The Meaning of the Monkees

Good Sunday morning. Still a little groggy? Well, cheer up sleepy Jean.

Michael Nesmith died the other day. The thinking man’s Monkee was 79.

Nesmith’s death got me thinking about the Monkees, which got me thinking about a David Brooks column from back in March. Brooks’ piece was titled How Woke Ends. His premise was that we shouldn’t worry too much about the cultural excesses of hard-left woke politics because it will eventually be washed out as it becomes coopted by good old American corporate capitalism.

Brooks points out that in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the hard edges of ’60’s radicalism were being sanded off. The revolution had been reduced to a soda commercial. Peace and love went better with Coke.

The Monkees were very much part of that movement. They were conceived in corporate America as a kind of sanitized version of the Beatles. It’s hard these days to imagine the Beatles as representing a dangerous challenge to the establishment, but in the early ’60’s they were just that. They wore their hair too long and they didn’t sound like Sinatra or Crosby or even Elvis.

Michael Nesmith as a Monkee

But they sold records and tickets. Because the Beatles printed money, corporate America wanted in on it. So, the network executives did the efficient thing. They skipped over the messy, time consuming creative part and just scripted a made-for-TV band into existence. They advertised in trade publications looking for “four insane boys”. Nesmith showed up to audition and got the job. The rest is history.

Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones had never met one another. Dolenz and Jones weren’t even musicians. Dolenz had to be taught to play the drums and it’s a debatable point as to whether Jones ever did learn to sing. Their songs were written by others and studio musicians filled in the gaps that Nesmith and Tork couldn’t cover. The Monkees were to the Beatles what “astroturf” organizing is to genuine grass roots in politics.

(Interestingly, Nesmith did write songs. In fact, he wrote Different Drum and offered it to the show’s producers. They rejected it. Linda Ronstadt recorded it with the Stone Poneys and that launched her career.)

But it worked. The Monkees TV show lasted only two years, but won an Emmy, and several of the slick studio musician supported songs did very well on the charts. Today nobody from my generation sees the Monkees as anything but the producers of fun and fond memories. (Nobody from other generations has ever heard of them.)

In just the same way, marketers today are hard at work coopting the latest youth movement. You see it in the ads. Black actors are all over advertisements selling everything from iPhones to pizza and tacos to treatments for cancer. Actors portraying gay couples are incorporated into main stream dramas and comedies. This is happening because advertisers care a lot about young adults. They want to get them just as they’re establishing life-long product loyalties. And young adults are very much into diversity.

This is good because it’s normalizing in more ways than one. Getting the public used to seeing people from different backgrounds in all kinds of settings increases acceptance. But it also folds them into the middle class. It makes the bohemian into the bourgeois.

In reading about Nesmith on the occasion of his passing, I learned something interesting. His mother was a single woman supporting her family with two jobs. She was a secretary and a painter. She combined the challenges of one job with a solution from the other. She invented Liquid Paper and made a fortune. (For readers under 50, Liquid Paper had to do with fixing mistakes made on a typewriter. A typewriter had a key board just like your computer, only the keys moved these levers with letters on the end of them and… oh just look it up.)

How much more practical, middle class and everyday was something like Liquid Paper? And all of those same wonderful qualities applied to the Monkees. They cleaned up the rawness, smoothed over the conflict, sold the revolution in a way that made it seem less edgy and dangerous because it was.

May the same thing happen with woke. Let the soothing balm of corporate greed promote what’s mainstream and good about woke (the simple idea that we shouldn’t judge people based on their identity) while it washes out the edgy parts (the idea that we need to trash liberal democracy and capitalism altogether).

Hey, hey.

Welcome to the 297th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “The Meaning of the Monkees

  1. Dave, though I don’t always agree with you, I do like that you almost always bring a unique take on the topics that you choose to write about. Thank you for that.


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