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In the spring of 1954, when the nation’s top record was Perry Como’s “Wanted” and the top album was the soundtrack from the movie The Glenn Miller Story, a new musical style was germinating. Bill Haley and the Comets cut “Rock Around the Clock,” Elvis Presley held his first recording session at Sun Records and Alan Freed became a disc jockey at WINS in New York. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and the Platters were beginning to break the radio color barrier.

Two years earlier, the new music had already started to surface. When Freed hosted the Moondog Coronation Ball, the first rock ’n’ roll concert at Cleveland Arena on March 21, 1952, some 30,000 teens packed a building that could seat only 10,000, while 15,000 others waited outside. (Unfortunately, I regret to say, I’m not related to Leo Mintz, the record store owner who was the concert’s sponsor.)

A vast literature has sought to reconstruct the roots of rock ’n’ roll.  At the heart of that literature is a question: Who created this new musical genre?  Was it performers like Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ike Turner, Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton, Ruth Brown, Charley Patton, Jim Jackson or Trixie Smith? Or promoters like Sam Phillips (as biographer Peter Guralnick claims) or Alan Freed (immortalized in the 1978 movie American Hot Wax and the current off-Broadway musical Rock and Roll Man)?   

But, not surprisingly, rock ’n’ roll has many progenitors. All one can say with any assurance is that rock ’n’ roll arose out of the collision of musical styles as Southerners, Black and white, flocked to the cities of the upper South and North during and after the Second World War. This movement brought diverse musical traditions together and forged a new sound out of the propulsive beat of rhythm and blues and the twang of country and western.

Rock ’n’ roll, it is said, is the “bastard child”—the nullius filius—of American music, blending musical genres from rhythm and blues and country and western to bebop, bluegrass, boogie-woogie, gospel, hillbilly, jump jazz, western swing and more. A “musical mutt” and a “sonic quilt,” rock ’n’ roll was also the product of extraordinary ethnic and cultural crossovers.

Rock ’n’ roll also provided a vehicle through which urban, rural and suburban youths declared their independence from parental standards and expressed their desire for pleasure. 

During the 1950s, it became the soundtrack of the lives of those between 12 and 21. Much of the new youth music of the 1950s self-consciously celebrated the teenage years. Groups like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers embraced the word “teenagers,” and many songs, like Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” and Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love,” had the word “teen” in their title.

Rock ’n’ roll spoke to the alienation and boredom of teenagers in newly built suburbs. Uninhibited, spontaneous, emotionally expressive, rebellious and joyful, the new music exuded sexuality; indeed, the phrase “rock ’n’ roll” was a slang term in certain Black communities referring to sexual intercourse.

But early rock ’n’ roll’s sexuality was often anything but conventionally heterosexual.  As Vincent L. Stephens argues in a book that deserves far more attention than it has received, Rocking the Closet (and in his dissertation, “Queering the Textures of Rock and Roll History”), many early rock ’n’ rollers cultivated sexually ambiguous personae including, of course, Little Richard with his “raise-the-roof joyfulness,” as well as Johnny Mathis with his intimate sensitivity and Johnnie Ray’s extreme emotionality.  These performers pioneered the “queering techniques” later adopted by Michael Jackson, Prince, Clay Aiken, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Boy George and Luther Vandross. These techniques and gestures, Stephens demonstrates, included spectacularizing (wearing over-the-top clothes, hair and makeup) and self-enfreaking (intentionally presenting themselves as different).

Then there was Elvis Presley, with his dyed hair; his flamboyantly styled, voluminous pompadour; his eye shadow and flashy costumes, including his trademark black and pink suits on top of lace shirts, soon followed by a gold lamé tuxedo atop a ruffled or open black shirt.

Teen audiences embraced performers whose queer personae challenged conventional definitions of masculinity. Style, showmanship and barely suppressed sexuality, plus the distinctive theatrical and queer sensibilities that we now associate with camp, were a big part of early rock ’n’ rollers’ appeal. These performers eschewed simple sexual binaries and instead occupied an ambiguous space at a time before sexual identities became politicized.

Following World War II, technological innovations, such as the introduction of the light, durable and inexpensive 45-RPM record by RCA Victor in 1948, made it easy for teens to create their own music collections. The invention of the transistor in 1947 led to the development of portable transistor radios and an explosion in the number of car radios, from six million in 1946 to 40 million in 1959.

Television helped transform teen culture into a national culture. In 1957, Dick Clark persuaded ABC to include American Bandstand in its network lineup. Running Monday to Friday from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern time, the show not only spotlighted new forms of dancing, it also showcased many African American recording artists and remained one of television’s only integrated programs until the mid-1960s. Television’s most popular dance show, it brought rock ’n’ roll and the latest fashions in dance and dress to millions of teenagers.

But rock ’n’ roll generated extraordinary anger. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called it “a corrupting impulse,” and in Hartford, Conn., Dr. Francis J. Braceland described rock ’n’ roll as “a communicable disease, with music appealing to adolescent insecurity and driving teenagers to do outlandish things.” Between 1955 and 1958 there were numerous crusades to ban rock ’n’ roll from the airwaves.

Meanwhile, executives with the major record companies sought to smooth the jagged edges of rock ’n’ roll. Sexually explicit songs were covered—rewritten and rerecorded—by white performers. The major record companies publicized a series of “kleen” teen idols, beginning with Tommy Sands in 1957.

Most of the criticism of rock ’n’ roll focused on Elvis Presley, who more than any other artist most fully fused country music with rhythm and blues. In his first record, he gave the rhythm-and-blues song “That’s All Right Mama” a country feel and the country classic “Blue Moon Over Kentucky” a rhythm-and-blues swing. Presley exuded sexuality. When he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, network executives instructed cameramen to avoid shots of Elvis’s suggestive physical movements. Finally, Presley upset segregationists by performing “race music.” The head of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, had once claimed, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” Presley was that white man.

Within five years, the first phase in the history of rock ’n’ roll was over. Elvis Presley was inducted into the army. Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens died in a plane crash, and Chuck Berry was jailed on charges of transporting a minor across interstate lines for immoral purposes. Meanwhile, disc jockey Alan Freed was fired from WABC in the midst of a payola scandal, Little Richard’s religious conversion led him to stop performing and Jerry Lee Lewis was in disgrace following his marriage to a 13-year-old cousin.

Still, youth music was not completely absorbed into mainstream culture. By the end of the decade, a new phase in the history of rock ’n’ roll had begun, with the rise of the girl groups, the Motown sound and surfer music, quickly followed by the British invasion.

The girl groups’ songs—like “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “He’s So Fine,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Soldier Boy,” “Then He Kissed Me” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”—may have focused on romance, sexual etiquette and marriage, but the artists’ appearance conveyed a very different message. With beehive and bouffant hairstyles; thick eye makeup; spike-heeled, pointed-toe pumps; and beaded gowns and pencil skirts, the Chiffons, the Crystals, the Dixie Cups, the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las and the Shirelles came across as assertive, insistent, self-assured and tough.

The mixed message that the girl groups conveyed—with one foot firmly planted in postwar sentimental romantic and domestic ideals and another outside it—was central to the performers’ popularity, much as the velvety, upbeat, pop-influenced Motown sound proved better able to bridge racial divides than the tougher, more soulful sounds found on Stax or Atlantic Records.

More than half a century after its advent, rock ’n’ roll remains the distinctive and dominant form of youthful musical expression. Its persistence is not an accident. Rock ’n’ roll emerged as a solution to the psychological and emotional frustrations of the teenager. Prolonged schooling, delayed marriage and postponed entry into adult careers made rock culture increasingly appealing as a visceral form of cultural rebellion. It offered an expressive outlet for all the pent-up energy, sexuality and individualism that teens experienced.

Indeed, now that the category of youth extends far beyond the teenage years, encompassing both children as young as eight and young adults into their late 20s and early 30s, the appeal of rock ’n’ roll has broadened, even as its forms fragmented.

At its birth, rock ’n’ roll was multiracial. The first members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, James Brown, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. Six were Black, five white.

This would continue. During their early years, the Beatles covered the Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman” and the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.”

Indeed, in 1963, Billboard magazine stopped publishing separate pop and R&B charts since there was so little difference in the songs.

Yet in 1970, when Jimi Hendrix died, an obituary described him as “a black man in the alien world of rock.”

Music became more segregated by race, with funk, disco, reggae and hip-hop largely associated with African American musicians and rock with white musicians. MTV had been on the air for nearly two years before it played the first music video by a Black performer: Michael Jackson’s video “Billie Jean,” in 1983.

Unlike early rock ’n’ roll, which l was remarkably inclusive and included doo-wop, surfer music, rockabilly and soul, rock referred to something much more specific: a blues-inflected guitar music with a strong beat played by white musicians.

In a recent essay, the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi, whom I consider among this country’s most perceptive and penetrating cultural commentators, makes a point that I find extraordinarily persuasive. Current interpretations of inequality, which emphasize the “institutional,” “structural” and “systemic” nature of disparities in income, wealth, educational attainment, housing, health care and criminal justice, tend to mystify the ways that injustices are sustained and reproduced and therefore absolve individual actors and agents of responsibility.

Structural explanations also “present an overly mechanical and deterministic” portrait of society, downplaying contingency and eliding our responsibility for addressing today’s injustices and inequalities.

In his words:

“Many academics and media types who insist upon talking about inequalities as ‘systemic’ decline to think, in concrete terms, about their own place in the system and that of the institutions they support … Many who are keen to evoke ‘systems,’ ‘structures’ and ‘institutions’ in abstract ways persistently decline to consider the extent to which their personal fortunes—to say nothing of their values, priorities and worldviews—actually are (or, more likely, aren’t) meaningfully connected to most others in the groups they identify with.”

Similarly, claims that “history” is “a chief cause of contemporary injustices” obscures “how and why certain elements of the past continue into the present.” Rather than treating “present-day racial inequalities” as an “inevitable by-product of America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow,” we need to recognize the policies and practices today “that systematically favor certain groups of people over others.” As al-Gharbi puts it, “Although appeals to America’s racist and sexist history are often portrayed as some kind of critique of the social order, they often serve as an alibi.”

Rock ’n’ roll began as a revolt from this society’s margins. It was radical in the ways that much of American cultural expression is radical: it gave metaphorical and symbolic expression to an alternative set of values. It represented a thinly veiled critique of established ideas about gender, sexuality and values.

But as social critics like the late Christopher Lasch have observed, American society has highly efficient mechanisms for neutralizing, defusing, absorbing and channeling dissent that ultimately serve the interests of its most privileged members (which, today, includes the knowledge and symbolic professions comprised of high-end journalists, consultants, tenured academics and foundation and nonprofit administrators).

As rock ’n’ roll was commercialized and evolved and was absorbed into the mainstream culture, it ultimately came to reflect and reinforce the very gender, sexual, racial and class boundaries that it had threatened, for a time, to overturn.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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