Smells like teen spirit

file4281282054756 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."


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6 Comments

  1. I guess I have a high school student's brain even if I don't have the body.

    I wasn't born till the last week of the 50s but my earliest memories of socializing with my peers involved music. Never before this moment have I considered that it could well have been otherwise if it weren't for Freed. Fender, Phillips, and their sort.

    My my.

  2. What's changed in 50 or 60 years? Conservatives are still wailing away on rock. US Presidential candidate Ted Cruz said, "Rock let me down after 911." He felt it wasn't patriotic enough!!

    1. Yeah, I caught that remark. Cruz may have missed the “America: a Tribute to Heroes” telethon 10 days after the attack with a who’s who of rock stars, plus the “Concert for New York City” a month later with another star-studded lineup. Not to mention the songs about 911 that Springsteen, Young, McCartney, Mellencamp, and Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded.

      As a jaundiced spectator of American politics for more decades than I care to admit, I follow politics primarily for its entertainment value. (I'm an Independent, just for the record.) So I'm thrilled to see the Cruzer in action. I pray he’ll be joined by Huckabee, Perry, Santorum, Bolton (John not Michael), Christie, and Trump—and maybe even Bachmann, Palin, Alan West, and Ted Nugent. The presidential primary debates last time around (I think I watched all 20 of 'em) were awesome! I almost busted a gut laughing so hard. Gotta love this country.

  3. I think the alarming thing is that the voices who shouted loud about 9/11 (Springsteen, Young, McCartney, Mellencamp, Lynyrd Skynyrd) were mainly of that early rock n' roll generation. Where were / are the new voices? The disengagement between young people and politics - certainly in the UK - seems widespread. Folks seem to think their vote doesn't make a difference, politicians don't listen and they're all the same anyway. What the world needs now is an Independent with a keen interest in politics and music; able to put forward a succinct and distinct opinion; and preferably an acnowledged Top 100 leadership blogger. I'm trying to think who that could be...

    1. Just read this now, Mark. (I've been busy the last year and a half.) I'll join you in searching for that mythological leader. S/he must be out there. "What the world needs now..."

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