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The following is an excerpt from the book Dancing in the Streets
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Published by Metropolitan Books; January 2007; $26.00US/$32.00CAN;
Copyright © 2006 Barbara Ehrenreich


The Rock Rebellion

What has been repressed, no matter how forcibly and thoroughly, often finds a way of resurfacing. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Anglo-American culture was struck by an outbreak of "hysteria" or "mania" described by alarmed observers as obscene, disruptive, and even criminal. Neither the United States nor England was, in the mid-twentieth century, a likely site for such unrestrained behavior. Both societies were heavily burdened by the puritanical legacy of the sixteenth century; each had contributed to the suppression of festive and ecstatic traditions among colonized -- or, in the case of the Americans, enslaved -- peoples. But it may be that their very success in expunging "foreign" ecstatic traditions heightened their vulnerability to the call, when it came, to get up and move and dance and shout.

From the beginning, the rock rebellion manifested itself as a simple refusal to sit still or to respect anyone who insisted that one do so. Wherever the "new" music was performed -- and it was new at least to most white people -- kids jumped out of their seats and began to chant, scream, and otherwise behave in ways that the authorities usually interpreted as "rioting." Most of these incidents, according to Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave in their book Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock 'n' Roll, "just involved kids dancing in the aisles at theaters; jiving in their seats; and stomping, clapping, and yelling a lot -- having a good time, in short. The authorities thought an audience should sit quietly and sedately, perhaps clapping a little at the end of the performance." In 1956, performances by Bill Haley and His Comets, who were at the moment the most popular rock group in the world, provoked "a national outbreak of dancing in the aisles, chanting in the streets, and deliberate rudeness toward assorted figures of authority." In both England and the United States, managers of the theaters and concert halls where rock groups performed responded by enlisting the police to control the "rioters," so that early rock concerts evolved into a kind of slapstick ritual: Kids would stand up and begin dancing in the aisles; the police would chase them and stuff them back into their seats; the kids would get up again.

Throughout the 1960s as well, rock concerts were routine settings for confrontations between young fans and the police. Members of the Jefferson Airplane complained that "as soon as kids got up to dance in the aisles the cops would disconnect the amps." Rolling Stones concerts almost invariably led to "riots," with the Vancouver chief of police, for example, complaining that one of the group's concerts provided the "most prolonged demand of physical endurance I have ever seen police confronted with during my 33 years of service." In Vancouver, as in other cities, the police began to demand and get complete control of the curtains, lighting, and sound systems for rock concerts. Audiences responded with still more "riotous" behavior, such as rushing the stage or counterattacking the police with fire extinguishers and missiles. Jim Morrison of the Doors blamed the cops: "If there were no cops there, would anybody try to get onstage? . . . The only incentive to charge the stage is because there's a barrier." Barriers of any kind only served as a provocation to the fans, who sought a freedom of motion and physical self-expression horrifying to the adult world -- a chance to mingle with one another, to move to the music, and later to assert themselves in the streets outside the concert venues.

Of course the rock performers had to take some of the blame for their fans' unruly behavior, if only because they too moved -- dancing and jiving to their own music in ways that shocked and offended adult viewers. Pop singers like Eddie Fisher had moved too, but only from one conventional, operatic gesture to another -- clasping their hands together on their chests or stretching their arms out, palms up. A good part of the frisson of early rock lay in the rhythmic and often sexually suggestive movements of the performers -- grinding their hips, thrusting their pelvises, rolling their shoulders, leaping and falling on the floor -- "rocking," in short, as a way of announcing that the "new" music was inseparable from creative, free-form, beat-driven motion.

Among white performers, Elvis Presley pioneered the new physical expressiveness, requiring the family-oriented Ed Sullivan Show to censor out his lower body from the TV screen. Bo Diddley, a black performer, was not so lucky. His contract for a 1958 nationwide TV booking stipulated that he had to perform without moving, in order to "preserve decency." Once on air, he forgot this rule or, more likely, simply found it impossible to hold his body separate from the music, and was docked his entire fee. Little Richard probably got away with jumping, prancing, and climbing on his piano only because of his over-the-top, manic, seemingly asexual persona.

But it was, again and again, the audience that stole the show, often to the consternation of the performers. The rock historian James Miller reports that the better Elvis Presley got at performing, "the less he got to do it. The problem was the tumult he now routinely provoked." Describing a 1957 concert, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that "Presley clung to the microphone standard and staggered about in a distinctive, distraught manner, waiting for the noise to subside a bit." A few years later, Beatlemaniacs -- the just-pubescent followers of the Beatles -- effectively silenced their heroes with their frenzied screams. At no time during their U.S. tours was the group audible above the shrieking, which forced the band to abandon the concert stage in 1966, only two years after their first American appearances.

By the late 1960s, rock performers were negotiating their own security arrangements with the managers of concert venues, partly out of fear that they would be crushed by their fans, should the latter succeed in actually conquering the stage. Even the gentle, cerebral Grateful Dead eventually got "sick of out-of-control fan behavior" and distributed a flyer to concertgoers forbidding gate-crashing, bottle throwing, kicking down fences, and "miracling," or begging for free tickets outside the venue. When the content of the spectacle was rock music, young people were no longer willing to accept the spectacle form, with its requirement that large numbers of people sit still and in silence while a talented few perform.

The Revolt of the Audience

The rock rebellion can be interpreted in all kinds of ways. It was an uprising of the postwar generation, bored by affluence and stifled by the prevailing demands for conformity in lifestyle, opinion, and appearance. It was a challenge to the racial segregation that divided not only communities but music, which could be "pop" (for whites) or "race music" (for everyone else). And as the 1960s wore on, it fed into a widespread counterculture, which in turn helped animate a political movement countering war and domestic injustice.

But the rock rebellion was also something simpler and ostensibly less "political" -- a rebellion against the role of the audience. In the history of festivities, the great innovation of the modern era had been the replacement of older, more participatory forms of festivity with spectacles in which the crowd serves merely as an audience. In the two centuries leading up to the twentieth, even audiences had been successfully tamed. If you went back to seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century France or England, you would have found theater audiences, for example, that were disruptively rowdy, interrupting the actors with their own comments, milling around during the performance, or actually sitting on the stage in the midst of the action. By the end of the eighteenth century, aristocratic ideas of decorum -- along with the innovation of reserved seating -- brought, according to sociologist Richard Sennett, "a certain deadness into the theater. There were no more shouts from the back of the hall, no more people eating food while they stood watching the play. Silence in the theater seemed to diminish the enjoyment of watching the play."

Utterly missing from the audience's new role was any kind of muscular involvement beyond the occasional applause, and this prohibition extended to musical performances as well as the theater. From the nineteenth century on, all forms of Western music were being consumed by immobile audiences. At a military parade, for example, the martial music might be stirring and the marching soldiers might themselves be caught up in the pleasures of rhythmic synchrony, but the good spectator -- as opposed to the occasional exhibitionist -- stood perfectly still and, except when straining to see better, remained as unobtrusive as possible. Concerts had become the most common setting for musical performances, and at these the role of the audience was to sit quietly and refrain from any motion at all. Even the most covert forms of dancing -- foot tapping and head nodding -- could disturb one's fellow listeners; audience members had learned how to hold themselves in a state of frozen attention.

The motionless perception required of an audience takes effort, especially when the performance involves the rhythmic motions of others. As we saw in chapter 1, recent research in neuroscience suggests that the neuronal mechanisms underlying the perception of motion by another person are closely linked to the execution of that motion by the perceiver. To see a man marching or dancing, swaying as he plays the saxophone, or simply waving his arms to draw melodies from an orchestra is to ready oneself internally to join in the marching, dancing, swaying, or arm waving. Infants automatically imitate the actions of others; with age, they acquire the ability to inhibit the imitative impulse. So the well-behaved audience member -- who does not snap her fingers or nod her head in time to the music -- is not really at rest; she is performing a kind of work -- the silent, internal work of muscular inhibition.

It is sexual inhibition that rock is usually credited -- or blamed for challenging, as in one writer's explanation of rock as "the unleashing of generations of repressed sexuality," with the music serving only to convey a less inhibited, African American sexual sensibility to the repressed white middle-class "mainstream." No doubt mid-twentieth-century Anglo-American culture was sexually repressive -- homophobic and skittish about heterosexual sex as well. There's no doubt, too, that sex had a lot to do with the rock rebellion, if only because of the irresistible appeal, at least from a female point of view, of stars like the "sleazy," working-class Elvis or the witty and vaguely androgynous Beatles: They represented romantic possibilities that went well beyond necking in a car with the khaki-clad, buttoned-down, young white men of the time. But there is more to the story than sexual repressiveness and the perhaps inevitable revolt against it. Mainstream mid-twentieth-century culture was deeply restrictive of physical motion in general, whether or not it had anything to do with sex.

Entertainment, for example, meant sitting and watching TV or movies. There were still "carnivals," but these no longer involved dancing or sports other than, say, throwing objects at a target. At a mid-twentieth-century carnival or fair, machines did the moving for you; all the carnival-goers had to do was sit in a seat and let the roller coaster or Ferris wheel propel their bodies along a preexisting path. Religious worship was, in the dominant Protestant tradition, equally sedentary, allowing participation only in the form of hymn singing. There was dancing too, of course, but before rock's emergence into white culture, this typically meant ballroom dancing -- decorously choreographed fox-trots and waltzes that allowed for little group interaction or individual variation. Even walking had been made largely obsolete by suburbanization and the automobile culture it spawned. At the time, of course, no one reckoned the eventual price of all this routine immobilization in the form of obesity and other health problems.

In the mid-1950s, sports still offered an opportunity for physical expression, primarily for the athletes and cheerleaders. Most people, though, were merely spectators, encouraged at high school pep rallies to stand up in the bleachers and cheer for an occasional good play, but otherwise to remain motionless. The restrictions against physical motion weighed particularly heavy on girls: Not only were there no school sports for girls, but those sports that were open to girls, usually under the sponsorship of YWCAs and churches, had been redesigned to limit the amount of motion involved. In the official girls' version of basketball, for example, players were allowed only two dribbles in succession and were prohibited from crossing the center line. For females, even sex was meant to be motionless and passive. The leading marital advice book of mid-twentieth-century America warned against female "movements" during sex -- the idea being disturbing enough to merit italics. Insofar as sexual activity was described at all, it was in terms of static "positions."

Hence, in no small part, the particular appeal of rock mania to teenage girls. Elvis and especially the Beatles inspired a kind of mass hysteria among crowds of young white women, who jumped up and down, screamed, cried, fainted, and sometimes wet their pants in the presence of their idols. To adult commentators, Beatlemania was pathological -- an "epidemic" set off by the Beatles as carriers or "foreign germs." In a particularly ingenious, partly tongue-in-cheek explanation offered by the New York Times Magazine in 1964, the girls were merely "conforming" and "expressing their desire to obey." They wanted to be subsumed into the mass, which, in the author's view, was the same as being "transformed into an insect." After all, he observed triumphantly, there had been an earlier craze of "jitterbugs," and "Beatles, too, are a type of bug." But former Beatlemaniacs report that the experience was empowering and freeing. Brought together in a crowd, girls who individually might have been timid and obedient broke through police lines, rushed stages, and, of course, through their actions, determined that the Fab Four would be the most successful and best-known band in world history.

Copyright © 2006 Barbara Ehrenreich