Rock and Roll music has had a huge impact both nationally and internationally. It has been a catalyst for social and cultural change. This cannot be overstated. Almost every aspect of life in America has been influenced in some way by this truly American art form. It pushed the boundaries of sexuality and traditional social mores in the fifties. In the sixties, it became the collective voice of the American anti-war movement. It stands alone when compared to other social influences of the 20th century.
Fast and loose living, coupled with sex, drugs and alcohol use have been central to rock and roll's persona since the early fifties. One could argue that the African American band leaders from the 30's like Cab Calloway undoubtedly influenced the early progenitors of rock and roll. Muddy Water's song “Champagne and Reefer,” while probably not directly influenced by Cab Calloway's “Reefer Man,” there is undoubtedly some connection.
The prosperity of the 20's led to changing attitudes and style which was reflected in Jazz music and led to the flappers and raccoon coats, etc. In the same way, the 1950's were much like the 1920's. Both had post war economic booms, industry was fueled by the economic forces that were sparked to life during war times.The social change of the 50's was reflected in the music. Kids rebelled and rock and roll became a means to achieve that rebellion. After the gloom of WWII, people were ready to live it up and relax. Rock and roll pushed the limits of sexual expression, from Elvis the Pelvis grinding action to Little Richards sexually suggestive lyrics, traditional social mores were dropping like flies. Rock and Roll culture, “sock hops” and the American top 40 influenced various fashion trends. Men wore peg leg pants and big leather jackets, imitating Elvis. Yet the traditional idea that men were “studs” and should be promiscuous while girls should be reserved and modest was fostered and perpetuated by artists such as Dion. Let's look at the words to his song “The Wanderer”
Oh well I'm the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are well, you know that I'm around
I kiss 'em and I love'em 'cause to me they're all the same
I hug 'em and I squeeze 'em they don't even know my name
They call me the wanderer yeah the wanderer
I roam around around around...
Oh well there's Flo on my left and there's Mary on my right
And Janie is the girl that I'll be with tonight
And when she asks me which one I love the best
I tear open my shirt I got Rosie on my chest
Now let's compare those lyrics to “Run around Sue” by the same artist
She likes to travel around, yeah
She'll love you and she'll put you down
Now people let me put you wise
Sue goes out with other guys
Now that is what I call a double standard!
In the sixties, many rock stars were international celebrities. Their outrageous antics and rampant drug use became the stuff of tabloid headlines. Their flamboyant clothes complete with beads, bells and feathers combined with granny glasses, headbands and roman style sandals could be seen clearly displayed on U.S. Street corners from New York to L.A.
The correlation between hard living life-styles and rock music was
widely known. LSD became widely distributed partly as a result of Timothy Leary's much publicized LSD experiments." Tune in, turn on and dropout" became the mantra of the "hippies" of the "now generation." There can be little doubt that rock music played a predominant role in the hippie counter culture.
The hippies were disenchanted with the American values promulgated in Beach Boy songs. Songs about the high school hop, 409 Chevys and ditties about “ Being true to your school” were type were being superseded with songs like Tomorrow Never Knows by the Beatles. Let's compare Be True to your School by the Beach Boys with the aforementioned Beatles song. First the Beach Boys:
Friday We'll be Jacked Up On The Football Game
And I'll be ready to fight
We're gonna smash 'em now
My girl will be working on her pom-poms now
And she'll be yelling tonight
then, the Beatles:
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing
But listen to the color of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving
So play the game "Existence" to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning
The contrast between these two songs reflects the shift in the collective conscious of the 60's flower children, whether LSD is wholly to blame one can only speculate. But undoubtedly it's influence was significant.
These artists questioned authority, challenged stagnant mindsets of the 50's and called for free thinking. Traditional Christian type themes prevalent in Elvis Presley-type music were giving way to a rising tide of radically different themes; like eastern mysticism, psychedelic drug use and Transcendentalism. Bands like the Beatles, the Velvet underground and Jimi Hendrix had many songs with drug-related themes.
Protest music helped unify the youth of the 60's into one voice, a voice denouncing the Vietnam war and racial inequality and oppression. The crescendo of the Hippie/Rock and Roll symbiosis culminated in the event popularly known as Woodstock.
Woodstock was a music festival, billed as "An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music". It was held at Max Yasgar's farm near Bethel, New York, from August 15 to August 18, 1969.(7) Many hippies took LSD and some of them died. An announcement was made over the PA "Don't take the Brown Acid, man." Many people went naked and danced weird and bizarre dances, gyrating to the insane guitar wailing of a LSD crazed Jimi Hendrix, playing the Star Spangled banner with guitar feedback. Much hatred of Various US officials and war policies were denounced and ridiculed. Chants of obscenities by "Country Joe and the Fish" mocked the war and the draft. All sense of decency and resemblance to Norman Rockwell America was burned in the hippies pagan fire. This was where music from the popular culture, music by those lovable “Fab Four” called the Beatles, had a bizarre and twisted influence on One American that forever changed America's self perception. That man was Charles Manson.
The Beatles song Helter Skelter was used by Manson as a rallying cry for his own personal revolution. He brainwashed his followers and inspired them to go on a killing spree and “kill the pigs”. Helter Skelter was scrawled in blood on the walls during the Sharon Tate murders.(8) It is interesting to note that Woodstock and the Manson murders occurred simultaneously.
Although the Vietnam War ground to a halt, politicians continued to lie to the American people about the events in Viet Nam. The hypocrisy displayed by Iran Contra, Ronald Reagan's voodoo economics and bad effects suffered by a society that just, plain and simple, ate too much McDonald's food, led to a radically new trend in music called Punk Rock. Music of the early seventies had stagnated because of such mediocre bands as Styx, Journey and Kansas. The kids were ready for music that protested American Imperialistic Greed, much like the 60's music had done. Disco music came into vogue, and perhaps the most vile disgusting genre of music ever conceived slithered its way onto the American scene. Cocaine rabid, blow dried and polyester clad, these mindless morons, driven by music with such ludicrous titles as “Boogie fever”, “Disco Duck” and “Boogie Oogie Oogie” nauseated everyone with their silly antics. Thus, as a counterbalance to disco's violent mediocrity, Punk rock was born. In 1977 the Sex Pistols released
their first and only album “Never mind the Bollocks, here's the Sex Pistols”. This lead to a “New Wave” of artists in the U.S. and Europe. The Central theme of this music was disdain for popular culture and the call for economic and political reform. Many felt that the society we had created was anti-evolutionary. Bands like Devo questioned whether Homo Sapiens, as a species, was still evolving at all.
From the Nineties to date, Hip Hop music has dominated popular culture. This music is vile and pitiless. It surely signifies the death of popular music as we know it. This genre teaches a basic disrespect to everything that is good and decent. The “style” of these “hip-hoppers” is one of drooping trousers, sports caps with lots of long and gaudy gold chains. Unlike it's predecessors, (jazz, rock and roll, psychedelic music, disco and punk/new wave) this music has no redeeming social value whatsoever, a sad commentary on the social relevance of music in today's modern culture.
Music is and has always been a reflection of the society and culture from which it originates. It would be fair to say that while music has a huge social influence and helps shapes society, society in turn shapes and influences the music. Indeed, they are reflections of one another.