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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 Two: Rockaphobia


chapter two


With the passage of time, it has become more difficult to appreciate the cataclysm that was rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. The new sound of rock ‘n’ roll—loud, unruly, often beyond logical understanding—epitomized everything that gave adults pause, and was personified by the pelvic gyrations and curled upper lip of Elvis Presley, whose bass-thumping rockabilly sound and his lubricious movements “drew a line between itself and everything that came before it” (Marcus Lipstick 64). Where the youngsters heard a joyful noise, full of flirtation and frolic, the adults saw a snarl, promiscuity, and menace. Rock music became the lightning rod for the expression of a deep apprehension that festered beneath the surface of American society. According to Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave, “Adults resisted teen culture in order to regain their authority over the young…the battle took place in many areas, but nowhere was the conflict more intense than in music” (14). Adult animus was directed not only at the music, but projected onto the young people who embraced it, turning differences of opinion and taste into an unbridgeable cultural chasm.

Susan McClary reminds us that music has always represented a danger to those who feel that social order is threatened by unfettered personal expression: “Denouncements of these twin threats—subversion of authority and seduction by means of the body—recur as constants throughout music history” (30). In Ancient Greece, Plato worried that poetry and music, which...

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