A slender academic treatment of rock music as a cultural, political, and historical force.
Rock ’n’ roll has a long pedigree, and Altschuler (American Studies/Cornell Univ.) follows its history only partway to its birth in the union of black country blues and hillbilly balladry. Instead, his story begins in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when a few daring “race” artists managed to bring their sound to white teenagers in an era when “the orchestras of Mantovani, Hugo Winterhalter, Percy Faith, and George Cates created mood music for middle-of-the-road mid-lifers, who hummed and sang along in elevators and dental offices.” Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, and other rock historians have done better than Altschuler in capturing the mood of the revolution that followed, but Altschuler shines when he sets the history of rock in the context of other social trends, particularly the growing civil-rights movement and American advertising’s discovery of adolescents as a market segment. All were calculated to bring down the harrumphing of older social critics, who were legion: the authors of U.S.A. Confidential, who worried that disk jockeys and their audiences were “hopheads. . . . Many others are Reds, left-wingers, or hecklers of social convention”; the poet Langston Hughes, who grumped that rock ’n’ roll “makes a music so basic it’s like the meat cleaver the butcher uses”; even the late-in-the-day editorialists at the New York Times, who harped at the “nightmare of mud and stagnation” that supposedly was Woodstock. Rock ’n’ rollers weren’t the only ones to endure controversy, Altschuler adds, noting that the NAACP turned on Nat King Cole for his political indifference (Cole later became a committed civil-rights activist), and even safe-as-milk Pat Boone was once suspected of harboring hophead thoughts. Rock ’n’ roll carried the day against all its critics, though, to become whatever it is now, capable of exciting puritan and prurient emotions alike.
So dry at times that the reader may worry whether rock is truly dead. But an informative depiction of the early sound and fury all the same.