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Analyse one or more
of the cultural and demographic factors (race, class, youth, sex, violence,
etc.) that helped to differentiate rock ‘n’ roll from the mainstream music that
had preceded it

The introduction of Rock ‘n’ Roll not only saw a birth to a
captivating and innovative genre of music, but also paved the way for a new
counter-culture/sub-culture that would contribute to the development of even
more musical genres and ideas within the years to come. Rock ‘n’ Roll was so
much more than just a musical genre – it was a movement that influenced
lifestyles and attitudes as well as setting fresh trends in fashion. Moreover, within
a time period of much racial tension within the USA, the genre could perhaps be
regarded as having contributed to the formation of the civil rights movement –
the genre was performed, listened to, and enjoyed by those of both black and
white ethnicities, resulting in lesser of a divide in races and an ease in
racial tensions. With white artists such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and
Bill Haley creating early rock ‘n’ roll hits, black artists such as the likes
of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino’s contribution to the rising
popularity of the genre within the mid-late 1950’s was just as pivotal. Furthermore,
popular mainstream music prior to rock ‘n’ roll – the three genres notably
consisting of mainstream pop music, country and folk, and jazz – lacked the
emotional expression of which was expressed within rock ‘n’ roll. This new
music attempted to break boundaries, and highlight emotions and attitudes that
people – typically young people – were feeling, yet rarely talked about or
addressed.

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The decade of the 1950s has been cited as ‘the last age of
innocence’ – the era saw American culture’s vastly conservative values and
religious morals begin to take a turn, and become more progressive as well as
liberal. More importantly, the new sound of rock ‘n’ roll had a tremendous
effect on youth culture as teens adopted rock ‘n’ roll as the ‘sound of their
generation’. Issues revolving around school, clothing and dating were common
topics that were dealt with and addressed within the early rock ‘n’ roll songs
devising a sense of personal relatability within the teenage listeners – this
signalled a holistic transformation and ‘awakening’ within American youth
culture.

The topic of sex, is a significant example; throughout the
United States up until the 50’s, it had been generally considered as uncommon,
or even taboo, to have sexually suggestive song lyrics. The genres appeal,
success and relatability towards the youth however, didn’t quite have the same
effect on parents and older audiences. Parents feared that the lyrics of songs
like ‘Great Balls of Fire’ by Jerry Lee Lewis would inspire the destruction of
sexual morals and abstinence believing that the music enticed and drove immoral
sexual urges. Jerry Lee Lewis’ hits, which are considered as classic rock ‘n’
roll anthems today, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ as well as ‘Great Balls of
Fire’ were renowned for their sexually suggestive lyrics – e.g. phrases such as
‘And baby wiggle it around’ and ‘come on over baby, don’t you know you gotta
give me the barn’ in the hit ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ resulted in radio
banning on numerous stations throughout the states as well as banned airplay in
cities such as Boston. Sex was regarded as a topic that was not to be publicly
addressed within the media and unspoken amongst ‘white folk’ at the time. ‘Those
who look frantically for a scapegoat for all the juvenile ills of our day point
to Lewis and others of his school of rock ‘n’ roll’ (Grevatt, 1958).

Despite this, songs like these, manifested an appeal to
youth culture that had never been explicitly represented before. Lewis’ brash,
lively and gratifying lyricism – as well as on stage persona – only contributed
to a reduction of the stigma that surrounded openly sexual provocativeness
within mainstream music. Additionally, the conservative, religious values that
were associated with sexual expression were slowly becoming eliminated (the
irony however, is Jerry Lee Lewis was known for his openly religious persona,
and as a devout Christian). This helped to epitomize the rebelliousness of the
genre.

Despite this change, parents still looked to performances of
artists such as the young Elvis Presley as examples of sexual enticement – the rock
‘n’ roll image was more open to expression of sexuality than the kids’ parents
were used to.

Elvis’ 1956 performance of his hit single, ‘Hound Dog’ on
The Milton Berle Show caused quite a stir in the media and throughout homes
across the country due to his sexual gyrations and movements while performing
the song – yet these moves still drove young women wild, contributing to the
formation of Elvis’ ‘sex symbol’ image and persona. Newspapers such as ‘The New
York Daily News’ were unimpressed with Presley’s national TV performance,
stating ‘He gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar’. His performance
was so controversial that even politicians were weighing in on it – Congressman
Emanuel Celler was said to have stated that ‘Rock ‘n’ roll has its place, among
the coloured people. The bad taste that is exemplified by the Elvis Presley
‘Hound Dog’ music, with his animal gyrations which are certainly most
distasteful to me, are violative of all that I know to be in good taste.’

Within, the ’50s, religion had made a big resurgence in
America. In 1950, 49% of Americans were church members, and by 1960, the figure
had increased to 69%. Elvis’ leering and open sensuality, rendered the music
objectionable to many, with this resentment being most pronounced among the
more fundamentalist churches in the Deep South, with ministers sometimes
labelling Elvis as ‘an agent of the devil’. In early 1956, the New York Times
reported that a white Southern church group wanted rock ‘n’ roll suppressed,
claiming it was a plot by the National Association of Coloured People to
corrupt white youth. In response to the controversy that surrounded Elvis, about
a month later, Elvis appeared on Steve Allen’s show although only this time,
with a considerable change in image – dressed in white formal wear and this
time, singing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound, without the hip-shaking
and thrusting gyrations. As a result, the performance racked up high ratings.

Clearly, many were unhappy with rock ‘n’ roll’s image that
was portrayed within the media. It was either too ‘sexual’, too ‘black’, or too
‘raucous’.

However regarding trends in fashion, major changes began to
come about and gain vast popularity within the youth. Hits such as ‘Blue Suede
Shoes’ originally written and recorded by Carl Perkins in 1956 – but
popularized by Elvis Presley – is just one example of the rebelliousness that
came forth within the lyricism of the genres most popular hits. Teens began to
take on the suaveness and chic appearance that was made ‘trendy’ by style icons
such as Elvis Presley. They were influenced to wear clothes that epitomized a sense
of freedom and coolness – as well as suede shoes, ‘biker’ leather jackets,
tight shirts and skinny jeans were all commonly worn by teenage boys. It seemed
as though preceding mainstream genres such as jazz and country did not have the
same impact on fashion – or even regarding teenage appeal as a whole – as rock ‘n’
roll would. The general demographics of audiences who listened to jazz at the
time was typically intellectuals and eccentrics – jazz lacked the young appeal
that was embedded within rock ‘n’ roll. The same went for country and folk – country
artists such as Hank Williams posed songs that often had religious and
Christian connotation such as ‘Precious Lord, Take my Hand’ and ‘I Saw the
Light’. Country was, and still is, a style most readily associated with white,
rural and Southern American demographics. The conservativeness that went with
country music countered the more liberal – and racially integrating – impact of
rock ‘n’ roll.

Rock ‘n’ roll
was proving to be both a dividing and uniting force. Most parents of the 1950s
found themselves adamantly opposed to rock ‘n’ roll – it pitted them and the
mass media against teenagers, yet at the same time, helped erode some of the long
standing prejudices felt towards African Americans. Parents disliked the
influence of rock ‘n’ roll, and the rebellious nature that the music was
accused of inspiring. They resented the sexuality of both the lyrics and of the
performers and most notably, the fact that the music came directly from
African-Americans – regardless of if it was a white performer (e.g. Bill Haley
or Buddy Holly) who recorded the song. One of these acts of rebellion was a subconsciously
changing attitude towards African Americans amongst teenagers. White teenagers
listened to music not just inspired by, but often performed by African
Americans, plus, would go to concerts where performers as well as members of
the audience were black, depicting their embracement of a culture that was
deemed as forbidden in many households. Artists such as Chuck Berry, were notable
for their appeal to white audiences – in a live performance of Johnny B. Goode
in 1958, it can be seen that the majority of the audience members are indeed
white. This contrasts that of a jazz demographic who despite having attracted a
largely white, educated and intellectual demographic, artists such as  Miles Davis, were known for their discontent
towards white audiences, stating ‘I hate how white people always try to take
credit for something after they discover it’.

However, the
impact of rock ‘n’ roll was able to do what jazz couldn’t – it created a common
culture amongst both white and black teenagers which was made possible by the
advent of the radio and the television. The teens did not care about race. Racial
tension began to divide as a result of rock ‘n’ roll’s growing popularity as it
was evident that teens only cared for the music – not whether or not it was
performed or written by a black or white person. It can perhaps be noted that
due to the surge of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s, to this very day, perhaps there
may not be such diversity within popular mainstream music today. Rock ‘n’ Roll
contributed to the formation of the Civil Rights Movement within the late 50’s,
it eased racial tensions reflecting that both black and white artists can have
hits in the chart and it paved the way for an era in the 1960’s whereby artists
who are regarded as some of the greatest in the history of popular music – e.g.
the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown – all brought innovative musical
styles that could not have been created if it was not for rock ‘n’ roll’s
impact.

 

 

 

 

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