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Rock Factors

In 2018 it’s hard to imagine an entirely new musical genre. Nowadays, people tend to be fairly open minded when it comes to art. Musically, listeners are ready for whatever gets thrown their way. What’s more, there is musical representation for just about every music listener on the planet. It would be nearly impossible to find someone who doesn’t like any music. This was not always the case however. Up until the 50’s music was still very limited, not only by technological restrictions, but by cultural and social norms of the time. Many people found that the musical options they had available to them just weren’t satisfying. For many, rock and roll would fill that missing niche. It was created against the odds in a time and place that challenged the birth of the genre. The 50’s are thought of as one of America’s most prosperous decades, but it was also a racist, sexist, conformist decade cast in the shadow of fear of communism. Rock and roll was one of the main things that challenged these ideas. The music was black in origin and the name itself was sexual slang. To parents it was the ultimate evil antithesis of their teachings. To teenagers, the forbidden nature of the music just made it all the more enticing. Rock and Roll foreshadowed change that was coming in the United States and broadened the entire definition of music. From sharecropper’s Mississippi delta blues to Fabian’s slicked back hair, the rise of rock and roll was a wild rollercoaster ride of creation.        
Racial tensions were off the charts in the United States in the 50’s. After the second world war, many African American soldiers expected to come home respected as heroes, when in fact they returned to the same segregated conditions they left. The 50’s were ground zero for the civil rights movement. It wasn’t until about half way through the decade that the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Up until the Brown vs Board of Education ruling in 1954, the notion of ‘Separate but Equal’ was still widely accepted. Pop culture would indicate otherwise. The baby boomers had just one generation separating them from the days of hugely popular blackface minstrelsy. Rock and roll fits in with the same pattern of cultural appropriation that has consistently affected American music, from all the way back to the minstrelsy shows of the late19th century, up until today. Like Jazz, rock and roll was an African American invention that the white mainstream reshaped to fit their needs. Rock and roll’s routes had existed for years before it became a popular part of white culture. In the early 50’s the only difference between R&B and rock and roll was the race of the performers. As Fats Domino put it in a 1957 interview, ‘Well, what they call rock ‘n’ roll now is rhythm and blues. I’ve been playing it for 15 years in New Orleans.’ What the United States needed was something to bridge the ‘overly black’ Mississippi Delta blues sound with a whiter more accessible sound. The result? A country western blues R fusion, all in a pretty white package, Elvis Presley. The man credited with discovering Elvis Presley was Sam Phillips. Sam Phillips played a big part not only in the creation of rock and roll, but in the merging of white and black music. He’s credited with producing what many people consider to be the first Rock and Roll record, ‘Rocket 88’ by Ike Turner’s saxophonist Jackie Brenston. This set the standard for rock and roll to upkeep, and much of the rock and roll in the early 50’s followed the same 12 bar song structure. While musically, most rock and roll was not much different than the blues, subject matter and emotion behind the music was very different. The name ‘rock and roll’ was coined by radio dic jockey Alan Freed who defined the sound of the genre like this, ‘rock and roll is a river of music which has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, ragtime, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed greatly to the big beat’. Freed, like Sam Phillips, was a big supporter of the music regardless of the race of the performers. By playing the original versions of the songs instead of often times dreadful cover versions by white musicians, he brought authenticity back into the mix.          
From a political standpoint, the United States of America was sitting pretty after the second world war. Between 1945 and 1965 the gross national product made a massive leap from 200 to 500 billion US dollars. While United States was in the midst of making a name for itself as a major world power,  the decade also spawned a sociopolitically conservative, conformist ideology that spread across huge part of the population. Suburbanization was occurring on a large scale and Levittown style tract housing made it cheap to build, and subsequently buy, homes. This meant the middle class in the US was strong. Most families saved enough money by moving away from urban areas, that they could afford luxuries like cars, radios and televisions; all making music easier to come by. Between 1946 and 1960 the number of television sets in the United States increased from around 7,000 to about 50 million. Much mainstream music before rock and roll matched the audience it was intended for. The Tin Pan Alley businessmen had discovered a successful business model and had no reason to push any boundaries. Their music made them tons of money, but the result was a whole lot of songs that sounded pretty similar to one another, all with similar subject matter. To many, the rise of rock and roll was the same thing as the fall of tin pan alley. With the support of young people shifting to rock and roll, the tin pan ally pop songs just weren’t selling enough records. What no-one could have seen coming was just how big of a difference young people would make in the industry.                  
In the 50’s the youth was unrepresented, not just musically, but as an entire class of people. Up until the 50’s generations were broken up into two groups, kids and adults. Children were forced to learn adult responsibilities rather abruptly. In the 50’s the teenagers appeared as their own demographic for the first time. Being a part of a strong middle-class meant most teenagers didn’t have to help support their families. Teens were left with two options. One being unemployment and having lots of free time, the other staying employed and having lots of spending money. Companies quickly realized that teenagers not only had different tastes than everyone else, but that they had enough money to fund a brand new market in the American economy. As soon as industries started to capitalize on the styles, trends and popular culture teenagers had created, it solidified the existence of this new generation. Rock and Roll wouldn’t have become popular if not for the teenager. Rock and Roll carried a certain feeling of rebellion and disrespect for authority. Teens were one of the largest groups supporting rock and roll sales, so when ‘teenage delinquency’ became an issue, many people pointed the finger at rock and roll. Even though it was far more likely that the rebellious nature of teens in the 50’s was spawned by a mixture freedom, hormonal imbalances, and distaste for authority, people needed somewhere to place the blame other than their parenting skills. In the words of Elvis Presley, ‘Rock and roll is a music, and why should a music contribute to juvenile delinquency? If people are going to be juvenile delinquents, they’re going to be delinquents if they hear Mother Goose rhymes.’  Films like Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause, further connected the idea that the music was linked to teenage rebellion by using rock and roll soundtracks. The fear of letting teens get too far out of control was justifiable though. in 1959, 60 percent of arrests made were that of people under the age of 25 It didn’t help that icons to the older generation like Frank Sinatra thought that ‘Rock ‘n’ roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. And, by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd and in plain fact, dirty lyrics … it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.’ As with all change though, rock and roll became less scary with time. As time went on and the music became more complex and refined.           
Rock and Roll was an artistic creation of huge importance. Rock and roll paved the way for all other types of music that came after it. Even though in it’s early beginnings it was largely just a variation of blues and country, it evolved and never stopped evolving. Rock and roll put some flare into a decade of immense conformity. After the second world war the United States was thrown into an era of creation and adaption, adversity and passion and rock and roll was at the center of it all. Even though the long battle for racial equality was still far from over, the decade started to bring some of the questions up that are still being answered today. A select couple of people in the rock and roll industry ended up making massive impacts on popular culture. If not for Sam Phillip’s vision and disregard of racial boundaries in music, who knows how much longer it might have taken to tear down the racial walls that divided music? While they were looked at as rebellious delinquents, the baby boomers and teenagers of the 50’s would grow up to shape the world around them. Many would even go on to create their own rock and roll years later. Rock and roll stood out from all of the musical genre’s that came before it. No music had been created with so many different influences. Blues, Country Western, Jazz and Folk elements all combined with American culture in the 1950’s spawned the genre that is still loved around the world today almost 70 years later.