Finding its feet

My last post on the recent history of western music took us up until the Jazz Age, which although it peaked in the 1920s, continued to occupy a position as the defining music genre of its age right up until the early 1950s. Today’s post takes up this tale for another decade and a half, beginning in 1951.

By this time, a few artists (Goree Carter and Jimmy Preston, for example) had experimented with mixing the various ‘black’ music genres (country and western, R&B and a little gospel being the main ones) to create a new, free rocking sound. However, by the 50s radio, which had been another major force for the spread of jazz, had risen to prominence enough to become a true feature of US life, so when Cleveland DJ Alan Freed first started playing R&B intentionally to a multiracial audience even his small listenership were able to make the event a significant one. Not only that, but the adolescents of the 50s were the first generation to have the free time and disposable income to control their own lives, making them a key consumer market and allowing them to latch onto and fund whatever was new and ‘cool’ to them. They were the first teenagers. These humble beginnings, spreading ‘black’ musical experiments to the masses, would later become the genre that Freed himself would coin a name for- rock and roll.

Rock and roll might have originally been named by Freed, and might have found its first star in Bill Haley (the guy wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in 1955), but it became the riotous, unstoppable musical express train that it was thanks to a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, who walked into Sun Records in 1953 to record a song for personal use. His name was Elvis Presley.

’53 might have been Presley’s first recording experience, but his was not a smooth road. In eighth grade music he is reported to have only got a C and be told that he couldn’t sing, a claim that was repeated when he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet in January 1954. However, in June of that year he recorded a 1946 blues hit ‘That’s All Right’, totally altering what had been a lovelorn lament of a song into a riotous celebration. He, Winfield Moore and Bill Black (the guitarist and bassist he was recording with) had created a new, exciting, free-flowing sound based around Presley’s unique singing style. Three days later, the song aired on local radio for the first time and calls flooded in demanding to know who the new singer was. Many were even more surprised when they found out that it was a straight laced white boy playing what was previously thought of as ‘black music’.

Completely unintentionally, Elvis had rewritten the rulebook about modern music- now you didn’t have to be black, you didn’t have to play the seedy venues, you didn’t have to play slow, old, or boring music, you didn’t have to be ‘good’ by classical standards, and, most important, your real skill was your showmanship. Whilst his two co-performers in the early days were both natural showmen, Presley was a nervous performer to start with and his legs would shake during instrumental sections- the sight of a handsome young man wiggling his legs in wide-cut trousers proving somewhat hysterical for female sections of the audience, and worked the crowd into a frenzy that no previous performer had managed.

Elvis’ later career speaks for itself, but he lost his focus on writing music in around 1960 as, along with the death of Buddy Holly, the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll ended. However, the 50s had thrown up another new innovation into the mix- the electric guitar. Presley and his competitors had used them in their later performances, since they were lighter and easier to manoeuvre on stage and produced a better, louder sound for recorded tracks, but they wouldn’t come to their own until ‘the golden age of rock’ hit in the mid 60s.

By then, rock n roll had softened and mellowed, descending into lighter tunes that were the ancestors of modern pop music (something I’m not sure we should be too thankful to Elvis for), and British acts had begun to be the trailblazers. British acts tended towards a harder sound, and Cliff Richard enjoyed a period of tremendous success in the USA, but even then the passage of rock had eased off slightly. It wasn’t new any more, and people were basically content to carry on listening- there wasn’t much consumer demand for a new sound. But then, the baby boomers hit. The post-war goodwill in the late 40s and early 1950s had resulted in a spike in the birth rate of the developed world, and by around 1963 that generation had began to grow up. A second wave of teenagers hit the world, all desperate to escape the dreary boredom of their parents’ existence and form their own culture, with their own clothing, film interests, and, most importantly, music. The stage was set for something new to revolutionise the world of music, and the product that did was made in Britain.

Numerous bands from all over the country made up the British rock scene of the early 1960s, but the most prolific area was Liverpool. There rock and roll once again underwent a fusion with subgenres such as doo wop, and (again) R&B, formulating itself into another new sound, this time centred around a driving, rhythmic beat based upon the electric guitar and drum kit. These beats formed a key part of the catchy, bouncy, memorable melodies that would become the staple of ‘beat’ music. This had taken over the British music scene by 1963, but by 1964 a British song had made number 1 in the US charts. It was called ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and was written by four Liverpudlians who called themselves The Beatles.

To this day, the Beatles are the most successful musicians ever (sorry fellow Queen fans- it’s true). Their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 set a new record for an American TV audience (over 70 million)- a show they only did because Sullivan’s plane had been forced to circle Heathrow Airport in the middle of the night so that this band he’d never heard of could land first and wade their way through their screaming fans. Sullivan decided then and there he wanted to interview them. Along with other British acts such as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, beat took the US by storm- but they were only the first. The Beatles’ first and greatest legacy was the structure of a rock band; all band members wrote their own songs based on the drums & electric guitar. All that was left was for acts like the Stones to cement singer/lead guitarist/bassist/drummer as the classic combination and the formula was written. The music world was about to explode; again

And this story looks like taking quite a few more posts to tell…

Think of the CHILDREN!

My last post dealt with the way that sex in our society is something kept very much under wraps, dusted under the carpet and kept out of the conversation of everyday life as much as possible. This post however could be said to be completely debunking every point I made in the last one, for today I will be considering the issue of the increasing use & prevalence of sex, sexuality and sexual connotations in society today.

The main people voicing a strong opinion against this trend are, of course, the kind of militant parents who started a war in the South Park movie (good film, see it if you can). They argue that modern media and marketing strategies place a lot of emphasis on the use of sex symbols and sexual connotations, and that these strategies are, more worryingly, being aimed at a steadily younger audience. Young girls in particular are often quoted as being aggressively targeted by clothing companies from as young as 8, companies trying to buy them into the whole ‘looks and clothes are the most important thing ever’ mentality in order to turn them into fashion-obsessed consumers as early as possible.

There’s certainly a lot of evidence to support their theory as to the increased prevalence of sexual symbolism in today’s culture. Sport may be a good place to look for examples- modern female sports stars are nowadays judged mainly by the way they look, and in many sports where men and women have roughly equal exposure (such as tennis) female competitors often have larger sponsorship deals. Is this because they are better at persuading people that sports equipment is awesome? No, it’s because they are capable of advertising perfume by wearing hardly any clothes and exploiting their sex appeal (think Maria Sharapova, whose game suffered heavily in the few years after she won Wimbledon as she turned into more of a model than a tennis player). And then what about tabloid newspapers and their page 3 hooks for readers, ‘lads mags’ that now have enough status to be invited as judges for the nomination of Sports Personality of The Year (not the BBC’s proudest moment), and clothes companies that now market ‘sexy high heels’ at under 10s?

So… where can this be traced back to? Well, if we, as the pressure groups tend to, blame everything on businesses and clothing companies, their reasoning is actually very simple. Firstly, to consider the issue of children being targeted in one way or another, it’s a well recognised fact that kids love to appear grown-up. They get fussy about their ages (“I’m not 10, I’m 10 and a half!”), copy their parents’ habits and what they see on TV, hate not being able to do stuff on account of age or size and might even try on Mummy and Daddy’s clothes when they’re a bit younger. A child’s ultimate fantasy (and probably one shared by a few adults as well) is to live with all the opportunity and ability of an adult, and without any of the responsibility. For them, therefore, all this sexually-related material that permeates their life is not about sex (which they probably don’t understand properly if at all), but about adulthood, and this just screams ‘awesome’ directly at them. We must also remember that it’s not just the kids who’re at it either; parents love it when their children appear ‘grown-up’ and mature because it makes them seem special, a cut above their peers, subtly suggesting to parents that not only are their kids better than everyone else’s, but that they themselves are better parents. Therefore, whilst some parents might be appalled at the sight of a 9 year old in heels and a miniskirt, others might think of her as quite the young woman, and perhaps even be jealous of the maturity that child seems to have compared to theirs.

And then we must consider a fact that countless bits of market research has shown- sex appeal sells stuff. Even if children don’t get the symbolism, their parents do, and whether the stuff they’re buying is for them or their kids, a bright, smiling, good-looking woman is more likely to encourage them to buy something than an advert featuring a dour looking bloke showing no interest whatsoever. This is especially true when we consider fields such as scent, beauty products and fashionable clothing, all of which are selling products actively designed to make you seem more attractive and, according to Freud at least, get you more sex. Even if you don’t make that connection consciously, there’s no doubt that your subconscious mind picks up on the connection, and that’s before we even consider how totally blatant use of sex, such as in tabloid page 3 columns, acts as a straight marketing hook to sell things. Put simply, sex appeal is an undeniably successful marketing strategy that makes perfect sense, from a purely fiscal point of view, to use.

To finish off, I would like to offer just a snippet of a history lesson. The 1920s were a great time for the USA, producing an economic boom thanks to the likes of Henry Ford,  massive growths in cultural areas such as major league sport, and reinventing social mobility. For the first time, women had a degree of social freedom, particularly among those known as ‘flappers’, who would cut their hair short, drink and smoke in direct and deliberate contravention of the classical female norm. The invention of the car gave young people freedom from their parents and invented the date for the first time, and in jazz music the young of the Roaring Twenties had their own music and social scene as well. This lead, among other things, to a huge increase in sexual freedom among the young, and the media of the time reflected this. This was especially true in the cinema, a relatively new phenomenon, which quickly developed the first sex symbols in the likes of Rudolf Valentino and Clara Bow, prompting advertising and marketing of the time to begin exploiting sex appeal as a means to sell their products. Understandably, the older generation went into uproar over this cultural revolution, but it didn’t make a scrap of difference, and a fresh wave of American culture swept across the world.

Sound familiar? It should do- it’s the same thing people are complaining about now, and people have complained in the same way about the changes in every successive generation, be it teenagers in the 50s, hippies in the 60s, or metal in the 70s. Culture changes, and that’s just a fact of life. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about it, but we must remember that society has survived each new wave of culture and come through each none the worse for wear. If you want to uphold society, then forming a pressure group for each successive thing that offends you probably isn’t the bet way to weather the storm. You’ll have far better results just sticking to what you do like, upholding the values you think are important, and trying to pass those off to your children. It’ll be a lot less painful.

Studying homosexuality

For part two of this multi-parter on sex & sexuality in one form of another, I would like to turn to the topic that first inspired this series in the first place: homosexuality. This is a subject that is notoriously hard to talk about without offending or angering one group or another, but I’m going to try and consider the subject (please tell me off if I ever refer to it as a problem) objectively, trying to analyse it as a concept. Not that this means I won’t end up using the wrong words at one point or another, but try to believe me when I say I’m not trying to.

From an evolutionary perspective, being gay doesn’t make much sense. Natural selection as a way of ensuring the ‘success’ of a species relies upon passing on genes to the next generation, and this clearly isn’t going to happen if the psychological imperative of a person is to mate with someone who they cannot have children with. It would seem, therefore, that since homosexuality is something not evolutionarily favoured, that it should have died out several million years ago, but this is patently not the case. This makes its root cause something of a poser- not being evolutionarily selected for would seem to root out any genetic cause, but it doesn’t appear to be simply a feature of just our modern society (both Leonardo da Vinci and King William II were probably gay) or even solely our species (bats, dolphins and lions are among a huge group of other animals to display homosexual behaviour). It’s not as if these are isolated cases either- between 8 and 15% of gulls on the Santa Barbara coast practice lesbian mating, and all bonobos (the smallest of the great apes) are bisexual. Compare this to the oft-quoted figure that 10% of human beings are gay, or even some of the other estimates that have been put about; I have heard it claimed that one third of British women are either lesbian or bisexual, whilst Alfred Kinsey, inventor of the notorious Kinsey Scale of Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating (o being totally hetero, 6 totally homo, 1-5 being various degrees of in between) claimed that less than 5% of people were exactly 0 or 6.

Homosexuality is, therefore, clearly nothing new, and from mere observation can certainly not be called ‘unnatural’. Indeed, for those of us who are gay, it clearly feels like the more ‘natural’ way of doing things. Just as the rest of us become attracted to and fall in love with someone in what is perceived the ‘normal’ way, so the precise same procedure is performed by homosexuals, the only difference (of course) being that their objects of affection are of their own gender. The fundamental difference is, then, simply a question of finding the ‘wrong’ group of people attractive compared to the norm, although exactly how and why this difference occurs is still a conundrum that has flummoxed far finer minds than mind.

So, if homosexuality has always formed a part of our existence, why has it attracted all the various degrees of hate that it has over the years? This, at least, we can clearly call a societal thing- the ancient Greeks are famous for their acceptance of homosexuality as a form of love (the Spartans even considering it the highest form), and since it is at least tolerated where else it occurs in the animal kingdom we must presume that the hating of it is something that has sadly developed within human culture. Among teenage boys especially, the very idea of homosexuality is considered kinda disgusting, presumably mostly because it appears so alien to the burgeoning sexual emotions of the majority of them. Then we encounter the fact that wanting to have sex with a man is a ‘naturally’ female trait, and since women have generally been shoved firmly into subservient positions for most of human history this does not hold well for the prospect of homosexuality gaining societal respect. It has also been postulated that the motions of male homosexual intercourse, requiring one of the men to adopt a submissive position and accept the penetration of an orifice that (let’s face it) wasn’t designed for the purpose, is quite a humiliating idea, further enhancing the level of disgust, and making homosexuality just seem ‘wrong’ to many, especially men, from quite a young age. Since young men who generally don’t get told what to do or think have historically tended to take up positions of power (ie sons of important people who tend to follow in their father’s footsteps), this has meant these burgeoning ideas are allowed to remain untempered and find their way into the upper echelons of society. From there, by means of both law (homosexuality has frequent been made illegal in various countries from time to time, when they ever acknowledged it actually exists) or religion (the Catholic Church render any further expansion of this point unnecessary), such views filter down and further reinforce the idea of it all being ‘wrong’. From there, persecution is merely a formality.

OK so… why is this persecution generally aimed at men? This one’s comparatively simple to answer, and the reason is twofold. Firstly, women have, as previously mentioned, tended to be considered less important then men throughout history and lesbian exploits have thus been less likely to be of any societal importance than those of their male counterparts. Secondly… well basically, straight men have tended to be in charge and set the rules, and straight men find lesbians sexy. And I’m not even going to try analysing that particular fact.

I’m not really aiming to try and draw any meaningful conclusions from this post, just to throw around a few ideas and explore a concept or two. Next post I’ll be sticking to another broadly sex-related theme, although I can’t tell you which as I have absolutely no idea.