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volume 6
april 2003

The riddles of rock and roll


by Leo D'Anjou
  Rock and roll has often been equated with rebellion. The genre, though, is just a form of popular music and many of the important players in the game of promoting it were, like the saying goes, only in it for the money. As a rule, music like that will be supportive of the social order rather than inciting resistance against it. So, how did rock and roll acquire its rebellious image? Investigating this question from a sociological perspective, Leo D'Anjou here retells the story of the early beginnings of rock music.
English 1. The social construction of rock and roll. The rise of rock and roll in the 1950s coincides with the manifestation of youth as a new social category: the teenagers. At that time, this style of popular music certainly did offer an appropriate articulation of their needs. This, however, does not explain why rock and roll did become identified with rebellion, or why young people had to wait such a long time for their own music to arise. Talking about construction and signification, Leo D'Anjou here clears the ground to solve these riddles of rock and roll.
English 2. The transformation of American society. The economic, social, and political transformations of the 1950s did not only bring prosperity and the hope that the "American Dream" would come true, but also fostered widespread feelings of insecurity. This led to a new American consensus, a strange combination of a somewhat naive optimistic belief in a bright future and a deep-seated feeling of anxiety about a social change, people felt they could no longer control. If rock and roll was a form of rebellion at all, then only because — at least in some respects — it did deviate from this new consensus.
English 3. The turn towards rhythm and blues. Looking into the American popular music scene at the beginning of the 1950s, Leo D'Anjou explores the structural setting in which rock and roll did rise and develop as a separate stream of popular music. Following Phillip Ennis footsteps, he describes the American musical landscape at the end of the 1940s as the specific setting that offered rock and roll a window of opportunity for its emergence. It started with the demise of Tin Pan Ally and the turn of a youthful avant-garde towards rhythm and blues.
English 4. The formation of a new musical stream. The deplorable state of Tin Pan Alley's white pop music stream in the early 1950s points toward a serious mismatch between the changing preferences of young people and the output of this segment of the music industry. This problem, Leo D'Anjou shows, only could be solved by the social construction of a new musical stream, with many new players in the field — artists, producers, disk jockey's and independent record labels — taking the hazardous and time-consuming steps of innovation and elaboration.
English 5. The consolidation of rock and roll. Following lead, slowly the old powers of the music industry became involved in rock and roll, either hoping that it would prove to be a passing fad or that they would be able to control it. Their strategies involved the cleaning-up of the artists as well as the music, and resulted in the deliberate creation of teenage idols. Still, this kind of teen music proved to retain enough of the rock and roll spirit to carry it through the seven lean years from 1958 till 1964, when at last the British Invasion hit the United States to secure the new stream.
English 6. The signification of rock and roll. The affective needs of young people, finding themselves in the new situation of growing up in postwar America, are not sufficient to explain rock and roll's rebellious nature. After all, the only things young people needed were some space and some time for expressing their choices and communicating their common experiences and daily problems at home and at school with their peers. It was the reception of this need in the cultural climate of the 1950s which gave rock and roll's "politics of fun" its radiance of rebellion.
English 7. Unintended outcomes. Rock and roll did put the American society of the 1950s upside down without any of the relevant actors really striving at it. Nor the producers, nor the consumers of this musical stream themselves were aiming at such a thing. The rock and roll revolution clearly was a rebellion without rebels, as rock and roll's rebellious nature was the unintended outcome of the uncoordinated actions of actors with quite other aspirations. Still the meaning stuck as a reaction on the false dream, postwar America was dreaming in the 1950s.
English References.
  Leo D'Anjou is Associate Professor of Sociology at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His main interests lie on the field of social movements and the history of slavery. Among his publications on these subjects, you will find his Social movements and cultural change. The first abolition campaign revisited (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1996). Here he uses the tools of his academic profession on a private interest: rock and roll. You can contact him about the results by e-mail. A shorter, Dutch language version of this essay was published as: Leo D'Anjou (2001), "Rock-'n-roll. De sociale constructie van een muziekstijl." In: Sociologische Gids, 2001, 48, 2, 122-137.
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