When the mode of the music changes,
the walls of the city quake.
With the September double-whammy of the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame opening in Cleveland and the 10-hour PBS documentary history, rock-and-roll music has become, if not quite respectable, at least institutionalized. And all of this attention comes 40 years after the emergence of Elvis on the national scene.
Of course rock and roll was institutionalized in the private sector almost from the beginning. By the time of the mid-1960s Beatles-driven explosion, the people in the top floors of those New York-and-LA glass towers knew that rock was a long-term profit center. But mainstream cultural recognition, of the kind associated with museums and public broadcasting, has been a long time coming. For instance, despite all the public grants thrown at dead European opera companies or snobby performance artists, not one single national arts and humanities dollar has been directed at independent rock and roll. And it looks like there never will be.
The miracle is not that rock and roll has lasted this long without the validation of the official culture, or that it is now receiving some of that validation. The miracle is that, four decades down the line, rock and roll-or the noises we can associate with the term-is still the prime carrier of rebellion, outrage, and idealism in American culture. Rock-and-roll culture has always rested upon a founding triad of racial miscegenation, class antagonism, and gender confusion. It was so in the days of Elvis and Little Richard, in the middle era of Springsteen and Prince, and so it is in today's world of hip-hop, techno, and grunge.
Also, as the historical perspective of the PBS series helped remind us, rock and roll, which has become such a dominant force in American popular culture, is African-American music. Lots of white people play it, but the notion of something called "white rock and roll" is an oxymoron. It is an African-American form adopted, adapted, and extended to include all the peoples of the New World and bouncing back off the satellite to all of our old ones, too.
Commercial culture may cast Elvis as the founder of this new religion, but his true role was that of apostle to the Gentiles. He carried the word to the white folks and that was enough.
FROM THE '50s to the '90s, rock-and-roll music, in its various forms, has been nothing more than a mutation of rhythm and blues. In those decades through the medium of that music, the African-American story passed into the mainstream American mythos via the generations of non-blacks spawned by Elvis.
Many white members of that and subsequent generations adopted the black story as the
American story, mediated through the blues (the main source material of guitar rock) and the simultaneous upheaval of the civil rights movement. Generations of white youth, from rockabillies to hip-hop kids, adopted the African-American story as a guiding narrative, of sorts.
It was a process of mythological appropriation similar to that undertaken by the enslaved Africans upon these shores, who adopted the Jewish story of the Exodus to their own pressing ends. For the baby boom and later generations, the story of rock and roll, and the parallel story of the civil rights movement, are now the cultural touchstones that frontier tales and World War II were to earlier generations.
America is different because of that cultural history. At least Americans are different. That difference has not yet been articulated in our public life; we've had to wait for the iconography of World War II (which was Cold War culture) to pass. But it's gone now, and so is the world it represented. And there is nothing to replace it, except the self-made multiracial popular culture of the American people.
Much is said today, especially in election years, about the debilitating influence of American pop culture. It is a commercial carrier of violence, misogyny, and blind avarice. That is all true. But it is not the whole truth.
The world of pop culture is the world in which the American people live. That world can indeed be violent and greedy and misogynist, but it can also be democratic and tolerant and communitarian. Both sets of impulses are there. They are real. They are at least as American as violence and cherry pie, and they are the common inheritance of everyone born in, or admitted to, the U.S.A., regardless of color.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.