Rock and Roll

views updated May 18 2018

Rock and Roll

In the beginning, rock and roll music was a provocation, an affront to parents and proper citizens. As rock critic Jim Miller put it, "It was the music you loved to have them [parents] hate." The name itself was sexual, deriving from black slang for copulation. Dominated by a heavy back-beat and amplified guitars, the music was crude, raucous, easily accessible, and within a few years of its inception, tailored and marketed specifically to the young, now a consumer block of singular importance. And rock was inherently democratic. Any kid could muster up enough money for a guitar, and, gathering together three or four like-minded souls, start a band—many of the best groups were started in precisely this manner. But if the music itself was simple, its origins were not. In fact, rock and roll was the culmination of more than a century of musical cross-pollination between white and black, master and slave; a music born of miscegenation. It was in essence a post-modern medium, one of the first true products of the consumer society. With a whole array of gestures, attitudes, styles, inflections, and narratives, it was endlessly receptive to outside influences and was thus endlessly adaptable—a ground to receive all the narratives of youthful rebellion. Hence, it was far more contingent on history than other musical forms.

When parents first heard rock music in the 1950s, they heard only cacophony. They were unaware of the rich tradition behind rock and roll, that it was playing out a cultural evolution begun in slavery, a blending of musical and cultural forms—African and European, religious and secular—a syncretistic blending of two traditions of music. Prior to the Civil War, white minstrels began to copy the styles of the plantation orchestras, becoming the rage of Europe and America. These slave orchestras had learned a smattering of European dance tunes, which they combined with traditional African forms played on European instruments (not too dissimilar from the lutes and fiddles used by African griots —storytellers—of the Savannah), adapting their traditional music in ways both overt and clandestine, and thereby continuing a cultural heritage that had been in effect outlawed by the slaves' owners. By the time of rock's inception, this musical cross-fertilization had already occurred several times over, creating jazz, blues, gospel, western swing, and rhythm and blues.

These new musical forms—western swing, rhythm and blues, jump blues—proliferated in the years following World War II, the result of migrations out of the rural South and Southwest, as well as greater dissemination through radio and records. Many country musicians introduced blues tunes into their repertoire, while Delta blues musicians adapted to urban nightclubs with electric guitars and small combo arrangements. In the Southwest, small combos and jazz orchestras were combining blues vocals and arrangements with raucous saxophones and a backbeat-heavy rhythm section that spread from its Texas-Oklahoma roots west to Los Angeles and San Francisco. The birth of rock, however, centers around Memphis and a few farsighted individuals. Sam Phillips moved to Memphis in 1945, lured by the black music that had been his lifelong passion. He set up Sun Studios, recording Beale Street blues musicians, moonlighting and engineering demos to make ends meet. In 1951 he recorded "Rocket 88" by Ike Turner. It became a number-one rhythm and blues hit and is considered by many to be the first rock and roll song. Phillips himself was not concerned with race, but he knew intuitively that all the music he recorded would remain "race" music until a white man recorded it. He boasted to friends that if he could find a white singer who sang like a black man, he would make them both rich.

Memphis was home to a particularly energetic urban blues movement and a magnet for poor blacks and whites seeking to escape the grinding poverty of the countryside. The Presley family was characteristic of this pattern, moving there from rural Mississippi after World War II. They lived in the federal housing (the best housing they had ever had), and the illiterate Vernon Presley got a job driving a truck. Their son majored in shop at Hume High School, where he was regularly beaten for his long hair and effeminate appearance, but despite these eccentricities, it was anticipated that he would follow in his father's marginal footsteps, working some menial job and perhaps playing music on the side.

Elvis Presley's genius lay in his capacity to absorb different influences. He watched Rebel without a Cause a dozen times, cultivating a James Dean sneer and memorizing whole pages of dialogue, and visited the late-night gospel revivals, absorbing the religious frenzy. He listened to the radio, to the black gospel stations and groundbreaking DJ Dewey Phillips on WHBQ. At a time when Memphis itself was thoroughly segregated, Phillips was one of the first DJs in the country with an integrated set-list, playing blues and country alongside each other, and his influence on Elvis was evident by the songs on the singers first legendary Sun single—"I'm All Right, Mama," a blues by well-known Delta transplant Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, and bluegrasser Bill Monroe's country hit "Blue Moon of Kentucky." The bluesy "I'm All Right, Mama" was countrified, featuring a country-style guitar solo, while Monroe's classic was delivered with a rollicking back beat and a vocal delivery unlike any country singer; Presley sang with the fervor of the gospel musicians he loved to watch. This single 45, the culmination of two hundred years of musical cross-pollination, changed the music forever, and because Presley was white (an early radio interviewer made a point of asking what high school Elvis went to simply to prove that this was so), the entire nature of the music industry was stood on its head.

The music had arrived in the night, as it were. Like Dewey Phillips before him, DJ Alan Freed began mixing black and white artists on his late night show, The Moondog Show, after a Cleveland record store owner mentioned the droves of white teenagers buying black music at his store. Freed was soon promoting live rock events, drawing crowds well in excess of capacity, and alarming Cleveland's powers-that-be with integrated audiences and performers at a time when the city was largely segregated. "This unprecedented convergence of black and white," wrote cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, "so aggressively, so unashamedly proclaimed, attracted the inevitable controversy which centered on the predictable themes of race, sex, rebellion, etc., and which rapidly developed into a moral panic." Freed became a champion of scandal, an unashamed proponent for the young, and one of rock and roll's first martyrs, suffering legal harassment throughout his career and later an indictment in the Payola Scandal (he died sick and penniless in Palm Springs), but he was a crucial figure in its dissemination, especially when his 1954 move to WINS in New York blanketed the East Coast with rock and roll music.

Having seen the commercial potential of rock and roll, the large record companies were eager to profit from the craze but were not altogether enthusiastic about the music itself. Rock and roll was not respectable, nor proper; it was redolent of the kind of culture mainstream America had tried to keep at arm's length for years. Its growing popularity fed into middle-class anxiety that their children were being inextricably corrupted; a study on juvenile delinquency by a Dr. Walter B. Miller asserted among other things that the parental anxiety was not attributable to any increase in delinquency as much as to the adoption by middle-class youth of conduct formerly reserved to the working class; that is, the adoption of a whole array of slangs, styles, and attitudes—proletariat chic—that comprised rock and roll in its essence. Needless to say, the corporate record companies were uncomfortable with Southern and black musicians alike. They were suspicious of rock, could not fathom it, and, as history will attest, did their utmost to tone it down whenever possible. Rock's original journeymen were replaced by sanitized teen idols—Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon—scrubbed and polished little gems, carefully groomed for their role as sex symbols minus the sex. "It [the music] tended to become bowdlerized, drained of surplus eroticism, and any hint of anger or recrimination blown along the 'hot' lines was delicately refined into inoffensive nightclub sound," wrote Hebdige of jazz's mutation into swing. The same could be said of rock and roll in the late fifties. There was pressure to cleanse the music of unwholesome (black or the more obvious poor Southern musician) influences. Jerry Lee Lewis fell victim to this cultural sanitation, convicted by public opinion of incorrigible perversity after he married his teenage second cousin. His music was as heavily influenced by white Pentecostal ecstasy as by black gospel, but Lewis's very personal battle with sin made him an obvious target for the legions of decency. Chuck Berry was dispatched first through violation of the Mann Act, and then by internecine squabbles with the IRS that netted him several jail terms, but it was the infamous Payola Scandal (payola being a term for the bribery to which many small record companies resorted in order to get airplay) that broke the market power of small, independent labels and cleansed the airwaves for the sanitized dreck of the teen idols.

As it was, most of the original rock-and-rollers fell victim to a premature anachronism. Of all the pioneer musicians who carved rock and roll out of the musical wilderness, only Johnny Cash and Elvis survived the early 1960s as anything more than an oldies-but-goodies attraction. A list of these performers reads like a litany of bad luck and willful destruction: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper dead in a plane crash, February 3, 1959; Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, who found out too late that fame could not insulate them from the law; the flamboyant Little Richard, who traded in rock and roll for the Bible; Carl Perkins, destroyed by alcohol and drugs; rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran, killed in an automobile accident in England just after rock's first decade came to a close. Pioneering always exacts a heavy price on body and soul, and it would appear that bringing rock and roll into fruition turned out to be one of the more lethal endeavors in the creative history of the modern era.

While the pioneering musicians' music and influence was being subsumed in the United States by teen idols, in Great Britain rock and roll was undergoing a parallel evolution that started where stateside rock left off. Vintage rock, blues, rhythm and blues, and country were originally brought over by American servicemen following World War II. For the British youth, it was a revelation, a welcome change from the threadbare music hall tradition of British jazz. The ensuing generation of British rock stars, from ardent blues revivalists to their pop-inflected cousins, all credit the importation of American music as being central to their musical evolution. The British heard rock and roll through a cultural scrim, a sensibility expertly attuned to picking up the subtleties of class differences. With its introduction, the music was formed amid a complex, invisible relationship between its roots in the working-class American South and the chronic dissatisfaction of the British working class, curtailed by the accident of birth from anything more meaningful than menial labor. The British absorbed blues and rock like holy writ, bringing to the music an insouciance born of desperation that had withered in American pop. The British groups that would emerge as vanguards of the new style—the Beatles, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Them, the Dave Clark Five, not to mention a whole host of lesser names—introduced an enthusiasm for American forms that seemed fresh and vital. Incidentally, it caused near riots, panic in the streets, and all sorts of other commotion when it returned to American shores, capturing a new generation grown quite bored by Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Connie Francis, and company.

The expropriation of rock by British artists had a profound effect on rock music and rock fashion, as if, seen through the alien lens of another culture, rock music was revealed as at once more complex and more immediate to American musicians. Many of the British musicians—John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, to name a few—were the products of the English art school system and took influences from the world of art, especially the pop artists and their preoccupation with the language of advertising and their enthusiasm for obliterating the traditional demarcation between high and low art. In fact, Townshend borrowed the idea of auto-destruction from a lecture by artist Gustave Metzke at Townshend's art school, Ealing. As Chris Charlesworth wrote shortly before that crucial year, 1967, "Pop music was no longer aimed directly at young fans who screamed at their idols, and neither was it looked upon by its creators as a disposable commodity, good for a quick run on the charts and little else." Rock strove to make statements and be considered as serious art. In the Beatles' single "A Day in the Life" (on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), one can hear echoes of John Cage, Nam June Paik, and the whole current of high art. "How does the musician compose," wrote Dave Marsh, "when what's being heard is not the noise that the instrument and/or orchestra makes but the noise that the instrument and/or orchestra makes many times removed, on a piece of black plastic with a context of its own? This is what John Russell refers to as the 'element of exorcism' in pop, and it functions as effectively in a Who 45 as in an Oldenberg sculpture.… Thus were barriers—between art objects and everyday stuff, between the theory of avant-garde viewers and unaesthetic masses, between high culture and low, between respectability and trash—not simply eradicated but demolished."

The ecstatic communion of a Fillmore West concert (very similar to the ecstatic communion of the "holy rollers" who so influenced Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others) was a connection to rock's past, but rock music was fundamentally at odds with mainstream culture in a different way than in the 1950s. No longer was it a matter merely of social stigma or cultural chauvinism on the part of the dominant culture. "For performers like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Pete Townshend, Vegas and supper clubs, Hollywood movies and glittering television specials weren't a goal, they were a trap to avoid," wrote Marsh. "Very few of the post-Beatles performers courted the kind of respectability that Col. Tom Parker or Larry Parnes would have understood." For generational reasons and in large part because of the Vietnam War, which many rock performers viewed as symptomatic of a larger rot, the options that had satisfied previous generations of performers were no longer open to rock musicians. But as a music, rock was more dependent on the whole armature of consumer capitalism than any previous genre, and in the ensuing decade, these contradictions became glaringly apparent.

Rock is a porous music; this is its value as a social glue and, like other essentially postmodern arts, also its weakness. It is wholly contingent on historical circumstance, not divorced from it, and with the end of the 1960s, rock would once again be in the position it had occupied in the early 1960s—a holding period until the next big thing came along. Early in the 1970s, 1960s rock had become but a vivid memory, with many of its best talents dead or in retirement: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were dead; the Beatles had broken up. Those bands that remained intact could offer little more than a gesture of resistance (the gesture being an important figuration of the music—think of Pete Townshend's upstretched arm about to rip through his guitar strings, or Mick Jagger's effeminate stage persona, mincing and limp-wristed). Without the cohesion of the Vietnam War behind that rebellious, defiant gesture, it was employed as mere dramatic embellishment. It might be striking, but rock had become essentially hollow.

With nothing left to rebel against, rock devolved into specialized subgenres that bore only a passing resemblance to each other—heavy metal, the singer-songwriter, country rock, disco. The music was reflective of lifestyle choices as much as generational identity, and it no longer spoke to issues of class and youthful rebellion, except in the most base, degraded manner. The gentility of a Joni Mitchell listener bespoke sensitive college-educated professional; Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, a relaxed middle-class hedonism—nonintellectual, but respectable; while the testosterone bluster of heavy metal—the music of choice for teenage boys and a certain type of blue-collar post-adolescent, hence its status as keeper of rock's rebellious flame—was critically derided. Critics might deride both disco and heavy metal, but appropriately enough, it was these two genres that transcended class distinctions in a similar manner to 1950s rock: as constituting a craze.

In the 1980s, rock, its fire stolen by the punks, appeared even more moribund. Its leading proponents were either aging or one of a variety of manufactured anonymous drones producing vapid, formulaic music not so dissimilar in content from the offerings of the teen idol years. Rock music had been assimilated, contained, and with the advent of MTV, entrenched in an "entertainment" industry to a far greater degree than ever before. Even punk, which had begun its life as a brutal caricature of consumer culture, insisting that rock must be detourned, as the French would say, led away from its intended signifier, was finally integrated into the mainstream fifteen years after the fact. One could see the commercial acceptance of bands such as Nirvana, Rancid, and Green Day as evidence of some final cooptation, or the stardom of Marilyn Manson as a final embrace and integration of the other (when all is familiar, nothing is strange) or as punk rock's final triumph. More likely, punk's popularity was proof that the gestures of youth rebellion, as they had been since James Dean, were implicitly exciting and thus easily marketed given the proper incentive, which is, if one is a record executive, to swallow one's revulsion all the way to the bank. Was rock finally a dead form, as safe and nonthreatening as swing music?

With such theorizing, it is easy to lose sight of rock's essential nature as being anti-high-art, proletarian, and egalitarian. What was true in the 1950s—that rock in its fundamentals was easy to play, hence easily accessible—remains true in the present, though some rock music is indeed as difficult and as rigorous in composition as any classical music. But there is a possibility inherent in rock, a possibility inherent in all folk forms. The music is not owned by experts or specialists, but by the people; rock celebrates the potential of four kids getting together in a garage and playing. And as a legacy of rock's roots in slave music, where the slave master's strict prohibitions necessitated concealment, rock encodes within it a hidden corrosive message, a secret, a call to arms based on symbols and repetition discernible to anyone with a mind to decipher it, broadcasting its complaint despite the manipulations of record executives. "According to one theory," writes Lester Bangs, "punk rock goes back to Ritchie Valens's 'La Bamba.' Just consider Valens's three-chord mariachi squawkup in the light of 'Louie Louie' by the Kingsmen, then consider 'Louie Louie' in the light of 'You Really Got Me' by the Kinks, then 'You Really Got Me' in the light of 'No Fun' by the Stooges, then 'No Fun' in the light of 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by the Ramones, and finally note that 'Blitzkrieg Bop' sounds a lot like 'La Bamba.' There: twenty years of rock & roll history in three chords, played more primitively each time they are recycled."

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Arnold, Gina. Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1997.

——. Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Bangs, Lester. "Protopunk: The Garage Bands." The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1980.

——. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Escott, Colin. Sun Records: The Brief History of the Legendary Recording Label. New York, Quick Fox, 1980.

Gillett, Charlie. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll. New York, Pantheon, 1983.

Gilmore, Mikal. Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll. New York, Doubleday, 1998.

Herman, Gary. Rock 'n' Roll Babylon. New York, Putnam's, 1982.

Loder, Kurt. Bat Chain Puller: Rock & Roll in the Age of Celebrity. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of Rock 'n' Roll Music. New York, Dutton, 1975.

——. Stranded: Rock & Roll for a Desert Island. New York, Knopf, 1979.

Marsh, Dave. Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1983.

Miller, Jim, editor. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1980.

Palmer, Robert. Rock 'n' Roll: An Unruly History. New York, Harmony Books, 1995.

Young, Bob, and Mickey Moody. Language of Rock & Roll. London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1989.

Rock and Roll

views updated May 21 2018

Rock and Roll

Rock and roll, used both specifically to refer to a 1950s musical style and as a generic term for popular music since the 1950s, is an influential musical genre that first developed in the southern United States. Beginning as a fusion of African-American rhythm and blues music with Southern white country music, rock and roll quickly left the South to become a multiethnic, international musical movement with hundreds of subgenres, spin-offs, and fusions. By the end of the twentieth century, rock and roll had become one of the most recognizable and influential musical idioms ever created.

From its earliest incarnations to the present day, rock and roll music has functioned as a space for experimentation with portrayals of gender and sexuality. Performers habitually play with cultural norms of gender presentation, often exaggerating or transgressing conventional expectations of male and female behavior. In many forms of rock and roll, sexual displays are a major part of rock musicians' performances, used to place them within traditions and to make commentary on various social issues. Space does not permit an extensive discussion of the all manifestations of gender and sexuality in rock and roll subcultures. Instead, this entry highlights some important moments in the evolution of gender expectations, masculinity, women's participation, and sexuality in rock and roll music.


Early rock and roll was remarkable for its biracial makeup, especially given the racial segregation of pre-Civil Rights southern society. Through rock and roll African-American performers gained unprecedented access to mainstream radio waves, and white audiences saw musical traditions that had been previously less visible. African Americans performed songs traditionally associated with rural white culture, whereas white musicians used black musical forms (and songs by black artists) in their own careers. This racial mixing, combined with rock and roll's status as a youth culture, meant that growing numbers of white youth had musical heroes who were black or, at the very least, were greatly influenced by black culture. These cross-cultural influences extended to style and mannerisms as well. Many white artists came from a Southern working-class culture that had always been closely linked with its African-American neighbors, so adopting black speech, clothing, or gestures was unsurprising. However, in the context of white, middle-class expectations of masculinity, such borrowings were often read as flamboyant, obscene, or downright criminal.

The complex layering of race, class, and sexuality in early rock and roll can be seen in the reception of Elvis Presley (1935–1977). Presley was dubbed the Hillbilly Cat for his mixture of lower-class white (hillbilly) and African-American (cat) music and sensibility. Besides singing songs first made popular by black musicians, Presley's persona reflected a new, hybrid masculinity. His pompadour hair and sideburns—common among working-class Southern men—looked simultaneously effeminate and threatening in mainstream contexts, whereas his hip-rolling dance movements (borrowed largely from African Americans) seemed obscene to television censors and older audiences. Despite this opposition Presley's performances were wildly popular, especially among teenage girls, for whom an Elvis concert represented a rare chance to express sexual desire.

Other performers used the flamboyance of rock and roll to enact sexual difference. African-American artist Little Richard (b. 1932) wore copious amounts of makeup and feminine clothing in performance. Although much of his audience was unaware of it, his songs and stage performances contained thinly veiled references to his homosexuality.

Women, too, were active in this genre, although their work was rarely classified as rock and roll. Female African-American rhythm and blues artists, taking their cues from the blues queens of the 1920s, sang songs in a style nearly indistinguishable from rock and roll. Notable female performers included Ruth Brown (1928–2006), "Big Mama" Thornton (1926–1984), and LaVern Baker (1929–1977). Among white female artists Wanda Jackson (b. 1937) achieved great success as the Queen of Rockabilly.


As rock and roll spread throughout the United States, it also gained popularity in Europe, particularly in England, where it formed a key part of English youth cultures. British groups performed in styles copied from imported records, and many became popular in the United States in the mid-1960s. This British invasion of the U.S. record charts was exemplified and spurred on by the success of the Beatles.

The Beatles came to the United States in February 1964 amid massive public excitement. Besides concert tickets and records, Beatles memorabilia such as posters, dolls, and board games helped fans form a subculture around the band. As had occurred with Presley, Beatles concerts gave female fans a venue for expressing their developing sexuality and rebelling against norms of propriety. Additionally, the material culture surrounding the Beatles opened up a space for adolescent girls to connect with each other through shared enjoyment of Beatles concert experiences and merchandise. This protosexual fandom became an important part of adolescence for many girls, and teen idol groups or boy bands recurred throughout rock and roll's history.

Another significant presence on the U.S. pop charts was the mostly African-American girl group. Usually associated with Berry Gordy's (b. 1929) Motown Records (although the formula proved successful for other record labels as well), a girl group consisted of three or four members with one lead singer. Although their songs were heavily orchestrated, girl group members did not usually play their own instruments. Their songs, written by professional songwriting teams, either addressed a love interest directly or instructed their (mostly female) audience on how to handle various romantic situations. These models of feminine behavior are astonishingly diverse, especially for an era usually remembered for its restrictive gender roles.


By 1968 the biracial era of rock and roll was largely over. Black artists returned to race-specific genres such as rhythm and blues and soul, whereas white musicians moved away from African-American influences. White artists of this era generally referred to the music they made as rock rather than by the earlier, interracial term rock and roll. The black heritage of rock music was never fully expunged, but it was transformed as artists combined earlier rock and roll with the sensibilities of the hippie counterculture.

The hippies became a major force behind the sweeping cultural changes of the 1960s. A hallmark of hippie style was androgyny—men wore their hair long and dressed far more flamboyantly than their mainstream counterparts, whereas women tended to eschew makeup and difficult hairstyles in favor of a more natural appearance. Combined with their pacifism, drug use, and leftist politics, this fluidity of gender presentation set the hippies apart from mainstream culture.

The second wave of the feminist movement gained momentum throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, spurring vast changes in almost every cultural sphere. In rock music male artists continued to dominate the charts, although a new space for strong, autonomous female voices emerged. Most notable among these voices was Janis Joplin (1943–1970), the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin's raspy voice, blues-queen persona, and personal charisma earned her legendary status among rock performers. Joplin's success, however, did not necessarily translate into success for other women in rock music, who often reacted to sexist bias in the music industry by forming their own record companies and distribution networks.


In many ways disco music was the soundtrack of emerging gay consciousness. Disco was a variety of soul music made expressly for dancing, and it gained particular popularity in gay dance clubs that played records in lieu of live music. Its characteristic combination of four-on-the-floor bass and heavily orchestrated accompaniment became a musical trope by the late 1970s, available for use by virtually any musician. Despite this ubiquity disco never lost its gay associations, as the success of the Village People's double-entendre songs eventually made clear.

One of disco's most recognizable features was the disco diva, the (usually) African-American woman singing the vocal track. Disco divas sang in a gospel style, with the buildup and ecstatic vocalization common to gospel music. Some disco divas, such as Gloria Gaynor (b. 1949) and Donna Summer (b. 1948), took on similar importance to the gay male community as film divas such as Judy Garland (1922–1969) and Bette Davis (1908–1989).

Disco's high production values led to charges of commercialization and artificiality from its detractors. That these charges were tinged with racism and homophobia became clear when a Chicago radio station's Disco Sucks! campaign at Komiskey Park turned into a riot. This violent backlash marked the end of disco's mainstream acceptance.


After the Komiskey Park riot, disco once again became an underground genre. Dance music did not disappear from the pop charts, however. The dystopic, mechanical aesthetic of New Wave influenced a generation worried about AIDS and technological advances, and the severe, androgynous sensibility of New Wave culture appeared in synth-pop and other dance music.

Madonna (b. 1958) was easily the most successful artist of 1980s dance music and one of the most successful musicians of all time. Her unique and powerful use of her own sexuality was the key to her success and to her extraordinary staying power as a cultural force for more than two decades. Madonna was also one of the most influential music video artists of the 1980s, and her MTV videos such as "Open Your Heart" (1986) and "Like A Prayer" (1989) became exemplars of the genre.

The mid- to late 1980s saw the rise of glam metal, a subset of heavy metal music. Glam metal bands wore heavy makeup, nail polish, and teased women's hairstyles in their performances. Unlike drag performers, however, the incongruity of these feminine signifiers on quite unfeminine men worked to highlight glam metal masculinity. This strategy was largely successful—unlike other forms of heavy metal, glam metal appealed to many heterosexual women, and few, if any, glam metal musicians had their gender or sexuality called into question.


The appearance of hip-hop/rap music marked one of the most important musical developments of the 1980s. The hip-hop youth culture that sprung up in early 1980s New York City was often highly competitive, with dancers, DJs, or rappers engaging in highly improvisatory battles with one another. Although hip-hop was characterized as male dominated, women such as Queen Latifah (b. 1970) and MC Lyte (b. 1971) were integral to hip-hop culture from its beginnings and in fact became some of the most outspoken proponents of women's issues since the 1920s blues queens.

As hip-hop culture developed, depictions of women varied wildly in different rap genres. Some continued to have prominent female voices, whereas others, such as 1990s gangsta rap, were often shockingly misogynist. By the end of the twentieth century, hip-hop had become a huge, diverse field with successful male and female participants, although male artists continued to dominate spoken-word rap.


In 1969 the Stonewall Riots touched off the modern gay rights movement in the United States. Although gay/lesbian artists had always been prominent in popular music, changing attitudes about homosexuality allowed some performers (Dusty Springfield [1939–1999], Little Richard) to live more or less openly. For others (David Bowie [b. 1947], Mick Jagger [1943]) same-sex sexuality became available as an experiment or for shock value.

Although the AIDS crisis of the 1980s devastated the gay male community, acceptance for lesbians and gays increased throughout the decade. Few musicians came out openly, however—even flamboyant artists never discussed their sexuality in public. This code of silence weakened in the early 1990s when k.d. lang (b. 1961) and Melissa Etheridge (b. 1961) came out of the closet with no significant damage to their careers, and George Michael (b. 1963) turned a bathroom-solicitation arrest into a career revival. Soon, Boy George (b. 1961), the Indigo Girls, the Pet Shop Boys, and other gay-coded artists affirmed their homosexuality, whereas other artists such as Rufus Wainwright (b. 1973) and Stephen Merritt (b. 1966) saw no reason to hide their sexuality. Although openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered mainstream musicians were still relatively uncommon, artists of all sexual orientations in the early twenty-first century often seemed more willing to play with gender transgression and sexual fluidity than had their predecessors.


Burns, Lori, and Melissa Lafrance. 2002. Disruptive Divas: Feminism, Identity, and Popular Music. New York: Routledge.

Dyer, Richard. 1992. "In Defence of Disco." In Only Entertainment. New York: Routledge.

Fast, Susan. 2001. In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Frith, Simon, and Angela McRobbie. 1990. "Rock and Sexuality." In On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin. New York: Pantheon.

Garber, Marjorie. 1989. "Cross-Dressing, Gender, and Representation: Elvis Presley." In The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Theory, ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore. London: Blackwell.

Lawrence, Tim. 2003. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lewis, Lisa A. 1990. Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Lipsitz, George. 1994. "'Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens': The Class Origins of Rock and Roll." In "A Rainbow at Midnight": Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

McClary, Susan. 1991. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Peraino, Judith A. Listening to Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identities from Homer to Hedwig. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reynolds, Simon. 1996. The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock and Roll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rose, Tricia. 1994. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Smith, Richard. 1995. Seduced and Abandoned: Essays on Gay Men and Popular Music. London: Cassell.

Walser, Robert. 1993. Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Hanover, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Warwick, Jacqueline. 2007. Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s. New York: Routledge.

Whiteley, Sheila. 2000. Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity, and Popular Music. New York: Routledge.

Whiteley, Sheila, ed. 1997. Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. New York: Routledge.

Wise, Sue. 1990. "Sexing Elvis." In On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin. New York: Pantheon.

                                 Marcus Desmond Harmon

                                           Robert Walser

Rock ‘N’ Roll

views updated May 14 2018

Rock N Roll


Rock n roll, a hybrid popular musical form that emerged in the United States in the early 1950s, became one of the most important cultural forces around the world. Rock n roll began when musicians mixed black rhythm and blues with Southern white country and gospel musics, helping to spark a cultural revolution in the 1950s and 1960s. The first exhilarating blasts of rock n roll defied the Eisenhower eras puritanical emphasis on social and political conformity. This interracial music, edgy and rebellious, broke down social barriers by challenging sexual, racial, and, later, political taboos. The music made a powerful statement that young Americans were less divided by race than their parents.

During the 1950s white musicians such as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis and black musicians such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino created rock n roll; often fast and highly dance-able, it posed a challenge to urban pop music from Tin Pan Alley and rural-oriented country music. Haley took rhythm and blues songs and reconfigured them for a white teen audience. Influenced by the electric blues, Berry created the distinctive rock n roll guitar style. Presley, known as Elvis the Pelvis because of his suggestive, hip-swinging performances, became the first rock superstar, aided by skillful marketing. American rock n rollers also developed a large following in Britain and Europe.

Rock n roll evolved into rock in the early 1960s and became the heart of that decades youth movement. American society in the 1960s grew to be deeply divided over the war in Vietnam, protest movements against racism and sexism, and countercultural youth who flouted social norms. In 1963 the Beatles began a British Invasiona wave of U.K. rock groups, such as the Rolling Stones and the Kinksthat electrified American audiences and energized rock. Beatlemania reached around the world, spawning local imitators and spreading new fashions. The Beatles revolutionized recording technology and matured from top-selling pop stars to musical philosophers; many of their later albums, such as Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), are infused with deep meaning. Bob Dylan, once a folk singer, wrote poetic songs exploring the human experience, including politics. The probing music of Dylan, the Beatles, and the musicians they influenced played a major role in protest and social movements. New rock styles also emerged. Hence, the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash created country rock and folk rock, while the Beach Boys expanded the boundaries of Southern Californiabased surf music. Often inspired by drug experiences, San Francisco musicians like the Jefferson Airplane and the bluesy Janis Joplin created psychedelic rock. The innovative guitarist Jimi Hendrix laid the foundation for heavy metal and hard rock. The merging of rock music, political protest, and the counterculture of disaffected youth led to the Summer of Love in 1967, when thousands congregated in San Francisco, and culminated in the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969, when 300,000 rock fans crowded a New York farm.

By the early 1970s several rock icons (including Hendrix and Joplin) had died, the war in Vietnam had wound down, protest movements had faded, and a more conservative social and political environment had emerged in the United States. New rock-derived styles developed over the next four decades. In the United States and especially Britain, punk musicloud, fast, and anarchicappealed to alienated working-class youth with its frontal assault on prevailing social and political values. Heavy metal, with its deafening guitars, was angry and often obsessed with sex and violence. In contrast, dance musics such as disco, techno, and rave were escapist. But some rock musicians directly addressed social and political issues. The superstar Bruce Springsteen, mixing rock and folk, criticized U.S. foreign policies and the neglect of the working class and poor. In the 1990s punk and heavy metal were combined into a new style, grunge, most prominently represented by the Seattle group Nirvana. By the twenty-first century rock had fragmented into diverse styles with niche audiences.

African Americans created popular musics influenced by rock. The soul music of the 1960s, from artists like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, conveyed a message of black self-respect and unity parallel to the civil rights movements. The slickly produced Motown sound appealed to both blacks and whites. Beginning in the 1980s rap, an eclectic urban mix of African American and Caribbean traditions, became the most cutting-edge, politicized music, sometimes called the CNN of the black ghetto. The boastful, angry lyrics highlighted conflict between black and white, rich and poor, male and female. Like rock, rap was adopted by alienated groups around the world, but in the United States its radical message was watered down by the twenty-first century. Whether rock and its kindred musics were empowering or diversionary, promoting social and political change or helping maintain the status quo, remained subject to debate. Whatever the case may be, these debates reflected the enduring appeal of musics rooted, despite five decades of changes, in the black-white fusion of early rock n roll.

SEE ALSO Blues; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Jazz; Music; Music, Psychology of; Reggae; World Music; Youth Culture


Garofalo, Reebee. 2005. Rockin Out: Popular Music in the U.S.A. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Szatmary, David P. 2007. Rockin in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Wicke, Peter. 1987. Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics, and Sociology. Trans. Rachel Fogg. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Craig A. Lockard

Rock and Roll

views updated May 18 2018

Rock and Roll

Rock and roll music managed to do what nothing else could in the mid-twentieth century: it integrated white and African American cultures by melding the distinctive musical styles of each. Although it seemed to burst on the scene almost overnight in the mid-1950s, rock and roll was actually the culmination of more than a century of musical experimentation. With its heavy back-beat and amplified guitars, early rock and roll was raw and rowdy. It appealed to a young audience in a way music never had before. Rock and roll was more than music: it was attitude and style.

In the beginning

Many music historians consider the rhythm and blues hit “Rocket 88,” recorded by Ike Turner (1931–2007) and Jackie Brenston (1930–1979) in legendary record producer Sam Phillips's (1923–2003) studio in 1951, the first rock and roll song. That same year, Cleveland, Ohio , radio disc jockey Alan Freed (1921–1965) popularized the term “rock and roll.” Other songs that brought rock and roll to a wide audience were Bill Haley's (1925–1981) hit “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which was a rhythm and blues hit when recorded by Big Joe Turner (1911–1985) and a rock hit when covered by Haley, both in 1954.

But it was Elvis Presley (1935–1977) who earned the title of the King of Rock and Roll. With an unusual ability to absorb various musical-influences

and mix them into a perfect balance, Presley released “That's All Right (Mama)” in 1954 and became a singing sensation. This Memphis, Tennessee , musician mixed blues and country music with a danceable, thumping beat and triggered a musical revolution. Presley continued to release one hit after another throughout the decade as rock took hold of the nation's youth. Jerry Lee Lewis (1935–) joined his peer on the rock scene when he released “Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” in 1957. African American musicians Chuck Berry (1926–) and Little Richard (1932–) rose to fame in those years as well. Buddy Holly (1936–1959) took inspiration from Presley and released several hit singles before his untimely death at the age of twenty-two. Despite his short life, he is considered a pioneer of rock and roll. These musicians infused sounds from various music genres—rhythm and blues, country, gospel, and boogie-woogie—to create the new electric sound of rock and roll.

1960s and 1970s

No single musician or band had greater influence on the rock and roll sound of the 1960s than the Beatles, originally from Liverpool, England. They dominated American music charts throughout the decade, beginning with their first hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964). It was the sound of the Beatles that helped rock expand beyond the raw power of earlier songs into more progressive and musically rich melodies that reflected the political and social changes sweeping the nation at the time. (See Beatlemania .) Traditionally considered a folk music singer, Bob Dylan (1941–) contributed to this shift in rock and roll, more with his music's message than its style. Other influential musicians who brought folk and rock music together were the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas and the Papas, and Simon and Garfunkel.

The so-called British Invasion brought more rock bands to the United States, notably the Rolling Stones. Starting around 1964, many

British musicians recorded songs that climbed U.S. music charts. Some of the most popular bands and individuals include the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who, Dusty Springfield (1939–1999), the Hollies, and Herman's Hermits.

Psychedelic rock Folk rock gave birth to psychedelic rock, a form that tries to replicate the mind-altering experiences of hallucinogenic drugs. This form became popular in the mid-1960s and was played by Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd (a British band that gained popularity in the States), British singer Donovan (1946–), Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970), and the Doors.

By the end of the decade, rock and roll had become such an integral part of American culture that rock festivals were being held around the country. The most famous festival was Woodstock, a three-day arts and music festival held in 1969 in upstate New York . Hundreds of thousands of fans attended to hear the sounds of Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin (1943–1970), and the Who, among others.

Progressive rock Progressive (prog) rock bands pushed compositional boundaries by incorporating elements drawn from other genres, such as jazz and classical. Their songs were not always structured in the conventional verse-chorus way but rather in story fashion. This form became popular in the United States in the late 1960s and reached its peak in the mid-1970s with bands such as Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, Rush, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.


Bubble gum pop, another form of rock, has a lighter sound. Often called soft rock, its sound was epitomized in the 1970s by bands like the Partridge Family, the Osmonds, and the Carpenters, and singers such as Olivia Newton-John (1948–), Neil Diamond (1941–), and Barry Manilow (1943–).

Although disco enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, the United States saw a second wave of British and American rock bands reach new levels of fame during that time. Hard rock and heavy metal bands like Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Queen relied on heavily amplified, guitar-driven songs. Music critics generally rejected harsh, hard-driving metal, but bands like Kiss and Queen achieved huge popularity. As metal became more popular, bands began touring and performing for large audiences in stadiums. So-called “arena rock” brought a wave of bands like Journey, Boston, Styx, Heart, and Foreigner in the late 1970s.

Punk rock and new wave were primarily a response to the commercialism of disco, hard rock, and arena rock. Stripped down and using only three chords, punk music was easy to play. Many consider the Ramones the first American punk band, and they gained notoriety beginning in the mid-1970s. Contemporaries included Patti Smith (1946–), the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag. Britain's punk scene was flourishing around the same time, with bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash.

Punk was a social phenomenon, but it did not get significant airplay, nor did it sell a lot of records. In the late 1970s, new wave emerged as a softer version of hard-core punk. Bands such as Talking Heads, Blondie, and Devo played this form of rock. Other rock bands, including the Go-Gos and the Cars, were largely crossover pop bands who incorporated some of the new wave sound into their music.

1980s and 1990s

Although the 1980s brought less innovation in rock, many solid rock bands that had enjoyed success in the past continued to build their fan base. Songs from the 1975 album Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen (1949–), received repeated airplay and catapulted the singer and his E Street Band to fame. That popularity continued throughout the 1980s. His 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. sold fifteen million copies in the United States alone and became one of the best-selling albums of all time. Other bands with long-lasting appeal include Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Pretenders, and the Police. British rocker David Bowie (1947–), who had emerged on the American rock scene in 1975, remained popular throughout the 1980s as well, though he infused a more pop sound into his music.

Glam metal artists were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Also known as hair bands, these musicians used music videos to increase their fan base. Glam metal featured distorted guitar riffs, power chords, and guitar solos. The earlier glam metal bands included Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, and Ratt. Poison enjoyed commercial success, and the band Bon Jovi appealed to audiences of glam metal, hard rock, and country rock.

The term alternative rock was coined in the early 1980s as a label for bands that did not fit into the mainstream genres. Examples of these bands were R.E.M., the Cure, the Smiths, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies. Like punk, this genre did not sell a lot of records, but the musicians heavily influenced those who were coming of age in the 1980s. By the 1990s, alternative had become mainstream.

Grunge became popular in Seattle, Washington , in the mid-1980s. Its musicians rebelled against mainstream rock by fusing elements of punk and heavy metal. The result was music featuring distorted guitar and a fuzzy sound caused by amplifier feedback. The lyrics were filled with apathy and angst. Arguably the most popular grunge band was Nirvana, whose frontman Kurt Cobain (1967–1994) died of a drug overdose in 1994.

Cobain's death seemed to signal the end of the grunge era, and the post-grunge sound evolved. This was a more radio-friendly, pop-sounding form. Popular post-grunge musicians include Tori Amos (1963–), Foo Fighters, Creed, Collective Soul, Alanis Morissette (1974–), Fiona Apple (1977–), and Jewel (1974–).

Twenty-first century

By the end of the twentieth century, the rock genre was splintered. For early rock enthusiasts, the genre was a form of rebellion, a way to question authority and rally the young. By the 1980s, the cable channel MTV had infused the genre and all its subcategories with a sense of commercialism. Rock and roll purists considered this a sellout, an unforgiving compromise. At the start of the twenty-first century, the heirs of pure rock continued to make their own kind of music.

Rock and Roll

views updated May 21 2018

Rock and Roll

Beginning around 1955, rock and roll, a music of outlandish performers, amplified guitars, and aggressive lyrics, replaced jazz and pop standards in commercial prominence. It is often discussed as the charged collision of two racially separate genres: African-American rhythm and blues (R&B) and white country music. Yet it is more accurately viewed as a different hybrid. These outsider musical styles, and the often working-class, Southern, and/or black performers who championed them, were embraced by teenagers who were often middle class, Northern, and white and who had emerged in the affluence of that decade as an economic force to be reckoned with. As controversy raged about Elvis Presley's gyrating hips and the "leerics" of hit songs, a music industry veteran argued that the music had only become controversial because "the [white] pop kids started buying the R&B disks and playing them at home" (Martin and Segrave, p. 17).

Youth Culture

The union of youth culture and popular music has periodically sent shockwaves through American society ever since: variants include hippies, teenyboppers, punks, metal-heads, rappers, and ravers. As the U.S. model of consumerism has spread worldwide, phenomena akin to rock and roll have cropped up time and againfrom subcultures like the English mods and skinheads and the French yeh yehs to the emergent sounds of Jamaican reggae, South African mbaqanga, Balkan turbofolk, and Algerian rai. Music, and the styles of clothing, language, and behavior so closely linked to it, has provided adolescents with the essential basis for a common sense of identity.

Yet rock and roll has evolved with every decade, and so have the youth phenomena associated with it. The teenagers of the 1950s were categorized as juvenile delinquents (the boys) or insipid sock hoppers screaming for manufactured idols on the television show American Bandstand (the girls); either way, a decadent, selfish breed compared to the generation that had withstood the Depression and fought World War II. Sociologists, and the media that followed their lead, looked at rock and rollers as deviants or as innocents manipulated by mass culture. In retrospect, however, rock had a radicalizing effect on these children, listening to brand-new transistor radios in their bedrooms and learning to identify with musicians from society's most marginal groupsthe heavily pompadoured Little Richard, for instance, who sang in a falsetto taken from the Southern drag-queen club circuit.

By the 1960s, the subterranean energies that had fueled rock and roll's rise were bubbling over. The children of the baby boom, that demographic bulge lasting from 1946 to 1964, were hitting their teenage years. Rock and roll, formerly a genre devoted to fun and loudness, had now become rock, a more serious Anglo-American art form with cultivated links to politicized folk music and the hippie generation's notion of youth as a self-consciously oppositional counter-culture. New heroes like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, essentially akin to the boomers in background, inspired them to pick up electric guitars, grow their hair long, and experiment with sex and drugs. Woodstock, a three-day antiwar festival that drew hundreds of thousands to upstate New York in 1969, epitomized how sixties rock offered a mass cultural vision of authenticity and community.

Yet soon after, as the Stones played a different festival in Altamont, California, a young black attendee was murdered by Hell's Angels bikers who had foolishly been hired to protect the stage. Rock had lost its innocence, and as the music's popularity grew in the 1970s and 1980s it became a far more standardized industry. Young female teenyboppers were encouraged by teen magazines and AM radio to consume airbrushed pinups like Donny Osmond and the Bay City Rollers. Boys read Rolling Stone, listened to FM radio, and learned about arena rock, the cartoonishly heavy metal sounds of bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The music's cross-racial alliances faded as black and Latin disco and funk separated from white singer-songwriter earnestness. MTV, a cable network relying on music videos for its programming, appeared in 1981, linking rock to television around the clock. The youth market was bigger than ever. Stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen enjoyed global popularity. It was now possible to find kids in virtually every location on earth obsessed with the same musical icons.


As rock aged, however, cracks unsurprisingly started to appear in its dominance over youth culture. Punk, a movement from within rock that began in the mid-1970s, gradually became the music's oppositional wing, inspiring an audience that still looked to rock to behave as the antithesis of manufactured pop music. From the Sex Pistols in 1977 to Nirvana in 1991, often called "the year punk broke," a generation of college students used punk much as an early generation had used folk music, positioning themselves outside a corrupted mainstream. Alternative rock, a commercial variant of punk that briefly held sway in the 1990s, was epitomized by the Lollapalooza festivals, a post-baby boomer Woodstock of sorts. Then it splintered, a victim of its own anticorporate mainstream contradictions.

But rock was now simply one established genre among many competing for the younger demographic. Rappers replaced rock stars as icons of youth rebellion: although Eminem was white, most of the other major performers were African American, including Public Enemy, N.W.A, Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac Shakur. Country music, including Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and the Dixie Chicks, courted suburban youth with a slicked-up twang. A new breed of boy bands like N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys, revived the teenybopper for the MTV era. Dance beats appealed to a subculture of ravers, whose consumption of the party drug Ecstasy terrified parents who had grown up experimenting with marijuana to the sounds of rock. Nerds more inspired by their computers and video games than by the radio down-loaded songs on MP3, much to the chagrin of the music industry, which saw album sales plummet at the turn of the century.

Globally, local music inspired by rock and its affiliated sounds but taking a particularly homegrown slant, has steadily rolled back the dominance of American music. Rappers can be found in Wales, Senegal, and South Korea; an alternative rock scene exists in Singapore; Japanese reggae bands have created a vibrant scene out of the Jamaican sounds of dancehall. The story gets steadily more complicated, but certain basic patterns never change: emotional affiliation across lines of identity; the tension between the pop marketplace and subcultures driven by a notion of personal authenticity; and the endless ability of new cohorts of young people to cobble together new blends of sound and style.

See also: Adolescence and Youth; Media, Childhood and the.


De Curtis, Anthony, and James Henke, with Holly George-Warren, eds. 1992. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: The Definitive History of the Most Important Artists and Their Music. New York: Random House.

Frith, Simon. 1982. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock'n'Roll. New York: Random House.

Frith, Simon, Will Straw, and John Street, eds. 2001. The Cambridge Companion to Rock and Pop. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen.

Martin, Linda, and Kerry Segrave. 1988. Anti-Rock: The Oppositionto Rock'N'Roll. Hamden, CN: Archon Books.

Mitchell, Tony, ed. 2002. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the U.S.A. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Eric Weisbard

Rock and Roll

views updated May 11 2018


ROCK AND ROLL was originally a youth-based musical form. It is hybrid in origin, drawing from African American musical forms, such as the blues and gospel, as well as from white country and folk music. The path of rock and roll is inextricably linked to one of race in America, and as such, its history is complicated and contested. Although widely debated, Jackie Bernston's "Rocket 88," pressed in 1951, is often cited as the first rock and roll record, and it stands as an apt starting point for understanding the form. Breston was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, center of the delta blues. Sam Phillips, who would introduce Elvis Presley to the world on his Memphis-based Sun Records label, produced "Rocket 88." At the Sun Records' studio, blues singers such as Howlin' Wolf and B. B. King created music that younger white artists like Presley incoporated into their country-based styles. The result was a cultural revolution feared by many white adults because of its black origins and its overt sexuality, while at the same time fervently embraced by American youth. Presley was undoubtedly at the center of this revolt. Covering many black musicians' songs, including Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" and Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," Presley, a Mississippi native, recorded his first hits in the mid-1950s, and he dominated music charts for decades. His performances departed radically from the staid white ballad singers of the era. Presley swung his hips so wildly that when playing for television's The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, it showed him only from the waist up. Presley's appearance caused a sensation and broke all of television's single-night ratings up to then.

Black artists also recorded rock music that appealed to teens, white and black, throughout the 1950s. Chuck Berry, perhaps the greatest of the rock and roll poets, created enduring standards such as "Johnny B. Goode" (1958), and Little Richard topped charts with hits such as "Good Golly Miss Molly." Richard also stunned audiences with his frantic, explosive performances, earning him wide popularity among youth while drawing the enmity of the white establishment. By the late 1950s, another distinctive sound that would last through the 1960s emerged at Detroit's Motown Records, a black-owned recording studio. The Motown sound was characterized by a lead singer delivering melodic story lines accompanied by the elegant, tight harmonies of a backup group. Popular Motown artists included the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. By the end of the 1950s, rock and roll, made by and for youth, had become big business, and the lyrics turned increasingly to safe topics, namely a host of teenage

problems—school, summer vacation, cars, parents, and young love.

Rock and roll seemed to stagnate at the end of the 1950s. Presley had joined the Army, Berry was in prison, and Little Richard was in (temporary) retirement. Some mourned the supposed loss of rock and roll's original rebellious, gutsy quality. By the mid-1960s, however, the popularity of the music soared again with the emergence of a number of British rock groups. Known as the "British Invasion," this era began with the debut of the Beatles, who dominated American popular music charts after their 1964 smash hit, "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Influenced greatly by Sun Records' artists, the Beatles were followed by other British recording groups, including The Who and the Rolling Stones, whose music derived from American blues. These latter British bands initiated a return to rock's blues orientation, albeit in louder and more electric incarnations. Another important transformation in rock and roll occurred in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan, noted folk and protest singer, appeared playing an electric guitar, backed by an electrified band. While many were outraged over his bastardization of acoustic folk, others were enthusiastic. A synthesis of rock and roll and the folk revival followed, becoming known as "folk rock." By the mid-1960s, rock and roll, which was no longer perceived as just for dancing, became known simply as rock.

In the 1960s, rock mirrored the social and political tensions of the Vietnam War era. The spirit-possessed performances of Otis Redding (crossover gospel singer) to the hyperkinetic screams of James Brown ("Say it Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud," 1968) asserted black pride, gave expression to the Civil Rights Movement, and stunned white audiences. Motown artists also employed the African American tradition of "masking" messages within their songs. Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston's hit, "It Takes Two" (1967), for example, was a love song as well as a masked call for desegregation. The lyrics of other rock songs turned toward rebellion, social protest, sex, and drugs. Groups, such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, approximated in music the aural experience of psychedelic drugs, creating a genre known as "acid rock," featuring long, repetitive songs with surreal lyrics. During the later 1960s, rock festivals became a fixture of American popular culture and a site of important protest activity. The most famous of these was Woodstock (1969), held in rural New York.

The 1970s and 1980s also witnessed turning points in rock music. The "punk rock" of the mid-1970s was a response to the perceived stagnation of the genre and a nihilistic political statement. Emergent among British bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash, punk quickly became popular in the United States and has had a lasting influence on rock music. Funk and disco also emerged in the 1970s. Both were based largely on the polyrhythmic grooves of Brown and his band, the JBs. Disco, which flourished in gay communities, was met with a strong backlash, fed by homophobia as well as by the racism that has always challenged rock and roll. Funk coalesced around artists like Stevie Wonder, the one-time child prodigy of Motown. But George Clinton's Parliament and Funkadelic groups likely left funk's most enduring influence. Not only did Clinton's music create enduring social commentary, his beats became among the most sampled in rap music, a dominant musical form of the 1980s and 1990s. Whether rap is actually rock is debated, but it clearly captures the earlier rebellious and socially conscious energy of Little Richard and Motown. The music video of the 1980s, played on cable network's Music Television (MTV), changed how rock was promoted and consumed. Artists such as Madonna successfully exploited this new medium, combining sexual provocation and steely business acumen to win huge commercial success.

Initially considered a passing fad and vilified as the devil's music, this now highly varied musical form is well entrenched and widely popular around the world among all ages. In 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was opened in Cleveland, Ohio, where it receives thousands of visitors each year.


Bangs, Lester. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Baraka, Amiri. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Morrow, 1963.

Decurtis, Anthony, et al. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. 3d ed. New York: Random House, 1992.

Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music. 4th. ed. New York: Plume, 1997.

Palmer, Robert. Rock & Roll: An Unruly History. New York: Harmony Books, 1995.

Werner, Craig Hansen. A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America. New York: Plume, 1999.

Lisa M.Tetrault

See alsoJazz ; Music: African American ; Music: Gospel ; Music: Popular ; Music Industry ; Music Television .

Rock Music

views updated May 14 2018

Rock Music

Soon after rock music began making an impact on youth during the 1950s it was denounced by parents, clergymen, educators, and others in positions of authority. The new music was antitraditional, antiauthoritarian, and disparaging of adult influence over teenagers. Pastors denounced it as evilthe product of Satan.

Rock music of the 1950s, however, did not prepare people for the upheaval of the 1960s and the open defiance against societal mores. In particular, the Rolling Stones' image as a "bad boy" band continued the identification of rock music with antiestablishment values in contrast to the "tamer" persona exemplified by the Beatles. In 1967 the Rolling Stones released Their Satanic Majesties Request. This was a harbinger of future eventstwo years later on December 6, 1969, some 300,000 young people gathered for a free pop music festival at Altamont Raceway, California, featuring the band. The crowd heard Mick Jagger singing "Sympathy for the Devil" while Hell's Angels, who had been engaged as bodyguards, beat up spectators and clubbed and kicked a man to death. After the event, no one was willing to take responsibility for the debacle.

Some rock bands turned up the power on their electric instruments and created the sound known as heavy metal, a name that seems to have been derived from a line in the 1968 Steppenwolf song, "Born to Be Wild." One performer, Alice Cooper, moved into shock entertainment by integrating the occult, sadomasochism, and animal abuse in his act. The shock element developed from an unplanned event in 1969. During a concert in Detroit, Michigan, Cooper released some chickens into the audience at the close of his act. The audience killed them and tore them to pieces, a fact subsequently noted in the press.

A new connection between rock music and the occult was made in the late 1960s by another British band, Led Zeppelin. Formed in 1968, their first album went gold the next year. Guitarist Jimmy Page had a strong interest in magic and the occult and upon attaining fame and fortune purchased the house on Loch Ness once owned by Aleister Crowley. Crowley's advocacy of drugs and sex magic had already earned him a reputation as a supporter of black magic and Satanism (though he was into neither), and that image began to follow Page, Led Zeppelin, and the bands that followed their lead.

In 1970 Black Sabbath followed on the heels of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. In spite of lack of interest from radio stations and the music press, their first album hit the charts and remained for 13 weeks. Other albums followed that kept the band popular for the next two decades. While its predecessors had some ties to the occult, Black Sabbath actively cultivated an image of evil and darknessits name suggestive of a satanic mass and its use of black in their stage clothing and album covers. Lyrics explored mystical fantasy themes. Among the early members of the band was Ozzy Osbourne who would leave in 1979 and cultivate a more graphic satanic image.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, heavy metal was on the edge of the larger rock community as music expressing teenage rebellion in both England and the United States. As such, it was music enjoyed for a relatively few years before its followers reached adulthood. The music survived because there was always a new crop of teenagers entering the market each year. However, due to the rapidly changing audiences it was difficult for many bands to survive on top for more than five to seven years. In order to capture the attention of an audience with an increasingly short attention span, some bands moved into the most graphic portrayals of sex, sadism, and Satanism, themes that played predominantly to male teenagers.

Satanist themes dominated heavy metal lyrics and images, horrifying pastors and parents (even those raised on Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones). These people saw heavy metal music as both a direct attack upon the mind and morals of their children and a new low in cultural degeneracy.

Performers such as Ozzy Osbourne were singled out for particular criticism. After leaving Black Sabbath, Osbourne formed a new band that later released the albums Talk of the Devil (1982), Bark at the Moon (1983) with Osbourne as a werwolf on the cover, and Ultimate Sin (1984). Incidents in which teen delinquency was tied to listening to heavy metal rock received wide publicity and Osbourne was accused of instigating crimes and suicides.

Another band drawn into the Satanism/antiSatanism controversy was Judas Priest. They were accused of releasing albums that contained subliminal messages encoded into the songs via a process known as backward masking. A Reno, Nevada, couple charged that their son attempted suicide after listening to their Stained Glass (1978) album, which they argued contained subliminal messages ordering the suicide. The courts dismissed the case but not before rock music received a significant amount of negative publicity.

More contemporary groups that actively cultivated the satanic image include Slayer, a relatively unknown band on the rock scene whose albums covers include an inverted satanic pentagram as their logo and other satanic symbols (such as an inverted cross) and whose lyrics cultivate satanic and black magic themes. Slayer was considered extreme, but other bands such as the obscure Possessed to the more widely recognized Motley Crüe (Shout at the Devil, 1983) also drew on satanic symbolism.

Contemporary rock has been criticized especially for the values it incorporates. However, to date, no valid evidence has been produced to link even the more objectionable form of heavy metal music as a causal agent to specific patterns of antisocial behavior or to long-term negative effects among devoted fans.


Aranza, Jacob. Backward Masking Unmasked: Backward Satanic Messages of Rock and Roll Exposed. Shreveport, La.: Huntington House, 1983.

Clifford, Mike, ed. The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. New York: Harmony Book, 1992.

Godwin, Jeff. The Devil's Disciples: The Truth About Rock. Chino, Calif.: Chick Publications, 1985.

Rascke, Carl A. Painted Black. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.

Scott, Cyril. Music: Its Secret Influence Throughout the Ages. Reprint, London: Rider, 1950.

Stuessy, Joe. Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

Tane, David. The Secret Power of Music: The Transformation of Self and Society Through Musical Energy. New York: Destiny Books, 1984.

Wedge, Thomas W. The Satan Hunter. Canton, Ohio: Daring Books, 1988.

Rock and Roll

views updated Jun 27 2018

Rock and Roll

One of the most important forces in American culture, rock and roll emerged in the early 1950s as the merger of several styles of black popular music and white popular music, some reaching back into the nineteenth century and before. The two most important of these styles were black rhythm and blues (R&B; see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3) music and white country music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3). When they came together in the early 1950s, rock and roll was born. From its beginnings, however, rock and roll was more than just music—it was an attitude of youthful rebellion that expressed itself in music, fashion, art, film, and in many other aspects of American culture. Few forms of popular culture have been as influential.

Although the origins of rock and roll go back into the distant past well before the Civil War (1861–65), the merger of R&B music and country music that began in the late 1940s is the most influential. Prior to the late 1940s, these traditions had existed in largely separate worlds for many generations. By the 1940s, they had begun to cross racial and musical lines and influence each other. After World War II (1939–45) especially, record company executives began to deliberately combine the two kinds of music. For example, Syd Nathan (1904-1968) at King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio, recorded both white country and black R&B musicians. Nathan felt that if a rhythm and blues song proved successful in the black record market, why not have a white singer record it in a country style to sell to whites? The formula proved successful. Nathan was not alone in doing this kind of switch, and soon artists from both styles were learning from each others' music.

Another factor that helped in the creation of rock and roll was radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2). Radio waves do not know about racial barriers. They will go into anyone's radio anytime. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, young listeners began to tune in to both white country stations and black R&B stations. It was only a matter of time before someone blended the two formats.

Although he was not the first person to play what would become rock and roll, Elvis Presley (1935–1977; see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3), a young singer from Memphis, Tennessee, was the first person to make the merger of these two styles a huge success. At Sun Records, owner Sam Phillips (1923–) was recording both black and white musicians, much like Nathan was doing at King Records. Phillips realized that if he could find a white singer to sing black R&B music, he would have a star on his hands. Elvis was that singer. Elvis brought his love for black R&B and his deep roots in country music

together in a winning formula. His early records, including "Mystery Train" and "That's Alright," had both the gutsy flavor of R&B music and the twang of country music. When Elvis moved to RCA Records and released such songs as "Jailhouse Rock," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "Hound Dog," he popularized rock even further. After Elvis, a number of other important artists made rock into a distinct form in the 1950s. The most notable of these artists were Chuck Berry (1926–), Buddy Holly (1936–1959), Bill Haley (1925–1981) and the Comets, Gene Vincent (1935–1971), and Eddie Cochran (1938–1960).

By late 1959, Presley was in the army, Holly had died in a plane accident, and rock had gone into a bit of a decline. But in 1964, rock and roll revived with the so-called British Invasion, led by the Beatles (see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4). The British rock scene included such important rock groups as the Rolling Stones (see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4), the Who, and the Kinks. The Beatles, who grew up listening to the early rock pioneers such as Presley, Holly, and Berry, reshaped the music. The "Fab Four" wrote their own songs, developed their own look, and created a huge sensation wherever they went. The Beatles were also largely responsible for taking rock and roll beyond the teenage themes of young love. In the mid-1960s, they began writing songs on more mature topics and pushing the sound of rock in radically new directions. Their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band redefined what rock music could be with a concept album organized around a theme and music that used many new sounds. The 1960s saw rock move in a number of directions. There was surf music, led by the Beach Boys (see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4), psychedelic rock led by Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970) and the Jefferson Airplane, and visionary rock artists such as Bob Dylan (1941–; see entry under 1960s— Music in volume 4).

By the 1970s, rock and roll was established as the major force in American music, eclipsing all other forms in popularity and record sales. The 1970s also saw rock fragment into a number of different directions, from the soft pop-rock of such musicians as the Eagles, James Taylor (1948–), and Joni Mitchell (1943–); to the music of such hard rockers as Alice Cooper (1948–), Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin ; to the punk (see these entries under 1970s—Music in volume 4) rock movement of such bands as the Ramones, the Sex Pistols (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4), and the Clash; and towards the end of the decade, New Wave as practiced by Talking Heads, Blondie, and another Elvis—Elvis Costello (1955–). These variety of styles proved that rock and roll could be many things to many people.

Rock continued to grow as a commercial presence in the 1980s and 1990s. Those decades saw a number of innovations. In the 1980s, there were more traditional rock acts like Journey and Foreigner; more eclectic British pop-rock acts such as Culture Club, Duran Duran, and the Eurythmics; and solo superstars such as Madonna (1958–; see entry under 1980s—Music in volume 5). In the 1990s, the alternative rock (see entry under 1990s—Music in volume 5) movement, led in part by such groups as Pearl Jam and Nirvana (see entry under 1990s—Music in volume 5), sprang up to challenge the self-satisfaction of 1980's rock. By the end of the 1990s, some of rock's greatest names from the past, such as Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and former Beatle Paul McCartney (1942–), continued to make viable music right alongside talented newcomers. By the end of the century, it seemed that rock and roll, although a simple musical style in many ways, was in reality an endlessly inventive form of music with an enduring cultural impact.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Gillette, Charlie. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Gilmore, Mikal. Nightbeat: A Shadow History of Rock and Roll. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of Rock 'n' Roll Music. New York: Dutton, 1975.

Miller, Jim, ed. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1980.

Palmer, Robert. Rock and Roll: An Unruly History. New York: Harmony Books, 1995.

rock and roll

views updated May 21 2018

rock and roll (also rock 'n' roll) • n. a type of popular dance music originating in the 1950s, characterized by a heavy beat and simple melodies. Rock and roll was an amalgam of black rhythm and blues and white country music, usually based on a twelve-bar structure and an instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums.DERIVATIVES: rock and roll·er n.

rock and roll

views updated May 09 2018

rock and roll Form of popular music. Originating in the USA in the early 1950s, it appealed largely to a white audience who found its forerunner, rhythm and blues, inaccessible. It was popularized by Bill Haley and the film Rock Around the Clock (1956).