The Perpetual Clash of Music and Politics


Photo from Wikimedia Commons

By Joseph MacPhee

They say the heart of rock and roll is still beating / And from what I’ve seen I believe ’em.

Huey Lewis and the News made this claim in 1984, and other than sharing this year with a scathing George Orwell novel about big government, there are no obvious political or social connotations to the lyrics. Why is it the case, then, that so many great musicians and artists over the past century have continuously turned to rock and roll as a means of fighting for equality, of taking a stand against their oppressors, of creating a rallying cry for the unrepresented masses? At the surface the current generation of EDM-loving teens and grumpy old men, who only listen to their classics, see rock and roll as a brand of music classified by loud, overdriven guitars, pop melodies, and outrageous stage personas. In reality, it is one of the most influential genres of music, with roots branching out into folk, pop, rhythm & blues, jazz, gospel, and more.

The question becomes, then, do artists turn to rock and roll in times of social oppression or political instability? In other words, does the popularity of rock and roll correlate with social, economic, or political performance? Looking at the Beatles’ first U.S. tour in 1964 and 1965, these times were not necessarily periods of economic hardship, but rather political unrest since the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Did rock and roll equip teenagers with a lingua franca to challenge authority during the Civil Rights movement? There may be no direct answers to these questions, but a sensible, educated outlook can be gained by analyzing the history of rock and roll, its birth, and the musical movements that spawned as a result of its influence in the United States.

Rock and roll emerged as a prominent musical style in the United States in the early- to mid-1950s, made popular by artists such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The music derived mostly from the rhythm and blues music of the 1940s, which in turn was inspired by earlier blues, boogie woogie, jazz, gospel, and swing music in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Rock and roll came to be seen as postmodernist by nature. It countered the ideology of modernists who accepted the distinction between high and low culture and saw themselves firmly within the realm of the former. These modernists saw immensely talented jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as nothing more than “entertainers.”

This created the atmosphere, whether intentionally or unintentionally, for adversarial rock and roll musicians to emerge. They seem harmless today, but at the time these pioneers of rock and roll affronted widespread notions of musical decorum and good taste. Bruce Tucker, author of Tell Tchaikovsky the News, suggests that early rock and roll was “integrationist music.” It was not “…a high-minded, liberal appeal for equality,” but rather “an often confused and confusing counter-discourse about race.” Take, for example, Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” Eyed can easily be read as skinned.

These artists also tended to write songs about the creation of rock and roll itself, how it would come to dominate the high-class modernist genres of music. Mr. Berry, along with many other rock musicians, wrote countless songs with the words “rock” and “roll” in the title and even took swipes at the pretentiousness of modernist music. Berry’s 1957 “Rock and Roll Music” comes to mind: “I got no kick against modern jazz / Unless they try to play it too darn fast / And change the beauty of the melody / Until it sounds just like a symphony.” Modernist conservatives found it difficult to take any of these artists’ lyrics seriously, but they would take notice whenever someone like Berry confronted their own beliefs, whether artistic or political.

No matter the time period, the current state of music must sound new and original, something no one has ever heard before. The idea is ostensibly simple: write music that sounds completely opposite to popular music. In the case of rock and roll, these artists sped up the tempo of their songs, added more electric instruments to their lineup, and even introduced wildly unprecedented stage antics during their live shows, all in the name of affronting the supposedly high-class sound of the previous generation’s music. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and company all wanted to make statements by distancing themselves from currently popular music; the immense popularity rock and roll generated was unexpected.

Elvis Presley was a prime example of how rock and roll performances themselves were central to the cultural significance of the music. Like Chuck Berry’s “duck walk” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s destruction of pianos onstage, Presley flaunted his grinds and hip gyrations in front of teeming hordes of screaming teenage girls. These were acts of defiance that not only assaulted high culture, but also brought sexuality to the forefront of American music. In attempts to tear down Elvis’s cultural icon status, critics countered with criticism of his involvement in the “black roots, white fruits” movement—white artists recording songs by black artists in the name of exploitation for financial gain. Presley would frequently record songs originally written by black artists that later became hit singles, but he did so without having to resort to the condescending blackface routines of Al Jolson and other vaudevillians, proponents of the modernist musical movement. Elvis’s engagement with black culture came from his upbringing as a “Hillbilly Cat,” a name given to poor white children growing up in the South. These poor whites often made their living working side-by-side with black children, who they saw as equals due to their comparative economic standing.

While Berry and Elvis were exploring themes of racial equality and sexual exploration to the horror of conservative white parents across the country, Little Richard was challenging traditional roles of gender with his onstage antics, which suggested sexual ambiguity: “I’d appear in one show dressed as the Queen of England, and in the next as the pope.” His goal was to be so “crazy and way out” as to appear harmless to adults and other figures of authority. In reality he set the stage for other artists to play with sexual androgyny and gender roles in the coming decades: David Bowie and Iggy Pop in the 1970s glam movement, Prince and Boy George of Culture Club in the 1980s era of new wave, and countless others.

And then in the span of two years, the pioneers of rock and roll were finished. In 1958, Chuck Berry was arrested in the company of a young white woman and initially charged with illegal possession of a gun. Jerry Lee Lewis’s career came to an abrupt halt when it was discovered he had married his not-yet-14-year-old third cousin. Elvis was drafted into the army that same year. And in 1957, Little Richard simply retired from rock and roll.

In under a decade, rock and roll had made such bold statements about social, political, and economic issues that it continued to influence all genres of music for the next half century.

In the run-down boardwalk community known as Asbury Park, New Jersey, the scene was ripe for musical artists to make a stand against social and economic pressures of the seventies. Rock icon Bruce Springsteen came forward to fill those shoes, writing songs about the oppression of the working class and the impossibility of the American Dream. He even challenged Ronald Reagan when the former president used Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as part of his re-election campaign in 1984. Ironically the song is actually about the horrors of the Vietnam War and the narrator’s mistreatment as a veteran in the following years. Reagan’s administration, however, could only see the song at face value, with the incessant rallying cry of “Born in the U.S.A.!” in the chorus becoming a secondary slogan for the Reagan campaign. At one of his concerts just a few days after the Reagan team officially adopted his song for their campaign, Bruce declared to his audience: “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one” (Bruce’s album Nebraska contains narratives about individuals living under Reaganomics where financial instability and the loss of money and possessions drives people to violence and often murder). Bruce, like so many popular liberal musicians before him, was channeling the emotional weight behind rock music to tell the nation its political leaders could not keep their promises of the American Dream.

So what exactly did Huey Lewis mean when he claimed the “heart of rock and roll” was still beating in 1983? It boils down to what Foucault would call an attitude of counter-discourse. By this he means that rock and roll was first brought to the forefront as a way to challenge—through their controversial lyrics and wildly unprecedented instrumentation—institutions that were already firmly established. Rock and roll, and indeed all subsequent genres of rock it directly influenced, were necessary to defy systems of power that were factually unsuccessful yet firmly rooted in the heart of American government.

Conservatism, coincidentally, is based completely on the notion that traditional institutions should be maintained at all costs, and thus it fits firmly into the role of everything rock music strives to rebel against. Conservatives may cite certain, clearly liberal rock artists as their favorites (some politicians may even use these bands’ songs in their campaigns), but if they paid attention to the messages of these rock musicians, they would know that constant change is necessary to keep up with the equally consistently changing needs of American society at large. It is up to this generation of liberal rock and roll musicians to deliver this message.


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