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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 Nine: The Regulation Era, Part 2


chapter nine

The Regulation Era, Part 2

While some artists grabbed spots on variety shows, rock ‘n’ roll groups found greater opportunities on teen dance shows, and the outlines of a genre began to coalesce. As defined by John Fiske, the (mostly) afternoon shows satisfied both the economic and cultural functions of a genre. On one hand, these programs met the industry imperative to produce a commodity that is standardized and familiar. But genre also “spells out to the audience the range of pleasures it might expect and thus regulates and activates memory of similar texts” (114), and the dance shows also met the needs of the teens. If there is one element that distinguished this emergent genre it was the focus of attention on the audience. For most of the producers, the music was a nuisance, but necessary to draw kids in and get them dancing, which was central to the appeal of the shows. Other features of the genre also reflected the audience emphasis, including camera orientations to control sight and microphone placement to control sound, as well as features that might later be referred to as interactive, including dance showcases, dedications, and the rating of records.

Philadelphia was the place where the emergent teen dance show genre took shape. It began in 1952 on The 950 Club radio show (WPEN) where DJs Joe Grady and Ed Hurst gained popularity by bringing in local high school students to dance in the studio...

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