To prep for a talk I’ll be giving in a few weeks, I’ve been revisiting early rock & roll, and noting the explosive effects it had on popular music, lifestyle, culture, technology, and even politics. An unappreciated part of the story is how R&R gave voice to a new population demographic: TEENAGERS—especially of the affluent, white variety, who had suddenly fallen in love with black music.
It could be said that teens didn’t exist until the 1950s. Not as a population segment to take seriously. Not as an economic force. But after World War Two, as families became more prosperous, there was no need to push teenagers into the workforce (or into battle, after the Korean War). More students were staying in high school and then going to college. Even middle class teens and young adults had time to pursue new interests. By the mid-50s rock & roll was there to serve them.
This new music was clearly the result of socio-musical trends. Blacks and whites were living closer to each other, influencing each other’s music. The same radio stations were catering to both audiences for the first time. Independent record labels were giving innovative black artists a chance to record their music. And white teenagers had the disposable income to buy it.
But technology played just as big a role. As reported in a previous post, a hit parade of hi-tech products came out at the right time to take advantage of this new market and to empower these young consumers. (Successful innovation always happens “at the right time” because it’s symbiotic, exploiting other innovations.) For instance, the transistor radio enabled teens to listen to their own music, and the 45-rpm single enabled them to buy that music on the cheap (89 cents). This cycle begat better sounding jukeboxes and less expensive record players, and whatever else was needed to sell more of this music to youth—including affordable equipment (microphones and electric guitars) for live performers.
And the political effects of all this? As teens and young adults began to think for themselves and to carve out their own identity, they became increasingly authority-averse. Combined with the fact that blacks and whites were enjoying some of the same music, it was hard for young whites to make sense of the segregated society that some of them witnessed—and within a few years they were speaking out against it. A few years after that the same rock-fueled subculture was protesting a Southeast Asian war, then women’s lack of rights, and more.
Right from the beginning, the old white gate-keepers of morality were doing their best to discredit rock and the teen spirit that launched it, but it was no contest. Market forces won. By the time Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard were tearing up the charts rock had already become big business. There was no stopping it—or the young consumers who demanded it.
Many will argue that rock's young audience today is not the force for change that rock's young audience was a half century ago. But tectonic shifts are taking place—e.g., on gay rights in recent months—propelled by the social values of teens and young adults. These shifts are just occurring less dramatically and less explosively.
Perhaps this is good a thing: It's now being reported that "a high school's student's brain is roughly 90% song lyrics."