Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Generation’s Identity
New music for a new generation
13 March 2012
The rise of rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1950s transformed the landscape of American popular music, further cementing the popularity of southern-derived styles ultimately derived from the blues and country music, and transforming the teenager into both a marketing concept and a cultural icon. Rock ’n’ roll records were played for dances at inner-city, primarily black, public schools, for parties at predominantly white suburban private schools, and for socials in rural settings catering to young people. If you were young in the 1950s in the United States, no matter where you lived, no matter what your race or class, rock ’n’ roll was your music.
The advent of rock ’n’ roll music in the mid-1950s brought enormous changes to American popular music, changes whose impact is still being felt. Styles that had remained on the margins of pop music began to infiltrate and eventually dominate the center. Rhythm & blues and country music recordings were no longer directed to specialized and regionalized markets; they began to be heard on mainstream pop radio, and many could be purchased in music stores nationwide.
The emergence of rock ’n’ roll was an event of great cultural significance. But several issues demand our attention: first, rock ’n’ roll was neither a “new,” nor indeed even a single musical style; second, the rock ’n’ roll era does not mark the first time that music was written specifically to appeal to young people; third, rock ’n’ roll was certainly not the first American music to fuse black and white popular styles.
The new audience was dominated by the so-called baby boom generation born immediately following World War II. It was a much younger target group than ever before, a large audience that shared specific characteristics of group cultural identity. These were kids growing up in the 1950s, a period of relative economic stability and prosperity marked by a return to socially and politically conservative ways. This was also the first generation to grow up with television; this new mass medium proved a force of incalculable influence.
The term “rock ’n’ roll” was first used for commercial and generational purposes by disc jockey Alan Freed. In the early 1950s Freed discovered that increasing numbers of young white kids were listening to and requesting the rhythm & blues records he played on his nighttime program in Cleveland – records he began to call “rock ’n’ roll.” Freed promoted concert tours featuring black artists, playing to a young, racially mixed audience, and promoted them as “rock ’n’ roll revues.” The term “rock ’n’ roll” itself was derived from the many references to “rockin” and “rollin” found in rhythm & blues songs and on race records.
The purchase of rock ’n’ roll records by kids in the 1950s proved a way of asserting their generational identity through rebellion against adult standards and restrictions. Thus the experience of growing up with rock ’n’ roll music became a defining characteristic of the baby boom generation. So it is not surprising that the music catered to this age group, which by the late 1950s had its own distinctive culture and its associated rituals: school and vacation (represented in songs such as “School Day” and “Summertime Blues”), fashions (“Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini”), social dancing (“At the Hop” and “Save the Last Dance for Me”), and courtship (“Teen-Age Crush,” “Puppy Love,” “A Teenager in Love,” and “Poor Little Fool”). Some rock ’n’ roll songs – for example, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock ’n’ Roll Is Here to Stay” – announced themselves as emblems of a new aesthetic and cultural order, dominated by the tastes and aspirations of youth.
[This article is excerpted from American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3 by Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman, published by Oxford University Press, copyright (2003, 2007), and offered in an abridged edition by the Bureau of International Information Programs.]