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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 Thirteen: The Respect Era, Part 3


chapter thirteen

The Respect Era, Part 3

One clear signpost of a broader acceptance of rock music came with the arrival on TV of the Grammy Awards. Originally called The Gramophone Awards by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences,1 the Grammys were established in 1959 and telecast that first year as an episode of the NBC Sunday Showcase. Grammy award winners are determined by the votes of NARAS members, comprised of musicians, producers, and recording engineers, but is dominated by the record companies. Unlike the top winners of Academy Awards in the motion picture industry, which invariably see a boost in box office sales, recipients of Grammy Awards seldom get a significant bump in record sales. This is due in part to the fact that while Academy Awards shows are not necessarily dominated by movies that made the most money, nearly all the performers on the Grammy Awards shows and the majority of winners are sales leaders. While the Academy Awards shows serve, at least to some extent, to reward excellence in film-making, the Grammy Awards is a television show that celebrates commerce, not art.2

Once the Grammys were established, NBC aired a series of specials called The Best on Record, featuring Grammy Award winners. Like the awards themselves, most of the shows were light on rock ‘n’ roll, although each show certainly con←215 | 216→tained highlights.3 In 1965, for example, they aired a lovely short film clip of Peter...

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