Rock the politics

Publié le par PEG                            

Rock the politics !

Phil Ochs:« We’re trying to crystallize the thoughts of young people who have stopped accepting things the way they are. Young people are disillusioned; we want to reinforce their disillusionment so they’ll get more involved and do something-not out of a general sense of rebellion, but out of a real concern for what happening-or not happening.” [1]. It is widely admitted that music was a key plateform of contestation during the 1960s. However, rare or even inexistent are the studies comparing countries at this period to understand and see the differences between the countries and their reasons, but also to underline and explain the common trends relating these countries.

This vacuity in the literature about rock is particularly deep about the first part of the 1960s (the period 1968 and 1969, with May 1968 in France and Woodstock is better known).

Moreover, this period allow to concentrate  on the gestation of the political contest and its music applications in 68. And in the next period, progressively the protest songs tend to disappear with the widely commercialization.

To pursue our study, we have decided to focus on three western countries which share at that time a strong proximity in reason among other things of the cold war. But they have also great differences linked to their particular and singular histories that distinguish each of them from the others. But what about protesting rock?

Rock music qualifies a genre of popular music that entered the mainstream in the 1950s. It has its roots in 1940s and 1950s rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country music and also drew on folk music, jazz and classical music. So in reasons of this diversity of roots, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish rock from these other genres. Moreover, rock is a big cathedral, and we can find a lot of chapels inside. For our period the 1960s, (before 1968), we will see that rock can be divided in some genres such as folk rock (with the “folk revival”) and blues rock (Hendrix, Joplin).

Obviously, this topic ask the epistemological question of what is a protesting  song? For Deena Weinstein: “Broadly speaking, the protest in protest songs means an opposition to a policy, an action against the people in power that is grounded in a sense of injustice”[2]. But, for us and we will argue that point later , protest could also present other ways of expression and so we will also take into account the songs contesting not only a policy or the political power, but also songs questioning the social order and authority.

Moreover, if contestation is very clear in some songs (Baez, Dylan), some others are not explicitly contesting or written in this sense (and it is why we will comment some songs in our study). So it is necessary to draw and analyse the political and social context of the sixties to understand what was really contestating. Particularly, the contesting aspects will change in reason of the differences between our countries, and it is what we will try to show.

The subject involves also reflections about the sets of scales and the cultural exchanges (between communities and between countries). In fact, as we will see after, the global rock music comes from the mixture of black rhythm-and-blues and  white country, and then expanded in the world. But at the beginning of the 1960s, it is Britain that export its rock group such as the Beatles (“the british invasion”) in the US.  And it is in rejection of this “British invasion” that folk revival emerged engendering some of the most famous protest songs. So, we can see that local and global scales are intertwined at that time and we cannot understand the emergence and change of rock without knowledge about the global flows.


I)     Music and politics: a long tradition of contestation.

A)  Music contestation.

There is nothing new in the link between music and politics, historically that link, has usually involved a connection between progressive political movements such as labor or civil rights and folkloric musical forms generally associated with the black church, agricultural workers, and the urban proletariat. Our three countries have a really strong tradition of musical protestation represented by famous singers such as Brassens, Vian (“Le déserteur”) in France and Léo Ferré, or Ewan McColl in Britain, and folk singers in the US such as Woody Guthrie.

B)   Early Rock’n’roll and subversion.

Even rock music was very subversive at its beginning in the 1950s. The music shocked the puritan American society. Young people choose to cross the boundaries and to listen this mixture of white and black music. In our three countries, the emergence of rock music (in the late beginning of the 1960s in France) was accompanied by violence, alcohol comsumption, drugs, and sexual excesses. The movement of the “blousons noirs” or black suits appear in the US and spread then in Britain in the late 1950s and at the beginning of the 1960s in France. Even if this violence doesn’t seem political, it takes political aspects when politicians decided to ban rock’n’roll. In 1961, a number of deputies in the French National Assembly called for rock concerts to be banned. If it failed, during the Hallyday’s 1961 tour, the mayors of Cannes, Strasbourg and Bayonne would not let him play, while in Montbéliard police used tear gas to control crowds. Similar scenes had been witnessed in other countries, of course.

However, at the beginning of our period (the 1960s), this provocative rock tend to disappear in reason of its progressive commercialization and appropriation by the society. The very subversive figures, such as Jerry Lee Lewis were replaced at the end of the 1950s by less provocative singers such as the new Elvis Presley, turning from his national service, without its provocative fashion.

In France, rock singers rapidly succumb to this process.  A number of factors contributed to it. First, such Hallyday and Mitchell, the first French rock’n’roll fans were mainly boys aged between fifteen and twenty with conscription into the Algerian War hanging over them. Danyel Gérard, Hallyday and Mitchell were all called up just as Elvis had been, creating much the same photo oppurtunities for a new look of clean-cut solemnity before the flag. Second, adolescent girls were attracted to the music and female singers were duly launched, helping retrieve ronck’n’roll from its associations of, male delinquency. Sylvie Vartan, Sheila, France Gall, François Hardy, the English Singer Petula Clark and others were projected as skittish, fun-loving and wholesome. Thus eviscerated, rock’n’roll could be safely transmitted to a wider youth constituency as a consumer style. French pop was born, known as le “yéyé”. Thus, it is only with the growing politicization of music that rock comes to its subversive roots.




C)   The paradoxical links between rock music and the political protestation in the 1960s.


Nevertheless, and this is the originality and the paradox of the contesting Rock (and it will generate a lot of hesitation that we will see then) Mass culture (and particularly mass music genre such as rock) has been seen by Leftist intellectuals (such as the Frankfurt school in the US, dominated by the figures of Adorno and Marcuse, and the existentialist philosophers such as Sartre in France)  and conservative elitists alike as a debased culture, produced only for profit and manipulated above, which invariably renders its audience passive and mindless in the corporate search for the lowest common denominator of acceptability. In this view, mass culture is disparagingly seen as the vacuous culture of an undifferentiated mass whose only function is consumption, as opposed to folk culture which expresses the values and ideals of an identifiable group of real people. As a result, mass culture has been regarded, certainly until the late 60’s, as being fundamentally incompatible with a progressive political agenda[3].

However, and it is the interest of our study, musically, this view was challenged in the pop explosion of the 60’s. As popular music added the rhetorical appeal of folk music (Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez), in the process, became associated with the political turbulence of the decade-it became increasingly difficult to dismiss mass music as aesthetically or politically bankrupt. Music contributes in this period to express clearly the ideas and the dizzy turn of the youth. Joplin’s cries for love made it sound like as if her life depended on being given “just a little piece of your heart, now, baby”. Her live performances gave vent to the near-desperation that so many felt in the heat of the Vietnam war.  Her own songwriting efforts included “Mercedes Benz”, where she ridiculized consumerism, but also indicated how caught up she was in it. She rang it a capella, without any musical accompaniment, a little prayer to her own god, asking him to buy her a Mercedes, since her friends “all drive Porsches, I must make amends”. In form, it was a classic blues song, but its content was pure counterculture, laughing at, but also wanting, ever so badly, the fruits of postwar prosperity. She even ended the song, on record, with a little smirk, so the listener was left in ambiguity.

Moreover, in spite of the reluctances of leftist movements, there were real links between rock and the protest movements, particularly in the US. The protest movements of the 1960s were contemporaneous with a revival of interest in folk music. The music and the movements grew together and at the same time as many of those instrumental in the folk music revival-Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Pete Seegers, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and many more-found a ready audience on the front lines of mass demonstrations. The songs, and the singers, formed part of the process of collective identity formation of the movement backing the birth of the New Left and the counterculture, just as the “freedom songs” had in the civil rights movement. That audience was generated by the broader political and social movement, in which the criticism of a mass, technological culture was of central importance. The artisanal skill of the traditional musician and of the topical songwriter and an interest in the “authentic” acoustic instruments that they mastered became socially significant when put into the context of a social movement opposed to mass artificial, technologically mediated culture.

Consequently, all the great demonstrations of the civil rights movement and then of the student movement or anti-Vietnam war movement were accompanied by Dylan’s, Baez’, Joplin’s and Ochs’ songs. And the most famous song the civil rights movement, “We shall overcome” was often sung in concert by these singers. Some singers had also clear links with leftist parties. For example, Todd Gitlin, a president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main proponent of a New Left in the early 1960s said: “Dylan sang for us: it was a delight but  not altogether a surprise, then, when Dylan dropped in on SDS’s December 1963 National Council meeting. “[4]. Moreover, Rob Rosenthal underlines that: “Some Old Leftists spoke of music as laying the foundation for their entrance into organized political groups, or their comfort once there. Several spoke of the sense of "home" (a word used often) that familiar songs provided: How wonderful it was, years later, when I as a teenager became involved in the movement, to hear the familiar songs, to feel immediately connected, a part of things”


Obviously we can temper the influence of this kind of rock on the creation of the counterculture as Wicke did: “The notion that rock created a community of youth was just as much of an illusion as the political aspirations with which it was linked”[5] . But what made the protesting rock into a social movement that had lasting repercussions for the broader culture was more than music; it was the direct connection to political activities, the fact that folk music, for a few years, could serve as an important “medium” for communicating the multifaceted message of protest.

For our purposes, the period is important not for the musical innovation per se, nor for the political movements in and of themselves. What is central is their interaction, and, in retrospect, that curious sense of overdetermination , often neglected by both political and cultural historians, that the one “movement” is inconceivable without the other It is their contemporaneity, their mutual dependence, however difficult it might be to explain, that is so important to emphasize. For us, the 1960s are interesting primarily as a key stage in the recurrent attempts by activist and artist alike to confront the dialectical tension between cultural and political practice. According to Ron Eyerman and Jon Jamison: “the transformation of popular culture was dependent on the politics , while the very meaning or content of the politics was substantially shaped by the popular cultural forms of representation in which it was expressed”.

According to these authors, “the collective identity of what was called the Movement was articulated not merely through organizations or even mass demonstrations, although there were plenty of both, but perhaps even more significantly through popular music.”[6]

As Richard Flacks has put it: “In the early sixities music and protest were more deeply

Intertwined than at any other time since the days of the Wobblies” [7]. In particular, the ‘fusion’ of what Flacks calls “the avant-garde and the pop” took place in the aftermath of the movements of the early 1960s. It was not just the folksingers of the civil rights movements who projected new themes and ideas into popular culture. According to Flacks, the diffusion of a more serious, and socially critical, kind of music was a much wider-ranging affair. Other interpreters of the sixties have noted the role played by the political folk music of the early 1960s in the development of rock music. Indeed, rock music represented a further mobilization of tradition, namely of the black secular blues music tradition (stimulated, to a large extent, through the mediating intervention of some of the main bands of the so-called British ‘invasion’: The Rolling-Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds, etc…). The mobilization of clues and its transformation into rock complemented, but also built upon, the mobilization of the black spiritual music tradition that characterized the civil rights movements and the mobilization of the topical folk song tradition that was so central to “the folk revival”. The commercial strength as well as the cultural resonance of rock music derived from this multiple legacy. It is no accident that it was especially those who could draw on all of the traditions in their very person, people like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who would be most successful in bringing rock music into the popular culture.




II)   The reasons of emergence of a contesting rock in these three countries.


A)   The rising youth!


One obvious sociological factor is the size, as well as the economic and creative power, of the prime audience for both sides of mediating process: youth. With the possible exception of the civil rights movement in its early stages, the prime constituting public of both the movements and the creators, and consumers of popular culture were people under thirty[8]. Nonetheless, the 1960s generation was a generation in the strict sense. For young people generally, in the USA and Europe, social and economic conditions were turning the period of adolescence into a prolonged interlude with its own properties. The post-war baby-boom, the raising of the French school-leaving age from fourteen to sixteen in 1959 and the expansion of higher education, industrial recovery and the transformation of the economy into one dependent on consumer goods, all helped create the late 1950s and 1960s ‘teenager’[9]. The label was initially applied to a welcome new category of shopper with more disposable money and time to spend on clothes, records and entertainment than many adults. But by adopting rock’n’roll as a call sing, the teenager, particularly male, began to assume sociological significance which had not been bargained for.

Thus, throughout the 1960s this age-group was expanding and gaining increasing self-awareness. Facing an ageing society, they claim by music among other things more liberty and autonomy. It led sociologists to characterize the movements of the 1960s as youth movements[10]. The emergent potential of a youth market was recognized by the mass media and other consumer products industries; not only did they re-tailor their marketing strategies, they also developed new product lines and forms of production that were amenable to the preferences and lifestyle orientation of youth. The

[1] Phil Ochs, interviewed in Vogue, September 1, 1964 (quoted in Gottesam 1977:70).

[2] Deena Weinstein, “Rock protest songs: so many and so few” in Resisting Muse: popular music and social protest, Ashton, 2006

[3] Herbert Marcuse , One-Dimensional Man:Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Boston: Beacon, 1964.


[4] Todd Gitlin, The sixties : years of hopes, days of rage, Bantam, 1987, p.197-198.  

[5] Wicke, p., Rock music: culture, aesthetics and sociology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 53.

[6] Eyerman R., and Jamison, Music and social movements: mobilizing traditions in the twentieth century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 107.

[7] Flacks R., Making History: The radical tradition in the American life, New-York, Columbia University Press, 1988, p.57. 

[8] R. Serge Denisoff and Mark Levine, “The Popular Protest Song: The Case of "Eve of Destruction" “in The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring, 1971), pp. 117-122

[9] Jean-François Sirinelli, Les baby-boomers, Paris, Fayard, 2003.

[10]  Flacks R., Making History: The radical tradition in the American life, New-York, Columbia University Press, 1988, p.123.

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