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Sex and race are the driving forces that brought rock and roll music to the level of popularity that helped it survive the test of time, social, racial, and cultural criticisms, and the emergence of other music genres. The current research will center on how rock and roll, a musical genre viewed negatively by the established cultural, social, and musical authorities in the 1950s due to its supposed overt sexual messages and its influence from black musical traditions, successfully drove both black and white Americans together and somehow bridged the differences that was brought about by music, race, and class. The thesis, “The advent of rock and roll was more than just an amalgamation of the boogie woogie rhythms that characterized R&B music, the emotions of gospel music, the rustic sound of country music, and the moans of the blues; it is a music that promoted racial integration in a cultural form, far beyond sex and race.” aims to highlight how rock and roll music successfully transgressed social boundaries.
George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
PBS/BBC. Rock’n Roll Renegades: A Documentary. YouTube. Web. 12 February 2015.
Whiteley, Sheila. Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity, and Subjectivity. New
York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
A few years after World War II ended, a new genre of music emerged as a result of the coming together of the people from the south, the secular, the sacred, and the rural. People working in the field in the South moved to the North in order to take advantage of what factories during the said time can offer that would somehow bring them a better life. With the various cultures that they brought along with them, and with these cultures coming into contact with the existing music and audience in the urban area, rock and roll music came into being and swept the young listeners of America and later on the world. However, the advent of rock and roll was more than just an amalgamation of the boogie woogie rhythms that characterized R&B music, the emotions of gospel music, the rustic sound of country music, and the moans of the blues; it is a music that promoted racial integration in a cultural form, far beyond sex and race.
In the south of America where the immigrants from the north settled, a type of music called rhythm and blues started garnering attention from young listeners. Being a product of the black community, the music was only played as part of late-night radio playlists in radio stations such as the WLCA Nashville (PBS/BBC) for the pleasure of black listeners. It was not long before it attracted the attention of white kid listeners as it offered a new sound. Later on, more and more young white listeners started showing interest to the music until it was played by other radio stations. Rhythm and blues, according to Nelson George, was a representation of the African Americans’ desire to put a stop to the inequality and injustices they were experiencing as a result of racism (xi).
It took quite some time before the music reached the ears of more listeners as despite its growing popularity, the music was still confined to late-night radio program playlists which were meant for African Americans. When white disc jockeys started playing the music in their radio programs because of its uncontrollable rise to fame among young white listeners, the music started permeating the radio waves in other parts of the country. In Cleveland, the music was introduced by Allan Free and gave it the name “rock and roll,” a black slang term which is closely related to “sex” (PBS/BBC). As the music gathered more interests, independent music labels saw the opportunity to put the music into the spotlight. Record labels brought “black music” to the ears of “white audience,” letting rhythm and blues “crossover” to its white audience. Fat Domino from New Orleans sold millions of his albums in the 1950’s, thereby bringing the music to a higher level. More artists were inspired by the music and gave it a different sound. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” introduced rhythm and blues with a new vibe which had its listeners stomping their feet, shaking, and screaming due to its liveliness. Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over /Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode” also became one of rock and roll’s earliest anthems. Despite the immense popularity, white Americans were still not open to the music.
The distinct sound of rock and roll was recognized as the union of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues. All three are known and classified as “race music” which denotes African American music. In order to bring the music to the white audience, Sam Phillips of Alabama, then a radio engineer, discovered and launched Elvis Presley. Despite being a white American, Elvis’s influences in music were country and blues as he grew up in a community where both black and white Americans lived. Rock and roll started picking up popularity in Memphis, Tennessee because of Elvis Presley. His brand of rock and roll music represented the marriage between white and black energy, and it didn’t take long before his voice singing rock and roll was heard in homes of white audiences all over the country. With his charisma, Presley also started catching the hearts of young women and later on most of his audiences of almost all ages.
Despite Presley’s immense popularity, people were left confused about his identity. His musical vibe suggested black music but he was a white American. People were wondering whether he was black or white, or whether his music was country or blues. After RCA records took ahold of his contract after purchasing it from Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, he was exposed to television and movies. With his audience seeing him perform, lingering doubts were wiped away and propelled Elvis’s career to a far greater height. He was known as the black man singing white music, and later on, as everyone would know and call him, was labeled as the “King of Rock and Roll.”
While Elvis Presley continued to become big in his career, other black musicians started getting noticed with their own take of rock and roll. Bo Didley rose to stardom with his eccentric musical style and genius use of electric guitar. He was became a mainstay in the primetime program The Ed Sullivan Show (PBS/BBC). Chuck Berry, on the other hand, was also recognized because of his unique guitar style. His songs, which mostly talked about the ordinary things in life such as desires, issues about adolescence, school, and love, had white teenagers gravitating towards his brand of music. It was during this time that rock and roll had its taste of great and bitter criticism. Writers and publishers of Broadway popular music, the once dominant group in the music scene, dismissed the music as simple and crude. Later on, when this failed, they accused promoters of bribing disc jockeys to play rock and roll. These attacks to the music were a result of the threat that it posed to both the aesthetic of Broadway music, as well as its economic gains. Other people claimed that the music promoted sex and delinquency, labeling it as vulgar and obscene and were used as a tool to teach white Americans to love black people (PBS/BBC). Once again, racism came into play and attacks against rock and roll weakened its popularity. Moral authorities condemned the music for its sexual references and targeted famous performers such as Fats Domino and Elvis Presley. Ed Sullivan, the host of the widely acclaimed The Ed Sullivan Show, refused to have Elvis Presley as a guest in his show despite his popularity. Many columnists and critics feared the overt racial mixing of the audience of rock and roll, and joined the attacks against the music. At a time when the south was resisting integration while the north were trying to dismiss black rights, rock and roll was fostering integration in a cultural level, and this did not bid well to many. As a result, mainstream artists started performing feeble covers of rock and roll hit songs, stripping them of the energy, musical vitality, and the black traditions that characterized the music. Elvis Presley’s songs became tamed in order to continue reaching the mainstream market, effectively removing his original style which had raw vitality to be replaced by a more contained delivery (PBS/BBC). The aesthetic changes that white artists put to rock and roll was welcomed by the audience, an occurrence which George interpreted as “applauding black excellence and white mediocrity with the same vigor,” which thereby made them equal but had “the black artist in America always losing” (92).
Despite the confusion and attacks against rock and roll, it stood its ground and pervaded as a popular musical genre. Its strong reference to sex and race was soon forgotten and it continued traveling around the world’s airwaves. It found its way back to America through the band The Beatles, a group of working class British men who were raised on American rock and roll. The group brought with them their own unique sound of mixed rock and roll, country, and rhythm and blues, as well as their own English roots. They also presented their distinctive visual style which instantly became a hit. Their popularity started the trend of band migrations from the UK and later on other parts of the world.
The popularity of the Beatles also paved the way for women to be free from the repression of female teen culture. Female fans adored the band, which feminists described as “the first and most dramatic uprising of women’s sexual revolution” (Whiteley 32). Their music evoked romanticized images of women, such as with their song “Lucy” who is ‘the girl with the sun in her eyes.’ The same goes with the song “Julia” which talks about John Lennon’s mother that he barely knew, giving her an image of an “elusive beauty of a woman inscribed within the framework of fantasy” but “is given no other value than to be beautiful” (Whiteley 34). Donovan in his song “Jennifer Juniper” further inscribed women as fantasy figures as he described the idealized the image of a woman as someone who “evokes memories of Godiva” (Whiteley 34). Although women were given an ethereal and dreamlike image, thereby a fantasy escape from reality because of their being detached from reality, they are also placed in a position which made them vulnerable from being figures of “myth to fairytale to high art to pornography (Whiteley 35).
In other rock and roll songs, such as that of Jimi Hendrix’s “Dolly Dagger,” women were given vampire figures “who sucks the blood of its victims in their sleep while they are alive” (Whiteley 38). In Cream’s “Strange Brew” women were described as the “witch in electric blue” and a siren whose physical looks means death to a man’s soul. These representations of women as horrific witches, vampires, or castrator are referred to as “the monstrous feminine” by Barbara Creed (cited in Whitley 38). This view was aligned with the church’s view of women as witches who have insatiable carnal lust. This insatiable nature of women was also part of the sensationalized reports of group sex that famous stars such as the Rolling Stones took part in, that although it promoted sexual freedom, also opposed the common sense that most women learned about the dangers brought about by losing control.
Women continued to be dehumanized and degraded in heavy rock and other heavy metal songs, all meant to boost and gratify the male. They continued to be “viewed as objects defined by, and for, men” (Whiteley 40). It is these bonds that women have been struggling to break from. Early women’s groups focused on women’s health, childcare, fertility control, and sexuality, while liberal feminists fought against the systematic and discriminatory and legal constraints which hampered women from being successful in the society. In the world of music, Janis Joplin broke the traditional expectations of audience about female singers. Instead of being “the face of the band” who is in the frontline and is expected to be pretty, Joplin presented herself as an ‘irrational woman exposing her anxieties’ with her frizzy hair, plastic bracelets and a suggestion of being neurotic (Whiteley 52).
While the rock scene in 1960s and 70s continued to be fraternal and hostile to women, folk protest movement proved to be more amenable. Joni Mitchell’s attention to vocal technique and words in her songs worked in expressing her self-exploration which “anticipates the post-feminist emphasis of the 1990s, not least the importance for women to know, accept, and explore feelings (Whiteley 92). Mitchell was able to share her experiences of coping with the experiences she got from trying to earn a place in a male-dominated world of music. She continued to be a model of how women could earn a living through composing and performing by expressing individualism and developing her own musical identity. Although her foray in other various musical genres was met with different reactions, she exhibited how a woman should not be afraid to demonstrate musicality and find creative fulfillment more than success in charts.
Artists such as Madonna and Annie Lennox worked with androgyneity in order to fight patriarchal power. Madonna’s works which were focused on the plurality of pleasure put her in a controversial position as feminist. Others labeled her as sensational opportunist due to her explicit sexual images and reference to sexual ideas and practices such as sadomasochism, dreams, pleasuring, and fantasies. However, interpretation of her works, according to some, rely on whether one accepts or rejects the idea that her intentions were ironic and were meant to destabilize traditional representations of sexual imagery “by intentionally playing on inflections of feminized imagery” (Whiteley 16). k.d. lang , on the other hand, presented herself as an identity deeply embedded in her lesbian identity. Her relationship with her audience, which relied on the interpretation of her songs based on an understanding of lesbian gestures and body language, showed that rock and roll have welcomed and fulfilled a space for both conventional and unconventional.
Rock and roll music has grown from a music that was deeply rooted to a race’s culture desire to break boundaries and achieve equality. Although it has faced many criticisms since its birth, it has continued to stay strong and evolved in many other different sounds which intrinsically became a part of its character and charm. Today, the idea of rock and roll as “black music” sang and played by “white men” has faded through the years as the world moved forward. Despite several instances of racism and sexual connotations implied in lyrics of some rock and roll songs, the music has become more than its reference to sex and race. Women who have struggled in the male-dominated world of rock and roll have eventually found their place in it. Although there may still be some criticisms regarding the lyrics and messages of rock music, they provided a healthy environment for the music, along with other genres, to grow and continue to evolve.
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