Category Archives: music

Rock ‘N’ Roll in 1950s: A Review of _All Shook Up_

Although Summer Break is only a few days old, I’ve already begun the arduous task of reading and re-reading books as well as studying for my preliminary exams this fall. I’m going to try to post reviews of some of the books periodically. This week I’m trying to get through a few fun and interesting titles to ease into it and give myself the illusion that I’m doing some pleasure reading. I spent most of today reading Glenn Altschuler’s All Shook Up: How Rock ‘N’ Roll Changed America. It’s a book I saw on several of my colleagues’ reading lists and appeals to the popular bend of both my research and major field.

What I enjoyed most about the book, besides it’s fascinating subject, was Altschuler’s ability to both complicate and add texture to the traditional rock ‘n’ roll narrative. The first half of the book focuses more on the music and musicians touching on subjects such as race and sexuality. The second half looks more at rock ‘n’ roll’s relationship to the music industry and economic forces driving cultural preferences among youth.

In his opening chapter, Altschuler traces the development of rock ‘n’ roll between 1945 and 1955 carefully noting that it is a “social construction not a musical conception”(23). This definition of rock ‘n’ roll frees him to focus a site of contestation, exploration, and, in some cases, amalgamation of differing styles, cultures, and social values.  The next three chapters focus on these contested areas by looking at race, sexuality, and generational differences.

In his discussion of race Altschuler complicates the traditional view that white covers did damage to black artists by noting that in some ways it helped boost them by giving them more airplay and publicity. Similarly, although frequently labeled as “black music” and the catalyst to new segregation laws, rock ‘n’ roll also helped to challenge stereotypes among youth. Despite the prevalence of unfair and shady contracts with African American artists, it also remained a tool of social mobility. He points out that artist of both races often fell victim to predatory labels searching for up-and-comers, although it was more common among blacks. This, of course, is not to downplay the real problems associated with white cooption of rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed, Altschuler continues to argue “rock ‘n’ roll remained a highly visible and contested arena for the struggle over racial identity, and cultural and economic empowerment in the United States” (35).

As with race, sexuality during was also influenced by rock ‘n’ roll during 1950s. Placing the rock ‘n’ roll’s emergence in the context of Alfred Kinsey’s reports on sexual behavior in men and women, Altschuler notes that sexuality was already a heated topic and the focal point of American anxiety. In some ways rock ‘n’ roll exacerbated those feelings with it salacious lyrics, gyrating dancers, and race mixing. At the same time, however, censorship helped allay those fears and pushed rock ‘n’ roll into safer spaces. Indeed, throughout much of his third chapter Altschuler suggests that rock ‘n’ roll became a tool of “containment and control” by allowing American youth to cut loose, dance, and redirecting their sexual tension. Figures like Pat Boone and Dick Clark developed squeaky-clean images and used this cache to publish popular books providing parents and youth advice on topics such as dating and clean living. Both Boone and Clark became safe rock ‘n’ roll symbols that redirected and toned down previously contentious to music to mainstream audiences.

If Clark and Boone made rock ‘n’ roll safe, popular artists, such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard, helped use the newfound safety to push the envelope beyond the strictures imposed by censors and TV networks. While their lyrics continued to be censored, in time the networks relaxed their policies for improved ratings and allowed them on live TV. So strong was the lure that Ed Sullivan, who originally boasted that he would never have Elvis on his show, eventually caved and scheduled for three appearances in 1956. Altschuler suggests that rock ‘n’ roll played an important formative role in foreshadowing the sexual revolution of the 1960s with artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley serving as key figures in loosening the grips of sexual containment.

In the next chapter, on generational difference, Altschuler again uses Boone and as figures, who sought to “enhance” rock ‘n’ roll’s image and alleviated fears about sexuality and race. Yet through the toning down and expanding of youthful products for adult consumption, the rock ‘n’ roll industry was handing over economic power to teens. Altschuler suggests that rock ‘n’ roll became a key tool in the marketing of products because had remarkable influence over their parents’ product selection and purchases. Added to that was the increased purchasing power of youth themselves in the postwar era. “The relationship between youth and the modern economy changed in the 1950s,” Altschuler writes, “with rock ‘n’ roll often as a leader” (129). Because of this, rock ‘n’ roll symbolized the teetering empire of adult authority in perhaps the largest generational conflict of all.

What was resulted was a battle for culture. The marketing and corporate take over and persuasion of youth culture and their preferences worried many. Investigators explored the rock ‘n’ roll industry seeking to expose a system controlled by corporations. A series of contentious debates followed focusing on licensing profits, corporate control and manipulation of demand, and payola. Spurned on by a battle between the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) over music licensing and royalties, and later a quiz show rigging scandal, Congress steadily became more involved. The brunt of their efforts fell on Alan Freed. Widely considered one of the father’s of rock ‘n’ roll, Freed was one of the most influential DJs. He was indicted on charges based on commercial bribes statutes and further investigated by the federal communication commission and the federal trade commission. The investigation ruined Freed’s life. He was quickly fired and found it difficult to find subsequent work. Likewise, he was investigated for tax evasion for failing to report the payola income. Dick Clark, who probably had more extensive connections and financial interests within the rock ‘n’ roll industry outside of his broadcasting gig, eluded investigators by dodging questions and relying on his good-guy image. After all, Clark helped sanitize rock ‘n’ roll while Freed help create it. These investigations hurt and the battle for cultural control rock ‘n’ roll but did not kill it.

Altschuler’s final chapter focuses on the period 1958-1963 and rock ‘n’ roll’s revival. The battle over corporate control hurt the industry, but so too did the decline and retirement of many of its major artists. Some of these artists voluntary existed the industry, but most were forced out through some sort of scandal, such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. Rock ‘n’ roll continued to change and evolve through this period, however. Motown emerged as an important player as did the Beatles and other British bands who ushered in a new era of rock ‘n’ roll.

The book concludes with a concise essay on Bruce Springsteen as a complex but symbolic figure for rock ‘n’ roll’s transformation over the last quarter of the twentieth-century. Alschuler notes that rock ‘n’ roll continues to be a significant part of youth culture today and carries with it a large amount of influence. Yet, because both it and society have splintered, it is no longer the same unifying force that it once was.

All Shook Up presents an interesting and well-documented view of rock ‘n’ roll during the 1950s. Altschuler presents rock ‘n’ roll as a part of a series of social transformations and controversies at heart of American anxieties during the 1950s. Rock ‘n’ roll interfaced with their concerns and often foreshadowed changes over race, sexuality, consumerism, and corporate control. At the same time, however, rock ‘n’ roll was not all doom and gloom. While Altschuler presents rock ‘n’ roll was a site of negotiation and contestation for a variety of people, he does so without picking winners and losers. The text presents rock ‘n’ roll as a part of a moment actively being socially constructed but never complete. Perhaps this is the best way to understand the 1950s. A period of great anxiety and change regarding civil rights, sexuality, economics and consumerism that gave way to a new generation who did not live through the Depression or fight in the War. Rock ‘n’ roll is indeed a symbol of this generation as they sought to understand themselves and the world around them as well as redefine American in the postwar period.

Overall I really enjoyed the book. Although not present in this review, there were lot of details and anecdotes that I can see myself pulling out and using in lectures. Likewise, I enjoyed the way he used rock ‘n’ roll as a social construction rather than trying to define it as a specific genre. This worked well for him and added to his ability to bend the topic across various issues and controversies.

The book was not without problems though. I felt like the book went downhill in the second half. The chapter on generational difference seemed a bit narrowly focused on economics and consumerism without addressing racial and class differences.  The fifth chapter on the culture wars felt out of place and disconnected from the rest of the work. The ASCAP — BMI debates and the Alan Freed — Dick Clark contrast were interesting and showed government officials responding to controversy and concern, but seemed to abandon some of the earlier themes and could have used more context. Additionally, the final chapter on rock ‘n’ roll’s lull and survival felt more like a conclusion describing the decline of the careers of many of Alschuler’s main character and pointing to new era on the horizon.

The book is at its best when discussion individual and personalities, and providing specific examples of songs and lyrics that sparked controversy. While important, the discussion of more industry specific details slow down the narrative and detract from argument because they’re generally not contextualized with other industries or musical genres. To be sure, many of these criticism are a bit nit-picky  I’ve read a couple pop culture related “industry” histories and generally don’t find them as interesting. I do, however, recognize the difficulty in balancing chapters on government regulation and economics with the fascinating personalities and popular culture creations. And, perhaps, the contrast between the two makes them even more difficult to write.

What is Pop Culture?

I follow the H-PCAACA list on H-net, and recently someone posed the question, “what is popular culture?” He asked that we keep our responses to 2 sentences. It seems like a simple enough question, but it’s one I’ve never given much thought to. I curiously followed the responses as they trickled in over the next few days, but I never replied with my own answer. I tend to be the type to observe, ask other people questions, and read a bit, before coming to diving in and my own conclusions.

Only one of my Facebook friends indulged me with a reply. She wrote:

i see it as “what is hot right now” people pick and choose what they pay attention to, but when everyone happens to pay attention to the same thing (charlie bit me, olympics hair styles, super bowl beer fetching dog) THATS pop culture.

No arguments from me. She brought up some interesting points too: mass appeal, its link to a specific moment in time, and the sort of underlying assumption that it can be anything regardless of content. In other words, for her it was more about audience and context than it was about content.

The list didn’t really disagree. One scholar wrote:

Any form of expression that a lot of people like.” Keys words are “expression” and “like.”

Although there was some disagreement about the role that aesthetic value plays in labeling something “pop culture.” A few suggested and many wondered if popular culture was more “low culture” than “high culture,” referring to Lawrence Levine’s book Highbrow/Lowbrow. I’m not entirely familiar with the book (but I’m adding it to my list), so I can’t offer much comment.  Based on my readings of cultural history, however, I tend to think the high/low delineation was mostly the product of Victorian and Progressive ideals/judgement. For me, contemporary popular culture encompasses both. For example, people often consider artwork by Picasso and others to be of high aesthetic value but its also quite popular.

What then do we make of these notions of audience and context. Is popular culture a phenomena of a specific time/place? Does it have to have mass appeal and popularity? I tend to think that time and place do matter. As scholars trying to analyze a work of popular culture context gives us a lot of clues. To properly understand it we ask questions like: who created? why did they created it? who consumed it? why did they consume it? and so on.

Jefferson Cowie’s recent book Stayin’ Alive provides a nice example of the complexity of studying popular culture and why digging deep is is important. His discussion of music from the 1970s shows the frequent disconnect between the artist and the audience. Using the example of Merle Haggard’s song “Okie from Muskogee,” Cowie explains how working class, conservative Americans identified with the song so much that Richard Nixon enlisted him to perform as some of his events. Republicans loved the song because it contrasted the values of “livin’ right and being free” by obeying and respecting the law with the marijuana smoking hippies of the 1970s. Yet, Haggard admitted he originally wrote the song as “a series of satirical riffs on what else they did not do in small town America besides dope”(172) revealing that the popular reception and interpretation of the song was the opposite of its intention. He was mocking small towns. This example shows that context is important to understand popular culture but the audience often appropriates its own meaning. Time and place both matter and don’t matter.

George Lipsitz important book Times Passages really gets at the complexity of popular culture, and argues that it is precisely its complexity that makes it worth studying.

The complicated relationship between historical memory and commercial culture, between the texts of popular culture and their contexts of creation and reception, resist conventional froms of cultural criticism. The coded, indirect, and allegorical aspect of popular culture, its inversions of speech and ideology, and its refusal to isolate art from lived experience (a source of corruption as well as social connection) baffle and frustrate critics trained in traditional western aesthetics and criticism (17).

Lipsitz suggests that veiled within popular culture we can discover oppositional politics and the struggles to reshape “the prevailing power relaties” within our collective memories. Popular culture offers evidence of our struggle to keep our memories as they are being reshaped for new means. According to Lipsitz, this is done by people bringing their cultural memory into the mainstream by embedding it in newer and different cultural creation. For example, rock-n-roll musicians often brought in elements from gospel and jazz to create something new and culturally distinct. The fact that many were white but influenced by and were now appropriating variations of black music gets at the issue of audience, power, and oppositional politics. And it relies on the issue of time and context.

Finally, what about audience and popularity? I think the reliance on mass appeal is a misnomer in popular culture. Lipsitz hints at this and I tend to agree. Popular culture can be specific to a certain group identity. My friend’s notion that the “charlie bit me” Youtube video is an example of popular culture is correct only if it is limited to specific groups. The “charlie bit me” video has no resonance for those who live in a world without a computer or the internet. I do agree that popular culture is somewhat based on mass appeal and wide audience, but those audience are never all encompassing. There can be overlapping popular cultures.

So what is popular culture? Here is my best attempt at an answer: Popular culture is an expression(s) of various mediums that meet a mass appeal, and perhaps, embody a certain moment within a significant segment or group of the population.