Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Rock music and American pop counterculture

From the early origins of rock and roll, to the age of rebellion, to modern fads...
Popular culture and entertainment have always served something people could copy — whether that thing is a lifestyle, a drink, or a hair style. The Beatles were idolized and modeled by Western youth in the 1960s. Fonzie in the American TV show Happy Days provided a role model for many of that generation. He was cool; people wanted to be like him. Jennifer Aniston's character's hairstyle in Friends was copied enough for it to earn its own place in American fashion: "The Rachel". American pop culture has served as a promoter of turning points in American culture.

Pop culture — the widespread appeal of modern or radical cultural elements in a society — seemed to flourish in the 1960s in the form of art, just as being a rebel (i.e. counterculture) seemed like the cool thing to do. It's important to note that like many phrases, pop culture has various definitions believed by various people. A pop culture reader, Common Culture, defines pop culture as

the shared knowledge and practices of a specific group at a specific time...pop culture both reflects and influences people's way of life...pop culture is transitory, subject to change, and often an initiator of change.

Rebellion is a common theme in modern pop culture, especially in regards to music. Punk and its early rock predecessors created a lifestyle in the style of its music. Art has always been a good measurement of a society's openness, its cultural diversity, and even its political feelings. Just as punk music rocked to the voices of angst and rebellion, and the more recent emo movement has played to the (intentionally) depressed, hip-hop and rap saw their beginnings in African Americans venting against the white foundation of the United States. Dr. Dre's (et al) "Fuck the Police", Public Enemy's "Fight the Power", and, in modern rap, "Ridin' [Dirty]" have served as an outlet against a real or perceived oppressor — it's time to stand up, to rebel.

Punk rock was brought to the US in great part by the many great rock bands of the United Kingdom. Bob Dylan's pop-folk became legendary and lasted decades; Elvis Presley's individual popularity saw the role of rock and roll music in pop culture exemplified with his country and blues "rockabilly" (1950s); The Beatles brought pop and rock in general to the United States from Britain (1960s); the Rolling Stones paved the way for more blues and rock and roll (1960s-'70s); David Bowie, the 'chameleon' of rock, was especially influential in the 1970s; the Sex Pistols rocked in a purely punk fashion (1970s); Pink Floyd ushered in progressive rock (1970s) and Led Zeppelin hard rock and heavy metal (1960s-'70s); Queen created an explosion in glam, arena, and hard/progressive rock (1970s-'80s); Nirvana's grunge rock brought in an era of its own in the '90s. Most of the aforementioned came from the UK, a common trend in the history of rock, especially punk.

Especially in their beginnings, movies also served as great pioneers in change of culture and opinion. Though Hollywood didn't used to be so 'liberal' as it is today, movies and television did break down a good many of taboos. But the real counterculture movement rested in the hands of the music industry, with many of the artists introducing pop rock, punk, etc., to our borders coming from Britain. The roots of rock rest in the US though, thanks in part to the great racism against blacks in the US. Such racism also later resulted in hip-hop and rap music from mostly-black urban inter-city areas. Jazz and blues were the predecessors to rock. Scott Joplin in 1899 published a very important composition, "The Maple Leaf Rag", that would come to usher in an age of jazz by boosting the genre of ragtime. Jazz became particularly prevalent in the 1920s and '30s. Ray Charles influenced soul, and thus rock, in the '50s. Motown and soul, which branched off from early jazz in a separate direction than rock, grew in the 1950s and '60s. The early rock and roll innovators bridged what was then experimental and classical music into pop rock.
As rock became more prevalent on American airwaves and in its culture, more bands came and more branches of rock were creates. There are some who believe that rock in general is a force to use to fight against 'the man', just as Public Enemy fought 'the power'. There have often been "rock against..." movements — like "Rock Against Bush" or "Rock Against Racism". Charity events like Live Aid use rock music for a reason: it is often seen as the music of change. It's also popular and culturally influential. And how much many punk rebels want others to think of them as a small, distant, underground minority, punk and related forms of rock have entered the veins of American music, with political and cultural venting galore, and mainstream appeal. Alternative rock, hard rock, progressive rock, psychedelic, and punk rock all express in their music a means of change from the status quo, a rebellion of sorts also seen in some urban music (e.g. rap, hip-hop).

1970s punk rock helped build alternative rock, which was more of a culmination of various rock genres, including electronic, folk, and jazz, and indie music. Alternative rock resulted in more forms of indie, as well as grunge, Britpop, and post-punk. Marginalized in the 1980s, alternative saw its true calling in the '90s and the beginning of the next millennium. All Music Guide states:
Alternative pop/rock is essentially a catch-all term for post-punk bands from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s. There is a multitude of musical styles within alternative rock, from the sweet melodies of jangle-pop to the disturbing metallic grind of industrial, yet are all tied together by a similar aesthetic -- they all existed and operated outside [sic] of the mainstream.

What effects on the fabric of pop culture in the United States have rebellious music reaped? The 1960s and '70s saw the real formation of modern (post Second World War) counterculture. Counterculture is the political opposition of the current mainstream by a cultural group creating a movement for a period of time. There have been many times of counterculture prevalence, but possibly none so influential, rebellious, and liberal as the counterculture of the modern era. This counterculture was spread throughout developed nations (i.e. North America, Western Europe, New Zealand, Australia) by the rebel youth largely of the Baby Boom.

Hippies were the main group of US counterculture, as opposition to the Vietnam war grew, sex, drugs, and other moral issues became less taboo (within that cultural group), and the conservative politics and culture seemed too restricting, especially in terms of civil rights (segregation) and governmental powers during the Cold War. Briefly put, counterculture of that time period brought about change by those in wealthy, educated nations. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and non-musical figures like Andy Warhol, played large roles in this movement. Nowadays, hippies are almost nonexistent, emphasizing the place of pop-counterculture in specific period of time, and not a more evolving, drawn out phenomenon like general culture.
Just as counterculture is a wider movement, rebellion can be large or small in scale. Rebels or pseudo-rebels popped up during and after the counterculture that lasted from roughly 1965 to 1978 in the United States. Punks and indies are seen as the more mainstream survivors or evolution of the counterculture movement. Any sort of rebellious movement has fought conformity, the establishment, and the social status quo — e.g. embracing communism throughout the Cold War, opposing the Iraq war today. The main timeframe where counterculture wasn't a subculture was in its 20th century, post-WWII heyday.

There is no doubt there will be future punk manifestations in the now-postmodern art era. However, it is unlikely we will see another era of hippies, music revolutionaries, and a shift in nearly every form of Western art and culture anytime soon. Who will be the next Beatles, the next Warhol, or the next Sex Pistols? Pop culture will evolve just as art does in one sense and society in another. The anti-establishment voices in music and entertainment will continue to cry out — as long as there is an establishment or movement to fight against.

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