The 1950s is a decade known for conformity and rebellion among the youth population. For example, children of all ages were expected to be well behaved, always be polite and be nicely dressed. Adults were quite strict and set in their own ways with definite views regarding the young. When they were told to do so something, it was done in a timely manner without question to their elders. On the other hand, as the decade wore on, young people started to voice their own opinions. Following rules, wearing certain clothing styles and listening to different types of music seemed rebellious to the older generations. The introduction of rock and roll music led the way for this “rebelliousness” that energized the youth of this decade.
Before World War II, youth was unheard of. The youth pre-war and during the war helped out the nation by attaining jobs to bring money to their mother while their father was in combat. Higher education was only for a few privileged kids. As you can imagine, teens were constricted to a small amount of freedom, little to no economic power, and practically had zero influence in decisions that were made by anyone older than them. Things started to change and the changes were beneficial for the youth.
Along with the war ending and the baby boomers, the roles of the teenagers changed. Teenagers were now staying in school and having more than one part-time job. Many teens influenced one another from being in school together instead of just working in a factory or the field and learning from their parents.This allowed teens to spend their own money on things they wanted which included entertainment such as music. They attended school dances where they learned new moves and listen to new music. Teens were more prone and encouraged to go attend a higher education and have a successful career in something they love to do. This resulted in more socialization of the youth and earning spending money. Every other generation of youth prior to 1950s generation were more serious and had less fun. Teenagers were expected to work in the factories and or fields getting paid minimum wage because their father was in combat.
Their mother would stay home with the younger siblings and take care of them which leaves the teenagers to work to support the family. Soon after their teenage years, they would get married and bear children of their own. Kids childhood was not as enjoyable or memorable as youth today. Starting in the early 1950s, finally children had fun and got to goof around with their friends. In spite of the new culture that allowed teenagers to make their own decisions, it caused some friction between parent and child. Music was one of the first decision kids made that their parents did not agree with.
Children listened to whatever their parents were listening to until the 1950s when Rock ‘n’ Roll made its debut. Previously before World War II, music was restricted to just the radio and infrequent record buying. Parents usually listened to “white” music which included Tin Pan Alley or genres of music such as swing or polka. Parents loathed the new genre because they thought it was “corrupting” their kids.
There was a theory that the youth of the 1950s was listening to music that was filled with vulgarism and sexual implications just to upset their parents. Numerous parents tried to stop their kids listening to the horrible music by giving those ultimatums but it failed. The adults went to extreme as to try to ban Rock ‘n’ Roll music from radio stations because they were frightened of their children acting and dressing as those musicians. Not only did they fear that but also were afraid of the kids adopting the acts of musicians along with the criminals.
An article from January 22, 1958, titled Trend? St. Louisans Heave of Rock ‘n’ Roll, describes a radio station getting banned from playing rock and roll music.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll has come and gone on radio station KWK. As of yesterday (Mon), the shouts of the frantic ones are now as dead on KWK turntables as the dodo bird. The obsequies were put underway last week when Robert T. Convey, president of KWK, Inc. announced a Record Breaking Week, during which all KWK disk jockeys proclaimed the final playing of the various rock ‘n’ roll platters, then broke the records over the air so the listeners could hear the crunch.
‘I decided on this action,’ said Convey, ‘after conferring with our disk jockeys and finding their complete agreement that rock ‘n’ roll has dominated the popular music field long enough.’
The public apparently agreed with Convey and the jockeys as reactions which poured into the station during the week ran about 5 to one in favor of the ban. What started out three years ago as a musical novelty trend with tunes such as ‘Rock around the Clock’ and ‘Hearts of Stone’ has grown to such proportions as to alienate many adult radio listeners.”
Not all the parents got their way by banning the radio stations from playing the popular genre of music. They could not ban every station and so the kids continued to find ways to listen to it whether it was just one radio station playing it or going to the records or even concert tickets.
Rock ‘n’ Roll was also banned from the jukeboxes at public swimming pools by the city council of San Antonio, Texas. The council disclosed that the music was, “attracted undesirable elements given to practicing their gyrations in abbreviated bathing suits.” In Boston, Massachusetts, a minister disapproved that, “rock and roll inflames and excites youth.” The famous Rock ‘n’ Roll hits by the King of Rock himself sold his albums in recorded high numbers. Music brought teens together in a world that their parents did not want to be a part of and highly condemned.
Media has a big part in the amount of juvenile delinquency that happened in the 1950s. The popularity of music and the amount of times it played are directly proportional to each other. My grandmother, Bubbe, who I mentioned in my smaller written pieces, grew up in the 50s. She said teens were rude at times, secretive, cliquish, gloomy, and defensive. Out of all the things that caused the new generation gap, music was the simple to target.
Rock ‘n’ Roll was well liked to both white teens and black teens. Because Rock ‘n’ Roll has its origins from the African American culture, the “Black music” was hardly played on the radio and was ignored by the white society. However, the white society did not dismiss the genre of music once Elvis came into the picture. It is said that when Elvis made his debut, he transported Rock ‘n’ Roll to white people: more specifically, white teens. The youths were very big buyers of records. Just in the records manufactured in the United States of America alone, teenagers purchased more than 70% of the records by the year 1958. A big Elvis Presley record was named, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, by Sun records.
Since the youth did not have to support their families anymore, whatever money they earned, they kept and used. They not only bought records but also concert tickets and whatever else that was associated with the new popular genre.
It can be said that the young Americans turned away from what the adults in their lives promoted. The adult society advertised conformist ideas. A disc jockey named Alan Freed from Cleveland, Ohio in 1951 noted white teenagers buying and singing to the African American rhythm and blues records. Freed, just one week later, received permission from this station manager to play this type of music on the air. The listeners which the majority if not all were teenagers went nuts for it but Freed expected it. Soon after, white artists started making their own music that derived from the African American rhythms and blues. Eventually the sounds together created a new genre of music called Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The popularity of the new type of music grew rapidly and the songs became ideal to dance to. Lyrics were usually about romance, cars, and miscellaneous themes that voiced to the youth. Artists of this new age of music included Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley and the Comets. Boys and girls were rushing to purchase the newest hits of the rising artists and bands. I cannot mention this genre of music without talking about the King himself. I am talking about Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley was the teenager’s first Rock ‘n’ Roll hero. Presley was born in rural Mississippi but was raised in Memphis. Memphis is the place that held the title of “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He learned how to play guitar and sing by copying the rhythm and blues he heard back during his high school days. By the year 1956, Presley had a record deal, a movie contract, and public appearances on numerous television shows. Ed Sullivan, a television variety show host refused to have or even invite Presley on his show because he thought Rock ‘n’ Roll music was not up to par for a family type of show. Even though his high ratings decreased when his competitor featured Presley, Sullivan was still persistent not having him on his show.
The dark colored hair and good looking King of Rock ‘n’ Roll gained popularity not only due to his music but also his dance moves. As shown below in the video, he would gyrate his hips and dance in sexual ways that would shock many but also appease the crowd of young female girls. He once admitted, “I’m not kidding myself. My voice alone is just an ordinary voice. What people come to see is how I use it. If I stand still while I’m singing, I’m dead, man. I might as well go back to driving a truck.” The way he moved his hips really boosted his popularity which was great for him.
What effect did Rock ‘n’ Roll truly have on the youth? Professor Donald Roberts of Stanford and Professor Peter Christenson of Lewis and Clark College researched the effects of music. The research was for those who were worried about the influences of music. For a parent, the two professors said the key question is not what you actually do but what music you listen to.
Both Professors wrote a book about their findings. Parents who were concerned with sex, violence, and racism in the lyrics of popular music lyrics got some comfort from the book. The authors concluded that music does not seem to have huge negative effects. While it does not have massive effects for all youth, it does seem to be a little dangerous for some.
On average, American youth spend more time listening to music and watching music videos than being social with their friends or even watching television. The authors say,
“Music matters to adolescents, and they cannot be understood without a serious consideration of how it fits into their lives. Music alters and intensifies their moods, furnishes much of their slang, dominates their conversations and provides the ambiance at their social gatherings. Music styles define the crowds and cliques they run in. Music personalities provide models for how they act and dress. Such consequences may not spring as quickly to mind as sex and violence, but they may ultimately play just as crucial a role in adolescent development.”
Many scholars have thought the central media influence came from television but adolescents more time and more passion into music.
The majority of the adolescents use music to control their mood and boost their emotional states. Some songs actually change a person’s bad mood into a good mood. It allows us to escape the bad one and to work through it. At the same time music can be used to enlarge bad moods. This has caused some people to believe that music lyrics has a connection to troubled youth committing suicide or violent crimes. Lyrics specifically about suicide and violence against women have sometimes led to the troubled youth doing such things. The authors added in a study and this what they said, “In one study, a heavy metal devotee reported that he loved the music because it put him in a ‘good mood,’ by which he meant a mood conducive to smashing mailboxes with bricks,” the authors report. “Another said hardcore metal put him in the mood to ‘go beat the crap out of someone.’ “Evidence shows that music is more inclined to excite listeners rather than unexciting or soothe them out. The youth used and still use music to retreat from social contact or interaction in the intention to assist the progress of making friendships and making a personal identity.
Rock ‘n’ Roll has history just like anything and over the past thirty plus years, only one thing has changed. Parents are not fearful nor offended when it comes to their child listening to such music. Finally the genre has been accepted by our society even though Rock ‘n’ Rollers are still trying to keep the shocks coming.
As you can see, roles for teenagers changed during the 1950s. They were able to enjoy their youth because the United States had recovered from World War II. Instead of the focus being on work and the ravages of war, they were listening to music, going to the movies and simply being young. The tone of 1950s music sparked a rebellious side in teenagers regarding their societal behavior and adults. It would be hard not to catch the “Rock ‘n’ Roll fever” of that day given the combination of beats, lyrics and dance moves.
Cox, Erika. “Teenage Life in the 1950’s – Fifties – The 1950s.” Teenage Life in the 1950’s – Fifties
O’Callaghan, Fr. Paul. “ROCK ‘N’ ROLL, SATANISM, AND OUR CHILDREN.” Word Magazine, October 1, 1988, 5-6. Accessed April 16, 2015.
O’Toole, Kathleen. “Rock & Roll: Does It Influence Teens’ Behavior?” Stanford University, November 12, 1997. Accessed April 18, 2015.
“Popular Culture of the 1950s.” Http://admin.bhbl.neric.org/. Accessed April 19, 2015.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll/Teen Rebels.” Youth Culture in the 1950s. February 20, 2012. Accessed April 17, 2015.
“Rock N’ Roll in the Press.” Umsl.edu. Accessed April 19, 2015.
“The Teenagers.” History-of-Rock. Accessed April 17, 2015.
“Youth Culture and Rock and Roll Growth of the Youth Culture ..” hrsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca. Accessed April 17, 2015.
Bailey(Published 4/22/15; Revised 4/28/15)
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