Rock and Roll

In the 1950s Elvis Presley's music and " suggestive " dancing was the subject of considerable controversy. Critics saw him as a dangerous influence on American teenagers, particularly if those teenagers were white, Northern, and middle class. © .

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 again–from 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 groups–the 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.