History 17B Lecture 18 War of the Generations Page 3

B.  Sexual Overtones

Parents were just as worried about the sexual overtones of rock music as they were about its possible violent nature.  Jerry Lee Lewis' "GREAT BALLS OF FIRE" and Joe Turner's original version of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" undermined the era's desire to keep sex in the bedroom and off the airwaves.  Many critics, however, accused parents of pointing out sexual undertones where children may not have seen it.  Overall, the adult reaction was greatly exaggerated.

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Jerry Lee Lewis

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What frightened adults most of all was Elvis Presley and, as one observer noted, "his inextinguishable sex hot flame."  (HOUND DOG)  His appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in September of 1956 attracted the biggest TV audience in history up until that year.  His swiveling hips, however, were hidden from the public as CBS blacked out the bottom half of the television screen.  The sexual undertones that children could once only hear over the radio could now be seen at concerts and on TV.  Parents were outraged and stars like Elvis became an instant success.  (Listen to his performances on Ed Sullivan by clicking HERE.)

C.  Wild Behavior

Adults were astonished at the reactions that came over their children as they listened to rock music.  The scream that was accompanied with crooners of the forties were much different from the wild and emotional scream of the '50s, and the wild and uncontrollable dancing that rock music caused astounded parents.  Psychologists called for a major nation-wide study of its effects. girls.jpg (34146 bytes)

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Dr. Joost Meerlo, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, found the effects of rock music dangerous to society as a whole.  He paralleled the dancing effects to the St. Vitus Dance, a contagious epidemic which caused its victim to break into uncontrollable, unstoppable dancing which swept Europe in the Fourteenth Century.  These medieval children would dance themselves into a "rhythmic trance until it had gone far beyond all the accepted versions of dancing."  Rock 'n' roll of the fifties represented the "violent mayhem long repressed on earth."  Believing that rock music was a sign of depersonalization and mental decline, society was preparing its "downfall in the midst of pandemic funeral dances" if it could not stem the tide.

D.  Juvenile Delinquents

Luckily, Meerlo's view was not widely shared, but there were more than a few adults who feared that rock music was turning children into juvenile delinquents.  The causes of delinquency and youth crime are, of course, far more complex and varied, and Alan Freed sought to reassure parents that enjoying rock music did not mean a one-way ticket to the penitentiary.  He even justified rock 'n' roll by saying he was helping to fight juvenile delinquency by keeping kids listening and dancing to their new records at home instead of going out and looking for trouble.   KidsDancing.jpg (53625 bytes)

As for the violent outbreaks at concerts and movie theaters, many agreed that the perpetrators were disturbed and hostile before they got there.  "But for the disturbed, hostile, and insecure youth," Adolescent Court Judge Hilda Schwarts said, "the stimulation of frenzied abandoned music certainly can't be considered therapy."  Despite the minority defense for rock, however, the parents of America declared war on rock 'n' roll.

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