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Research Proposal: The Social Realities of Rock 'n' Roll's Birth and The Teenager

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Research Proposal: The Social Realities of Rock 'n' Roll's Birth and the Teenager

The story of the birth of rock 'n' roll has a mythical quality to it. It speaks of racial barriers bridged through the fusion of Afro-American musical styles with white popular music in 1950s America. Not only did white record producers and radio disc jockeys market Afro-American artists, but white artists began to cover their songs, as well as incorporate Afro-American style into their own song writing. The musical style was so powerful that the white audience was infected by it, despite the social stigma that listening to "race music" possessed. The common view of teenagers' participation in the creation of rock 'n' roll as an act of rebellion runs parallel with the music's legendary origins. Through rock 'n' roll, the teenagers of the United States created a generational gap that angered their parents' generation. Teenagers rejected kitchy Tin Pan Alley, "Sing Along with Mitch," and the sleepy crooning of Perry Como in favour of sexually charged race music. Historians have taken different approaches to the question of teen rebellion. While some consider their love of rock 'n' roll revolutionary, others argue that the music cemented teenagers within the conformity and materialism of the 1950s; what cars were to adults, rock 'n' roll was to teens.[1]

In dealing with these issues, historians have neglected to examine the social implication of "race music" on a white audience, specifically teenagers. Historians most often explain the origins of the music as something of a legend; Afro-American music and culture is praised, and white American society is indebted to the cultural enrichment it has received from it. Afro-American music saved white society from being boring.[2] The social realities of the United States during that decade make this birth story seem hypocritical and condescending. The 1950s did not produce harmony between the black and white populations of the United States; racial tensions were enormous.

In light of this, the racial aspect of rock 'n' roll and its implications on its white middle-class teen audience needs to be examined. Were teenagers consciously rebelling by listening to the music with Afro-American origins or did their social attitudes remain unaffected? Was Afro-American music merely a tool in marketing, in the commercial capitalization of the generation gap? This research proposal seeks to establish ways in which the print media, music charts, and the recordings themselves can be reread in order to answer these questions.

Historiography and Approach

The theme of teenage rebellion is prominent among early rock 'n' roll historians, who imposed the language and social consciousness of the late-1960s onto their interpretations. According to them, rock 'n' roll in the 1950s enabled teenagers to protest against the conformity of the era and also their parents' music. Arnold Shaw in The Rockin' 50s considered teens' rejection of pop music an outcry against Cold War acquiescence.[3] Carl Belz claimed rock 'n' roll was folk art that functioned as a voice of the people, namely teenagers. Like Shaw, Belz saw rock 'n' roll as a "protest art" against prevailing popular music.[4] Rock 'n' roll also displayed that it was folk art because its audience was drawn to it instinctively, rather than through sophisticated aesthetic standards for judging the music; the dance beat was more important than musical technicalities.[5]

For these historians, listening to rock 'n' roll was an act of rebellion precisely because the adult audience and the press condemned the music. In outlining this rebellion, historians like Belz, Shaw, and Gillett ignored the social significance of Afro-American music finding an audience in white middle-class teenagers. Gillett offered a rosy but weak prognosis that the white audience, by virtue of being a minority audience, bridged racial gaps by taking on a radical stance against majority tastes.[6] This does not offer any sense of the social implications involved, nor does it signify exactly whether affluent white teens' racial views changed through rock 'n' roll. While this interpretation of the revolution of a minority audience further defines the teenage audience as rebels, it isolates them from their surroundings - American society in the 1950s. These historians ignored the implications and meaning of white teens switching their radios to rhythm and blues stations.

Another historical approach dismisses the notion of the creation of teen rebels through rock 'n' roll. Instead, rock 'n' roll was a marketing construct designed to provide affluent teens with something to claim as their own on which to spend their money. For the first time, teenagers were a separate commercial unit from their parents and the market was quick to catch on. Rock 'n' roll, like blue jeans or milkshakes, was marketed directly at teens. This view creates a passive role for teenagers in the formation of rock 'n' roll; they were simply subject to wider social conditions, namely the materialism of 1950s America.

Nik Cohn, in Rock from the Beginning, reduced the legendary milestones in the birth of the music to creations of business. For example, the success of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," seen popularly as the point of fusion between Afro-American and white musical styles, is attributed to fluke marketing. Record producers did not really know what teenagers wanted. "All they could do was release noise by the ton and see what caught on best."[7] "Rock Around the Clock" did just that.

In The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, Donald Clarke reiterated this interpretation from the music industry's point of view. Rock 'n' roll was manipulated from gritty race music into less offensive, smoother sounding songs, geared for the sensitive ears of the white American audience. Teen love-songs and novelty songs dominated the charts, along with country and folk songs, while rock 'n' roll showed up sporadically.[8] Clean-cut white boys like Pat Boone and Paul Anka replaced black artists, in order to create a wholesome image.[9] Clarke attributed this to American cold war paranoia:

The truth is that America was floundering; the most powerful nation in the history of the world was frightened of that responsibility, because there were no cultural or political values at the top. Hence the paranoia about

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