Pop Culture 101 for Pastors: The History of Rock & Roll Part 2

Posted: February 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

By 1959, rock & roll was in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth as nothing more than a post-World War II fad.  The pioneers of rock had all faded away less than 5 years since storming the pop scene: Chuck Berry was in a federal prison, Jerry Lee Lewis had been cast aside due to scandal, Little Richard had entered the ministry, Buddy Holly had died in a plane crash and Elvis was serving a 3-year stint in the army. 

The vacuum created by the disappearance of the giants of the genre was filled with the “wall of sound” pioneered by songwriter & producer Phil Spector (see an example below), the jangly guitars of surf music, the soulful tunes of Motown and the smooth pop ballads of teen idols like Fabian.  While a great deal of this music was memorable, it was all overproduced.  It lacked the raw energy of the big beat of Bill Haley & The Comets that sounded like it could careen out of control at any minute. 

Many adolescents went looking for something more raw and powerful than the pop tunes that were filling the airwaves.  After all, as we noted in the last post, “teens” (as they were now called) were desperately looking for an identity.  For the first time in history, the majority of fathers (and a large percentage of mothers as well) were working away from family farms or businesses.  Children were spending more time in school away from their parents who weren’t anywhere near the home anyway.  The transition greatly increased the angst young adults felt.  A “teen” no longer looked to their parents for vocational training or lived in a large family unit that cared for each other.  Families moved away from each other splintering into small units and even these spent less and less time together.  Teens looked to fill the void and they found rock & roll.

Rock & roll has had a series of “punk” movements, which are short-lived protest against the mainstream, which a significant number feel doesn’t resonate with them anymore.  The first punk movement in rock did not occur in the 1970’s but in the 1950’s.  The first punks were folk artists.

The fall of rocks pioneers and the rise of overproduced ballads and surf music fed the flames of the beat movement in urban areas.  Beatniks were disaffected youth or even members of the “greatest generation” who had discovered ideas like romanticism and Marxism in universities courtesy of the GI Bill.  They found the “American Dream” of a degree, a white-collar job and a place in the mass exodus from the cities to the suburbs to be shallow and unappealing.  In many ways, the beatniks were early hippies.

The beatniks hated the slickly produced top 40 hits that dominated radio and turned instead to jazz, the blues and folk music.  Folk had been the primary genre of protest music during the 1930’s and 1940’s thanks to artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.  Young musicians who stumbled into beatnik coffee bars discovered the simple but powerful songs of minstrels like Guthrie.  Like early rock & roll it was fairly simple to play and to write (it replaced rock & roll’s nonsense catch phrases with romantic stream of consciousness lyrics), which gave it a raw edge to it.  

One of the teens of the 1950’s who latched on to folk was Bob Dylan whose influence on rock & roll cannot be overestimated.  After all, Dylan heavily impacted The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  Both English bands were challenged by Dylan to chuck the cheesy love songs and write tunes that were deeper.  Dylan helped rock & roll mature and he did so by giving it a good, hard kick in the butt.

Yet, in some ways the romantic movement that Dylan sparked was intensely naive.  The idea that music anyone could write or play could usher in a time of peace and love proved to be foolish.  The move also eventually fostered a self-righteousness among artists that would inspire yet another punk movement as musicians seem to drift off into self-absorbed ventures that angered many of their fans.

The history of rock & roll is largely a history of innovation, followed by overproduced, hypermarketed, cookie cutter music, which is challenged by a punk movement that flames out and is replaced by something new which will become overproduced and hypermarked which spawns another punk movement, etc. etc. etc. Consider the 1980’s when metal rose from being the “devil’s music” to ruling the charts to becoming bloated & predictable to being challenged by the punk movement of grunge, which flamed out and was replaced by the innovation of hip-hop artists like Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. 

Christians can learn a great deal from this cycle because it has happened to us as well.  For example, in the 1970’s there was The Jesus People Movement which was raw and had a lot of energy as young Christian hippies hit the streets for God.  This gave way to the “Seeker Sensitive” movement of the 1980’s.  The music which was labeled as “satanic” by some churches was later adopted as a means of praise & worship by these same churches in order to hold on to the aging Jesus People and their kids.  Yet, the music (and preaching) became…well…overproduced, hypermarketed…you get the picture. 

So, you had the Emergent Movement that has produced everyone from Rob Bell to Mark Driscoll.  Many of the leaders of the Emergent Movement were just as naive as the leaders of the folk movement in that they believed their raw, postmodern version of the faith would transform the church into what it had not been since the 1st century.  It didn’t work.  Many of the leaders who were not so naive, like Driscoll, ditched Emergent early to follow a more traditional path with much better results.

Lately the church has seen the rise of a new pack of seeker sensitive leaders like Andy Stanley, Perry Noble, Steven Furtick, etc.  What the Body of Christ needs to learn from the cycle is that polishing things up will deliver a spike in sales for a while but it won’t last.  The rock & roll bands that have lasted, like The Rolling Stones, continue to combine the raw energy of early rock with the deeper content of the folk movement.  Churches that want to last should learn that lesson as well.

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  2. Alex Humphrey says:

    What would you say our folk music/raw energy is?

    • Revolution says:

      That’s a great question because there is very little that is new out there right now. I was listening to Top 40 radio with my wife the other day and we agreed that everything sounded like it could have dropped in the 1980’s without a blink. There is something unique going on, that I will discuss later, where there are pockets of fans of various subgenres (post-hardcore, neo-folk/alt. country, etc.).

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