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Transmission and Transgression

The History of Rock 'n' Roll on Television


Gary Kenton

When MTV (Music Television channel) was established in 1981, an executive claimed that they had "integrated the most powerful forces in our two decades, TV and rock ‘n’ roll." In fact, this problematic relationship began in the mid-1950s, when the advent of rock ‘n’ roll represented a musical and cultural revolution. The backlash against the music and the youth culture from which it emanated, described here as "rockaphobia," was reflected in a process of adulteration, racism, and co-optation by television programmers, spearheaded by American Bandstand. This interplay between rock ‘n’ roll and television played a significant role in alienating baby boomers from the mainstream, motivating them to create their own countercultural identity. This social migration helped to delineate the boundaries that would be identified in the 1960s as the generation gap.

Transmission and Transgression uses an interdisciplinary approach informed by media ecology, the theoretical framework which recognizes that each communication technology, or medium, creates its own unique environment, independent of content. This analysis allows the author to identify inherent technological and sensory incompatibilities between the medium of television and the cultural practice of rock ‘n’ roll, and to place these tensions within the broader shift of physiological emphasis from the traditional, tribal world dominated by the ear to the modern world which privileges the eye. Even in its remediated, diluted form, rock music has occupied a significant niche on television, and this book is the most comprehensive summary, celebration, and analysis of that history.

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Chapter One: The Music and the Audience


chapter one

The Music and the Audience

Three pivotal phenomena changed the American cultural landscape in the mid-1950s. First, television established itself as the dominant communication medium of its time. Second, the first wave of the baby boom generation reached adolescence and the term “teenager” came into common usage.1 Before this time, people between the ages of twelve and twenty were recognized as an age group, but as the baby boomers came of age they gained a unique cultural identity and unprecedented influence. Third, rock ‘n’ roll emerged as a distinct form, a hybrid of several earlier streams of American music, including blues and rhythm ‘n’ blues (R&B) created primarily by African Americans; country and western swing created primarily by Whites, and other pop, jazz, folk, and spiritual influences. Rock ‘n’ roll was interdependent with the new teenage audience, but the relationship of both to television was problematic and sometimes adversarial.

The 1950s are often recalled and unfailingly portrayed as an era of innocence and bland conformity, tranquil suburbia, reassuring Dr. Spock, and the faceless efficiency of the Fordism economic model.2 The rapid growth of the middle class, near-full employment, and new leisure activities helped keep post-war anxieties at bay, but unease festered on a subterranean level. As Karl Mannheim put forward in the 1920s in his Theory of Generations, each generation is a sociological phenomenon unto itself, shaped by the historical conditions and events of its time (286–88). Historians frequently...

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