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ABOUT The World ...  

Par Claude Chastagner, professeur d'anglais à l'Université Paul Valéry à Montpellier.

Rock music, mass culture & the counter culture

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More interesting still is the way rock artists have subverted the Grammy Awards, an establishment of popular culture. Until 1966, the most coveted award (Best Album) went to artists such as Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Stan Getz or Herb Alpert. In 1967, rock music entered for the first time with The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

Since then, rock artists only have received the prestigious award, other musical genres having to make shift with minor ones; recipients have been Blood Sweat and Tears, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, The Doobie Brothers, John Lennon, Toto, Tina Turner, Lionel Ritchie, Phil Collins, Stevie Winwood, Paul Simon, U2, Bonnie Raitt, etc. 
To know whether all of these artists can still be labelled "rock" is another issue. With the opening of a rock'n'roll Hall of Fame or the systematic use by television of rock music in the soundtrack of various commercials, sports programs or serials, rock has become even more ensconced in mass culture.

The situation is particularly interesting as rock music has always defined itself as a reaction to mass culture. The grounds on which rock has confronted mass culture have obviously varied in time, as this culture itself was altered by the impact of previous rock genres. But rock dynamics stems from the tension between the centrifugal movement required by the entertainment industry and the centripetal dimension of each new musical wave. It may sound paradoxical to credit rock music with a centripetal force, as most artists seem rather motivated by a craving for the largest possible success and recognition.

However, their work is often sustained by a desire to prevent rock music from growing flat and dull, from losing its roots, its soul. Music has to be brought back to a center, a core, an origin all the more mythical as it combines at the same time with a quest for newness. Each new style consequently entails a redefining of existing links with mass culture as a whole and with previous rock genres. Rock music feeds on this tension between mass culture expansionism and the artist's will to remain "outside," "on the fringes." Rock progresses through a series of breaks and assimilations, its final aim being to become popular without selling out. 

Year after year, rock artists have modified their demands. The glorification of consumption offered by Chuck Berry and the other early rock'n'rollers can be taken as a disapproval of the ideals still prevalent at the time: work, moderation, disregard for racial minorities and the youth. 

But such a stand was in turn criticized during the 60s, particularly in the U.S., by the Hippie movement. Material possessions ceased to be attractive and were superceded by more ethical values still looked down upon by the society of the time: 
love, pacifism, recognition of racial and sexual minorities, exploration of the self, concern for nature and so forth. By integrating the positions of the counter culture, rock became its mouthpiece; it rejected the tenets of mass society, the apology of consumption and of the American Dream, the stranglehold exerted by industry and technocracy over the country's cultural and intellectual life. 
Different rallying cries appeared ("Small is beautiful", "I'm black and I'm proud") which crystallized the refusal of the dominant cultural and economic ideology.


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° Rubrique About The World