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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 Five: Reception and Perception


chapter five

Reception and Perception

Harold Innis established the idea that every medium has its own biases, emphasizing certain modes of thought and deemphasizing others. In Edmund Carpenter’s words, “…each communication channel codifies reality differently and thus influences…the content of the message communicated” (176). One of the aspects of media ecology that has distinguished it from other areas of communication study is the understanding that theses biases are not only cognitive but also have a physiological or sensory component. Marshall McLuhan said that all technologies (or media) are extensions of the human body (67); for example, the hammer extends the arm, the camera extends the eye, and the telephone extends the voice. One cannot lose sight (or sound) of the fact that the process of information reception begins with the human senses.


According to Lance Strate, “the history of civilization is the story of the war between the ear and the eye” (Strate and Wachtel 26). He is referring primarily to the dividing line between orality and literacy, the former organized by speech and taking place in acoustic space, and the latter organized by writing and taking place in visual space. Rock ‘n’ roll and television are on opposing sides in this war.←95 | 96→ Music is organized sound (and the silence between sounds) and appeals primarily to the ear in acoustic space. Television is an extension of both eye and ear, but the eye is primary, which situates television...

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