Digital History>Topics>Music

Rock 'n' Roll

Digital History TOPIC ID 48

At its birth, rock 'n roll was the bastard child of a heterogeneous American culture. A product of post-World War II demographic changes, especially the movement of southern blacks and whites into the cities of the upper South and the North, rock 'n' roll brought together distinct musical traditions and forged an entirely new sound, combining black rhythm and blues, gospel, western, and white country music. It lyrics and heavy beat challenged the accepted standards of "good taste" in music. Openly vulgar--the very term rock 'n' roll had been used in blues songs to describe sexual intercourse--early black roll 'n' rollers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard glorified sexuality.

The protests implicit in early rock 'n' roll were largely coopted by middle-class American culture. Record producers, most of whom were white, smoothed the jagged edges of rock 'n' roll. Sexually explicit black recordings were rewritten and rerecorded--"covered"--by white performers, then sold to white youths. By 1959, rock 'n' roll had become an accepted part of mainstream culture.

In the early and mid-1960s, there was a growing sense that early rock 'n' roll had lost its emotional edge, that it had accepted the rewards of success in a capitalist society and been absorbed into middle-class culture. Among a new generation of young people, there was a sense that rock 'n' roll's harsh edge had degenerated into songs that were sentimental, innocuous, filled with nonsense lyrics. The result was the rise of an eclectic and diverse range of new sounds that expressed a dissatisfaction with the prevailing blandness of conventional culture: folk and protest songs, the British sound, Motown, which coexisted alongside more innocuous, less challenging "bubble-gum" sounds directed at the preteen audience.

By the early 1970s, rock 'n' roll again seemed to be softening. Tired of pre-packaged sounds, an important segment of the youth audience was eager to recapture early rock 'n' roll's raw anarchistic spirit. Reacting against the sentimentality, emotional excess, and superstar mentality of late 1960s rock--rejecting the flower-power idealism of the previous decade--a new sound crystallized in lower Manhattan known as Punk. Featuring short, fast, acerbic songs, this new sound was primarily the creation of white singers like Patti Smith, the Ramones, and Talking Heads (and in the mid-1970s by such English groups as the Sex Pistols). Often attacked for its flirtation with Nazi imagery, its homophobia, its association with heroin, and its seeming avoidance of explicit politics, Punk did indeed have an important political dimension. By offering anti-establishment and rebellious pose, it can be understood as a youthful response to a deepening-sense of post-industrial despair.

Since the mid-1970s, the defining characteristic of youth music has been a proliferation of musical styles. Such sounds as heavy metal, rasta, teeny bop, soul, reggae, hi-energy (gay disco), grunge, hip-hop, African, hybrid, Salsa, and Tejano reflected the "tribalization" of youth--the fracturing of youth into a wide range of distinct segments. Yet these divisions should not obscure the fact that since the early 1950s, music has been a cauldron where diverse sensibilities and values have fused together.

Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the case of the most controversial form of youth music: gangsta rap. Featuring a macho swagger and blunt anger, gansta rap graphically chronicles harsh inner city conditions: police brutality, crack epidemics, random violence, poverty, racism, and other problems of urban life. It depicted a bleak street life, urban paranoia, betrayal, and a sense of impending death. Most shockingly, some songs featured violence (often directed against women), gunplay, and cop killing. In postmodern America, it is perhaps not surprising to discover that gansta rap found its largest and most enthusiastic audience among white suburban teenage boys.

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