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volume 6
april 2003

The riddles of rock and roll


  6. The signification of rock and roll
by Leo D'Anjou
  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 that gave rock and roll's "politics of fun" its radiance of rebellion.
1 Reception and signification. After our extensive description of rock and roll's evolution as a new musical stream, it now is time to turn our attention to its signification. Almost from the start, as we have already indicated, rock and roll was received as a "rebellion." It is not difficult to see why most teenagers welcomed the arrival of this music enthusiastically. An important reason for their turn to this music was a simple one: rock and roll was just fun. This loud, rhythmic, direct, and simple style of music contrasted sharply with the reigning "June, croon, spoon" sort of music that was being released in such great amounts by Tin Pan Alley. Instead rock and roll promised them the opportunity of having a good time and some release from the urgent everyday commitments of school life. Rock and roll, moreover, was not only fun to listen to but its beat made it even more fun to dance to. Dances, dating back to older and wilder days, like the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug, were revived while others, like the Duck, the Pony, the Locomotion, and the Twist, were newly invented to fit to the music (Braun, 1969; Belz, 1969).
  Photo left: Between 1955 and 1963, rhythm and blues artist Fats Domino scored no less than 35 Top 40 singles, with "Blueberry Hill" (1956) as the most outstanding one

From the very start, however, rock and roll had some wider meanings too. The music and the related style elements made it possible for young people to distinguish themselves from adults and to communicate this "difference" to society. It added to the build-up of a distinctive identity, modeled on prototypes like Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, and contributed to the demarcation of an own cultural space for adolescents. Buying and listening to rock and roll records, listening to this music on the radio, gathering around juke boxes, dancing at high school hops, going to rock and roll concerts: participating in all these activities were symbolic tokens of what it meant to be "young." Rock and roll had even more to offer to young people besides the marks of identity and life style. The lyrics of its songs dealt with the exigencies of adolescents' lives and with their experiences, feelings, and problems. Till then adult society had deemed these feelings either as being unimportant, as just school or — puppy — love, or as not existent, sexuality. Many feelings were repressed anyway and sexuality was the most important of them. The acknowledgment in rock and roll songs of the existence of these suppressed and not recognized feelings brought many teenagers relieve.

  Taken together, these three elements — release, identity and relieve — provided rock and roll with a firm place in the developing youth culture alongside typical youthful dress styles, haircuts, looks, demeanor, slang, and so on. This placement of rock and roll in the emerging youth culture gave the music a meaning that extended far beyond entertainment. Rock and roll clearly acted as a catalyst, releasing the needs of adolescents as well as the potential of the world of commerce to serve them (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 292). It was, moreover, not only the music itself that played this role but also the way its performers behaved. Through their behavior and their style of clothing, the new rock and roll stars became early role models for the emerging teenage category and they could do so more readily as the rapid transformation of American society made parents obsolete as role models. In this respect Kenneth Keniston (1965: 204) clearly was at something when he pointed at "... the absence of paternal exemplars in many contemporary plays, novels, and films" and, as Dick Bradley (1992: 97) remarks, the new heroes in films, books, and music were appealing alternatives for them.
2 The politics of fun. Because of its wider meanings, Lawrence Grossberg (1992: 180) rightfully describes rock and roll as a "politics of fun", as it "... declared youth's rejection of the boredom, surveillance, control and normalcy of the straight world as their own imagined future." We can find a classic example in the lyrics of Chuck Berry's "School Day" (1957), a song that openly expressed the familiar, but at the time mostly still hidden resentments against school of many pupils:
  Up in the mornin' and out to school
The teacher is teachin' the Golden Rule
American history and practical math
You're studyin' hard and hopin' to pass
Workin' your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won't leave you alone
  The location of school, however, does not really play an important role in rock and roll lyrics (Brehony, 1998). This "boring" and "obligatory" reality just was mostly negated by simply leaving it out and by directing all attention to its counterpart — leisure — instead.
  Photo right: Teen idol and actor Tab Hunter made "Young Love" into a hit in 1957

The core of the songs' idiom, of course, was the articulation of romantic love, adapted to the petting and dating practices of adolescents (Frith, 1987). A good example here is "Young Love" (1957), a song written by Carole Joyner and Ric Cartey which gave teen idol Tab Hunter a number one hit for seven weeks in 1957.

Young love, first love
Filled with true devotion
Young love, our love
We share with deep emotion

  It is songs like these, which by their lyrics made the expression of sincere love legitimate for young people, by stressing the authenticity of their feelings. Maybe even more so, as Simon Frith (1987) argues, young people were attracted to rock and roll by its power to articulate and communicate feelings, like for instance in Buddy Holly's "Rave On" (1958):

Well the little things you say and do
Make me want to be with you
Rave on, it's a crazy feelin' and
I know its got me reelin'
When you say, I love you
Rave on ...

  Rock and roll obviously gave young people a voice to articulate their feelings of incertainty, their frustrations and their successes decisions. Their new status position compelled them to make their own life choices and rock and roll clearly helped them to voice their considerations and to cope with the emotional consequences. However, looking at songs like these, it is not yet clear why they were perceived as rebellious. Admittingly, at the face of it, they look rather harmless.
3 The generation gap. Most teenagers were rather enthusiast while most adults, to say the least, were not that happy. By declaring its life style "boring", the idiom of rock and roll, no doubt, did not fit in nicely with America's new consensus. By saying that young people had a right to enjoy their lives now, it contrasted to the views of most parents who were perceiving school as an investment and a postponement of gratifications. By stressing the lures of street life instead of domesticity, it evidently broke with the perspectives of the New American Dream. By replacing the Tin Pan Ally idiom of reference and irony with directness and banter, it surely did shock adult society (Kleijer and Tillekens, 2000). Above all, adults at that time were not particularly used to speak overtly about their emotions. In all these respects rock and roll was clearly deviating from their expectations. All this, however, will not suffice to explain rock and roll's image of rebellion.
  Photo left: Carl Perkins, whose style of guitar playing may have been as important for rock and roll as Presley's way of singing

Despite all these contrasting elements, there were also many lines of correspondence between the new consensus and the idiom of rock and roll. Admittingly, many adolescents took to outfits that looked differently, they behaved in novel ways and spoke a language that was difficult to understand by their parents and also clearly preferred a very different sort of music. In many respects, however, most of them were much the same as their parents. As Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak (1977: 275) observe, like their parents most teenagers were conformists and strove for security like they did. The only difference was that they increasingly did so in another way and exactly that made that the manifestations of the emerging youth subcultures and life styles were not welcomed very warmly. At best, the reaction was a mixture of indulgence — "aren't these kids cute?" — and concern — "these kids are in trouble!" (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 291). More often, however, the adult world reacted very hostile because the young built their culture mainly on items that were not adult. This attitude in turn, for young people, made the rock and roll ways of behaving, dressing, listening to music and so on, especially attractive. As Charles Brown (1983: 29) aptly phrases: "If it irritated our parents, it had to be good." In the same vein Keniston (1965: 210) calls the youth culture of the early 1960s "belligerently non-adult" (emphasis by Keniston).

  The first signs of a break between generations became visible and the adults' reactions were at their fiercest when the new music of the young was involved. The next two statements both give a good impression of the degree to which rock and roll was really abhorred.

"To conservative adults in 1950s, the new music appeared to be an expression of hostile, rebellious youth. To his enthusiastic audience, Presley's spontaneous dancing was a visual counterpart to the feelings which his singing inspired" (Belz, 1969: 44).

"With its black roots, its earthy, sexual or rebellious lyrics, and its exuberant acceptance by youth, rock and roll has long been under attack by the established world of adults. No other form of culture, and its artists, has met with such extensive hostility" (Martin and Segrave, 1988: 3).

  The music and for that matter all the other expressions of the emerging youth life style were, moreover, not only perceived as a threat to the normative order, but they were fully incomprehensible for many adults as well. In their view, they did their utmost best to give the new generation everything they had never had themselves — education, better housing, nice neighborhoods, radios, record players, records, and so on — and still this generosity nor their permissiveness toward their children seemed to be enough.
4 Blaming the music. Rock and roll was countered by adult society in two ways. The first type of reaction concentrated itself on the music by blaming it for its bad taste, while the second widened its scope to the behavior of the young in general. Rock and roll scared society and many representatives of the establishment spoke out against it very vehemently. Church officials typified the music as rebellious and satanic and warned that it would subvert American youth. As ...
  "... Columbia University's Dr. A. M. Meerio was moved to conclude at the time, "If we cannot stem the tide of rock and roll with its waves of rhythmic narcosis and vicarious craze, we are preparing our own downfall in the midst of pandemic funeral dances"" (quoted in: Friedlander, 1996: 27).
  Others followed track. The description of Elvis Presley in Life magazine as a "nightmare" for which there was no room "in the mid-century conformity daydream" is typical for the attitude toward rock and roll music (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 302). Consequently, the demand arose that rock and roll music should be banned from the radio and that deejays who ventured to spin rock and roll records should be fired — which, in fact, did happen more than once. Such records should also be removed from the jukeboxes. Ceremonial sessions were organized in which rock and roll records were publicly smashed or burnt. Quite a few times, local authorities prohibited rock and roll shows. For the same reasons, they also hindered performances of this music as much as possible (Shaw, 1974: 154-155; Miller and Nowak, 1977: 306-307; Martin and Segrave, 1988: 3-85; Aquila, 1992: 270).
  Photo right: the Boston Daily Globe reports on the Payola scandal and the close down of Alan Freed's show in the Boston Arena (1958)

The same kind of negative reactions came from people in the music world such as the famous cellist, Pablo Casals, for whom "Rock and roll [was] poison put to sound" (quoted in: Friedlander, 1996: 26). The reactions were more passionate, though, among those people in the music industry who had a specific interest in putting rock and roll out of business. For instance, "Mitch Miller denigrated rock and roll records as "the comic books of music" ... [and] Frank Sinatra was even more abusive ... rock songs had "dirty lyrics" written and sung by "cretinous goons" ... [and] rock and roll was "the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear" (Aquila, 1992: 270-271). At the same time, Billy Rose (1972: 280) of ASCAP called rock and roll songs "... obscene junk, pretty much on a level with dirty comic magazines."

  Here, the resistance against rock and roll meshed with the longer-standing feud between ASCAP and BMI over the domination of the American popular music scene. After their first attack at the start of the 1940s had failed, ASCAP launched another attack in the 1950s, directed at the people who actually chose and played the records on the radio, the deejays. As BMI was strong on rhythm and blues and rock and roll, the feud turned into a struggle over bad music driving out good music. The disk jockeys were accused of favoring bad music, i.e. rock and roll and rhythm and blues, over good "American" popular music out of sheer profit, and by doing so of corrupting the youth of America. The musical establishment incited a congressional investigation into the widespread practice of payola, i.e. paying disk jockeys for playing specific records. They succeeded in steering the investigation exclusively to those involved in producing and playing rock and roll music. Their representatives convinced the congressional investigators — just as alarmed by rock and roll as many other adults — that rock and roll subsisted on payola. Ending the payments would, they argued, mean the end of this horrendous and dangerous music (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 308; Ennis, 1992: 261-265; Friedlander, 1996: 72-73).
  The adversity and emotional weight of the reactions did, however, not only arise because rock and roll grossly deviated from the dominant standards in popular music or because its lyrics often dealt with tabooed subjects and feelings. Such flagrant deviations from common standards and norms would be experienced as threatening in any period and be enough to incite negative reactions. The fact, however, that it happened in the 1950s gave the reactions an added vigor because at that time conformism itself had become the central value and this made deviance a sin in and by itself. The rejection was, moreover, strengthened by rock and roll's whereabouts. It had originated on the wrong side of the color barrier; some even saw it as a plot by the NAACP — the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People — to corrupt the young people of America (Gillett, 1972: 280). The "color-blindness" of rock and roll formed another threat to the social order that was not being tolerated. As Deena Weinstein (1992: 95) concludes:
  "... white adolescents were adopting black cultural styles and black heroes [which meant] ... miscegenation, racial mixing, and was seen as a rebellious act against the dominant group."
5 A moral panic. In the second type of reaction, adults expressed their worries in a more generalized manner. They interpreted the manifestations of the new behavioral patterns among the young as signs of a generation going astray. In their view, these were indicators of a quick spreading pattern of deviance. This view was buttressed by the media that were full of horror stories about youth gangs, gang wars in inner cities, and grisly murders committed by teenagers. The worries about youth were also fed by books with alarming titles like 1,000,000 Delinquents, criminological and psychological treatises, and sensationalist novels and films. Despite the fact that youth crime figures were still rather low in the early 1950s, a moral panic arose and the idea that society was run — terrorized, some would say — by spoiled teenagers spread like wildfire (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 271, 280-281, 334; Hine, 1999: 240-241). The topic of juvenile delinquency quickly climbed the top of the agenda and the world of politics intervened by directing more money to the police departments. This led, as was to be expected, to a fast growth of a juvenile bureaucracy which soon produced delinquency figures that were more in line with the popular view; a perfect example of Robert K. Merton's self-fulfilling prophecy (Hine, 1999: 241).
  Photo left: Vic Morrow and Glenn Ford, acting out the fight between the generations in the movie Blackboard Jungle (1955)

While this moral panic was developing, the media were quick in putting the light on rock and roll. They castigated the music as an "inciter of juvenile delinquency" and pointed to Alan Freed as the prime offender (Shaw, 1974: 155). The connection between rock and roll and delinquency was, moreover, strengthened by the fact that Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was used as opening tune in a contemporary movie about juvenile delinquency, Blackboard Jungle (1955). Even before the rock and roll's rise to prominence, movies on this topic were quite popular and there were many of them, mostly B-movies. They reinforced the feelings of anxiety further, particularly by portraying the typical — mythical — examples of youngsters going astray. Take, for instance, Marlon Brando "the quintessential biker-hood" in The Wild One (1954) (Pratt, 1990: 134) or James Dean the moody, ill-understood and therefore rebellious teenager in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) (Melly, 1970: 30). Of all the visible and audible manifestations of the emerging youth culture in the streets, cinemas, and on TV and radio rock and roll functioned as the focus of adults' fear and anger because most of the elements of this culture were present in it. And so, as Richard Aquila (1992: 270) wryly remarks:

  "Rock and roll was linked to almost every social problem imaginable, including drugs, sexual promiscuity, gang warfare, pornography, teenage pregnancy, prostitution, organized crime, and communist subversion."
6 From fun to rebellion. For young people the effect of this consternation worked out the other way. The hostile reception of rock and roll music made it a forbidden fruit and thus more attractive by itself. This forbidden fruit status self-evidently enhanced the usefulness of rock and roll as a building bloc of the emerging youth culture. The main effect of this reception and, of course, of its emotional rejection was, however, that they made rock and roll suitable as a vehicle for protest. Everyone who would like to protest could — as a portion of young people in fact did — use the music this way and for them rock and roll evolved into "a banner of rebellion" (Ennis, 1992: 213). Still, many teenagers did not mean to rebel morally and politically. However, they actually did so by listening to rock and roll and by taking over its insignia. As Philip Ennis (1992: 19) insightfully observes in respect to rock and roll:
  "[T]o listen to that music, to dance to that music, and to make that music was a political act without being political."
  Photo right: Starting out as a Los Angeles-based doo wop group the Platters with Zola Taylor, Tony Williams, David Lynch, Paul Robi and Herb Reed, made it through al steps of rock and roll's development with songs like "Only You," "The Great Pretender" and "My Prayer"

R. Serge Denisoff (1983: 36, 152-153) comes to much the same conclusion by assessing that rock and roll evidently was not protest music. Yet, its lyrics lauded the values of the teenage culture and rock and roll, above all, did express dissent with parental authority and the social rules concerning school, love, and sexuality. An insider, Scotty Moore — Elvis Presley's guitarist, made about the same point by saying: "He [Elvis] was a rebel: really without making an issue out of it" (Friedlander, 1996: 42). The signification of rock and roll in other than strictly musical ways was the unintended outcome of a chain of actions and reactions. The appropriation of rock and roll by the young for the construction of their own culture made this music an indispensable component of being young and thus of being different from others in society. Yet, these teenagers — or the artists who made the music — were no rebels. Their main departure from the new American consensus, was their search for a place of their own (Miller and Nowak, 1977: 275-276). As the music they used to create such a place differed only in an aesthetic sense; rock and roll was an aesthetic rather than a moral or a political rebellion (Denisoff, 1983: 33; Hatch and Milward, 1987: 83). Lawrence Grossberg (1992: 147) sums this conclusion up as follows:

  "Without concern for the organization of political and economic consensus, rock sought to rock the cultural boat; it did not consider that the latter was connected, in powerful ways, to the former. It sought to open up culture to the needs and experiences of its own audiences, not to deny or overturn the consensual and institutional structures which had made those experiences, and its own existence, possible."
  It was, as Grossberg (1992: 147-148) argues, the exaggerated reaction of adult society to this change in taste that gave the choice for rock and roll a different meaning. The attacks rock and roll elicited from the outside, moved this music style outside the new consensus, to which it was connected by many lines of correspondence. Or, as Miller and Nowak (1977: 312) conclude at the end of their chapter on rock and roll:
  "Even at its most furious the music had been unable to counter the life-programming most kids recognized as their future. Rock only provided a diversion from its colder constraints. But it was in the way rock and roll united teens as a self-acknowledged different group that the music performed its most challenging act: a challenge calling not for revolution but, more precisely, for reassessment. Once a teenager broke off from the music of adults, and especially once the parents began making bitter judgments about a simple matter of entertainment, a re-evaluation of more than music was nearly inevitable."
  For many adolescents, the new post-war situation was clear. Now the young were freed from the oppression of working life, it was time to enjoy it and rock and roll was perfect to do so. It became also clear to them that the adults — if they could help it — would not let them. Thus they hailed with Chuck Berry rock and roll as the means to deliver them "from the days of old" (Junker, 1972: 235, 223).
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