Rock Concert Audiences

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Compared with other genres of music, rock glorifies its audience. As the cliché goes, rock and roll is "for the fans." Think of an audience at a classical music performance or jazz club. The performers play and await applause. Rock-and-roll performers want more—cheers, song requests, and, as so many stars claim, the energy of their fans. For instance, remembering the Beatles, people recall not only the four performers but also the screaming girls who attended concerts—that is, the "Beatlemania" that transcended the band.

Sociologists in cultural studies confirm this conclusion. Contrary to those who scorn rock audiences as passive recipients of hyped-up trends concocted by big business, many writers today believe audiences imbue music with meaning. People are told that performers and promoters might intend one outcome, but audiences can create another outcome with any cultural "text" (a song or performance). Still, documenting the history of rock audiences is difficult. Audiences are ephemeral; as the sociologist David Riesman once commented, it is hard to tell what is happening when someone says they like something (Frith and Goodwin, p. 12).

Much of our knowledge about rock audiences is of styles—clothing, dance, and drugs, all of which typically correlate with genres of music. Rock audiences of the 1950s consisted of boys with sideburns and tapered hair (a "duck's ass") and girls wearing pedal pushers. By 1960, these adolescents were dancing "the twist" while turning to longer hair and miniskirts. As the 1960s progressed, the hippie became a mainstay of rock listeners—with body paints, beads, bells, flowers, as well as marijuana and the hallucinogenic drug LSD (also known as acid). During the 1970s, marijuana and long hair remained, but there were also hot pants and enormous collars on polyester shirts (especially among disco fans). With punk rock, audiences exhibited safety pins, chains, and spiky and colorful hair as they collided off one another in local clubs where they "slam danced" and "pogoed." Rap audiences wore gold chains and break-danced while listening to DJs spinning records and "rapping" over them. In whole, rock audiences and genres reflected the everchanging nature of postmodern culture.

Of course, style tells only so much about rock audiences. Delving deeper reveals more interesting lessons about the nature of mass culture. For instance, it is known that the original audience for rock and roll (a mix of country and blues during the 1940s and 1950s) was predominantly working class, urban, and often African American. Early record producers were small businessmen from working-class neighborhoods. Rock's most famous breakthrough performer, Elvis Presley, was from a working-class background. Nonetheless, when he played on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, infamously shot from the waist up, he became a mass commodity, widening rock's audience to include middle-class consumers who had the purchasing power of postwar prosperity. This new audience discovered numerous forums for music: jukeboxes in restaurants and soda fountains, "record hops" at dance halls, radios in cars, 45 rpm records, and television at home.

Some feared this mass audience, while others embraced it. Fear grew out of historical coincidence—rock correlated with growing concern about juvenile delinquency during the 1950s. In the wake of World War II, sociologists discovered a "youth culture" made up solely of peers. As it became more autonomous, some believed young people got out of control—citing vandalism and unruly schools. In 1955, Blackboard Jungle was released in American theaters; the movie depicted rowdy adolescents getting out of hand at a public school (trying to rape a teacher) and, for the first time ever, featured rock music (Bill Haley's "Rock around the Clock"). The film hinted at an underlying perception that rock music and young audiences were inducing social breakdown in America.

Two years after Blackboard Jungle was released, Dick Clark started his famous television show American Bandstand. Building on his prior experience as a local Philadelphia disc jockey, Clark displayed to national audiences young people dancing. People who watched the show reported watching the audience more than the rock performers. Clark had strict rules about behavior and dress: Boys wore ties; girls wore skirts (and no tight sweaters). He made clear something that many DJs and record promoters had already learned: that the rock audience was not something to be feared but plumbed for its consumer potential.

By the 1960s, more marketers caught on. What's known as the "British Invasion"—the success of bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who—relied upon marketing. Before 1964, when the Beatles arrived in the United States, Capitol Records had launched a successful and unprecedented blitz of publicity. The band's performances became well known for screams from middle-class adolescent girls, with the Beatles winking and nodding at audience members. Though pushed by marketing, audiences still tried to assert control. For instance, when the Beatles came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, teenage girls tried to get jobs at the hotel where the band stayed and broke through the police cordon where the band landed. Here was a central tension in rock audience history: Audiences were managed props for big acts, signifiers of success, and autonomous entities pressing their own desires.

It was not until later in the 1960s that a more reciprocal relation between audience and performer emerged. By the mid-1960s, America's "counterculture" blossomed, centered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Young people "dropped out" by using marijuana and LSD, living communally, and resisting materialism. Two major bands—Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead—played local venues for this new counterculture. The Dead participated in a series of "Acid Tests," organized by Ken Kesey, where audiences dropped acid (which was still legal) and danced to music and light shows, trying to build off the energy of the bands. Films of these events depict the audience and performers evenly, showing that both mattered. This relationship between performer and audience became a trademark for the Grateful Dead, who continued to tour up into the 1990s. The Dead performed audience requests and reported a spiritual connection with their audiences, who performed a variety of rituals, including gathering in parking lots before shows, trading tapes of performances, and tripping on acid.

The role of the countercultural rock audience culminated in the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969. Here again a central tension emerged: a corporate desire for control versus audience autonomy. Promoters who organized the festival hoped to gross profits by hiring Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and other key countercultural acts, but the event spun out of control. Half a million young people showed up, many without tickets. Soon they were scrambling over fences and making the event their own. Any viewer of the film Woodstock remembers audiences swimming in lakes, feasting on communally prepared food, helping one another through bad acid trips, and sliding through mud during torrential rainstorms. Many report that the event belonged to the audience and not the performers.

During the 1970s, the grander hopes of the counter-culture faded. After all, dropping out had not transformed society. Rock audiences during this time still donned long hair and smoked marijuana, but there were no more Woodstocks. Nor was rock just about youth anymore. Indeed, during the 1970s, "youth" signified lifestyle more than age, as baby boomers continued to listen to rock. Rock audiences also became more suburban, less urban. In the process, audiences became bigger, as record companies consolidated during the 1970s, forming the "Big Six" of Warner, Columbia, Polygram, RCA, Capitol-EMI, and MCA, and rock acts played in large arenas and stadiums, supported by massive promotions. Rock musicians became icons consumed by large, faceless audiences.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, some young people hoped to make popular music more local and participatory, thus creating more decentralized audiences. Hip-hop music and rap started in the basements of South Bronx homes ("house parties"), where kids break-danced and socialized. Punk rock encouraged participation in local "scenes" via shows at smaller venues (bowling alleys and recreation centers), "fanzines," and independent record companies. By 1981, MTV (the music television network) hit the air and eventually started to promote rap and the first inklings of "alternative" music. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, one local "scene" in Seattle known for "grunge music" managed to break big, thanks to the pioneering work of Subpop Records (who, in their promotional materials, used pictures of local audiences as much as bands) and the hype created by the national media. By the 1990s, the corporate-culture industry seemed to swallow up local music scenes.

It is impossible to predict the future of the rock audience. It will probably be segmented, made up of diverse "taste publics" (see Kotarba). Needless to say, rock's rebelliousness seems a thing of the past. Almost any trend, no matter how out of the ordinary, can be marketed. On the other hand, rock audiences still try to assert control. Recall Napster, a free Internet downloading service for rock music fans. Though shut down in 2000, it illustrates that audiences always manage to find ways to take back control from big record companies and their promotional infrastructure. The rock audience's future is up for grabs, but its past highlights a clear pattern of pushing and being pulled.

See also: Country Music Audiences; Rap Music Audiences; Record, CD, Tape Collecting and Listening; Traditional Folk Music Festivals


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Kevin Mattson