Little Boy and Fat Boy were dropped in Japan by the end of 9th August, 1945 and the Second World War had come to a neat end. With the end of a tumultuous period of war, the post-war American society became a conservative and careful society, balancing on two major political tipping points with the beginning of cold war tensions and the persistent friction between the whites and blacks. The norm of the society became being tight-lipped and conformist, so as to avoid any kind of ‘danger’ or disturbance. White pop music was perfectly aligned to this culture and all seemed stable for a while.
With the economic boom after the war, radio transistors were being mass produced and the electric guitar came into the forefront—and with them came the advent of the legendary rock and roll music. In its basic composition, structure, and rhythm, it was largely similar to other kinds of race music such as jazz and blues. Black music was traditionally ousted by the whites as raunchy, unrestrained and revolutionary but now was appreciated and internalized by many who themselves felt ousted from that time’s ridiculously conservative society. One of the largest crowds that looked for an escape from the constrictive mentality of society was the teens, who felt largely suffocated under the constant monitoring of their conservative parents and desperately looked for modes to dispel themselves from it. With the vulgar and rebelliously open-minded sentiment of rock music, they found a relatable, breathable space away from their homes. Eventually, conventional white pop music disappeared as it failed to imprint in it the sociocultural transformations wrought by the postwar era of urbanization, including the idea of youthful rebellion. People did not want the slick clean pop anymore—they wanted the vulgar and the wild rock.
More and more musicians became nonconformist icons for the youth, and emulated and produced the rock music of the blacks that was sultry and almost always euphemistic. Singers like Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Fats Domino came forth and became very popular. The shunning of the absolute ill effects of drugs were now replaced with an overwhelming welcome for them, the hush hush ethically correct approach towards sex was replaced with uncouth loud embrace for it and the image of the good well-groomed man with perfectly cut and shaped hair was replaced with the untamed freakishly long hairstyle.
When Presley wrote the Jailhouse Rock, he realized that most people were in a jail, locked away and restricted within the iron-clad gripping bars of the society, yet he urged them all to rock. Rock and roll became the symbol of liberty, freedom and rebellion and it was embraced with open arms by so many people. However, the inducting of rock into mainstream music was difficult because it received stern opposition from the concerned and largely shocked older generation.
In early 1957, the Congress considered enacting legislation in order to censor obscene music in light of the controversy it arose. Meanwhile, rock culture grew. In 1961, the Beatles gave their first performance, and by 1964, their songs hit top charts. Another popular band that emerged was the Beach Boys. 1968 saw the emergence of the band regarded as the most legendary in rock music, Led Zeppelin, followed later by bands like Queen. Music began to be used largely as a subversive tool, against the society as well as the American government that steadily increased its involvements in proxy wars of the cold war. Its popularity increased substantially, especially among the youth and teens.
In around the mid 1980s, a group of politically connected women designating themselves as the Parents Music Resource Center, came together to condemn rock music as violent, sexually explicit and promoting ills such as juvenile delinquency, open rebellions against parental authority and satanic rituals. They demanded labeling of all such ‘profane’ albums. This was a problematic demand, because it became difficult to find a ground to judge the lyrics of a particular song to be profane. For instance, the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds could be about a childish dream of the imaginary of life among the stars or an LSD episode. Perhaps the writers of the songs had a particular ‘profane’ idea in mind when they wrote the songs, but it would still be received by the listeners in a way that they want to perceive it. It became a largely subjective matter to judge the intent of the songs, but under pressure of the PMRC the rating system had to be introduced. It was met with stern opposition by musicians, John Denver asserted censors very often misinterpret music. The debate reached Washington DC soon enough. Meanwhile, the Parental Advisory Label(PAL) and the PMRC began proposing warnings for morally hazardous content. Their action of this stern music censorship move was, as Russ Solomon said, ‘just plain dumb’ because it did more to boost sales record than crush them. The harder one tried to suppress teens and limit their exposure to explicit content, the harder they tried to break free and indulge in what ‘they weren’t supposed to hear’.
The history of rock and roll has etched in it the struggles of a strangely suppressed youth fighting to free itself from the mangles of an absurdly conformist society that only encouraged silence and light tip-tapping music. Rock came with its loud, electronic music, pumping beats and scandalizing lyrics full of ridicule. The very basis of rock lay on the fact that it was opposed whatever was the trend: it was not the norm, it was the exception. Its uniqueness, originality and freedom made it a revolutionary landmark in the history of music.
Yet perhaps today, it has been tweaked to adapt to feed the demands of the public that rarely even understands it, and the very naked vulgar honesty it stood for has been lost somewhere. People forget that rock is not just a genre, it is a movement.
It has always been.
– Contributed by Tinka Dubey
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