by Jeremy Larner
ON APRIL 23, 1956, when the style of music known as rock ‘n’ roll had already established its present-day popularity, thirty-five hundred citizens of Birmingham, Alabama, formed a lily-white audience for Negro singer Nat King Cole, who almost never sings in the rock idiom. To the dismay of his Birmingham admirers, Cole was interrupted by a delegation of hoods from the White Citizens Council, who jumped on stage and started to beat him. When questioned by reporters, a spokesman for the W.C.C. said that jazz in general was part of the N.A.A.C.P. “plot to mongrelize America. Rock ‘n’ roll,”he said, “is the basic, heavy-beat music of the Negroes. It appeals to the base in man, brings out animalism and vulgarity.”
Though the White Citizen had his own special ax to grind, his was not the only American civic group to express concern about the raucous new music which began in 1954 to saturate the airwaves and jukeboxes. By 1956, many church and community organizations had gone so far as to insist that rock ‘n’ roll be outlawed; for RnR concerts had been followed by teen-age riots in Hartford, Washington, Minneapolis, Boston, Atlanta, and Oakland, as well as in Birmingham. Various highbrows and middlebrows have complained ever since that RnR is the result of a vicious business conspiracy intent on mass-producing the cheapest, simplest music and pushing it like dope to the vulnerable masses. Yet, despite the value judgments which rock ‘n’ roll constantly inspires, no one has seriously attempted to tell us what rock ‘n’ roll is or why it remains so popular.
The technical ingredients of RnR are simple. The traditional thirty-two-bar pop-song structure has been mostly dispensed with; instead, the musicians simply repeat eight-bar measures. Harmonically RnR also relies on repetition: standard triads are lined up in repeating triplets behind a steady four-beat rhythm. The most common instrument is the home-learned guitar played in one key only. The country or Negro inflections are essential no matter where a singer comes from, so much so that even the Beatles — who flowered, as everyone knows, in Liverpool — sing in accents of rural Tennessee.
In the history of jazz, there is a long tradition of white musicians smoothing out and popularizing what Negro performers begin. In pre-war days, it was the white swing bands that America danced to, although most of their material had been originated by Negro bands still largely confined to the ghettos. Perhaps it was only natural that as World War II was ending, a new generation of disillusioned urban Negro musicians introduced a style of jazz “that the whites can’t copy.” Bebop, as the new music later came to be called, relied on the jarring harmonies of flatted fifths and polytonal chords, punctuated by nervous, aggressive rhythms — with the result that the teen-age set found this new jazz nearly impossible to dance to. The big dance bands had broken up during the war and were never again to flourish, so that when the smaller combos took up bebop, a gulf opened up between jazz and popular music that has not closed to this day. Rock ‘n’ roll was the foremost music that rushed to fill the gap. As bebop persisted into the middle 1950s, the public looked back into the “race music” repertoire to find a simple beat it could use for dancing.
The man probably most responsible for turning the Negro rhythm and blues into the all-American rock ‘n’ roll was disc jockey Alan Freed. In 1951, Freed was employed by a Cleveland radio station, where he became one of the first white DJ’s to concentrate on rhythm and blues. He claims to have invented the term rock ‘n’ roll, and when he held his first RnR stage show in 1952 in the Cleveland Arena, he drew eighty thousand people in a week, mostly Negroes. In 1954, station WINS brought Freed to New York expressly to push rock ‘n’ roll, and by this time when he held his one-night or one-week shows in armories or theaters, the audience was predominantly white. In 1955, Freed brought an interracial RnR vaudeville show into the Brooklyn Paramount for Faster and Labor Day weeks and took a record gross each time; during Labor Day week of 1956 he grossed $221,000.
The first RnR record cut by a white artist was probably Bill Haley’s “Crazy Man Crazy,” which was recorded in 1951 and eventually sold a million singles, but mostly on reissues from 1954 to 1956. Haley came up with his first big money-maker, “Rock Around the Clock,” in 1953, but the RnR recording boom did not begin until the summer of 1954, when an unknown Negro group, the Chords, cut “Sh-Boom” for a previously unknown label on the West Coast, Cat. In a matter of weeks “ShBoom” was the number-one hit in Los Angeles. Then Mercury “covered” “Sh-Boom” with a recording by an unknown group of whites, the Crewcuts, and they had a national smash record. For the next year and a half, as critic Arnold Shaw points out, rhythm and blues had to be whitewashed before a given song could become a hit.
The recording supervisors for the larger labels could not judge rhythm and blues; so, rather than trust themselves to hire original R&B artists, they preferred at first to copy the hit records of smaller companies. An egregious example was “TweedleDee-Dee” as recorded by LaVern Baker, whose arrangement was lifted note for note by Georgia Gibbs. The McGuire Sisters copied “Sincerely” from the Moonglows and sold six times as many records. Dorothy Collins took Clyde McPhatter’s “Seven Days”; Perry Como took “Kokomo” from Gene & Eunice; Teresa Brewer took “A Tear Fell” from Ivory Joe Hunter; and Bill Haley took Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle & Roll” and sold two million copies. Pat Boone, who has written a book of moral and religious advice for teen-agers, took “Ain’t That a Shame?” from Fats Domino, “I’ll Be Home” from the Flamingoes, and “I Almost Lost My Mind” from Ivory Joe Hunter.
Then suddenly the tide began to turn, and imitators started to fail. Teresa Brewer failed to take “You Send Me” from Sam Cooke; Georgia Gibbs failed to take “Great Balls of Fire” from Jerry Lee Lewis; no one even tried to take “Blueberry Hill” from Fats Domino — and Cooke, Lewis, and Domino had themselves hits. Finally, a white Southern boy named Elvis Presley — who has said that his greatest influences were the Negro blues singers Joe Turner and Big Bill Crudup — came up with a style all his own in “Heartbreak Hotel” and went on to become the biggest money-maker in the field without “covering” anyone.
Paralleling the rise of RnR was what may prove to be the most significant technological development in the history of the mass media: the sudden spread of TV into nearly every home in the country. As of January, 1962, 90 percent of the dwelling places in America had at least one TV set, and there were sixty million sets in operation. The great service television performed for RnR was to kill the big network radio shows and vacate the air space for local disc jockeys. Radio time had to be filled by popular music interspersed with commercials, and it was soon proven that the music that got the most calls and sold the most goods was rock ‘n’ roll.
YET to describe rock ‘n’ roll in terms of its history is not completely to account for its unprecedented popularity, which has lasted now far past the point where mere fads peter out. Why, after ten years, does rock ‘n’ roll still get the most calls and sell the most goods? The answer is that there is a general need for rock ‘n’ roll, a need rooted in strong feelings, a need fulfilled only by the one standard ingredient of all rock ‘n’ roll: its steady, heavy, simple 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. The difficult world of external objects is blurred and unreal; only the inner pulse is real, the beat its outer projection. Earthly worries are submerged in a tide of rising exaltation. Dream and dreamer merge, object and feeling jell: the whole universe is compressed into the medium of the beat, where all things unite and pound forward, rhythmic, regular, not to be denied.
Rock ‘n’ roll is the only form in modern music which deliberately seeks these effects and no others. They are also obtainable through jazz, but the soul of jazz is its continual improvisation, which draws on a wide range of moods and which demands the keenest attention. In contrast, rock ‘n’ roll dulls the capacity for attention; the steady beat creates instead a kind of hypnotic monotony. Seen in this light, RnR is only the latest in a series of rituals which have existed in many societies for the purpose of inducing mystic ecstasy, usually in connection with religion. One might think not only of African or American Indian drumbeating frenzies but also of the cults of frenzied dancing and shaking which periodically rose up from the main body of European Christianity. In the United States, Negro “gospel music” often creates ecstasy through repeated phrases of enormous energy, and has been more than casually influential in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll. Through gospel music, RnR draws directly on both Christian and African cults of rhythmic ecstasy. It should not surprise us then that so many RnR songs celebrate the all-pervasiveness of God.
But one should not take RnR lyrics too literally, for it is the rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll that carries its psychic message. “Positive” lyrics are mostly a sop to minds that do not want to know what they are thinking. In a record studio, I heard one of the most gifted RnR songwriters recording a trial version of a “pop gospel” song. As he sang I became increasingly aware that the subconscious thrust of the rhythm was completely undercutting the conscious intention of the lyrics. Pounding the piano with eyes shut in ecstatic pain, his voice cracking with raw emotion, the songwriter sang of a “He” who is always “in sight,” even in the darkest night. But the music itself rocked on and out away from the words and into a new wild night of nihilism where there is nothing yes nothing yes yes nothing no one but me and my sound and my rock. And why not? Believe in God — why not? In the darkest night it’s all the same — words long gone.
The message was false false false, yet it was true. The singer was groaning, growling, screaming, moaning, roaring — giving vent in the only way available to feelings genuinely his, regardless of the words he sang.
A secular approach only makes more obvious the sexual components of rhythmic ecstasy. The next song recorded by the songwriter was an urban rock, designed to express the feelings of a young man living in a tenement. According to the lyrics, the main feature of tenement life is a certain “she” who is “waiting right there” and who “gives me everything.” Taken literally, such lyrics are an outrageous lie, yet in the context of the music one could feel them coming through with some truth. Of course, tenements are not transformed into pleasure palaces by a magic she who can give everything; but one can try, one can give everything one’s got. Even though the songwriter had never lived in a tenement, even though he was calculatingly probing the market with any lyrics he thought might appeal, and even though he was imitating Negro accents and phrasings not natural to him, he was communicating something real. I was moved. As I pounded the table in the listening booth a clot of frustration thickened inside me and then purged itself. Or so I think. At any rate, I felt some momentary release.
Others, too, must find some emotional satisfaction in rock ‘n’ roll. For it has swept the world, achieving successes unknown to any previous popular music. In Britain, for example, riots broke out at each movie starring Presley or Haley. Queen Elizabeth herself requested a special screening of Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” And Haley in the flesh, a former hillbilly singer, was hired as star performer for the Duke of Kent’s twenty-first birthday party.
FROM the moment a professional songwriting team manufactures an RnR tune, an elaborate game of musical chairs is set into motion, with song-pluggers scampering in all directions to prevent the song from getting lost in the shuffle. The publisher must sell the song to an Artists and Repertory (A&R) man at a record company, a top recording talent must be signed, and the disc jockeys must be alerted and constantly spoon-fed with publicity releases. Of the 3000 DJ’s in the United States, 300 are regarded as important, and 30 to 40 as crucial. The DJ’s receive an average of 150 releases every week, so many that it would be impossible to screen them all, even if a DJ could tell simply by listening which ones his public would go for. Most of the DJ’s, therefore, are sensitive to polls and pressure. Indeed, many big-name singers now hire themselves Disc Jockey Exploitation Representatives, who devote themselves exclusively to pestering disc jockeys.
The more I learn about the record industry the more impressed I am by the image of thousands of crisscrossing middlemen frantically pursuing specialized little jobs through which key people are persuaded to make key moves which influence otherkey people, and so forth, until a whole series of doors are opened like a row of dominoes collapsing and at last one record rolls through to the public. Consider the various ways in which payola lubricates the action. A&R men take payola from publishers to cut their tunes; publishers pay assistant A&R men to get a song to the boss; publishers give expensive gifts to secretaries of A&R men to get appointments to play their demonstration records at the boss’s most receptive time of day. A&R men, in their turn, must bribe publishers who hold copyrights on the music for original Broadway shows, usually by agreeing to cut extra singles the publisher is trying to sell. Publishers must give name artists under-the-table bonuses, and they are expected to form an applauding claque at their artists’ nightclub performances. On such occasions the Broadway columnists are also present, as guests of the performer and items on his list ot tax deductions. Above all, the disc jockey must be taken care of, usually by gifts only after a hit has been started, so that the DJ is permitted to think he’s not influenced in his choice of material. Smart DJ’s accept gifts only from publishers whose lists are usually strong enough to include a fair sampling of hits. If you accuse a DJ of taking a bribe, he points to the ratings — after all, he’s only playing what’s popular.
Oddly enough, all this fixing does not, in the final analysis, interfere with the essential freedom of the market. The peculiar techniques of record merchandising I am describing are not exceptions but common practice. Although material forces are influential in radio play and retail sales, they are so widespread in practice and so haphazard in effect that they tend to balance each other out. The pushing and payola system is merely a grotesquely inefficient way of doing business. Theoretically it could be stopped By agreement of all parties, but in actuality it’s a way of life as deeply entrenched as the pecking orders of Congress. At any rate, all the hustling-bustling-pushing-paying that goes on in the pop-music industry does not create popular taste. Both taste and the system which caters to it are products of still larger social forces.
In testimony before a 1958 Senate committee investigating record company and broadcasting tie-ins, George Marek, vice president and general manager of the RCA Victor record division, stated:
Even if we wanted to we could not swing public taste. . . . In the most final sense, we cannot sell anything. The public has to want to buy it. Unless the record has within it the germ of success — and don’t ask me what that germ is because I do not know — no amount of drumbeating will transform a flop into a hit.
Not content with demonstrating that an attempt to refurbish pop taste would drive even his mighty organization out of business, Marek took a positively righteous tone:
Indeed, I think none of us has a right to say what the public should or should not hear, what is good taste or what is bad taste. We have a right to our own opinions . . . as long as they remain opinions only . . . [but] the only legitimate bosses of the music business [are] the people who buy the music.
Far from proclaiming his intent to produce good music, Marek held that such an intent is immoral!
THOUGH rock ‘n’ roll is broadcast all over our land and listened to by citizens of every description, most RnR records are bought by girls and boys between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. It seems, in fact, that every American in that age group collects 45 rpm singles. An RnR songwriter explained to me that “at ages thirteen through fifteen, kids have a real community. At that time, everything they do is done together and done identically. Afterwards, they spread out, go separate ways, conform to a more complex level.”By the time the teenager is ready for greater complexity, however, rock ‘n’ roll has already made a permanent home for itself in his mental life; it has played a definite part in preparing the teen-ager to “spread out,” and even after he stops buying the records he will accept the sound of RnR as part of his everyday-noise background, just as city dwellers accept the sounds of traffic. We might ask ourselves, therefore, just why is it that with the onset of puberty, Americans embrace rock ‘n’ roll? What exactly does it do for them?
Whether he likes it or not, the adolescent is faced with the problem of becoming an adult. He is no longer a child, and his opportunities for play must be increasingly curtailed. Already he must start making the choices which are intended to confine him to one education, one occupation, and one sexual partner. At any rate, he must somehow join this society and live within its values. In giving up childhood he gives up his precious freedom and irresponsibility. It is inevitable that the adolescent must feel intense frustration, and also a need to express that frustration — to get it off his chest. It is my contention that rock ‘n’ roll is doubly helpful to the adolescent: it simultaneously socializes him and provides a relatively harmless outlet for antisocial feeling. Does this seem a contradiction? Well, why not? Just as many modern adults pick themselves up with stimulants only to calm themselves with tranquilizers, so much of the surface stability of our society is maintained by forces which, like rock ‘n’ roll, produce agitation only for the sake of quelling it. Like the teen-ager, each of us is kept moving all the time as a substitute for getting somewhere.
Rock ‘n’ roll is always doing two things at once. If it seems to be encouraging riot and destruction, note that it is dissipating riotous and destructive impulses before they can be turned into action. If its lyrics seem to purvey a “wholesome” message, the orgiastic thump of the beat will carry along with it the wildest fantasies. In short, 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 a manufactured purgative.
The RnR stage concert is a good example of a functional ceremony which eases the pain of youth without permitting real development. At the concert, teen-agers sit more or less segregated by sex, avoiding for the moment society’s contradictory demand that they begin to pair off yet refrain from complete sexuality. In a culture which prizes female virginity, it is to be expected that such group rites are more useful to girls than to boys. Though their eyes are fastened on the mythic figure on the stage, it is to each other that the young ladies turn with gasps and screams of ecstasy. Girls embrace girls, swooning and excited, but it is perfectly all right, as long as everyone agrees that it is the figure on the stage who excites them. Though they may pursue the performer afterward, they will not come nearly so close to him as they do to one another.
The boys are more inclined to sit in brooding postures, stomping out tine big beat and glowering. The music charges them with an energy they cannot work out on the spot as the girls do, in screams and hugs. Afterward they will race their cars or start riots wherein groups of comrades take on other groups in formal tests of masculinity.
Various champions of RnR claim that many rock songs use the identification they invoke to tell adolescents how to behave in trying social situations. Actually, they do more than this: they grant a certain immunity from society, as if through turning a problem into rock ‘n’ roll one could have one’s cake and eat it too. As an example of a “problem” song, an A&R man played me a number which was last summer’s best seller, in which a young lady loses her steady to her best friend at her very own birthday party. The reaction of our heroine is to cry in concert with her friends.
The A&R man explained that this record relieves young girls of anxiety concerning just when it is socially justifiable to cry. But feeling my skull bounce to the screaming rhythm, I sensed that the main emotional burden of the song lay in the thrusting refrain — “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” — an assertion that one is old enough to remain a child.
Love is a crucial problem for American teenagers. No sooner do they begin to get interested in sex than our culture starts to channel them toward Marriage and Family. If some of them should get involved in rearing children before they themselves are reared, they are only the most conspicuous victims of a long-cherished ideology. In his famous essay “Popular Songs vs. The Facts of Life,” S. I. Hayakawa exposes the “dreamy and ineffectual nostalgia, unrealistic fantasy, self-pity, and sentimental cliches” which underlie the concept of True Love as traditionally expressed in American popular music. In contrast to the blues — in which love is transient, physical, painful, and full of ironic pitfalls — pop songs idealize a dream partner with whom one falls in love at first sight and settles down “in a bungalow all covered with roses,” to a love that lasts “forever.” Whereas the deserted lover in the blues tradition may combine humor and threats of revenge in his laments (as in Bessie Smith’s classic line, “I’m a young woman and I ain’t done running ‘round”), the lover in the pop ballad will all but perish of a broken heart.
The concept of True Love is useful propaganda, and rock ‘n’ roll has not abandoned it. But sheer sentimentality is no longer enough to contain the sexual tensions which are aroused and exploited by modern advertising and entertainment. Rock ‘n’ roll, therefore, treats True Love with a characteristic doubleness. The lyrics generally capitulate to the concept, but the music itself expresses the unspoken desire to smash it to pieces and run amuck.
Take, for example, the hit song “Bye Bye Love.” Though the lyrics portray the familiar broken heart who cannot go on living without his True Love, the jouncing rhythm of the song conveys another emotion altogether: the desire to thump straight on through all heartbreaks and difficulties. This ostensible lament is really steering-wheel-pounding music. The crybaby lyrics are countered by pure psychopathy, nor is there any resolution of these conflicting feelings. The image presented is that of an extremely tender individual ready to strike out or give up if his dreams don’t come true. The protest against the cliches of American adulthood is carried by the music rather than the words, so that the teen-ager can pay lip service to the feelings from which the music proclaims his alienation. It is as if his mind did not want to know what his body was doing. At the same time that he expresses his distress with the conventional love and sex attitudes, he prepares to make his peace with them.
There is still one more way in which rock ‘n’ roll helps bridge the gap between childhood and the threatening world of adult independence. To the eighteen million teen-agers who spend $10 billion every year in the consumer market, rock ‘n’ roll provides a special product by which to identify themselves. Others may listen to RnR, but it belongs to the teen-ager, he pays for it, and when he hears it on the radio all day long he can be satisfied that he has bought a place for himself in the world of consumption. For just as clothing manufacturers now tailor adult clothes along the lines originally developed “specially” for teen-age apparel, so adult America takes rock ‘n’ roll for its national music. With what care the teen-ager is eased into the satisfactions of consumption as a way of life! First, special products all his own to practice on — music, clothes, magazines, movies; then the gradual absorption of these products by the adult culture, so that as the teen-ager grows older, he will never have to make an abrupt break with the products he knows how to use.
It is safe to say that many adults resent rock ‘n’ roll, which is only another of its advantages from the teen-age point of view. Teen-agers want to challenge the adult world with something powerful of their own, though their challenge is really competitive rather than rebellious. When Elvis Presley was abruptly elevated into a position representing the collective economic power and social ideals of American youth, the first thing he did with his sudden fortune was to buy a fleet of Cadillacs. He was only saying, in behalf of his comrades, that they, too, are entitled to all the good things. Not for a moment was he questioning the goodness of the so-called good.
And that’s just the trouble with rock ‘n’ roll: it makes no attempt to confront reality. Unlike the blues, it simultaneously accepts and rejects the values of our society without passing through the stages of questioning. Rock ‘n’ roll is the music of young people who are alternately sullen rebels and organization men; or perhaps sullen rebels on their way to becoming organization men, for one may be the other turned inside out — either Jimmy Dean or Pat Boone, or, if possible, both at the same time. But, heaven help us, no Huck Finn! There is not much room for a young man who won’t play the game and knows why. He will have a hard time finding the station that plays his music.
Someone will object at this point that rock ‘n’ roll is more frankly sexual than has hitherto been permissible in American pop music. Sure it is, but so are many other items which our media would sell us. Magazines are sexier; so are movies and books. But does this mean that our citizens are any more free, playful, or creative? Herbert Marcuse gives a good answer to my question in Eros and Civilization: “To the degree to which sexuality obtains a definite sales value or becomes a token of prestige and of playing according to the rules of the game, it is itself transformed into an instrument of social cohesion.” According to Marcuse, this retailing of sexiness contributes ultimately to “the pacification of human existence,”wherein “even the liberties and gratifications of the individual partake of the general suppression.”
Thus, when the teen-ager involves his sexuality in rock ‘n’ roll, he merely submits his instincts to an accepted process of social direction. In like manner, the entire teen-age rebellion, so called, against the bland adult consumer society simply leads to a consumption of a special style of bland consumer goods manufactured by adults. The essential motive behind teen-age generation-consciousness is not the desire for revolutionary honesty, but the crying need to play their own role in the consumption process. It’s not that they don’t like the game, or even that they are aware it is a game, but only that they want their own league with Special rules and equipment.
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. The final object is that the listener may continue the illusion he is alive, while at the same time obliterating his conscious experience of a world that is painful to live in.
Rock ‘n’ roll finds its epiphany in Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, an afternoon TV show which I think of as the Zombie Hour. On the stage a group of teen performers togged out in erotic costumes silently mouth the words to a hoked-up record jangling with electronic gimmick noises. The dance floor 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. I can’t help thinking, as I watch them, that they are receiving the only logical preparation for becoming grown-up in our society.