America in the Fifties was a sunny, optimistic place. A survey indicated that the most pressing problems in American schools in 1950 were talking, chewing gum, making noise and running in the halls. Americans were becoming affluent, and many families were able to purchase their own homes—with two cars in the garage. Television came into being, providing entertainment for everyone.
The most popular American singer in 1953 was Perry Como. He had hit records, his own TV show, and was admired for his amiability, stability, and warm, easy-going personality. When he sang, he stood perfectly still. One year later, Bill Haley was “Rocking Around the Clock,” and shortly thereafter performers such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were moving and shaking with an intensity unimaginable a few years before.
This Chapter introduces a central theme of this Book: That the world we live in today grew out of the explosion of the “great ball of fire” in 1955. Rock and roll introduced a new mode of consciousness into American society. We shall trace the evolution of this mode of consciousness. Rock and roll expressed a more energetic experience of the body, as well as a more intense, physical approach to women and romance.
The Four Aces called love “a many splendored thing”—comparing it to “an April Rose.” Shirley sang to Lee: “When you touch my lips, oh what a thrill I get.” Elvis Presley was known in the Fifties, not as “the king,” but as “Elvis the pelvis” for the way he shook his hips. Rock and roll revealed a more intense experience of the body than hitherto had been known in American life, beginning a process of releasing excitement and bodily energies into society.
This Chapter shows how early rock and roll was about energy, movement, and fun—expressed through the vehicle of dancing. Rock and roll represented a rebellion against the blandness of the Fifties, depicting a more intense experience of life. Some critics, however, saw something dark within the music.
As rock and roll was “beating its way into the national consciousness,” many condemned it, connecting it with rioting (that sometimes occurred at live performances), juvenile delinquency, and the breakdown of morality. The magazine Music Journal in 1958 saw rock and roll as a “definite threat to civilization.” Teens listening to the music were
influenced in their lawlessness by this throwback to jungle rhythms. Either it actually stirs them to orgies of sex and violence, or they use it as an excuse for the removal of all inhibitions and the complete disregard of the conventions of decency.
To teen-agers of the Fifties, looking for some old-fashioned, all-American “fun,” such statements seemed outlandish. The perceptions of critics, however, were prophetic. This Chapter will show how early rock and roll consciousness evolved into the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” of the Sixties and Seventies.
Gay Talese observed that before the publication of Playboy Magazine in 1953, few American men had ever seen a color photograph of a nude woman. A 1955 Gallup poll found that 55% of men and 73% of women disapproved of “Women wearing Bermuda shorts in the street.”
In Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler concluded that the central characteristic of American literature was that our great novelists tend to “avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and a woman.” Fiedler suggested that the “odd shape” of American fiction was only what one could expect, given the nature of American life: “Because there is no real sexuality in American life, therefore there cannot very well be any in American art.”
This book proposes to answer the question, “How did Americans get to be who and what we are today,” transforming from a sexually repressed and inhibited society—to one in which blatant displays of sexuality in all forms are part and parcel of everyday life.