How did the arrival and popularity of rock n’ roll in the 1950s show a change in the thinking, values, and ideology of American society? What were the impacts on civil rights/race relations,...

How did the arrival and popularity of rock n’ roll in the 1950s show a change in the thinking, values, and ideology of American society?

What were the impacts on civil rights/race relations, ideas of sex, and the fears older generations had?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The emergence of rock n' roll in the 1950s most definitely marked multiple significant cultural transitions.

According to Andy Bennett in the chapter titled "Post-War Youth and Rock 'N' Roll" in his book Cultures of Popular Music (2001), one of those cultural transitions was the shift toward consumerism, specifically among the youth population. After World War II, the US experienced a significant economic boom, paving the way for consumerism to "become a way of life for many sections of society, including the young" (p. 9). Due to the economic boom, the young had their own money and the desire to be independent of their families, making teenagers, for the first time ever, an actual target market.

Beyond making teenagers a target market, consumerism had many significant impacts on society. In particular, consumerism redefined leisure time. Bennett cites Lain Chambers in his book Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture (1987) to argue that leisure time was suddenly no longer seen as "simply a moment of rest and recuperation from work"; instead, consumerism developed leisure time into a life-style in which people used their time "to buy a particular record, to choose a jacket or skirt cut to a particular fashion, to mediate carefully on the colour of your shoes" (as cited in Bennett, p. 10). Hence, the emergence of rock n' roll accompanied and was made possible by the rise of consumerism, which significantly developed the thinking, values, and ideology of American society into those that we see today, with an emphasis on materialism and consumerism.

Beyond the development of materialism and consumerism, the emergence of rock n' roll also significantly impacted social views. According to Bennett, the development of rock n' roll coincided with African-American musicians, and citizens in general, moving out of the South and into areas in the north, like Chicago, in order to escape racial segregation. As the African-American blues musicians migrated, they introduced rhythm and blues to northern disc jockeys, like Alan Freed, and electrified northern music (p. 20). However, the music targeted to white populations was at first much more tame than the music the African-American musicians brought with them from the South. Nevertheless, the white population's move towards embracing African-American music portrayed a shift in values, a rising desire to break racial boundaries.

It was Elvis Presley who single-handedly reached huge milestones in breaking the racial divide. As LaGrange College scholar Marcie Wallace points out in her essay titled "Elvis Presley: A Revolutionist," in quoting Bobbie Ann Mason from her book Elvis Presley: A Life (2007), Presley's music broke divides by managing to merge "disparate strands of blues, country, and gospel into a fiercely dynamic sound" (p. 2). Hence, Presley bridged the racial divide by merging African-American blues and gospel music with country music, which is essentially white folk music. More importantly, we can see that Presley's ability to bridge the racial gap, coupled with the ground-breaking popularity of his music, is representative of American society's shift in values--no longer would many Americans, like Presley, support racism and racial segregation.

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