In the spring of 1985, a group of politically connected women, including the wives of then-Secretary of the Treasury James Baker III and Senator Albert Gore, Jr., distributed an open letter to the media, parents, and the general American public calling for a campaign to clean up rock music.
"Rock music," they wrote, "has become pornographic and sexually explicit, but most parents are unaware of the words their children are listening to, dancing to, doing homework to, falling asleep to." The letter, which cited several artists including Prince and Judas Priest, continued, "Some rock groups advocate satanic rituals, the other sings of open rebellion against parental and other authority, others sing of killing babies."blank">blues tunes—that were considered taboo, dangerous, and vulgar, so too would teens after 1985, curious and tantalized by what they "weren't supposed to hear," find ways to get a hold of music labeled "explicit."
The white youth of the 1950s weren't all that crazy about the safe, easy-listening, buttoned-up pop music their parents enjoyed. Balladeers like Perry Como sang stuff like:
And I love you so
The people ask me how
How I've lived 'til now
I tell them I don't know
And that did little to arouse excitement. Teens perceived pop hits like Eileen Barton's "If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd've Baked a Cake" as nauseating, and crooners like Patti Page who asked "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" left teenagers bored, seeking something far more titillating.
Jimmy Boyd's holiday smash, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," might've had potential had the song not really been about a naïve child catching his parents in a Christmas-themed embrace. '50s pop spoke to adults, and in some cases, young children—not quite the stuff teens wanted to hear at school dances, listen to in their cars, or have as their soundtrack to after-school soda shop dates.
By comparison, Black pop was raunchy, unrestrained, rowdy, and even revolutionary. What was categorized by the record industry as "race music" stood as a powerful cultural alternative to the tight-lipped, conformist values that marked the first decade of the Cold War.
With the postwar economic boom came a new era in radio broadcasting. With greater competition, national radio networks gave way to a horde of new independent, locally-based stations hosting a variety of entertainment programs. Many of these were Black-owned and operated, or at least hired Black disc jockeys to meet local demand for shows featuring "race music." And audiences—primarily Black—couldn't get enough. The discriminating tastes of Blacks in cities and towns throughout the country helped determine what many local radio disc jockeys offered up.
White teens turning the dial on their radios came across tunes that sounded nothing at all like their parents' records. What they heard thrilled their senses and aroused their imaginations.
Chuck Berry begged and pleaded on "Maybelline," howling along with his ferocious guitar licks:
Why can't you be true
You done started doing the things you use to do
On their steamy song "Seventeen," Boyd Bennett and His Rockets hollered the lines:
Cool and solid seventeen
Young enough to dance and sing
Old enough to get that swing
To a fast-paced, syncopated beat, Bill Haley sang, "We're gonna rock around the clock tonight." And a sultry singer named Elvis Presley oozed sex appeal on a bluesy number called, "That's All Right Mama." These energetic, spontaneous, and sexy singers spoke to the young generation in ways that no squeaky-clean pop music could have. It offered them unique rhythms, cutting edge styles, and modern attitudes to enjoy and, ultimately, to emulate.
Black pop music also reflected major social and cultural changes brought on by postwar urbanization, including youthful rebellion. By contrast, white pop music had ignored or watered down these transformations. Cold War youth, inspired by nonconformist icons like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Natalie Wood, naturally gravitated toward the more edgy Black tunes, songs they felt spoke to their frustrations.
These young whites made Black music their own by learning the dances, memorizing the slang, and copying the cool swagger of African-American boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues artists. They claimed as their own a genre scorned by most whites born before World War II—and by some middle and upper-class Blacks—as "jungle music" for its sexually aggressive lyrics that seemed to encourage wild, disgraceful dancing, excessive drinking, and violent behavior.
What had been, in Black pop music, slang for having sex, became the name for a new, salacious musical genre.
Innovation in audio technology, new instruments, fresh talent, business savvy record producers, and a young population of new consumers created by postwar economic prosperity helped turn "race music" into "rock and roll."
Until the 1980s, few women claimed the rock and roll stage, and only a handful recorded memorable albums. Janis Joplin, perhaps still the reigning queen of rock, had one of the most exciting—and most tragic—careers in rock. As the raspy-toned lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, and later as a solo artist, Joplin delivered legendary rock classics like "Piece of My Heart," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," "Move Over," and "Summertime."
Grace Slick, a singer-songwriter and classically trained musician, helped launch the band Jefferson Airplane to commercial success with such hits as "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit." With Slick's good looks and dynamic stage presence, the band earned international exposure and by 1967, had become one of the highest-paid rock groups in America.
In the 1970s, vocalist and songwriter Stevie Nicks gave the group Fleetwood Mac its signature sound, transforming it from an average band to one of the biggest selling rock groups in history.
But few other women left their mark in the 1960s and 1970s, during the early, formative years of rock's development.
The answers to these question aren't as simple as they might seem.
In fact, it's difficult to determine just how crucial women have been in the development of rock and roll, and it's certainly impossible to know what the music would sound—and look—like had women never become involved as either singers, songwriters, musicians, or fans.
Women, of course, have filled all these roles and asserted themselves in various and complex ways in rock and roll culture. All along the way, they've negotiated obstacles, like sexual aggression, exploitation, unfair pay, condescension, and exclusion. And they've also risen to the many challenges facing any performing musician, fighting to win over bandmates, audiences, and critics.
"Rock and roll is hard work," punk-rock singer Patti Smith explained in an interview in 1977, "it's harder than being in the army. And your guitar is your machine gun; tour instruments are your implements of battle." (Source)
Many of the earliest women to pursue a rock career did engage in a sort of war, sometimes against skeptics or other rock artists, often against society and cultural norms, and at times, they engaged in a war with themselves. Janis Joplin, the first white female rock star, fought each of these battles, and didn't always win.
"Who's got the biggest balls?" Joplin asked her band who were discussing who should drive their car from the recording studio. "I do," she answered. (Source)
That was her way: to beat the boys at their own game, to be the toughest, the boldest, to cuss the loudest, drink and smoke the most, love the meanest, and, most importantly, to rock the hardest. She threw herself into drug and alcohol binges, chaotic relationships, and incredibly explosive stage performances. And somewhere along the way, her friends say, she lost her sense of herself, and that's where it all ended for the goddess of the counter-culture. On October 4th, 1970, Janis Joplin was discovered in her room in the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, dead of a heroin overdose.
"Sexism killed [Janis]," Joplin's one-time lover Country Joe McDonald said of her end. "People kept saying that she was just 'one of the guys.'" That was a mistake, he said, "'cause that was f----n' her head around. [...] She was one of the women." (Source)
Grace Slick also struggled to define herself in the 1960s, a period she called the "sensual revolution." A middle-class, college-educated model from Chicago, Slick transformed herself in San Francisco's world of sex, drugs, and psychedelic rock. But unlike Joplin, who often felt crushed by her chaotic lifestyle, Slick was along for the ride, and she was unwilling to let anything or anyone ruin her fun:
"It wasn't like peace and love kinda stuff," Slick remembered, "it was, 'Let's make music and screw around instead of making war.' To a certain extent, it was pretty arrogant and it was also the hedonism thing that said, 'If you get in the way of my fun, f--k you.'" (Source)
Jefferson Airplane's first album featuring Slick, entitled Surrealistic Pillow, hit the charts in 1967 and made the band a "Summer of Love" sensation. By the mid 1970s, however, Slick had left the band for another group, Jefferson Starship. She and Starship managed to rack up several Top Ten hits in the 1980s, most notably "Sara" and "We Built This City (On Rock & Roll)," which, incidently, would become a karaoke favorite and for many rock fans, the bane of their existence.
Slick managed to survive what Joplin had found to be the physically and psychologically destructiveness of rebellion, sexual experimentation, and drug abuse. She also managed to maintain a sense of herself as a woman without allowing that to destroy her. But she was one of the lucky ones.
Women, especially in the first decades of rock's development, were pressured to stay "in their place," much the way post-World War II middle-class housewives were confined to traditional roles in the home.
And really, that's quite odd for a music culture that emerged as a reaction to the rigid boundaries of the 1950s.
"Despite its radical beginnings," writer Lucy O'Brien comments, "the codes of mainstream rock are maybe too conservative, too rigorously male-defined for a woman to find a comfortable place." (Source)
The fact is, rock and roll has never been an exclusively male venture. In the beginning, it may have seemed that way, but with each decade more women, inspired by those who rocked early and often, like Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Patti Smith, Grace Slick, Joan Jett, and Stevie Nicks, took up the pen, or the mic, the guitar, or the drumsticks, and little by little, rock and roll gained its feminine perspective.
"I'm glad there's a lot of babes doing this s--t," Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of the Pretenders, told Rolling Stone magazine in 1994, "because it's kind of lonely out there."
Throughout the end of the 20th century, rock—like the blues and jazz before it, and hip-hop and reggae/dancehall after it—remained a male-dominated genre of music, but women emerged as an undeniable and powerful force in the studio and on the stage.
For a culture obsessed with the threat of foreign conspirators, plagued by a fear of economic relapse, and still deeply uncomfortable with race mixing, open rebellion of any kind spelled danger, and perhaps even the beginning of the end of postwar prosperity.
Aggressive and outspoken teens posed a particular problem for parents who worried that their children might pose a danger to themselves and to a fragile American society. These parents found no comfort in the rough-edged, blue-jean-wearing, chain-smoking teenage character portrayed by actor James Dean in the 1955 hit Hollywood film Rebel Without a Cause.
In the film, 17-year-old Jim Stark, played by Dean, frequently drinks, acts up in school, and challenges his parents, particularly his father, Frank Stark. His love interest is a young girl, Judy, a member of a gang who, like Jim, is often involved in confrontations with her parents and the police. The two befriend 15-year-old Plato, another troubled kid seeking meaning in his life and finding solace only in resisting his mother's authority.
All three characters are plagued by anger, disappointment, and loneliness—and they blame their parents for all of it.
In one particularly pivotal scene, the young Jim Stark carefully asks his father, Frank, for advice. "Suppose you had to do something, you had to go someplace and do this thing that was, you knew it was very dangerous, but it was a matter of honor, and you had to prove it," he says. "What would you do?"
Mr. Stark grills his teenage son on the details, wondering exactly what kind of "trouble" Jim has gotten himself into. He demands he be sensible. "I wouldn't make a hasty decision. Nobody can make a snap decision. We've got to consider the pros and cons. We'll get some paper and we'll make a list, and if we're still stuck, we'll get advice," he rambles, urgently.
Frustrated with his father's poor response, Jim seeks a more direct answer. "What can you do when you have to be a man?"
"Listen," Frank begins in an attempt to calm the boy and keep him in line, "you're at wonderful age. In ten years, you'll look back on this, and then wish that..."
"Ten years," Jim responds, noticeably disappointed and, now, directly challenging his father. "I want it now, I want an answer now. I need one."
Sensing the worst, Frank attempts once more to pull his son back from whatever it is he's planned to do. "Listen, Jimbo, I'm just trying to show you how foolish you are. When you're older, you'll look back at this, and you'll, well, you'll laugh at yourself, for thinking that this is so important. It's not as if you are alone. This has happened to everybody. It happened to me when I was your age, maybe a year older."
Jim stops listening because his father, he realizes, only pretends to understand him. He realizes he is alone and must make his decision without his father's guidance. And so, he heads to a strip of road where he and his nemesis, the bully Buzz Gunderson, will race cars toward the edge of a cliff to determine who's a "chicken."
A parent's worst nightmare? Perhaps.
For some, Rebel Without a Cause was a frightening tale about American youth—disillusioned, disrespectful, and destructive. The film presented middle-class 1950s teens, however, with a role model in the cool Jim Stark, a recluse with a tough exterior, a kind heart, and the weight of the world on his shoulders. Jim's character confirmed the notion that they were significantly different from their parents and couldn't depend on them for guidance. Their authority figures, like Frank Stark, failed to take them seriously and cared only to confine them to a safe, practical—read: boring—life.
James Dean and his character Jim Stark proved to them that only by resisting conformity could one find happiness, romance, and meaning. These teens craved risk, spontaneity, lust, and adventure. All of it, preferably, without the approval of their parents, teachers, or clergymen.
Rock and roll music spoke to them in a way that no '40s and '50s-era pop music could. It offered young people alternatives to traditional rhythms, dances, words, styles, values, and attitudes. And teens equipped with spending money (employment rates for young people in the years following World War II remained high until the 1970s), cars, and transistor radios, it presented an accessible form of secret entertainment—the kind that could be enjoyed in the company of other teens and far from the eyes and ears of adults who might object.
It's no wonder that James Dean's character from Rebel Without a Cause remains to this day a symbol of '50s-era rock and roll youth culture, a generation that perceived itself as misunderstood, misled, and in need of something, some tradition they could call their own. The popularity of the film in the mid-'50s attests to the deep relationship between authority and rebellion in post-World War II America—a relationship that helped speed the rise of rock and roll music.
Rock and roll's most enduring characteristic is its allure for youth.
In its earliest incarnations as rhythm and blues and boogie woogie, the music seduced young people who sought something more spontaneous, aggressive, and sexual than the entertainment enjoyed by their parents' generation. Disc jockeys, record labels, and concert promoters capitalized on this demand, giving young people everything they desired.
White, middle-class teens that filled the sprawling postwar suburbs had the expendable income to purchase the records and the concert tickets these entrepreneurs offered, and so helped drive a burgeoning rock and roll industry.
In recent decades, "rock and roll" has become an increasingly lucrative venture, and not only for DJs, record labels, concert promoters, and the few who've attained "rock star" status. Advertisers have successfully utilized it to sell everything from cars to nail polish.
Television network executives, filmmakers, authors, concert promoters, playwrights, nightclub proprietors, restaurateurs, and fashion designers have channeled the spirit of the music in order to titillate consumers across the globe.
The Hard Rock Café, for example, is perhaps one of the best examples of a business that has profited through the use of rock and roll culture. Its many restaurants, hotels, and casinos, which feature rock memorabilia in display cases and often host autograph signings and live performances, are located in cities all across the globe, from San Francisco, California to Osaka, Japan.
Rock and roll has seeped into mainstream culture. Resistance from religious organizations, parents' groups, and political figures has failed to prevent rock from becoming commonplace. Today, "rock and roll" refers not only to a variety of musical styles, including punk, progressive, alternative, glam, metal, and emo, but also—perhaps more ambiguously—to fashion, slang, art, and even food.
It's become so prevalent in pop culture that the average person has become desensitized to it, a far cry from the days when teens hid their Rolling Stones records from their parents.
For some, this is all a sort of travesty. Rock and roll, once a force of resistance against mainstream society, has been tamed, watered down and sold to the highest bidder. Perhaps the fate of rock isn't unlike the fate of most forms of rebellion in the United States—its power to move people has been harnessed and tamed in order to make it marketable.
It may also be that with each new generation, the definitions of "resistance" and "rebellion" change. Many of the things that shocked people in the mid-1950s would earn no more than a raised eyebrow today, and the kind of music that's meaningful to a fan of rock today may not be quite the same for a rock fan 50 years ago. It may also be that in some ways, rock and roll—its artists and its fans—have triumphed in turning a taboo form of art into a global infatuation.
The invention of the electric guitar, an instrument that could produce the kind—and amount—of volume necessary to match a band's horn, was key to the development of the rock sound. Specifically, the solid-body guitar created by radio repairman Leo Fender, took strumming to a whole new level.
First, Fender's model was louder than any of the original versions of electric guitars. Second, it sounded cleaner and more controlled than the harsh tones produced before. Third, and most importantly, the Fender electric guitar, with its simple design and easy assembly, could be cheaply produced, and therefore, sold at a far lower price than any other electric guitar on the market.
By the mid-1950s, several companies were distributing a variety of good quality, relatively inexpensive—and loud—electric guitars and bass guitars. These innovations transformed the sound of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues music from which rock and roll derived, and would later come to represent the most recognizable tool of the rock trade.
But it wasn't just the medium through which people learned about rock and roll. For rock to become a national—and international—phenomenon as quickly as it did, and for the sound of these wicked new instruments to reach the ears of teens everywhere, another crucial invention would be needed.
The invention of the small, portable radio made it all the more possible for young people—especially young white teens—to enjoy the sizzling new tunes served up by local disc jockeys with an ear for innovative sound, largely rhythm and blues-inspired tunes with howling guitar licks and sensual lyrics.
And so, at least for America's young white masses, rock and roll began as a steamy, forbidden pleasure, one enjoyed against the wishes of parents, teachers, ministers and other authority figures. Rock and roll was a drug, the disc jockey was the pusher, and young America had to get its fix. It's no wonder this music phenomenon spread so rapidly.