant colors, nonstop music, an abundance of LSD, a generally peaceful atmosphere and a raw, unhindered love that gave the atmosphere a tangible sense of joy and belonging. Yet it was not simply benevolence for the sake of benevolence. It was benevolence despite. Individuals in the counterculture were anti-war, anti-establishment hippies who were frustrated with the forces of conformism that were as present then as they are now. They objected to society’s judgment by brazenly accepting unabashed, delightfully strange individualism.

Things are different now. While it is a pipe dream to fully recapture the counterculture of the sixties, we can at least use it to explore our frustrations. The recent reemergence of psychedelia in music, fashion and culture is the mouthpiece for our expression of these feelings. Psychedelia describes the people, art and culture inspired by psychedelic drugs like LSD, DMT, Mescaline and Psilocybin. And it’s nothing new — psychedelic expression was a cornerstone of counterculture expression back in the day. However, modern (or neo-) psychedelia is more melancholic and wistful in tone than its half-century-old predecessor. There is a distinct sense of longing for something deeper and more meaningful than we see in our everyday lives in the 21st century.

The most obvious and increasingly mainstream expression of psychedelia is through music. Psychedelic music features some combination of exotic instrumentation or microtones, expression of modality in the melody and lyrics, the creation of a surreal, ethereal feeling, an emphasis on experimental instrumentals and elaborate studio effects. Most artists’ goal is to alter the listener’s perception of time and reality and produce a variety of complex emotions, from dreamlike wonder to passive distance. Tame Impala, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Unknown Mortal Orchestra are just a few members of the neo-psychedelic wave that has swept through the musical scene in the last few years. Their music is for those of us who, having grown tired of being told what is right, are ready for something new, interesting and outlandish. They are sonic wizards, creating kaleidoscopic visuals and feelings of mind-bending, psychotropic completeness within their audience.

At live performances, the music comes alive — pulsating inside your skull, clutching your consciousness and twisting it into bizarre and fantastic forms, providing a sublime release you didn’t even know you were craving, scratching an itch you didn’t even know you had. It lets listeners let go of their lives for a few minutes to immerse themselves in dreamy freedom. It offers an escape. Psychedelia involves experimental patterns, vivid colors and creative expression of self. It is both a callback to the flowery, bohemian styles of classic sixties looks and a bold new project in experimental creativity. People are using their clothes as a way to express that they absolutely do not need to stick to old traditions, thank you very much, and in fact they can fight against them in an incredibly individualist act of defiance. Psychedelia in 2019 means being okay with shunning the old ways and the traditionalist conventions in favor of individuals expressing themselves how they, individually, see fit. Neo-psychedelia sees the original psychedelic culture half a century ago and adapts it to the pressures of the 21st century. It is made melancholic by the circumstances under which it arises, yet it is joyful in its ability to break loose from convention. It is creative, dynamic and complex. And maybe it’s just me (though I don’t think so), but I’m certain that it’s exactly what our generation needs right now.

“We absolutely must find a way to let ourselves be happy.

Whatever you choose to do, make it beautiful to you.”

We want so badly to be unhindered by fear of ostracization. We ache for it. We are desperate to express ourselves freely, to show off our love for our fellow humans, to listen to and celebrate the sheer artistic joy of music, of visual art, of dancing, of fashion, of anything creative. It’s no simple wish, it’s a need, a fundamental and instinctive urge to create something beautiful. We should be able to celebrate and perpetuate beauty as something that makes us human, something that binds us together as brothers and sisters. Fortunately, we are gradually emerging from our timid shells and shaking off our fears, urged on by the need to allow ourselves to shine, unabashed. This is not to say that everyone manifests their need to create beauty through music or art or dance. The same need can be found in people who pursue passions in mathematics, biology, physics, law, government, economics or anything that scratches the great human itch. The medium through which a person chooses to pursue self-expression is not remotely as important as that expression itself. We all have something to say, and we all want simply to be as we are, without others telling us that that isn’t okay.

We absolutely must find a way to let ourselves be happy. Whatever you choose to do, make it beautiful to you.

By: Ben Scarborough

Layout: Adriana Torres & Pranutha Punukula

Photographer: Paige Miller

Stylist: Kaylee Holland

HMUA: Mia Carriles & Tiffany Lam

Models: Betsy Welborn, Hassan Ahmad & Hyo Chul Kim

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 13 here.
ABOUT                  CONTACT                 STAFF                FAQ                 ISSUU