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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 Four: Technologies


chapter four


Lewis Mumford was among the first to explore the cultural and psychological effects of technology, noting in the 1930s the “reorientation of wishes, habits, ideas (and) goals” that ensued when new inventions were widely implemented (Technics 3). As James Carey notes, new technologies do not simply change the mode of activity, but “alter the structure of interests (the things thought about) by changing the character of symbols (the things thought with) and by changing the nature of community (the arena within which thought developed)” (160). From these observations came the essential tenet of the communications field of media ecology, which is that each medium creates its own unique environment and that the effects of being in that environment are distinct from, and often greater than, the impact of content alone.

While it is invaluable as a reminder to maintain an ecological objectivity towards seductive new inventions, Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” has sometimes been carried to extremes, with specific effects being attributed to particular media technologies. The term “technological determinism” has been used to describe the cause-and-effect connections that McLuhan and his adherents sometimes draw. (For example, McLuhan delineated an indirect cause-and-effect between literacy and nationalism.) Carey warned that, as illuminating as such connections might be, they can lead to reductive thinking. He reminds us←79 | 80→ that our technologies are not autonomous, but material products of human culture. “Technology,” he says, “is thoroughly cultural from the outset:...

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