The relationship of popular culture to ideology in the 1960s and into the 1970s has become of interest to academic sociology, although the alarmed interest of politicians has given way to accommodation. The relationship of the entertainment favored by highly visible classes of teenagers and young adults to the behavior of that audience, and especially its use of drugs, is probably now still too current an issue for full perspective and confident judgment.
The sense of possessing qualities equal to but set apart from those of established culture was an important element in the counter – culture of the later 1960s. But as increasing store was set by poetic texts, however radically they might be interpreted, the music was in danger of being cut off from its source of inspiration.
As singers became prized for originality, and originality led to complexity, complexity negated the political point (just as it negated the symbolic simplicity of the singer-and-his -guitar). The history of popular music suggests that it is very unlikely that musical entertainment can induce new behavior, or even introduce new ideas to the audience it must court in order to sell itself.
Though popular music has been blamed in the past for undermining community standards or otherwise damaging society, it is a new phenomenon for popular music to have the pervasive presence that prosperity and the portable radio and tape deck have given it lately, and for such conspicuous economic power to be vested in a youth audience.
The history of popular music that is now happening cannot be fully schematized and managed by the patterns of earlier popular music. Its development has always been contingent, surprising, and even discontinuous except when we rationalize it with hindsight, and it is continuing that unpredictable development now.
A second major contribution of the folk revival was the creation of an audience whose members identified themselves as a community. Until now, even the most committed notions of audience solidarity had centered on sharing the status of being deviants from the social norm; milder forms of teenage commonality had been limited largely to tastes in entertainment. The audience for Dylan, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs began to see their music as the first, essential step in the forging of a whole way of life.
A basic tenet of this lifestyle was antipathy to “commercialism” and the trappings of mass consumerism. Here the political contradictions soon became apparent – contradictions that dogged the fully-fledged counter-culture later in the decade.
As rock has evolved in the last quarter of a century and brought, among other things, self-conscious seriousness to popular music, it has prompted an immense volume of reportage and analysis, much of it empty but some perceptive and judicious. The attention that rock has demanded has occasioned the first widespread, serious critical attention to the popular arts in general.
Many adherents found themselves torn between the desire to spread a cultural and political message, via folk music, and the fear that the channel used to do so – the communications market – place – would taint the musical tradition through commercial exploitation. Successful dissemination brought with it the risk of betrayal: “ Folk music,” wrote Sing Out editor Irwin Silber in 1964, “ is the voice and expression of generations of ordinary folk who were on familiar terms with hard work. Success is the `American Dream’, the middle-class confusion of illusion and reality.”
Dismayed by the appearance of the personality cult, that most hated aspect of “rat-race culture”, diehards saw no gains in the coming together of folk and commerce: “ The fundamentally healthy content of the folk music tradition (is) lost in the caverns of Tin Pan Alley”. From the perspective of popular music, rather than folk, however, the encounter was significant: it marked the beginning of a “creative space” or division between art and image, or between the artist’s authentic voice and the product that reached the market-place. Later musicians would find this space a fruitful area in which to explore and dispute meanings.
To younger folk-revival musicians – and perhaps to Dylan especially – by 1964 the limitations of the idiom, of its audience, of its saleability, had become too clear to overlook. Wholly unexpectedly, the impetus to switch direction and absorb the sounds of rock (as rock `n’ roll had now come to be known) came from a country that, according to critic Charlie Gillett, “had made no previous significant contribution to popular music in the 20th century”. Nostalgia, publicity promotion, and the university environment of a part of the proprietary audience of rock have contributed to the growing critical and scholarly interest in popular music of the past as well as the present. We are in the process of discovering a heritage; it is certain to contribute to the understanding of our own culture.
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