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volume 6
april 2003

The riddles of rock and roll


  1. The social construction of rock and roll
by Leo D'Anjou
  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.
1 Some questions about rock and roll. The 1950s, no doubt, were boring as well as exciting. For many young people the boring side, however, dominated because of the overbearing pressures toward conformity and consensus. These forces ruled the decade and greatly reduced the opportunities for being different and thereby relegated most expressions of new visions and ideas to the margins of society — see for instance the studies by Richard Aquila (1992: 269-270) or Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak (1977: 6-7). Yet, the 1950s also saw "a virtual revolution," taking place in the realm of popular music as by 1954 rock and roll surfaced and took America by surprise (Pratt, 1990: 134-135). This music excited the young, who were quick to adopt it and with it the accompanying behavioral style elements, and shocked their parents, who perceived it as a form of protest against the existing order. The adult world reacted vehemently: rock and roll records were smashed or burned in public, stage shows were banned or interrupted by the police, and deejays who ventured to spin rock and roll songs on their turn tables were fired on the spot (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 303-307).
  Photo left: Chuck Berry radiated the rock and roll rebellion with his songs as well as his stage shows

On the face of it, an explanation of this sudden musical explosion seems to be quite simple. A new popular music format with associated dance and dress styles is devised and becomes wildly popular among the young who have the time and money to indulge in its pleasures. Settled society, in turn, reacts disapprovingly and condemns the young as well as their music. As time goes by, though, people get used to it and the novelty wears off, the fad wanes, and the situation turns back to normal. The same thing had happened earlier on with swing and the jitterbug and now it just happened again. Rock and roll, however, proved to be different. First, the music existed already as a partition of rhythm and blues, the popular music of the African-American community living in the margins of American society. So, rock and roll was not newly created, but rather discovered by artists and music producers (Marcus, 1982: 12; Brown, 1983: 15; Pratt, 1990: 136; Tosches, 1991: 2). Second, rock and roll was not a fad. The music did not disappear after a few years of frenzy, but stayed on in constantly changing forms. It became a new music — youth music — and a cornerstone of a new culture — youth culture. The development of this culture was part and parcel of rock and roll's emergence. Third, the negative reactions to rock and roll did not fade away either and the active opposition to it remained — see in this respect the detailed account of anti-rock and roll activities by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave (1988, part I).

  Moreover, not only those who witnessed its arrival saw rock and roll as a form of protest and social rebellion. In a more positive way, the concept of the "rock and roll rebel" became a vital element of the self-image of artists and fans alike. And, almost all writers who tell us the story of rock and roll seem to follow track. Clearly, the benefit of hindsight did not change the definition of this music — see among others: Carl Belz (1969); Nick Cohn (1969); David Hatch and Stephen Milward (1977); Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak (1977); Charles Brown (1983); Ray Pratt (1990); Dick Bradley (1992); Philip Ennis (1992); and Paul Friedlander (1996). These observations lead us to the question, what was going on in American popular music in the 1950s that made rock and roll so different in these respects? In this essay, I will deal with this question by breaking it up into two more specific questions. First, how could an existing music format with its own delineated public develop into the music of a completely different social category and next become an autonomous popular music style? And, why did this not happen at an earlier date, for instance, several years or even a decade before? Second, how could this popular music style become signified as rebellious? The fact that rock and roll acquired such a meaning is puzzling because popular music is commercial music produced to make money. As Nick Tosches (1991: 1-2) shows, rock and roll did not differ in this respect and so was made to appeal to as large an audience as possible. Usually this aim is difficult to realize, when the music is at odds with dominant values in society (Denisoff, 1983: 55).
2 Rock and roll as a social construct. The answers to both these riddles of rock and roll, I will argue, can be found by looking at rock and roll as a social construct in the way Ian Hacking (1999: 19) defines this concept, i.e. as the "contingent upshot" of social processes and historical events. Unraveling how this "upshot" came about — in Hacking's words, by displaying and analyzing the actual, historically situated, social interactions that led to the emergence of rock and roll — will bring the answers to my first question. Rock and roll's social history will, moreover, deliver some answers to my second question as well, because "making" music entails, as Norman Denzin (1970) rightfully assesses, more than creating a vehicle for expressing and mediating musical meanings. The way people interact with each other in the context of the music, is as important. As Denzin (1970: 1036) states:
  "The meaning of a popular song, then, lies in the interaction brought to it. Meaning resides only partly in the lyrics, the beat, or its mood."
  In popular music, there are always interactions going on between artists and listeners and between both these parties and other people involved in or confronted by this style of music. Interactions like these, often will add meanings to this music that extend far beyond the original intentions of its producers. Translated into the vernacular op popular music studies: popular music always is a discursively constituted category (Shepherd and Wicke, 1997: 212). As these "additional" meanings are part and parcel of rock and roll, they are facts that can be analyzed as well.
  Photo right: Eddie Cochran personified adolescent rebellion with his exuberant songs and his rock and roll imago

Looking at a popular music style as the result of intricate processes and events closely corresponds with the manner in which Howard Becker (1982) and Richard Peterson (1976; 1994) conceptualize the materialization of other cultural elements like paintings and music. Art, according to them, involves more than just the creative activities of individual artists. Each and every work of art is always a social product too, jointly made by artists, their audiences, and all the actors in between. Its nature and content are shaped by what these actors do — their actions and interactions — and why they do it — their intentions. Just like all other forms of art, popular music is made for intrinsic as well as extrinsic reasons. Making music is fun for artists as is listening to it for their audiences. At the same time, most artists are eager to make a living out of their work and therefore are obliged to make the kind of music listeners are prepared to pay for. For its audiences on the other hand, popular music may be more than just a means off having a good time; the music may be part of their life style. In contemporary society, artists and audiences are not directly linked. There is a whole variety of actors in between — record companies, concert organizers, radio stations, disk jockeys, and so on — who have made it their business to produce and distribute the music. Popular music thus involves more than only sound. It is also a form of organization, an "art world" as Becker (1982: 34) calls it, that produces this kind of music and thereby shapes its nature and content (Peterson, 1994: 163).

  Rock and roll, of course, has to be seen in relation to other styles and genres of popular music. The art world of popular music can be divided into several segments, to which Philip Ennis (1992: 20-22) refers as streams. According to Ennis, a musical stream is some sort of loose structure with a distinct artistic system. Each stream is an economic entity and serves its own audiences, who recognize the stream's music as belonging to their own style of life. By setting the musical preferences of its audiences, each stream marks off the boundaries between social groups and thereby contributes to the formation of group identities. As such a musical stream is the site of the actual, historically situated, social interactions which produce popular music styles and the specific musical pieces belonging to it. It does so by providing the setting in which artists, producers, distributors, mediators, and publics act and interact; it is the set of conditions that make actions possible or, for that matter, impossible. A stream, moreover, is also the upshot of the past, and with its heritage it helps to shape the future. The opportunities and constraints that a stream provides, are in turn affected by — nested in — the cultural and structural conditions of the encompassing world of popular music, as the latter in turn are nested in those of the society at large. Taken together, these elements are the conditions for the emergence and development of specific popular music styles.
3 Opportunities, constraints and significations. In this essay, I will distinguish three sets of conditions. (1) The first set consists of the basic conditions that favor the development of a new music style. Examples of such conditions are the existence of musical resources, like musical formats, artists and composers, recipes of how to make music, and so on; and the existence of economic resources, like record companies and radio stations and their willingness to record and broadcast the new music, and so on. (2) The second set comprises conditions that entice artists — or record producers — to experiment with new musical forms. Questions here, for instance, regard the existence of a potential audience for the new music, the willingness of audiences to impute new meanings to a music style such as the need of adolescents to create their own culture. (3) The third set comprises conditions like the existing rules, routines and practices that are guiding people in making and interpreting music or limiting their possibilities to do so. Conditions like these constrain the development of a given style. This set of opportunities and constraints is important, because rules, routines and practices are never static. In fact they give a stream its internal dynamics. New actors may enter the field; economic circumstances or music technologies may change; deviating cultural beliefs may arise, and so on. All this may affect the balance between favorable and constraining conditions and thus determine the fate of a music style. All in all, a musical stream may be compared to a playing field with specific institutions, cultural constructions, and strategic players. However, it is a field with shifting rules and regulations, imputed by the actual possibilities of the players, which determine the outcomes of their play.
  Photo left: In his particular way, Little Richard brought the electrifying thrills of rock and roll to his audiences

In his impressive study Ennis (1992) shows us how rock and roll developed into a separate popular musical stream. Like any other popular musical stream, this new stream was as much the creation of composers, song-writers, singers, and musicians as the product of the dialectics between the creative efforts of these actors, their wish to make money, the commercially induced activities of the other actors in the music industry, and — last but not least — the music's reception by those for whom it was made, the rock and roll audience. In the 1950s, these actions and interactions gave, as was to be expected (Denzin, 1970), the style not only its musical form and meaning, but imputed all kinds of extra-musical meanings to it as well. The set of opportunities and constraints that shaped the social construction of rock and roll and its signification in the early 1950s was the popular music scene in the United States. This scene brought its own dynamics into the play, but was in turn profoundly affected by a number of wider social changes that were rapidly transforming American society after World War II and directly shaped the conditions for the emergence of rock and roll.

  In this essay I will discuss the rise of rock and roll as a new and separate stream of popular music and look into the question how it acquired its stamp of rebellion. The changes, developments, and events in postwar America that affected rock and roll are intertwined in intricate ways with the emergence, evolution, and signification of this music and cannot easily be unraveled. In order to get a clearer view on what was going in society and in the realm of popular music and to get satisfactory answers to both my questions, it will be necessary to make some analytical distinctions. Therefore, I will treat the context in which rock and roll arose separately from the social construction and signification processes. I will deal with the context first and by doing so I will clear the ground for a better understanding of both the processes of construction and signification. Next, I will make a distinction between the encompassing context of postwar America in transformation (section two), and the specific context, the American popular music scene in the early 1950s (section three), as the latter was influenced by the former. Having done that, I will deal with the social construction of rock and roll (sections four and five) and its signification as a rebellious music (section six), while recognizing that both processes went on side by side. In the final section (section seven), I will return to my questions and deal with the implications of my findings.
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