The Effect of Rock ‘N Roll on the Collective Identity of the Youth of the 1960’s: PART 1

We knew each other well although we never met”
The Effect of Rock ‘N Roll on the Collective Identity of the Youth of the 1960’s

I came up to London when I was nineteen
With a corduroy jacket and head full of dreams 
In coffee bars I spent my nights
Reading Allen Ginsberg, talking civil rights.
On the day Robert Kennedy got shot down
The world was wearing a deeper frown
And though I knew that we’d lost a friend 
I always believed we could win in the end. 
Music was the scenery
Jimi Hendrix played loud and free 
Sergeant Pepper was real to me 
Songs and poems were all you needed…
~ Al Stewart, “Post World War II Blues”

Forty years later, there is a palpable sense of nostalgia for the 1960’s. Bono once said, “In the 80’s, which is a barren era, we look back at the ‘60’s as a great reservoir of talent, of high ideals, and of the will and desire to change things.” Bono is not alone in this line of thinking. In the 80’s in particular, the 60’s were thought of as a “better time” in many regards. This line of thinking is prevalent today as well. “Americans cannot seem to let the sixties go gently into the night. While the 1970’s disappeared before they even ended and the 1950’s succumbed to a nostalgic fog, the 1960’s stay hot,” wrote David Farber in The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960’s.
The baby boomers and the millennials – finally – have something obvious in common. Frankly, the baby boomer generation doesn’t want to admit that the 60’s are long past them. They have a hard time letting go of the era of their youth, a time many associate with good memories and rock ‘n roll music. The Eagles charge hundreds of dollars for premium concert tickets, sometimes upwards of $500 per ticket, simply because they can. Baby boomers are willing to shell out their hard-earned dollars to see the favorite bands of their youth that are still faithfully touring. Farber continues, “Yet, hard as it is for a generation that still sees itself as ‘the young people’ to admit, the 1960’s were a long time ago: it is many more than twenty years ago today that Sgt. Pepper and his friends taught America how to play.”
 The millennials, particularly those born in the 80’s who came of age throughout the 90’s, have also made a lucrative business out of nostalgia. Millennials grew up watching their parents’ favorite shows on Nick At Night: I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. Now millennials turn the channel to watch reruns of Full House and Friends on that very same channel and bemoan the fact that these shows are now considered worthy of the Nick At Night label. A reboot of Boy Meets World, starring Cory and Topanga’s now 13 year old daughter, called Girl Meets World has proven successful enough to be renewed for a 2nd season on the Disney Channel. And in the same vein as the bands of the baby boomers, there is a definite market for 90’s acts to continue touring today, often in package deals. One such tour this summer starred Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, Blues Traveler, and Uncle Kracker, playing to a loyal audience of 90’s devotees.
Although most adults of any generation long for the supposed simplicity of youth, the millennials especially, this feeling is even stronger among the baby boomers in particular. Michael Gross wrote in My Generation: Fifty Years of Sex, Drugs, Rock, Revolution, Glamour, Greed, Valor, Faith, and Silicon Chips, “It is the particular curse of the baby boom that the shadows of its youth often seem brighter than its present….It hasn’t been easy for the Baby Boom to grow up.”
The 1960’s were a decade of dramatic social change – African-Americans fought for civil rights, women made great strides toward equality, and an increasing number of youth began to attend college. These social and cultural differences greatly affected the youth who were coming of age at the time. The memories of the 1960’s are still in the forefront of the minds of many, both those who lived through them and those born too late. Many of these memories relate back to rock ‘n roll music, which has been described as the area which “epitomizes the complicated realities of the sixties” and is the “most important ‘sacrament’ for the young, as the center of a lifestyle,” according to George Lipsitz in his essay “Who’ll Stop The Rain?: Youth Culture, Rock ‘N Roll, and Social Crises”. Much has changed in America and the rest of the world since the 60’s ended. However, the decade of the 1960’s, as well as its music, continues to impact and influence the lives of those who came of age in it.
Rock ‘n roll music, like America, underwent many changes during the 1960’s. There was a marked shift in the subject matter of rock ‘n roll music. While it had always been slightly suggestive in nature, in the late sixties, rock ‘n roll became more overtly about sex, protest, and politics. Women singers increasingly became more vocal and powerful. In the 50’s, women had traditionally been “the subjects of songs, and the objects of affection, jealousy or betrayal. They did not sing rock ‘n roll songs; men sang about them,” as Glenn Altschuler explains in All Shook Up: How Rock ‘N Roll Changed America. Singers like Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Cher more than proved that women could be as successful as men. These women sang songs that mattered, containing a message inherently different from that of the sugary-sweet doo-wop girl groups of the 50’s.
The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War helped create a new subgenre of rock ‘n roll: protest music. Mark Lytle explains in America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon, “Cosmopolitan students had already discovered protest music, especially Joan Baez and Bob Dylan…By the fall of 1964, almost everyone listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other British invasion bands. That’s when hair became longer…and clothes became less formal”. Tensions were high regarding the uncertain political climate and the future of the nation, particularly when compared to the somewhat more stable 1950’s. That is not to say that rock ‘n roll music was understood to have a protest message or a deeper meaning by its entire audience, but it certainly had an impact on those individuals who understood the message of the music. These changes in rock ‘n roll music led to an increased feeling of connectedness by young people, both to the music and each other.
            There are differing accounts of the conflict, or lack thereof, between youth of the 60’s and their parents when it came to rock ‘n roll music. Many families listened to music together, forming a bond created by their shared love of the music. According to Professor Jorge Torres, in an interview conducted on April 11th, 2007, his parents also enjoyed early 60’s rock ‘n roll, such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys. “They gave us money to buy records. The music then was tame when compared to today’s rap,” he said. Steve Nagy, my friend’s father, born in 1945, stated in an interview conducted on April 7th, 2007: “There was very little parental resentment of the music. Our parents put up with our practicing. Some were proud that the kids were preoccupied with music.” He went on to say that many parents liked Elvis as much as their kids did. There was little controversy over certain types of rock music. He stated that “there would be more resentment [among parents] if not for the Beatles. They will endure forever. People welcomed the British Invasion. The Beatles had remarkably good transition music.” In the early part of the 60’s, rock music was more innocuous; the 50’s style of music that parents had enjoyed had carried over. “Rock music shows many teenagers were not significantly different from their parents. Much of 1950’s and early 1960’s rock ‘n roll proves adults and teens shared similar believes, values, interests, and pastimes…early rock ‘n roll reveals more consensus than conflict between the generations,” said Richard Aquila in That Old Time Rock & Roll: A Chronicle of An Era, 1954-1963. It was to be later in the decade that the music would begin to shift towards more anti-establishment and sexually oriented messages. This shift created a divide between the generations and served to distinguish the youth of the 60’s from their parents. They began to form their own group identity.
            Other sources point to a larger generational conflict over rock ‘n roll music and what it stood for. In contrast to the more light-hearted music of the early 60’s, the music of the later 60’s was characterized by conflict, protest, changing attitudes about sex, and the Vietnam War. Farber explains:
Political activism by college students on and off campus, the popularity of youth-generated styles of dress, grooming, speech, and music, and perception of a ‘generation gap’ denoting a difference in values between people born after World War II and those born before it all contributed to the idea that age might become as important an indicator of social identity as race, class, or gender.

In the latter half of the sixties, the generation gap widened as did the gap between the early styles of rock ‘n roll to more current styles. The attitudes of youth began to shift to distrust and suspicion of their parents’ generation as the protests of the Vietnam War created controversy. “Never trust anybody over thirty, people used to say in the years after Kennedy was killed,” wrote Michael Gross. As the subject matter of music changed, so did parents’ attitudes towards it. Richard Aquila said, “Adult fear of rock ‘n roll probably says more about the paranoia and insecurity of American society in the 1950’s and early 1960’s than it does about rock ‘n roll.” Many parents attempted to discourage their children from attending Woodstock, yet that did not stop them from going. Classic pop singers such as Frank Sinatra detested rock ‘n roll music and openly spoke out against it. Elvis had to be censored upon his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and only filmed from the waist up. Sixty million people watched his performance. Some parents were afraid that rock ‘n roll music encouraged loose morality and premarital sexual activity. Even without rock ‘n roll music affecting the teenager-parent relationship, the teenage years are inherently a time where parents and teenagers do not see eye to eye. Professor Torres stated, “My parents tried to keep me innocent.” Yet the media played into this parental fear by portraying the rebellious kids as rock ‘n rollers. This is also apparent in retrospect. In movies such as “Grease” and “The Outsiders”, both produced decades later, in 1977 and 1983 respectively, the “greasers” are portrayed as edgy, sexually active, and into rock music. As attitudes changed, the generation gap became increasingly significant, enhanced by the subversive attitude of rock ‘n roll. 

PART 2 coming soon... 
Photo credit: