It’s exactly the kind of headline a modern-day reader might hope to find, flipping through old issues of The Atlantic: “What Do They Get From Rock ‘n’ Roll?” Seeing that title in the August 1964 edition of the magazine, my laughing-at-anachronisms alert went off—reading this will be as fun as watching Don Draper be perplexed by a revolutionary Volkswagen ad! And, well, Jeremy Larner’s article does perform a bit of handholding for Atlantic readers harrumphing at the new youth sound (“The most common instrument is the home-learned guitar played in one key only”). But the truth is that in the year that The Beatles broke out in America, The Atlantic ran a perceptive and subtly scathing indictment of rock, one that tried to counteract the popular narrative that three chords and a steady beat represented deep social change.
The story opens in April of 1956—a time, Larner was quick to note, “when the style of music known as rock ‘n’ roll had already established its present-day popularity.” At a Birmingham, Alabama, concert for Nat King Cole, who wasn’t really a rock singer, hood-wearing members of the White Citizen’s Council stormed the stage and beat Cole. “Rock ‘n’ roll is the basic, beat-heavy music of the Negroes,” the group’s spokesman said at the time. “It appeals to the base in man, brings out his animalism and vulgarity.” Larner compared that racist line of criticism with the anti-rock rhetoric of churches, community groups, and “various highbrows and middlebrows.” All of them saw this new music as socially disruptive and dangerous.
Larner saw it as exactly the opposite—rock as the sound of mass complacency. He attributed the genre’s rise to the fact that black jazz musicians after World War II ditched big band for bebop, an aggressive and experimental style that “the teen-age set found … nearly impossible to dance to.” Rock filled the sock-hop void through its defining feature: the beat. “When the listener submits himself to the beat, he loosens his mind from its moorings in space and time; no longer does he feel a separation between himself and his surroundings,” Larner wrote. “Rock ‘n’ roll is the only form in modern music which deliberately seeks these effects and no other.” Jazz could sometimes hypnotize an audience, he said, but not like rock could—to lose your mind to music, you need repetition, not improvisation.
So powerful was the rock beat that all other attributes of the music were presented as secondary, or totally inconsequential. “‘Positive’ lyrics are mostly a sop to minds that do not want to know what they are thinking,” he wrote, before describing a rock-gospel vocalist futilely singing praises to God even as the “the music itself rocked on and out away from the words into a new wild night of nihilism.” This nihilism, he said, allowed rock to placate adolescent angst, not by channeling it toward the outer world but by making it a pleasure in itself: “Through exposure to rock ‘n’ roll, teen-agers learn to handle their aggressions and discontents—not through understanding, criticism, and self-conscious social rebellion, but through surrendering them to manufactured purgative.”
“Manufactured” is a key word here. Larner devoted a lot of words to the major-label songwriting machine, the practice of payola, and the trend of white artists making money by covering black songwriters. Rock wasn’t art, it was product, designed to transfix through its brute effect on human physiology. In the most devastating passage, he made the medium sound like aural toothpaste:
What teen-agers need in music is more or less what modern adults need too: not music to be listened to but background music as they hurry through their appointed activities. The background may be throbbing RnR or tinkly Muzak, but it all comes from the same package. On opening the package, the buyer finds a clearly labeled, constant stream of facile stimulant, factory guaranteed to jazz you up, smooth you out, purge your violence, and leave you kissing-sweet and ready for maudlin love.
Larner was writing in the year when the Beatles went on The Ed Sullivan Show and scored their first slew of No. 1 U.S. hits; the Beach Boys had their first chart topper as well; Alan Freed, the DJ referenced by Larner as having coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” was charged with tax evasion in the wake of a huge payola scandal. Rock was by no means getting less corporate, but it was about to get more ambitious. In a few years, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds would be released, Bob Dylan would go electric, and the professional rock-critical establishment would rise, all positing rock as an art form whose worth was predicated not solely on the beat. The movement it soundtracked was not all that “kissing-sweet”—the hippies may have conformed with each other and preached about love but, as my colleague Jennie Rothenberg Gritz detailed earlier this week, they did really defy the dominant culture.
Deep down, though, was all that progress merely cosmetic? Even now, does rock’s appeal rest solely on its ability to offer escape through catchy repetition for a few minutes? It seems clear that the answer in some cases is yes, and in some cases no. As music, rock can function as a source of meaning or as a source of abandon; the best songs do both. As a social signifier, it can help fight the power or cheerlead for it. Heavy metal excoriates the meaningless of existence but also provides an opportunity for cruise-ship camaraderie; the Sex Pistols created rebellious iconography that then became credit-card designs; radio’s most empowering lyrics help package Max Martin make-’em-move formula.
And when visiting Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, or really any modern music festival, it’s easy to flash back to what Larner described as “the zombie hour”—Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. “The dancefloor is packed with adolescent Americans of all creeds and colors, jitterbugging with dead pans and trancelike movements, regular and lifeless as clockwork as they move to the big beat,” he wrote. “I can’t help thinking, as I watch them, that they are receiving the only logical preparation for becoming a grown-up in our society.”
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