1950smusic in the United States
1950smusic in the United States
The US has one of the richest musical histories in the world thatembodies the nation`s diversity and achievements. During the 1950s,the American musical scene was unique in the manner it reflectedexisting political, economic, global, and social conditions. Mostimportantly, this was the period after the end of the Second WorldWar (WWII) where the US had emerged victorious and reinforced herposition as a superpower. Economic progress characterized the periodthough the changes also created anxiety over rapid transformationsuch as increased urbanization and louder calls for equality. Thesedevelopments, emotions, and worries were reflected in music lyricallyand even in the beats across different genres as part and parcel ofart. Also, the US government strategically used music and the themescovered in it to attain specific objectives in her local andinternational relations. Thus, it can be argued that music of the1950s epitomizes contradicting notions of rebellion and conformitythat played into the government`s intention of creating socialconditions celebrating American values to evoke patriotism locallyand also sell American values to foreign countries.
The theory of constructivism supports this argument. Under thistheory, the paper argues that the music of the 1950s did not justemerge and evolve randomly, but was rather given form by activemeasures undertaken by key players such as the government. Thegovernment sponsored and even facilitated the spread of music not asan end in itself but also achieve underlying goals (Devetak, 2011).Thus, music is portrayed as a tool that can work in rallyingpatriotism and spread external influence. For the music scene of the1950s, it is evident that African-Americans were allowed enough spaceto express their frustrations about inequality while at the same timerallying Americans together not only for their benefit but alsoportray America positively in matters relating to democracy and humanfreedoms.
For a government still reeling from the effects of a WWII and theKorean War, the 1950s required nationalism and patriotism drivers.Music had played a key role in the first and second WW and evenduring the Great Depression to help raise hope and gather Americanstowards a common goal. Politicians recognize the important role musicplays in society. For instance, President Hoover had approached amusician, Rudy Valle, to record a song that would make people forgetabout their worries caused by the Great Depression (Hadju 2009). Pastregimes also sponsored various musicians to record patriotic songs tomotivate soldiers and even rally populations towards a commonobjective. Usually, music is treated as a part and parcel of thepropaganda machine that works best in sending a consistent messageaimed at evoking a particular reaction (Gac, 2005).
Although this decade experienced relative peace, there was a need forthe US government to send a consistent message both locally andinternationally. Previously, music had proved to be a valuable tool.Therefore, the music of the 1950`s developed and evolved withsubstantial influence from the government both implicitly andexplicitly. As the 1940`s ended, Americans were still celebratingwinning the war and patriotic songs were common. Under the notion ofbeing a good American, music reinforced traditional gender roles bydescribing specific roles of men and women during the war. After thewar, women were expected to go back to being housewives to bear andraise another generation of soldiers (O’Keefe, 2014). Furthermore,romantic music that praised war heroes suppressed social turmoil.Thus, the idea of being an American and living in a certain way wasperpetuated through music, and other mean such as literature andpoetry.
Accordingly, themajority of Americans strived for uniformity that entailed living ina manner popularized by the mainstream media. The media andespecially television helped popularize the concept of conforming toset standards of behavior and mannerism. Shows such as Leave toBeaver and Father Knows Best popularized the ideal American and evenhelped to shape the American dream. Thus many individuals sought toconform to a set way of living and thinking that was also helped bythe creation of suburbs often with similar houses and the rise ofretail chains and franchises such as McDonald`s. Music was not leftbehind in this hype for conformity. Jimmie Osborne recorded "God,Please Protect America" in 1950 as a rallying call for Americansabout to invade North Korea. In TV, the shows such as AmericanBandstand which premiered in 1952 helped popularize certain dancemoves that would be replicated all over the country (Wierzerbicki,2011).
The Big Band/Swing approach to music was popular during WWII andcarried on for the better part of the 50s decade. This formation inmusic suited war conditions and mirrored the need for each Americansoldier playing his unique role in the military. The approach wastypified by several musicians playing as an orchestra or band using avariety of instruments. The music was highly structured with no roomfor improvisation. Some musical historians have termed such kind ofmusic as ‘mechanized` a term that would later apply to a workingnation seeking economic prosperity. Authentic History (2012)claimsthat the approach to music was borrowed from rising industries thatwere highly mechanized and relied on production lines characterizedby strictly structured operations. Thus, the US government sponsoredmusical events of such bands locally and internationally to not onlyspread American culture but also demonstrate to Americans thesuccesses of uniformity in society. That consistency and togethernesswould unite Americans against foreign aggression.
The big band approach gave way to classic pop music that alsoadvocated conformity. Classical pop emphasized more on vocals.Interest in vocals gave way to jazz and rhythm and blues. Same as theswing music that had played a huge role in American foreignrelations, pop music would spread to other countries includingGermany and France that had been weaned on swing music during WWII.However, the pop and jazz music of the 1950s was not very popularamong Communist and German-controlled countries as the Nazi regimelabeled it ‘degenerate Negro music` or ‘inhuman` owing to itsAfrican-American origin(Gac, 2005). Banning the music encouraged someGerman and French kids to rebel by listening to it. In France, thegenre was assimilated into their culture with a change of language.
The Nazi occupation of Paris during WWII interrupted jazz music`srole of smoothing American foreign relations. With the Nazisvehemently opposed to jazz music, there was a slight decline in thepopularity of the music in France. However, at the end of the war,there was a new jazz renaissance in France. Some of the American jazzartists and bands that had been expelled by the Nazi forces returnedto (ParisBernstein drops talk with music, 1959). In fact, FestivalInternational de Jazz in Paris was established to celebrate thisgenre of music in the country. Famous performers such as DizzyGillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, and Kenny Clarke allperformed in this venue in the preceding years allowing for culturalexchanges and exerting American cultural influence (Gac 2005).
Some individuals stood out in their role of exercising American softpower on France and other countries. Sidney Bechet took to nurturingand training young artists to develop the first generation of Frenchjazz musicians. A New Orleans native and an African American, Bachetwas not very popular in his home country but had a massive followingin France. Again, Miles Davis lent his solo influence on the Frenchpeople through music. His music was used as soundtracks in the Frenchfilm ‘Ascenceur pour l`Echaufaud` while his collaboration withJuliet Greco elevated him to a celebrity status in France. As such,American musicians were accused of sneaking the American ideology toFrance and other countries (Rock Music Timeline, 2012).
Lyrically, the traditional music of conformity reinforced genderroles. While the WWII had destabilized gender roles with women beingpushed to work in factories, some never returned home after the war.Some continued working and were perceived as going outside thenorm(Gac, 2005). As such, some artists composed music that praisedthe conservative woman who understood her role and standing insociety. Ideally, the woman was mandated in helping her man andtaking care of the household and the husband and not being a breadwinner. For instance, Jimmy Dale covered an earlier patriotic a songby Willie Carter in which the singer, a corn farmer from Iowa, was"saying goodbye" to his wife as he went to war with Korea.In the song, the singer pleads with his wife to take care of the farmand wait for his return (Authentic History, 2012).
Paradoxically, the music of the 1950s in America preachednon-conformity. Most importantly, a new genre of music called rock‘n’ roll emerged as a response to the conforming nature of rhythmand blues and jazz. This kind of music is partly credited to theefforts of Disc Jockey Alan Freed who created a shown named Moondogthat would play up-tempo rhythm and blues and target white audiences(Bernstein Work Heard in Moscow 1959). Previously, jazz and rhythmand blues targeted black audiences. Freed rebelled against the statusquo and introduced music to the white audience. He mixed all bleedsthat would later emerge as the rock and roll. The notion of rebellionmakes the music genre spread fast. Some artists such as Pat Boone,The Crewcuts, and Georgia Gibbs excelled in making Rock and Rollcovers of past R ‘n’ B turning them into chart-topping hits.Elvis Presley as a rock ‘n’ roll icon also created several hits.In fact, by 1959, rock ‘n’ roll music accounted for 43% of allrecords sold(Rock Music Timeline, 2012)
The rebellious nature of rock and roll music served American interestvery well in portraying the level of freedom and democracy inAmerica. The government sponsored several cultural events in variouscountries such as Poland, Mexico and Greece to popularize Americanmusic. Ideally, the government was responding to accusations by theSoviets based on oppression and racism against Africa Americans. Withthe majority of the jazz music of the 50s and RnB headed by AfricanAmericans, it was an opportune time for the country to show thatthese people were not as oppressed as the Soviet regime claimed. JohnBirks "Dizzy" Gillespie and William Warfield made daringtours around the world under the sponsorship of the US federalgovernment to highlight the country`s racial quality progress (Gac2005).
As discussed above, music is not played for the sole purpose ofentertainment. As a form of expression and entertainment, it canachieve many objectives. As illustrated above, the 1950s music scenein America was dominated by Jazz music that preached conformity andthe spread American values. Again, rock ‘n’ roll emerged as arebellion against conformity and also aided in spreading the Americanvalues of freedom and individualism. Thus, all these developments inmusic are socially created conditions aimed at achieving greaterpolitical objectives in international relations. The case offers agood example of how countries can work on their internationalrelations in a harmonious and well-rounded manner.
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