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Transmission and Transgression

The History of Rock 'n' Roll on Television

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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 Three: The Mediums and the Messages

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chapter three

The Mediums and the Messages

Television

Television is an industrial product and presentational device, a communication technology with visual and auditory components that is accessed via broadcast. When discussing television and its effects, we speak of it less as an artifact and more as a mass medium with broad cultural and political impacts. As the Media Ecologists (Innis, McLuhan, Carpenter, Ong, Postman, et al.) have pointed out, television, like all communication technologies, is not a neutral conveyor; TV delivers information beyond the content of its programs. Keeping that in mind, it is necessary to consider the messages communicated by television about rock ‘n’ roll, both in the content and formal features of its programs, and in the myriad choices made by programmers about what was presented, when, and how.

Television came at the tail end of a remarkable run of technological developments, enumerated by Postman: the telegraph, the rotary press, the camera, the telephone, the phonograph, the movies, and radio (Disappearance 72). One can hardly overstate the impact of television on American and world culture. One sample statistic conveys television’s ubiquity: by the end of twentieth century more than 98% of U.S. households had at least one television set (https://www.census.gov/prod/99pubs/99statab/sec31.pdf), more than the number of homes with indoor plumbing (Rural Community Assistance Partnership). Richard Jackson Har←59 | 60→ris notes that television became both the main window through which we view the world and the door through which a...

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