Music can help people in times of trouble; as a soundtrack to their lives, it has the power to change them. In his book All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America, Glenn Altschuler tells a story of how the ‘1950s rock ’n’ roll craze changed the American society by transforming its social structure as well as cultural norms. Altschuler explores the way the phenomenon influenced race and gender dynamics, the pop music industry, and the society’s views on teenage sexuality. The author is a historian holding a teaching position at Cornell University; among his other works are books on the alumni and history of the institution.
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The book’s opening chapter deals with the society’s reaction to the established order and norms being overturned. In the postwar America, with its backyard bunkers and the “crusade against Communism” in the era of great economic prosperity, parents expected their children to live just as they did while pursuing the American Dream (Shi and Brown Tindall par. 4). Therefore, the explosion of rock ’n’ roll rebellion caused a widespread moral panic, with artists and disk jockeys banned from the radio and performances canceled. Psychologists were comparing the craze to a medieval “epidemic of dance fury” (The New York Times, Saturday February 23, 1957 5).
The politicians condemned it as a “conspiracy to ruin the morals of a generation of Americans” (Altschuler 6). The music industry tried to whitewash its rhythm and blues roots by recruiting singers such as Elvis and Pat Boone to record milder covers of songs originally sung by Black performers. Americans viewed the emergent civil Rights movement “dedicated to desegregation and true racial equality” with anxiety and saw the new musical style as an attempt to overthrow the fundamentals of American society (Shi and Brown Tindall par. 9). Therefore, rock ’n’ roll was seen as promoting junior delinquency, improper behavior, and overall non-conformism; the older generations were aghast as the phenomenon spread like wildfire.
The next chapter is concerned with the way rock ’n’ roll influenced race relations, bringing visibility to struggles over racial identity and economic inequalities. After the II World War, migration of African Americans from the South to other regions of America “gave added impetus to the efforts to end racial segregation” (Shi and Brown Tindall par.8). This “new political dynamics” was not readily accepted by society (Shi and Brown Tindall par.8). The opponents of segregation viewed the “violent mayhem” of the music as a proof of the supposed savageness of Black people, while deeply religious Black fans were cautious over the overtly sexual themes of certain songs (The New York Times, Saturday February 23, 1957 5). Energetic performances by Black artists were perceived as primeval and depraved; older generations were appalled that the teenagers adored performers like Little Richard, LaVern Baker, and Fats Domino, and African American musicians were prevented from playing live shows. On the other hand, Nat King Cole, active in the Civil Rights movement, was harshly criticized by members of own race for appearing before all-white “Jim Crow audiences” (Altschuler 41). Nevertheless, rock ’n’ roll broke racial barriers as teenagers socialized at dances and brought economic benefits to Black artists in spite of the industry’s efforts.
In the third chapter, the author explains how rock ’n’ roll created an environment in which the traditional moral codes on sexuality were challenged and changed. From the suggestive movements Elvis made while performing on television to the explicitness of certain lyrics, such as the infamous original ones to “Tutti Frutti,” the taboos were broken. It was claimed that even the “prehistoric rhythmic trance” nature of the dance was beyond the acceptable (The New York Times, Saturday February 23, 1957 5). However, a TV show American Bandstand, a “weekday afternoon habit for millions of American teenagers,” presented a tamer vision helping the society see teenage behavior in a more positive way (Altschuler 85). Rock ’n’ roll presented teenage sexuality and pre-marital sex as normal and gave teens opportunities to show their individuality and experience joy from life, as it “set sexuality in a context of love” (Altschuler 67).
The next chapter explores how the older generation, initially unwilling to surrender their economic power, gradually transferred it to the younger one. The postwar America “yearned for peace and stability,” therefore, the parents of rock ’n’ roll fans saw their children’s desires for immediate gratification as irrational (Shi and Brown Tindall par. 1). These children wanted to have the economic ability to purchase records and memorabilia, and the industry saw its chance at increasing their parents’ spending, making use of the “thriving economy” (Shi and Brown Tindall par.1). The increased media visibility of genre stars created new clothing trends as well; exposed to all these changes, the older generation was forced to accept the “modes of conduct, the tastes and concepts of living” of the younger one (Altschuler 111).
The remainder of the book deals with the fight of the new music trend for its place in pop culture and its enduring popularity among people of all generations. Focusing on the flamboyant persona of Alan Freed, a pioneering disk jockey convicted for bribery and tax evasion as a way to remove him from the industry, the author states that Freed “gave rock ’n’ roll its name – and was its most famous casualty” (Altschuler 22). Freed died in 1965 in poverty, but his legacy lives on. His opponent, a better-connected Dick Clark, presented a more sanitized view of the genre phenomenon, contributing to its greater popularity.
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It is alleged that Clark avoided a conviction due to his friendship with the prominent industry figures of the era. However, before the Beatles appeared on the scene, rock music entered a lull as other genres dominated the sound waves; moreover, essential artists were absent from the scene. Elvis Presley was stationed in Germany serving in the US Army; Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were dead, and several prominent musicians were imprisoned. Nevertheless, rock ’n’ roll survived; the music was a vital part of the ‘1960s counterculture youth rebellion, and, in the form of punk rock, a soundtrack to the economic hardships of the 1970s. As evidenced by the career of Bruce Springsteen, this music still holds its place in the hearts and minds of generations of Americans.
When rock ’n’ roll emerged as a teenage craze, critics and even industry figures predicted its swift demise. However, the genre transcended music, and, as social and cultural phenomena, shaped the America we see today. Altschuler presents a compelling view on how this music brought about changes in racial relations, cultural norms and economic power balance in the postwar society. One can safely say, that without rock ’n’ roll Americans would not be the people they are today.
Altschuler, Glenn C. All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Shi, David E., and George Brown Tindall. America: The Essential Learning Edition. One-Volume. Kindle ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.