Listen now (62 mins) | Discussion with Rob Henderson on Blackboard Jungle (1955)
Well, regarding M/F relations and stereotypes, it's still true that women spend half their time staring at themselves in a mirror obsessing over their looks. What's changed is that they're not just doing it "to keep their hubby happy"....
In the context of the 1950s, the charge of "racist" actually deserved more, not less, sting, because it evoked the extant, genuinely odious racism of the time.
As Richard Bicker and Jerry Quinn before me note, much of what 'everyone knows' is hallucinated. Women have been portrayed as groundbreakers for far longer than the past decade. And women were very common in schools and in the workforce for far longer than anyone really considers.
So too is the modern conception - especially in media - of racism a bit hackneyed. Look up how frequently the black dude _actually_ dies first in horror films. You might be surprised. A random examination: https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/a/matt-barone/black-characters-horror-movies , and despite this, we get a film dedicated to the 'omnipresent' trope that 'everyone knows' and much hand-wringing about it elsewise.
It'd be fascinating for someone to sit down and analyze the origin and accuracy of these culture war memes (in the actual sense of the word, as opposed to 'cute internet fad'). Consider it for a future piece, Rich.
I'm sure this film helped substantially, but rock 'n' roll had too much working in its favor to not succeed. It was the rap music of its era: the equipment was simple and cheap compared to jazz or swing or classical, but the tech required to make it -- electric instruments -- was new, hence why it hadn't been done before; the harmonic requirements were less intense, meaning the players didn't have to be as skilled as they did with other popular genres; it was loud, it was fast, and it could be projected to a wide audience via both broadcasting and at live venues, compliments of improvements in both sound projection technology and telecommunications. It was also an era where teenagers, in spite of the best efforts of the New Deal to shit them out of the labor market, had more purchasing power than ever before, so their more adventurous ears were rewarding market success like never before.
That said, I haven't had the chance to listen to the podcast yet. I'm intrigued by whether you come to a similar conclusion.
And loud, fast, electric music didn't necessarily have to take the form it did. It was shaped not just by material conditions and random chance, but by the creative decisions of countless musicians, producers, performers, promoters, artists, and engineers. There are many different forms it could've taken. But they inevitably would've been drawn to the same advantages that the early rock pioneers were drawn to. We humans love playing loud and fast.
My first reaction was that this was part of generational change with the baby boomers. Then I realized that I didn’t do math. Baby boomers were 10 years old at most. So this was a silent generation thing. Thank you, silent generation, for rock.
I was 13 when that movie was released and I thought it was the coolest thing I ever saw. May years later I watched it and thought it was corny. Still love the song.
I’m a fan of that film, which I think is an entertaining work irrespective of your interesting observations about its cultural implications. I’m intrigued by what you wrote, but mainly I’m glad for the reminder that I need to see it again; thanks for this piece!
The superb podcast, A History of Rock and Roll in 500 Songs, has an episode on Rock Around the Clock that is full of interesting context about the song, Bill Haley, etc.
I’ve actually been going down the rabbit hole on this exact topic for a couple of weeks-- when and why did white American racial attitudes modernize?
A fantastic book on this is “In Search of Human Nature” by Carl Degler. Combine his book with older polls of racial attitudes and you get roughly this model:
1900-1930, left wing racial attitudes take over the social sciences, mainstream Americans and real scientists are talking about Nordic superiority
1930s-40s the mainstream left and democrats in upper middle classes adopt very modern attitudes. Blame Hitler and the Great Depression, which made communism seem reasonable
1950s is when the normies and moderates flip, largely due to the kind of liberal media efforts you’d recognize today: Emit Till, Brown v Board and “The Science” proving things like the racist baby doll study, Hollywood efforts like this movie, the United Nations “Statement on Race” calling biology a myth
Conservatives, especially in the South, maintain classic racist attitudes until about 1970, then fairly quickly adapted to the modern norm
I think it’s a really good idea to start considering the “source material” of our culture rather than the popular view we are told. While watching a series of 1950’s sci-fi b-movies, I was honestly surprised at a trope that kept occurring: the lone female scientist on the ship or team. Imagine that! Women, positively portrayed in STEM, and generally providing valuable scientific contributions to the team (and not merely ‘eye candy” for boys).
It made me think: What else of our recent cultural past that we have been told was terrible for women, minorities, etc... is actually true? Nearly every person of my parents generation, who grew up in the 50s, claim everything was better culturally back then. I am still a little skeptical, but I am starting to pay attention.
If you’re going to be in the podcast business, perhaps you should not use ‘like’ three times per sentence.
Careful...going back in time to "discover" the roots of today's concept of "racism" will take you into some very odd places. Be sure to look up (newpaper) photos of crowd scenes (parades, store openings, sports celebrations, etc.) in Birmingham, Alabama during the Jim Crow era. Happy travels.
A History of Rock https://thecritic.co.uk/top-of-the-pops/