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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 Eight: The Regulation Era, Part 1

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chapter eight

The Regulation Era, Part 1

The end of the 1950s and most of the 1960s mark the Regulation Era. During this period, the practitioners of rock ‘n’ roll not only enjoyed greater media access but began to be portrayed positively or at least without being mocked. Instead of representing the threatening outsider, selected members of the group were afforded roles in which they were seen to uphold mainstream values and “appear as protectors of the existing order” (Harris 65). Regulation here has no legal connotation, since the “rules” established by television regarding rock ‘n’ roll were not codified—they were covert, revealed only in practice, part of an attempt to establish a televisual genre suitable to the new music. Paddy Scannell refers to the “communicative intentionality” that is achieved through the use of such repeatable formats such as “signature tunes; regular presenters; standardized openings and closings; set sequences for the program material; and routines for moving through the sequences and for maintaining continuity. The net effect of all these techniques is cumulative” (8). While stations and producers were willing to take some risks in order to attract the burgeoning youth market, they put viewers at ease by establishing predictable formats and showcasing unthreatening artists.

In the mid-to-late 1950s, television was still in the process of consolidating its leadership position in the culture industry, focused on its mandate of attracting audiences to satisfy sponsors. Building on the work of John Fiske and John...

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