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volume 6
april 2003

The riddles of rock and roll


  7. Unintended outcomes
by Leo D'Anjou
  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 to it as a reaction on the false dream, postwar America was dreaming in the 1950s.
1 The creation of youth. Rock and roll definitely changed the world of American popular music and, though it did not fully replace the "old" pop music, it took over its dominant position. This takeover implied a profound change of the musical idiom of pop music which depth may be fathomed by comparing the last number-one hit of the 1950s, Frankie Avalon's "Why", with the first one, "I Can Dream, Can't I" of the Andrew Sisters (Whitburn, 1987b: 31). Still, rock and roll remained American popular music, rooted in the popular music styles existing in the United States of the early 1950s. Yet, it did not become an indistinct mix because its makers based their music mainly on one of these styles, rhythm and blues, and added only those musical elements from other streams that suited them. As rhythm and blues influenced rock and roll deeply, it brought several lasting musical elements to the emerging rock and roll music such as the beat that is typical for most black music, the feelings of the blues, and the exuberance of black gospel. The latter infused rock and roll, in Ennis' succinct phrasing, "... with one of its greatest gifts, the ability to deliver passion at the edge of control" (Ennis, 1992: 211). Another notable contribution of rhythm and blues was its openness about sexuality. The lyrics skipped the euphemisms about hearts and roses and went straight — often too straight — to the core of the matter (Cohn, 1969: 14-15). This legacy of rhythm and blues was skillfully mixed with material coming from other streams brought about a music style that was startling new, attractive, and shocking to many Americans and later to many Europeans as well. In Greil Marcus' colorful phrasing:
  "Their music coming out of New Orleans, out of Sam Phillips' Memphis studio and washing down from Chicago was loud, fiercely electric, raucous, bleeding with lust and menace and loss" (Marcus, 1982: 154-155).
  Photo left: Next to the radio stations, television shows like American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark, played an important role in the spread of rock and roll

Rock and roll attracted, above all, young people. Those who went for it had two reasons. First, they formed a new social category of young school-going people between 12 and 18 years of age who — just like other social categories — needed a cultural place of their own. Music is very well suited for building such a place and the young readily annexed rock and roll for this purpose. Second, their parents let them fully share in the post-war prosperity. This enabled the young to buy the commodities to build this place of their own which were soon widely available because the world of commerce was all too eager to serve the teenager. The result was the emergence of an autonomous youth culture in which rock and roll occupied a central place. This gave rock and roll a symbolic dimension which made it more than just popular music in much the same way a common household item, the safety pin, took on a second — symbolic — meaning in the punk subculture (Hebdige, 1979: 2). The central place of rock and roll in the youth culture, in turn, affected the direction in which the music evolved. Rock and roll and the youth culture created each other simultaneously through a myriad of dialectical interactions between the makers of the music and their youthful audiences. This gave rock and roll meanings that soon went beyond the lyrics of its song, its beat, or the moods of its music (Denzin, 1970: 1036; Tillekens, 1998: 26). Rock and roll became an integral part of a new way of life, or in David Shumway's words, it became a cultural practice (Shumway, 1991: 755-756).

  The transformation of schooling and the subsequent creation of youth as a separate social category, in combination with the availability of money were, as Thomas Hine (1999: 225-227) rightfully assesses, the necessary conditions for the emergence of a modern youth culture. As a matter of fact, such a culture arose in other Western countries as well where and when both conditions met. By themselves these conditions, however, do not explain why rock and roll became the music to build the youth cultures with. As far as the United States are concerned, the case seems to be clear. The opportunities such as the musical resources, the artists, the record producers, and their potential audiences were there while the existing constraints were not insurmountable. Structurally, this explanation makes sense. It is true to say that the set of circumstances present in the United States of the early 1950s, partially explains the emergence of rock and roll and the way this music acquired its shape; a typical example of how culture is socially produced (Peterson, 1994: 163). The fact, however, that rock and roll achieved the same place in many other Western countries and that young people there also fell for rock and roll the moment they came in contact with it, suggests that there must have been more to it. Though most American cultural products were attractive in their own right in the West European countries after the war, the quick adoption of rock and roll was rather strange because the young in those countries were not familiar with its main components, rhythm and blues and country and western. Alternatives for rock and roll were, moreover, readily available in these countries such as traditional jazz, skiffle, modern jazz, and French chansons: all in vogue among young people in countries like England, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Some of those styles of popular music were possible candidates to become youth music as well (Tillekens, 1998: 25). This suggests that not all has yet been said and that the music itself also had some characteristics that may explain the preference for rock and roll.
2 The meanings of music. It is important to note that the meanings of music pieces cannot completely be reduced to social processes; music clearly has meanings of its own (Shepherd and Wicke, 1997: 48). All music has inherent characteristics such as timbre or rhythm that bring about the same response across audiences experiencing the same sort of feelings. Otherwise said, there is an invariant relationship or correspondence between sound and affect which makes some sorts of music more suitable for some and less fit for other situations. This was also the case with rock and roll, for which specific elements were selected out of the array of the extant musical streams. This selection was not an arbitrary one, as it had to fit to the needs of the new youth culture. Musically, rock and roll was rather simple, but it was also loud and exciting (Burns, 1996). This came, above all, from the use of amplified electric guitars and the adoption of the "screaming" saxophone style of rhythm and blues — see, for instance, Rudi Pompilli, Haley's saxophone player, and, above all, King Curtis whose saxophone enlivened many of the Coaster's records (Gillett, 1970: 132). In combination with this loudness came the beat that made rock and roll a great music to dance to. Rock and roll music was, in other words, fun and gave the adolescents a good time in ways that were exclusively theirs. This exclusivity made it — and this is as important — a means of distinction and identity; in Hebdige's words "a significant difference" fit to be communicated to others (Hebdige, 1979: 102). Rock and roll did, however, more by dealing with the exigencies of teenage life and with feelings that were peculiar for their age. Moreover, and maybe most importantly, the music facilitated the artist to voice these feelings in their singing. Examples are Paul Anka's "Lonely Boy" (1959) and Neil Sedaka's "Oh Carol" (1959), that was also covered by Paul Anka. In both songs the music and the tone of voice of the singers expresses teenager's self-pity as much as the lyrics do. These correspondences and rock and roll's not-being-adult fitted in with the needs of the young far more closely than their potential alternatives.
  Photo right: Paul Anka, one of the big teen idols of the late 1950s, articulated the romantic feelings of teenagers with songs like "Lonely Boy" (1959) and "Oh Carol" (1959)

These characteristics — musical correspondence and exclusivity — make it clear why rock and roll evolved into the favorite music of the young once the youthful avant-garde opened a window of opportunity for its development. The opportunities came out of the rapid transformation of postwar America: the rise of a new social category — youth — in search for a cultural place of their own with enough money to buy the components for building such a place; the existence — as far as music was concerned — of artists and record producers to produce specific youth music; and the availability of mediators such as radio stations and jukeboxes that could bring this music to the young. There were also constraints of which the extant racial barrier and the initial hesitation of most major record companies to produce rock and roll records were the most important but these were — partially as a consequence of the same transformations — not strong enough to halt rock and roll's emergence and development.

  Taken together, the combination of these events and conditions and the actions and interactions emerging out of it may explain why a new youth music arose in the early 1950s and why this music was deemed to be rock and roll — the answer to the first question of this essay. It shows, moreover, that rock and roll — once it became firmly attached to the emerging youth culture — acquired a meaning that went far beyond the "pure" musical one. This view on rock and roll's emergence and its timing as the result of such a combination, points to the importance of the social dynamics of the early 1950s. These proved to be far more important than the changing opportunities and constraints on its own — even when they are combined with the influence of creators and audiences — to answer Richard Peterson's famous question "Why 1955?" (Peterson, 1990). The figures of school attendance already were on the rise in the 1940s. At that time rhythm and blues was also manifesting itself. So it seems, as Peterson argues, all the ingredients were there and it all may have happened at an earlier date. To explain the late arrival of rock and roll, Peterson points at the technological and commercial development of the music industry. In this he may be right, but — as I have tried to show — the time-consuming steps in the social construction in this respect are as important.
  Moreover, these factors do not explain why rock and roll became rebellious — the second question of this essay. It seems that there is only one answer to that question: the way in which rock and roll was received in society. The hostile reception and the emotional rejection of rock and roll by many adults had the effect that listening and dancing to rock and roll, displaying the insignia its stars promoted, or behaving like its idols became an act of protest and rebellion against the reigning normative order. Some of rock and roll's adherents did so consciously, but for the majority of adolescents rock and roll had no other meaning than being part of their newly developed life style and culture. This way, the adults as well as the adolescents, unwillingly and unintentionally, attached yet another meaning to rock and roll: rebellion.
3 Making music. By now it may be clear, that rock and roll is more than just music. It is an intricate complex of social activities, a collective enterprise, of artists, producers, distributors, and consumers who all together produced the music and made it part of a new emerging life style. In this sense, rock and roll was — and still is — popular culture in the making. The production of rock and roll as a form of popular culture was, however, not a unique process. Other forms of popular music or, for that matter, popular culture are produced in much the same way and the story of rock and roll may be seen as an example of how forms of popular culture such as music, fashion, or dance are fabricated. The most notable aspect of rock and roll's history is the "blindness" of the process in which rock and roll was construed. At the start of the 1950s, surely, nobody could have predicted rock and roll's arrival. Nor was anybody during that decade able to tell which way that music would go or how long it would last. This blindness was not only present in the making of rock and roll but is typical of the way other forms of popular culture are constructed as well. It is the effect of three elements, characteristic of such processes of social construction. First, the production of popular culture involves a multitude of actors each acting out of his or her interest; to have fun, to distinguish oneself from others, to become rich and famous, to defend one's share of the market, and so on. Second, each action not only depends on extant — historically situated — social conditions but on the — often surprising — actions of other actors as well. Third, no single actor is in control or able to determine the outcomes. In social science jargon, the construction of popular culture is an indeterminate and contingent process.
  Photo left: Willie Mae Thornton's blues song "Hound Dog" (1953) was appropriated by Elvis Presley in 1956 and turned into one of the staples of rock and roll

This way, the story of rock and roll shows a pattern underlying the construction of quite a few other forms of popular culture. This pattern consists of (1) the opening of a window of opportunity that may consequently trigger (2) the social construction of a new form of popular culture. In such cases, this window of opportunity is opened through an act of one of many subcultural, often avant-garde, groups in society. People in such groups draw extant — material and/or symbolic — objects into their daily lives in order to give their lives form and meaning and to distinguish themselves from others. In a way they appropriate such objects and thus change — among themselves — the common function and meaning of these objects. In the early 1950s, a youthful avant-garde did appropriate rhythm and blues music this way and in the 1970s the punk movement did the same with items like safety pins. Such acts of appropriation offer opportunities to other actors to take the subcultural innovation over, for example to use it themselves or to make money out of it. What is important, they may or they may not seize the opportunity; not every subcultural innovation is always transformed into a form of popular culture. If, however, the opportunity is seized, the process in which a new form of popular culture is constructed starts. This construction follows the lines along which rock and roll developed: (1) innovation — a more appropriate description is socializing the earlier subcultural innovation; (2) elaboration; and (3) consolidation. By then the subcultural innovation has become part of the accepted popular culture and the whole process may start all over again.

  The variety of meanings that such forms of popular culture may acquire does, however, not only arise from the actions and interactions between the actors directly involved but may also come from actions of "outsiders". For this rock and roll offers a fine example. Here, the reactions of the not-involved adults turned this cultural practice into a form of rebellion — though one without rebels — which became one of the forerunners of the social protest movement of the 1960s. It shows that popular cultural changes may have far-reaching and quite unexpected effects which, according to Max Weber (1920: 252), is one of the basic facts of social life. Human actions, above all human interactions, frequently have quite unexpected, often unintended, sometimes even perverse effects because their alchemy — quite unintentionally — may turn the switch and thereby put society on a different track and in the end even turn it upside down. Rock and roll acted as such a switch in the way Miller and Nowak describe:
  "But rock and roll did help contribute to a new attitude emerging in the late 1950s. In that decade, America was a culture daydreaming of a false world, with Mr. Clean, Doris Day, General Ike, and universal luxury, without stress, Negroes, or genitalia. We were daydreaming, and rock was one of the forces that woke us up."
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