Photo: The Beach Boys perform on American Bandstand
Ever since its materialization, rock ‘n roll has been criticized as being detrimental to fundamental family values. In his book Fever: How Rock ‘N Roll Transformed Gender In America, Tim Riley argues against this common perception:
Contrary to the fears or parents, educators, and politicians over the past fifty years, what Elvis [Presley] and Tina [Turner] set in motion had an overwhelmingly positive impact on its listeners. Rock ‘n roll helped baby boomers and later generations become better parents, better partners, better friends – probably even better citizens. And it did this by addressing these themes directly in song.
Rock ‘n roll is subversive by nature; it seeks to challenge authority. One can not deny the impact rock ‘n roll has on its listeners, but seldom do people imagine that this impact can be a positive one. Few critics or authority figures deem rock ‘n roll to have shaped individuals for the better. Yet it was rock music that helped youth make sense of the chaotic and uncertain world around them in a time of political conflict and social change. Rock ‘n roll music helped youth find their place in the world. According to Glenn Altschuler in All Shook Up: How Rock ‘N Roll Changed America, “In helping young Americans construct social identities, [rock ‘n roll] did provide a discourse through which they could examine and contest the meanings adults ascribed to family, sexuality, and race.” The “rock ‘n roll generation” turned their shared love of the music into something positive, despite the objection of many.
Despite the adoration by some parents, rock ‘n roll music was inherently about youth culture. The material of early 60’s rock music focused on teenage issues, such as high school, going to the drive in or the soda shop, telephone calls, going steady, parties, and dancing. It was firmly entrenched in teenage philosophy. Take “Wake Up Little Susie” by The Everly Brothers from 1957: the song tells the story of two teenagers who fell asleep after “watching a movie” and find themselves in bed at 4 AM long past their curfews, a cheery urgency to waking up and facing the potential wrath of parents and the curious gossip of their friends. There is something very innocent in it now, but at the time it was banned on the radio stations in certain areas.
This song, and many others like it, were marketed directly to youth, who at this point had greater spending power and influence on their families’ purchases then ever before. “Teens spent $10 billion annually on cars, dogs, pimple cream, TV, lipstick, records, and phonographs. By 1963, adolescents were spending $22 billion annually,” explains Richard Aquila. The baby boomer generation had never experienced the same shortages as their parents who had lived through the Great Depression. Therefore, their attitudes towards spending and consumerism were quite different. Also influencing their spending was the fact that music and technology were advancing at a rate that was exciting for teenagers, who were very receptive to it. “Music became portable, which changed the way people related to music. The transistor radio was something that young people picked up on,” stated Professor Torres. Rock ‘n roll created a bond between the listeners and the musicians; both were young and experiencing similar feelings. “The most important change in American society during the sixties seemed to be the emergence of youth as a distinct political and cultural force,” according to David Farber. The culture of youth was finally considered relevant and even, in some cases, dominant.
The youth that came of age during the 1960’s were shaped by the events, ideas, and values specific to that time period. These values were often expressed directly in the music. Richard Aquila wrote “teenagers, like adults, had to cope with international crises, new lifestyles, and rapid economic and social change. Their tensions and insecurities are evident in…records about loneliness, alienation, and oppression.” It is interesting how much changes around us, but yet the melted-down issues teenagers face, at their red-hot core, are the same. Steve Nagy stated, “Some things [the two generations] do not differ in, which is a remarkable thing.” He went on to say that there was a greater commonality than ever before between the two generations. He pointed to the fact that the youth of today are far more likely to be knowledgeable about technology; however “60’s people learned how to use computers and cell phones. They have that in common with this generation. 50’s people won’t [learn to use them].” Professor Jorge Torres agreed, “Maybe there is not much at all different. Socially we wind up seeing them as much different. Seeing it on one plane, we might say it was an innocent age.” He went on to say that there always will be challenges for kids coming of age. Certain events of the 60’s, like the Vietnam War and the assassination of JFK, took away the innocence of the youth much in the way that September 11th, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina did in the new millennium. He described the cycles that America seems to pass through every 40 years; it is believed that the previous generation came of age during a more innocent time. The 60’s, for example, are now regarded as a more innocent time compared to the 2000’s, yet the 1920’s were looked upon as such in certain ways when compared to the 60’s. The baby boomer generation could not escape being affected by the sometimes tragic, sometimes thrilling events of the 1960’s.
Rock ‘n roll music created a community for the youth of the 60’s. Taken from George Lipsitz’s essay, a man from San Francisco recalls:
We were held together by our own good vibrations and with the rise of the Sound, we were drawn together into a family. The Fillmore and Avalon [ballrooms] of 1966 radically changed our language, our interests, and our lives; from a goal-directed, school-directed way of living, we’d moved to a life-style directed way by our music and acid. Acid and the bands became the loci of our lives. Saturday night became the center around which the rest of the week was left to move; reminiscing about the last, planning for the next. All day Saturday spent in preparation, collecting lowers, buying new costumes, buying and selling dope, getting super stoned and listening to music. (Lipsitz 1994: 216)
These communities shaped the identity of the 60’s generation, especially in the often uncertain and constantly changing years of the decade. “I cared about the music, I cared about people, and all I ever wanted to do…was provide the kids with a safe place to be in a turbulent time,” said Bill Graham, the owner of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Rock ‘n roll helped form connections between concert-going youth. Woodstock, the infamous music festival of the summer of 1969, was an example of a community that acted in a positive and peaceful manner. Woodstock allowed the youth of the 60’s to come together as one to simply enjoy the music they loved. “So widespread was the sense of community that people began to see themselves as the ‘Woodstock Nation’, suffused in peace and harmony,” wrote Mark Lytle. The festival was mostly peaceful, with no violent acts reported. The experience of Woodstock ’69 stands in stark contrast to Woodstock ’99, a festival characterized by violence, destruction, and chaos. 15 years later, Rock ‘n roll music did not bring together future generations the way it brought together the generation of the 60’s. This article, written in July 2014, from Rolling Stone sums it up in 19 bullet points. Woodstock 1969 has reached a mythic level in today’s discourse and the music made there still endures today, whereas Woodstock 1999 looks like an embarrassment. According to Alexander Bloom in his book Long Time Gone: Sixties America Then and Now, “Music seemed central to the entire 60’s experience, not the narrowly defined cultural role it plays today…The music embodied the same underlying themes, the same sense of creating something new and better, as did the political and social movements.” The communities that rock ‘n roll formed in the 60’s had a mostly positive impact on the generation and undoubtedly served to bond them together.
The 1960’s continue to influence future generations, as does the music created then. The impact of the 60’s was certainly farther reaching than the length of the decade. According to Farber, “Even those who came of age long after the ‘sixties’ share the collective memories: the grainy film footage of John F. Kennedy shot down in Dallas, Neil Armstrong stepping on to the moon…In these memories and others lie much of the charge of the 1960’s: the possibilities, the grandeur, and always the tragedy.” These memories shaped not only a generation, but the entire country, in a way that was irrevocable and poignant. Today, these memories continue to resonate. Steve Nagy said, “The youth of today enjoy the music of the 60’s and 70’s more than their own music.” The popularity of the 1978 film “Animal House”, which was set in 1962, amongst college students today is a testament to the far-reaching influence of the 60’s. Its soundtrack is equally popular with songs such as “Shout” and “Louie Louie” that continue, decades later, to be staples of any social gathering. In 2007, a look at Lafayette’s Facebook page showed that the Beatles and Pink Floyd are ranked the 6th and 8th most popular bands respectively amongst students. The iconic image of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road or the Dark Side of The Moon album cover are still lovingly pressed against dorm room walls. The rock ‘n roll music of the 1960’s is still considered popular and influential even into the new millennium; it has been embraced by the generations that followed.
The 60’s have not been forgotten by those who came of age during them. For some, there is a sense of distance and separation from the era. Some boomers felt they reached a point where they had to “grow up” and follow in the footsteps of their parents. “I’m one of the people who held onto the beliefs…I’m still proud we stopped a war. But you have to go with the flow. I grew up, had children; you have to support them. That’s not a contradiction. The contradictions are either dead or wandering the streets,” explained Stephen Biegel, born in 1950 and quoted by Michael Gross. Others are still caught up in the distinct culture of the 1960’s, as evidenced by the resurrection of the decade in the 1980’s in particular. David Szatmary wrote in his book Rockin’ In Time: A Social History of Rock And Roll:
“The return to a 1960’s sensibility led to numerous benefit concerts, which revived the careers of some 1960’s rockers and revitalized the rock industry. From the mid 1980’s to the mid 1990’s, baby boomers embraced a 1960’s-inspired, cause-oriented rock that provided a stark contrast to the entertaining, glossy, sexy images on MTV. The return to 1960’s ideals occurred around mid-decade, when the economy started to decline and the social order became increasingly stratified.”
The 1960’s were certainly a memorable time, and remain to this day a fascinating era, which has been the subject of countless miniseries, documentaries, and feature films. The TV Show American Dreams ran from 2002-2005 on NBC and attracted nearly 10 million viewers at its peak. The show detailed the coming-of-age of a teenage girl who was chosen to dance on American Bandstand and her experiences with her family and friends. The show was unique in the way it took current popular musicians and filmed them performing as famous bands of the 1960’s. Examples include Kelly Clarkson as Brenda Lee, Third Eye Blind as The Kinks, Richie Sambora (of Bon Jovi) as Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds, and John Legend as Stevie Wonder. These interpretations of the 1960’s through the eyes of filmmakers and artists may not entirely capture the decade, but they are a testament to the popularity of the decade that continues into the new millennium.
Rock ‘n roll music formed a collective identity and changed society in the process. While many events – some tragic, some exciting – contributed to form such an identity, the soundtrack of the decade was always playing throughout. According to Farber, “By the early 1960’s, the overwhelming majority of Americans could not help but share in a national set of experiences and an increasingly – if still very selective – shared knowledge about one another.” The baby boomer generation carries to this day shared memories of what happened in the 1960’s; many of these memories are told through song. Music is a powerful stimulant for memory, and it is this music that holds the memories of those who came of age in the 1960’s. The impact of rock ‘n roll on the baby boomers is a striking one. “Even more than drugs and sex, rock and roll entered the American cultural mainstream. Where rock had once defined the counterculture, historian Ken Tucker observed, ‘in the 1970s and on into the 1980s, this music was the culture,’” wrote Mark Lytle. The counterculture had been inextricably tied with rock ‘n roll music, but as rock gained more popularity, the counterculture became the mainstream. Rock ‘n roll “was also breaking down parochial tastes and promoting a national culture…the music opened people’s minds and help people appreciate ‘qualities which they could never see before,’” said Altschuler. Rock ‘n roll music helped individuals feel connected to something larger than themselves. In this sense, rock ‘n roll was the catalyst for the construction of a generational collective identity, aided by social change. Altschuler explains, “The music played a crucial role, however, in fostering intra-generational identity. To a significant extent, a distinct teenage culture, with its own more and institutions, did develop during the decade….differentiation based on age became more pervasive and permanent in American culture and society.” Rock ‘n roll created a divide in the generations which served to create a more unified sense of memory amongst the baby boomers. Listening to the music today instantly brings back memories of the time.
In response to the question “what sort of impact did rock music have on you?” Professor Torres said, “I hang on to it. As you get older you get a flash of memory when you hear certain songs…It’s music you haven’t carried with you all your life, but it’s a trigger for something you want to hold on to. Music has that kind of a trigger. I know where I was when I first heard [a song], and what else was going on at the time.” The rock ‘n roll music of the 1960’s forged a common bond amongst the youth of the decade that influenced their collective identity and memories. This bond was created through the rhythm of the drums, the chords of the guitar, and the inflection in the singer’s voice: a combination too powerful to forget.
Now I think I understand
That it was Sergeant Pepper’s Band
That put the sixties into song
Where have all the heroes gone?
~ Joan Baez, “Sgt. Pepper’s Band” (1982)