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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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Many factors contributed to the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, but none were more significant than the near-simultaneous emergence of both television and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. One element that is seldom considered in studies of the counterculture is how the inherent incompatibility between TV and rock music both reflected and contributed to the social fissures that would become known as the generation gap.

The phrase “generation gap” came into popular use in the 1960s, but the roots of the generational culture wars can be traced to the previous decade. A closer look at the 1950s, when television and rock music came into prominence, suggests that many of the social and cultural conflicts that surfaced in the 1960s had been percolating for years. An examination of the interplay of rock ‘n’ roll and television calls into question common assumptions about that time period.

Each generation tends to see its past in rosy hues, requiring later historians to provide more objective analyses. By virtue of sheer numbers and the communication technologies available to them, the baby boom generation has dominated discourses regarding the era in which they came of age. Even many academic portraits of the 1950s have looked past undercurrents of anxiety and disaffection, adopting a geniality and quiescence bordering on nostalgia. The purpose here is not revisionist history, but a close examination of the effects of television on rock ‘n’ roll and its audience and how that dispels the...

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