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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 Six: The Non-Recognition Era


chapter six

The Non-Recognition Era

While it would be a gross distortion to equate rockaphobia with racism, issues regarding race are inherent to the music and the perception of it. The outsider status of rock music validates the use of a model derived from research into television portrayals of African Americans and other minority groups to inform and organize our examination of the historical presentation of rock ‘n’ roll on television.

Cedric Clark identified four stages of minority portrayals on television: Non-Recognition, Ridicule, Regulation, and Respect (18–22), showing patterns of representation and cultural negotiation.1 While hastening to acknowledge the difference in scale and suffering, it is also noted that the impetus behind many racist and rockaphobic policies are frequently rooted as much in a common demand for social control as in bias directed toward people of color, in one instance, or teenagers and their music, in the other.

While Cedric Clark’s stages do not lend themselves to rigid time frames, the Non-Recognition Era roughly covers the late 1940s and early 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll had yet to be named but the elements of the genre were becoming evident in the faster, more electrified sounds emanating from clubs and jukeboxes from coast to coast. During this time, judged by what appeared on television, rock ‘n’ roll was simply not acknowledged. Even within the music industry, the blinkered denial of decision-makers created an opportunity for independent record companies and radio stations to...

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