The Rock & Roll genre of today is much different from its origins in the late 1940s. Today, Rock & Roll is seen as a subgenre of the rock music genre. However, when Rock & Roll was first introduced to society, it was revolutionary. Music was soon used as a catalyst for social and political change. Icons such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard becoming faces of the new American music scene. It shook society in multiple ways and influenced more genres that came after.
It is hard to say what exact event caused the emergence of Rock & Roll. Some scholars say that Rock & Roll was going to emerge one way or another. After World War 2, society was in constant change. There was a huge economic boom, and the USA was in a better position in world politics than before the war. There was a huge migration of people moving to this land. With them, new possibilities of what people could do lead to new opportunities.
During the war, African Americans fought on the frontline and served their country. Simultaneously, civil rights were soon becoming a proactive movement. With the migration of new possibilities, technology, and ideas, blues music could spread further than before. Blues music and jazz had first emerged in the 1920s, pioneered by African Americans. However, these were only placed on segregated charts and not available mainstream.
These styles of music were then mixed with other styles such as country music, with a strong emphasis on guitar, combined to make the foundation of what would be known as Rock & Roll.
Why was Rock & Roll so popular in the 1950s?
Rock & Roll was extremely popular. Not only was it speedier and more electric than the music of the past, but it also attracted and created a sub-culture for teenagers that would not have worked before. Its origins from being in predominantly segregated genres meant that wider audiences found something new and exciting to listen to.
Of course, a huge part of why Rock & Roll of the 1950s was so popular and is remembered to this day are the performers. Names such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the Crickets, and Little Richard are still just as revered as they were decades after the height of their influence. Their performances made people want to dance and were extremely catchy. With televised performances, fans everywhere could join along and dance.
Rock & Roll promoted a new style of costumes. Elvis Presley’s iconic white jumpsuit became one of his best-known looks. This style heightened his profile and added to his charismatic persona. He became one of a kind and no one has come close to his style. This sense of style added to the dances, performances, and more liberal style of music that Rock & Roll represented. Buddy Holly’s signature glasses and suit look defined his image as more of an everyday performer. Little Richard brought so much flamboyance onto the stage in the style of sequins.
All of this in turn leads to Rock & Roll changing the sphere of music. Rock & Roll was seen to speak to teenagers. Soon, this led to changes in society by influencing teenagers and becoming crucial to the Civil Rights movement.
How did the popularity of Rock & Roll in the 1950s influence society
Teenagers were one of the most influenced groups in society that were influenced by Rock & Roll. However, many parents did not like Rock & Roll. Despite the Civil Rights Movement, there was still a lot of prejudice between social class and race. Parents of the white middle and upper classes opposed their children mixing with people of a different race and class. As Dr. Steve Williams of the University of Southern Indiana pointed out, “Suburban moms and dads are freaked out about their daughters hanging out with young black men listening to sexualized music.”
These types of lyrics lent to what Sociologist Stanley Cohen (as mentioned by Dr Williams) coined as ‘moral panic’, where society (usually adults) are freaked out by something new in culture that (usually) the youth like. These lyrics causes many schools and radio stations to ban Rock & Roll. In the 1950s the teenage rebellion against society became more apparent as many would defend Rock & Roll and listen to it in secret. The image of sex and drugs became more casual through Rock & Roll too. Whilst it is unfair to say every teenager who listened to Rock & Roll participated in these activities or any other juvenile delinquent acts, this image stayed with Rock & Roll. The act of teenage rebellion, with casual sex and drugs, is also still seen in one form or another today.
As mentioned before, The Civil Rights Movement was greatly helped by Rock & Roll. As much as teenagers of different races were mixing with this music, despite people’s fears, they grew more supportive of the movement. Rock & Roll found its origins in African American music. The Civil Rights Movement became more powerful through the creation of coalitions between black churches and secular organizations such as The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Elvis Presley, along with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins sang a rendition of ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ (1958). This was viewed as showing support to The Civil Rights Movement and garnered many fans of these artists to support the Civil Rights Movement too. Thus, Rock & Roll had a huge impact on the Civil Rights Movement.
By the early 1960s, many of the key players of the 1950s were disappearing. This time, the British Rock was invading. However, it is undeniable that in its heyday, Rock & Roll changed American society. Some remnants of this revolution can still be seen today.