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Subculture Theory Through Music Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 4215 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The leading society did not tranquilly sit on the sidelines all through the period and observe the subcultures at play. What started as a response of puzzled bewilderment-caught in the pat phrase, ‘the generation gap’-turned out to be, over the years, a strong and intensified struggle. In the 1950’s, ‘youth’ came to represent the most advanced point of social change: youth was employed as a symbol for social change. The most tremendous trends in an altering society were identified by the society’s taking its bearings from what youth was ‘up to’: youth was the front line party-of the classless, post-protestant, consumer society to come. This displacement of the tensions aggravated by social change on to ‘youth’ was an uncertain maneuver. Social change was observed as normally helpful (‘you’ve not at all had it so good’); however as well as eroding the conventional landmarks and undermining the sacred order and institutions of conventional society. It was consequently, from the first, escorted by feelings of diffused as well as dispersed social anxiety. The limits of society were being redefined, its ethical contours redrawn, its basic relations (in particular, those class relations which for so long gave a hierarchical constancy to English life) transformed. As has been frequently remarked, movements which distress a society’s normative contours mark the beginning of troubling times-particularly for those sections of the population who have made an irresistible promise to the continuance of the status quo. ‘Troubling times’, when social anxiety is extensive however fails to discover an organized public or political expression, cause the displacement of social anxiety on to convenient scapegoat groups. This is the source of the ‘moral panic’-a twisting in which the social groups who distinguish their world and position as threatened, recognize a ‘responsible enemy’, and come out as the vocal guardians of conventional values: moral entrepreneurs. It is not astonishing, then, that youth turned out to be the focus of this social anxiety-its displaced object. In the 1950’s, and again in the early 1960’s, the most noticeable and identifiable youth groups were involved in theatrical events which activated ‘moral panics’, focusing, in displaced form, society’s ‘quarrel with itself’. Events associated with the rise of the Teds, and afterward, the motor-bike boys and the Mods, precipitated typical moral panics. Each event was observed as signifying, in microcosm, a wider or deeper social problem-the problem of youth all together. In this crisis of power, youth now played the part of symptom plus scapegoat.

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‘Moral panics’ of this order were mainly focused to start with, around ‘Working-class youth’. The firmly organized sub-cultures-Teds, Mods, etc.-represented merely the most noticeable targets of this reaction. Alongside these, we have to recall the way youth became linked, in the 1958 Notting Hill riots, with that further submerged and displaced topic of social anxiety-race; and the general anxiety regarding rising delinquency, the rising rate of juvenile involvement in crime, the panics concerning violence in the schools, destruction, gang fights, and football hooliganism. Reaction to these and further signs of ‘youth’ took various forms: from modifications to the Youth Service and the extension of the social work agencies, through the protracted debate regarding the decline in the influence of the family, the clampdowns on absence and indiscipline in the schools, to the Judge’s remarks, in the Mods vs. Rockers trial, that they were nothing superior than “Sawdust Caesars”. The waves of moral panic arrived at new heights with the appearance of the territorial-based Skinheads, the football uprisings and destruction of railway property.

To this was added, a set of ‘moral panics’ of a new sort in which particular genres of popular music have sparked controversy and opposition, both upon their appearance and intermittently since: rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s, psychedelic rock in the late 1960s, disco and punk in the 1970s, heavy metal and rap in the 1980s, to name merely the better known instances. Criticism has centered variously on the power of such genres on youthful values, attitudes as well as behavior through the music’s (apparent) sexuality and sexism, nihilism and violence, black magic, obscenity, plus anti-Christian nature. The political edge of popular music has been partially the outcome of this antagonistic reaction frequently accorded to the music and its connected causes and followers, helping to politicize the musicians and their fans. Whereas such episodes are a standard part of the history of rock music, hardly ever are their nature and cultural importance more completely teased out.

Besides on-going debates over the consequences and influence of rock, there have forever been attempts to harness the music to social plus political ends, and arguments around the validity of ideas of rock as an empowering and political force. To place such opposition to rock music in framework, it is significant to admit that popular culture on the whole has historically been the target of fault, denunciation and regulation. In the 1930s, in accordance with the Payne studies in the United States and similar studies elsewhere, the cinema was having harmful effects on children’s health, attitudes to authority and hold on realism; in the 1950s, psychologist Frederic Wertham’s powerful best-seller, Seduction of the Innocent, quarreled for a direct causal association between comic books and juvenile delinquency; whereas since the 1960s television (and video) has turned into the favored whipping medium, accused of warping imaginations, heartening violence, and turning us all into couch potatoes (Gilbert, 1986; Shuker and Openshaw, 1991). It is value adding that music hall, jazz, and further innovative forms of popular music were as well all stigmatized in their day.

Concern over new media along with the activities of their youthful consumers appears to periodically reach a peak, often linked with ‘boundary crises’, periods of vagueness and strain in society, which show the way to attempts to more obviously set up moral boundaries. In numerous instances, such boundary crises are forms of ‘moral panic’, an idea popularized by sociologist Stanley Cohen’s now classic study of mods and rockers in the United Kingdom. In Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen utters that a period of moral panic takes place when:

“A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk lore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself”. (Cohen, 1980:9)

The subsequent stage of Cohen’s view of moral panic is mainly important, concerning as it does the denial of the ‘common sense’ view that the media just report what happens. Cohen’s own case study of the 1960s conflicts between mods and rockers in the UK (the ‘folk devils’ of his title), demonstrated just such a procedure of the selection and presentation of news. The media reporting of the clashes simplified their causes, labeled and stigmatized the youth implicated, whipped up public feeling, and encouraged a retributive, restriction approach by those in authority.

Investigativing the historical association between youth, ‘antisocial’ approaches and behaviors, and popular music means, again, to believe culture as a political issue. At a deeper level moral panics around new media are incidents in cultural politics and the repeated reconstitution and contestation of cultural domination. Fundamental debates over popular comics, fiction, television, film, video and rock are a sequence of assumptions regarding popular or ‘mass’ culture, which is often observed as completely opposed to a ‘high’ culture custom. As this dichotomy is an uncertain foundation for assessing particular forms of culture, and such a difference is more and more difficult to continue in practice. The whole idea of a ‘high-low’ culture distinction has to be regarded as a social construct, resting on class-based value judgments (Taylor, 1978). It is more suitable to inspect particular cultural forms in terms of both their formal qualities plus their social function for consumers, whilst keeping in mind the most important point that any assessment have to be primarily in terms pertinent to the group that produces and appreciates it. This is mainly the case with popular music (Shepherd, 1977).

Both the music industry as well as the social context of the early 1950s was prepared for rock ‘n’ roll. With fuller employment, general economic affluence, and their appearance as an imperative consumer group, teenagers started to demand their own music and clothes, and to build up a generational-based identity. Before 1956, popular music was subjugated by American sounds, typified by the recurrent image of the ‘crooner’. The music was mostly safe, solid stuff, what Cohn terms “the palais age-the golden era of the big bands, when everything was soft, warm, sentimental, when everything was make believe” (Cohn, 1970:11). There was little here for young people to recognize with, despite the fact that riot-provoking performers like Johnny Ray symbolized prototypes for rock.

Even though rock music started with rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s, as Tosches (1984) documents it had been developing well prior to this, and was barely the only formation of Elvis Presley and Alan Freed. The expression ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ itself was popularized with its sexual connotations in the music of the 1920s. In 1922, blues singer Trixie Smith recorded ‘My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)’ for Black Swan Records, and a variety of lyrical elaborations pursued from other artists through the 1930s and 1940s (Tosches, 1984:5-6). Rock ‘n’ roll was fundamentally “a mixture of two traditions: Negro rhythm and blues and white romantic crooning, colored beat and white sentiment” (Cohn, 1970:11). Negro rhythm as well as blues was good-time music, danceable and unassuming. While extremely popular on rhythm and blues charts and radio stations, it achieved little airplay on white radio stations, and was often banned due to the explicit sexual content of songs for instance Hank Ballard’s ‘Work With Me Annie’, Billy Ward’s ‘Sixty Minute Man’, and the Penguin’s ‘Baby Let Me Bang Your Box’ (Cohn, 1970:15). It is this connection between sex and rock ‘n’ roll-the Devil’s music-which underpinned the ethical reaction to its popularization in the 1950s.

In April 1954, Bill Haley made ‘Rock Around the Clock’. The record was a hit in America, then universal; ultimately selling fifteen million copies. Whilst it did not start rock, it did symbolize a critical symbol in the popularization of the new musical form. ‘Rock Around the Clock’ was marked in the MGM movie Blackboard Jungle, the story of a young teacher at a tough New York school. The triumph of the film with teenage audiences, and the fame of Haley’s song, caused Haley being signed to make a film of his own. Rock Around the Clock (1956) told how Bill Haley plus his band popularized rock ‘n’ roll; however the thin story line (explained by Charles White as ‘brain damage on celluloid’!) was actually a platform for the rock acts on the soundtrack. The film showed extremely popular. Riots ensued at several screenings, as teenagers danced in the aisles and ripped up the seats, and a few countries banned the film. Haley was an unlikely hero for youth to imitate since his image (old, hairless, and chubby) barely matched the music, however others were waiting in the wings.

In this brief summary, complex developments have to be reduced to their key moments. The triumph of Haley was one, the appearance of Chuck Berry and Little Richard another. Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (1956) was the major so far:

“His big contribution was that he brought it home just how economically powerful teenagers could really be. Before Elvis, rock had been a feature of vague rebellion. Once he’d happened, it immediately became solid, self-contained, and then it spawned its own style in clothes and language and sex, a total independence in almost everything-all the things that are now taken for granted”. (Cohn, 1970:23)

Cohn is excessively enthusiastic regarding teenagers’ independence, however by the end of 1957 Elvis had grown into an annual twenty million dollars industry, and the procedure of homogenization of both ‘the King’ and the music had started.

The new music aggravated substantial criticism, with several older musicians disdainful of rock ‘n’ roll. British jazzman Steve Race, writing in Melody Maker, asserted: “Viewed as a social phenomenon, the current craze for rock ‘n’ roll material is one of the most terrifying things ever to have happened to popular music… Musically speaking, of course, the whole thing is laughable… It is a monstrous threat, both to the moral acceptance and the artistic emancipation of jazz. Let us oppose it to the end” (Rogers, 1982:18). O=Old-fashioned band leader Mitch Miller criticized rock ‘n’ roll as “musical baby food, it is the worship of mediocrity, brought about by a passion for conformity” (Gilbert, 1986:16). Other criticisms centered on the ethical threat, somewhat than the new teenage music’s perceived aesthetic boundaries. To many, rock ‘n’ roll came into view hostile and aggressive, typified by Elvis Presley’s sensual moves. Conservative commentators desired to save the youth of America from “the screaming, idiotic words, and savage music of these records” (Story of Pop, 1974:17).

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The cultural implication of the moral panic over rap can be measured alongside the earlier arguments over rock ‘n’ roll, gothic suicides, as well as obscenity in rock. There are significant distinctions and stresses to be drawn when unfolding rock ‘n’ roll and the bodgies, the Dead Kennedys, the gothic cultists and rappers for example Ice-T in such terms. Not all folk devils are of completely hypothetical stature and not all can be honored the status of true moral panics.

The bodgies appeared to be defined as a danger to established social values as well as interests in the late 1950s. They stood out partially as an outcome of the visibility of their cultural style in mostly conformist society, a style which reflected their low socio-economic position in a period of prosperity and the purposeful adoption of an ‘anti social’ stance.

In Cohen’s terms, the label ‘bodgie’ obtained representative power through its media usage, being recognized as a local ‘folk devil’. Consequently, this symbol and its connected images of delinquent behavior were consolidated in the public stadium into a ‘collective theme’: the bodgie was exaggerated by press coverage so the scale of the phenomenon turned out to be conceived as extensive, and the public ‘sensitized’ so that various incidents were associated with the initial incidents (which caused the perceived ethical threat). At this point, the ‘control culture’ took a greater role, with police, Parliament, and judiciary all responding to curb and contain the threat. In the case of the bodgie, even the army became informally involved to neutralize a subculture that was regarded by some as fair game. In all this, as with other folk devils, the media transmitted a stereotype of the bodgie, giving the deviant group the appearance of a greater uniformity and magnitude than they actually possessed.

The association between this treatment of a youth subculture and value laden conceptions of high-low culture was obviously obvious in the extensive condemnation of the bodgies’ preferred music, rock ‘n’ roll, on both aesthetic and moral grounds. There was no conversation of why the rock ‘n’ roll of Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley appealed to the bodgies, specifically, the social functions the music performed in the subculture. As Willis observes of the British scene: “It is difficult to evidence, but the motor-bike boys’ fundamental ontological security, style, gesture, speech, rough horseplay-their whole social ambience-seemed to owe something to the confidence and muscular style of early rock ‘n’ roll” (Willis, 1978:35). Informal interviews with former bodgies propose similar relations between musical styles and group values and identity, whereas twelve of Manning’s fifteen bodgies owned motorbikes!

If the bodgies and rock ‘n’ roll carefully fit the traditional pattern of moral panics, the case of the Gothic cultists is much less clear-cut. Once more, the media at first fastened on and sensationalized a youth subculture, presenting the gothic cultists in a stylized and stereotyped way. Though the suicides which sparked off the flurry of press comment symbolized a definite human tragedy for those concerned, press coverage tended to too-easily make a causal connection between the suicides and the subculture and its music. This labeling process fits Cohen’s use of ‘symbolization’, however the process did not obtain the status of a collective theme. It soon became obvious that adolescent suicide was a multifaceted issue, and surely not an act which a style of music alone could be held accountable for. The scale of the incidents was as well a factor: three ‘gothic suicides’ close together, with suggestions of death pacts, were clearly newsworthy. Once it became obvious though, that these were an isolated episode, and the intricacies of suicide among adolescents started to be aired, the press rapidly lost interest.

Further, the gothic subculture, (even supposinf it had such a collective standing) did not fit the folk devils’ image apparent in other moral panics over youth. However clearly not socially condoned, suicide constitutes a ‘crime against the self’ somewhat than a threat to society in any criminal sense. Nor was the subculture linked with delinquent behavior; being seen quite in terms of a particular style of hair, clothing and makeup-‘weird’, surely, but no more so than further historical and modern youth subcultural styles. Lastly, the reaction to the Gothic suicides barely represented a crisis of domination, requiring a reassertion of Cohen’s ‘control culture’.

If the gothics were not folk devils, and scarcely comprised a full-blown moral panic, as a minimum their music fitted the conventional negative reaction accorded popular culture, particularly its more ‘fringe’ variants. As with the bodgie’s preference for rock ‘n’ roll, there was almost no severe press discussion of the reasons for the Gothic preference for music that was often simplistically typified as ‘macabre and depressing’ (Dominion; 25 September 1988). It was as well too willingly assumed that the lyric content of songs was significant, ignoring the long debate on this point amongst consumers and critics of rock music. Similar points can be made in the case of the Dead Kennedys and rap, with both achieving the status of modern folk devils. The rap music of Ice-T and NWA, as well as the punk thrash of the Dead Kennedys were observed as obscene and politically intimidating to the status quo by its conservative critics. Rap’s position was complicated by being associated by many on the left with sexism and homophobia. So far, as Gilmore observes: “While it is true that there are rap performers who deserve to be criticized for their misogyny and homophobia, it is also true that by and large rap addresses questions about race, community, self determination, drug abuse and the tragedy of violence in intelligent and probing ways and it does so with a degree of musical invention that no other form can match” (Gilmore, 1990:13). One can as well point to a racist aspect in the attacks on rap. In the case of 2 Live Crew, for example, numerous commentators asked why a black group must be singled out for an obscenity prosecution in a state (Florida) where strip shows, pornographic videos and magazines are readily accessible. As with ‘gothic’ music, the rap and thrash genres were observed in minority cult terms by their critics, and their song lyrics were eminent to a central position in the music. This was mainly obvious in press coverage of the Ice-T controversy.

These case studies have demonstrated the interrelationships between youth subcultures, rock music, as well as moral panics mostly generated by the conservative right and fuelled-and at times constructed-by the media. The controversies surrounding rock and censorship have to be regarded as key battles in the ongoing struggle between the advocates of censorship and those of free speech. Though, assessment of the bodgies and rock ‘n’ roll, gothic suicides, the Dead Kennedys and rap obscenity trials proposes that while the notion of moral panic is important in explaining such episodes, we should attend to variations and differences in their development. What needs to be elucidated is not merely the social causes and nature of particular moral panics, however why the society reacts to them, in the extreme way it does, at that specific historical conjunction. In their study Policing the Crisis, Hall et al. examine the ‘discovery’ of mugging as a serious crime in the UK during 1972-1973. They conclude that this episode constituted a moral panic, “a panic which fits in almost every detail the process described by Cohen” (Hall et al., 1978:23). Hall et al. argue that a moral panic occurs within what Gramsci describes as a developing ‘crisis of hegemony’ (Gramsci, 1971), arising out of a particular historical context where the leading class is endeavoring to win power and consent through ideological means. Cohen’s stresses on the significance of labeling is still adhered to, as labels place and recognize the initial events so that these events are allocated to a context, to allow a mobilization of the meanings and connotations connected with that label. In Hall et al’s, explanation, the inspiration for labeling a particular phenomenon a moral panic is elucidated by the ‘crisis of hegemony’ which is working within the society at that time.

Relating this to moral panics around rock, is to locate them against the global appearance of a New Right, embracing free market politics and a moral cultural conservatism. As Grossberg observes of the US manifestation of this trend: “The new conservatism…is, in a certain sense, a matter of public language, of what can be said, of the limits of the allowable. This has made culture into a crucial terrain on which struggles over power, and the politics of the nation, are waged” (Grossberg, 1992:162). As he concludes, this great effort involves a new type of regulation: ‘a variety of attacks become tokens of a broader attack, not so much on the freedom of expression as on the freedom of distribution and circulation…’ (ibid: 163).

The debates about the outcomes of rock and the linked calls for censorship of the music are a sharp memento of the force of rock as emblematic politics, operating in the cultural arena. In associated fashion, and debatably even more powerfully representing its cultural power, is the use of rock to declare and support political views as well as causes.


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