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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 Seven: The Ridicule Era

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chapter seven

The Ridicule Era

The Ridicule Era can be said to go from about 1953 to 1957, when rock ‘n’ roll had achieved sufficient popularity to make non-recognition impossible. During this era, the entertainment industry acknowledged the new music but in ways that tended to accentuate its superficiality and puerility, turning potentially disturbing sounds and attitudes into something laughable. Rock musicians were stereotyped as uneducated, incompetent, and immature. If they displayed resentment towards this portrayal, they were effectively blacklisted. The goal of the networks was containment and control.

Trav S. D. (real name Travis Stewart) notes that, as rock ‘n’ roll edged its way onto television variety shows, the psychological orientation of the audience and the hosts was still steeped in the vaudeville model of show business. Although mainstream hosts such as Milton Berle, Steve Allen, Mike Douglas and others found themselves introducing the likes of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, they felt obligated to their show biz audience to mock the young upstarts. “As late as 1965,” Trav S. D. says, “Dean Martin blatantly ridiculed an appearance by The Rolling Stones on his own television program as though they had been booked as sideshow freaks” (266).

In the context of the Ridicule Era construct, the television appearance of such dynamic African American artists as The Treniers and Louis Jordan also takes on new significance. Jake Austen suggests that these early television perfor←123 | 124→mances were not perceived as threatening...

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