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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 Ten: The Regulation Era, Part 3


chapter ten

The Regulation Era, Part 3

As American Bandstand redefined the presentation of rock ‘n’ roll on television, a clear shift in the priorities of many recording artists could be discerned. Pre-Dick Clark, the paramount concern was the direct connection between musician and audience, but after 1957 artists rapidly adjusted to the imperatives of visual presentation and their allegiance was divided between the medium and a more direct relationship to their audience. The commercial impulse could no longer be satisfied by making records alone, leading artists to choose material and assume identities that suited the packaged product proffered by television. Often, this co-optation undermined the bond that musicians established via recordings, where they created a particular universe for fans to enter, in favor of a more diffuse relationship with an audience that might be watching a television show for a host of reasons, or for no reason at all except that it was on.

Gradually, the subject matter of the songs played on American Bandstand became less concerned with the earthier aspects of love (sex was verboten) and returned to a pre-Brill Building predilection for pre-pubescent romanticism. Dick Clark’s show may have been seen by many as a symbol of the triumph of youth culture, but it projected a puerile definition of that culture, replacing the adult themes common to blues, R&B, jazz, and country & western music with←161 | 162→ the musical equivalent of cotton candy. While rock ‘n’ roll...

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