Rock and roll set the cultural standard of a generation. The components which comprised the landscape of modern life, and in particular American life, in the 1950s provided not only the backdrop but the impetus for the development of rock and roll and its impact on society. Rigid social rules enforced on a younger generation with more time and money on its hands than ever before sparked a flame of rebellion that threatened to burn traditional social conventions to the ground. It was these factors which constructed the framework for the renovation of social mores that began in the 1950s and drastically changed the social order of the 1960s and beyond.
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The music which came into being during the second half of the 20th century reflected the “dualistic consciousness” of the battle between constraint and rebellion which was fought by the youth of the times (Weinstein 94). An understanding of the beginnings of this battleground must start with a look at the nature of the society that preceded it. At the beginning of the 20th century, teenagers and young adults were not thought of as a separate societal group known as “youth.” Youth was simply a transitional period between childhood and adulthood (Weinstein 94). It was common for young people to be engaged in full-time work before they were old enough to be sexually mature. Post-World War II affluence coupled with changes in labor laws and a need for a better-educated work force meant that young people entered the labor market later and had more free time. Rather than working to help support their families, teenagers spent the money they earned (or got from their parents) on themselves. The post-war economy gave teenagers more disposable income than any previous generation had enjoyed (McDonald 85). Rather than thinking of their youth as a time of training to become productive members of society, many young people began seeing it as a time “to live hedonistically for the moment and to rebel against assertions of adult authority” (Weinstein 94).
Perhaps the most emblematic aspect of this societal segment was its music, which was first known as “rock and roll,” then merely as “rock,” and later developed into a “bewildering array” of different types of rock (Weinstein 91). Rock and roll did not spontaneously generate from nothing as a wholly new art form. Rather, it was a hybrid of blues, dance-oriented rhythm and blues, and country, or “hillbilly” music (Hill 43). Rockabilly evolved in the mid-fifties, as a “white southern fusion of country music, blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues,” and provided the musical catalyst which allowed many white musicians to break free of the boundaries of traditional country music and move on to early rock and roll (Friedlander 16).
Although the various types of blues and country music were gaining in popularity by the early 1950s, “it would not be considered wholly proper for a ‘cultured,’ urban, middle-class white teenager to listen to” or, especially, to dance to this type of music (Hill 43). The pulsating beat of this type of music, and the rock and roll it was evolving into, made it particularly appealing to youth-and appalling to adults. The forbidden nature of this race- and class-specific music made it more compelling than mainstream, white music. It is important to remember that society in the 1950s was very rigidly controlled by the same mind-sets that allowed McCarthyism to take root. “Racial segregation and sexual repression were a fact of the 1950s” (McDonald 95). Young people living in “that most proper decade” were yearning to break free, and rock and roll music provided that outlet (Hill 45).
Rock and roll music was considered nothing less than culturally subversive by the older, power-wielding generation because it allowed white, middle-class youth to mingle with and be influenced by improper elements such as Negroes and poor white trash (Hill 51). Rock and roll scandalized many white people. “The scandal was that white adolescents were adopting black cultural styles and black heroes. This was miscegenation, racial mixing, and was seen as a rebellious act against the dominant group” (Weinstein 95). The beat of rock and roll, which made it so danceable, was nothing less than the “savage and primitive rhythm of darkest Africa” invoking the “beat of sexual intercourse” (Hill 47). So powerful was the music on the malleable minds of youth that some even considered rock and roll a “new form of mind control with dangerous affinities to fascism” (Hill 47). This “market-driven Negrification” of white youth that the new strains of music invoked frightened many of the older generation, who did what they could to stifle it. Attempts were made to placate the youthful thirst for rock and roll by having white singers like Pat Boone cover the most popular songs, but the driving beat of true rock and roll could not be stopped (Hill 49).
A major contributor which allowed rock and roll to sweep the country like an unrelenting tidal wave was the advent of television. The FCC had blocked television licenses for a time due to concerns over technical problems, but in 1952 began granting them again. When television took over almost all the comedy and variety programming that had been the purview of radio, radio stations found themselves with hours of programming to fill-and a new genre of music to fill them with (Curtis 42). Conservative, middle-class parents saw this new kind of music as a threat to their social domination and way of life (Hill 54).
No single person exemplified this threat more than Elvis Presley. Elvis was the antithesis of the Pat Boone crowd, a rebel from a poor, working-class family. He was considered both culturally and politically dangerous; his conduct, dress, and music challenged traditional notions of class and race, and arguably, even gender as well (Hill 55). To some, Elvis’s “wild, grinding, abandoned hip movements . . . were reminders of the old spectacular presentations of female sex,” like that of a burlesque show (Hill 55). In Elvis’s first television appearance on the Milton Berle Show, his dancing gyrations caused a public outcry. His next scheduled television appearance, on the Steve Allen Show, was only saved by the instigation of a plan to thwart the offensive hip movements: he sang “Hound Dog” dressed in formal tails and sang to a basset hound (Shumway 126). When he appeared on the Ed Sullivan television show later that year, he was shown only from the waist up, per Sullivan’s edict. Elvis seemed to epitomize the idea that rock and roll had sexualized teenagers, causing them to become “addicted to the pleasures of the body.” Rock and roll seemed to do away with inhibitions and provoke a sort of “erotic vandalism” (Altschuler 67).
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In the 1960s, the original rock and roll music of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley began to evolve into the “rock” music of the Beatles, Kinks and Rolling Stones (Weinstein 96). By the late 1960s, rock music had begun to develop a social conscience (McDonald 85). Songwriters like Bob Dylan and Lennon and McCartney started to write about social issues such as war, the economy, politics, and feminism. Rock and roll had moved from the music of teenage rebellion to the “music of the masses” (McDonald 85). Advocating “the use of mind-altering drugs and opposing the government’s military policies” became the youthful rebellion of that decade (Weinstein 95).
It was during this time that “teenagers were transformed into ‘youth'” (Weinstein 96). The distinction between the two is not just a matter of semantics. Young people began to become conscious of themselves as actors on the world stage, aware that their social consciousness wielded a power of its own. The baby boom generation was beginning to attend college, where the “free speech movement turned into the youth-based anti-Vietnam War movement” (Weinstein 96). The civil rights movement and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. also contributed to the transformation of consciousness of the era’s youth. These events affected the type of rock music that was being created, as singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Barry McGuire voiced the political objections of a generation.
A backlash of social repression against political demonstrations by young people had a dampening effect on the use of protest as a power tool. The riot in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic national presidential convention and the killing of student protestors by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University may have contributed to a greater tendency on the part of youth to delve into psychological and spiritual journeys with the aid of drugs, rather than seeking social change on the front lines of demonstrations (Weinstein 96). The lyrics to rock songs would often promote these inner pursuits of the drug-assisted mind, while a particular sub-genre, psychedelic rock, was used to enhance the hallucinatory experience. The raw, raucous exuberance of 1950s rock and roll still existed in various manifestations of rock music, but it had also split off into other types of music with a much quieter, more introspective, form of rebellion.
It was arguably the rigid nature of the social structure of the 1950s which instigated its own destruction. It may be inherent within the youthful spirit to rebel against whatever restraints the older generation imposes. However, the rigidity of the mid-20th-century middle class mindset, combined with a newfound post-war affluence, set the stage for major social change, and the soundtrack to that change was rock and roll. Without the convention-shattering impact of 1950s rock and roll on societal expectations, the enormous social upheavals of the 1960s might never have come about, or at least, might have occurred decades later. The wild abandon of rock and roll’s youthful enthusiasm opened doors of class, race, and gender that had never been opened before, paving the way to a complete reshaping of social interaction.