Rock & Roll, show us your birth certificate!

rock music98 I've been enjoying my deep dive into rock history of late, especially the golden-oldie glory days. Last week I wrote about the mid-50s tech innovations that helped rock & roll achieve lift-off. This week: the political and religious opposition that nearly grounded it.

Unless you lived through—or heavily researched—those early days of rock, you may be unaware of the distraught reactions that entertainers like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry drew from morality's gatekeepers. As mentioned in an earlier post, rock & roll was a “communicable disease” (according to at least one respected American psychiatrist) and a tool of Satan (according to hundreds of religious authorities, including Cardinal Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XV). Another critic railed against rock's “deafening, dope-ridden, degenerate mob scenes.” More alarming to me, a research study purported to show that overexposure to rock beats "causes homosexuality in mice and deafness in pigs." (As if we don’t have enough problems.)

The John Birch Society was one of many political advocacy groups that considered R&R a "Communist menace" and a Soviet KGB plot—and the Beatles’ song “Back in the USSR” confirmed it! (The John Birchers, to give credit where credit is due, issued important and prescient alerts about Commies in our midst—including President Dwight Eisenhower—as well as dire warnings of a collectivist New World Order that would enslave humanity.)

But imagine if rock & roll were debuting today! Many US politicians, given rock’s roots in African rhythms, would be demanding to see its birth certificate. Or to quarantine it against Ebola. It would have to be labeled “illegal” and “undocumented.” The obvious implication would be that this foreign-born, anti-colonial, youth-corrupting, culturally seditious jungle music is a threat to the Republic—if not to Western Civilization as we know it.

What’s the business take-away? This: the darker, intolerant, xenophobic instincts of many Americans that have been on unsightly display in recent years (and days!) could deal a death blow to the Innovation Economy if they continue to discourage skilled immigrants from coming to America. Over the last decade we've constructed too many obstacles to keep talented foreign nationals out. To quote from one report, “Top foreign-born graduates [of American schools] are told to go home and compete against the US.”

Immigrants, skilled and otherwise, have of course been the engine of the US economy since day one, as mentioned here. In fact, skilled immigrants are America’s greatest competitive advantage. They’ve dominated the hi-tech economy, creating many of the biggest Silicon Valley success stories. But even unskilled immigrants consistently expand the economic pie.

If you’re not American, immigration has likely been good for your country as well. As The Economist pointed out, “The potential economic benefits to the world of liberalizing migration DWARFS those from removing trade barriers. Where populations are ageing and economies are sluggish, the benefits are especially great.” [My caps.]

Fortunately rock & roll has survived the doomsday prophets and managed to prosper for sixty years, despite—and in some cases because of—the fear it has fomented. Bad publicity is bad except when it isn't. (Write that down.)

“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in 1888 in his famous Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer.

I’m sure Little Richard and Chuck Berry (along with one notable US political leader) have taken the same notion to heart.

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  1. Sadly, since 9/11 many musicians from north wand west Africa have had a terrible time getting visas and their concert tours have been cancelled, postponed or re-routed. Certainly the Ebola scare only fuels that.

  2. I was raised by parents who felt that you couldn't know whether or not you liked a person unless you sat down and had dinner with 'em a few times, and even then, don't be so quick to judge.

    They were always appalled by the concept that someone's place of birth, skin tone, or beliefs, would automatically rule them out as good neighbors.

    My life as a nomad with Best Beloved and our Little One verified absolutely Mark Twain's comment: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."

    My very open mind was stretched by the simple act of spending a month in Quebec and another in Ireland; places not so very foreign. I can only imagine what sharing a workspace with somebody from a branch much farther from my roots would do for me.

  3. I've always thought and said that the best way to see the world is by playing in a band....much cultural history is learned while making people happy through your music. Too bad today's world events make that more difficult, and economics being what they are now too. That's where the internet has taken up the slack.

  4. "the best way to see the world is by playing in a band…" Never thought of that before. You do get to see quite a cross-section of the human community that way. Btw, Bill (Rock Around the Clock) Haley once pointed out that R&R played an important role in helping integrate society in the 50s & 60s.

  5. Excellent piece John!! I love the cultural, musical, political, and business references. How you have interrelated them is great! Thoughtful indeed.

  6. Bob alludes to a Very Important Point: It's the job of R&R to annoy the older generation. It goes right back to Marlon Brando in The Wild One ("What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" - "What have you got?") and comes up to date with Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. They all think they're being clever and ground-breaking and rebellious but the fact is, they're simply doing their job. (And doing it quite well, sometimes.)

    Equally, of course, it's the job of the Older Generation to pick up the mantle thrown down by those 1950's Moral Gatekeepers. In the 1980's, they outdid themselves with the Parents Music Resource Center but there's hardly an established star that hasn't been vilified at some time (Jagger to Ozzy to Madonna et al) before going on to form part of the Moral Gatekeeper Generation themselves.

    1. By this logic, any modern stuff I hate becomes, by definition, "rock & roll." But because I don't want to raise it to that stature, it forces me to love the stuff I hate. Aarggh. I'm really stuck now.

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