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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 Twelve: The Respect Era, Part 2


chapter twelve

The Respect Era, Part 2

By the late 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll had existed long enough to have a past, and listeners had a choice between looking forward to the latest offerings or backward to the hits of their receding youth. As a result, another sub-genre was created by mining back catalogs for 1950s hits repackaged as “oldies” for baby boomers approaching middle age. As the “oldies” radio format gained popularity, ads for “Oldies but Goodies” became a staple on late-night television, and touring once again became viable for one-hit wonders and forgotten acts of the previous decade. This nostalgic appeal was a cross-media phenomenon, led by the Broadway musical Grease (1972), George Lucas’s film American Graffiti (1973), and the sitcom Happy Days (ABC 1974–84).1 David Shumway used the term commodified nostalgia to refer to the coordinated revival of styles and fashions of a particular era and points to American Graffiti as establishing “a new model wherein popular music was used without a clear distinction between diegetic and extradiegetic origin” (“Soundtracks” 42), but lip-syncing and other techniques used on the teen dance shows in the 1950s had accustomed audiences to this kind of manipulation. The romanticized revival of 1950s rock reached its apotheosis in the late 1970s when the retro group Sha Na Na not only gained acceptance as an opening concert act, but enjoyed respectable ratings with their own syndicated television show (1977–81).←197 | 198→

In the 1970s,...

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