“In order for a music for young people to come into being, young people have to have a way to play it”

In order for a music for young people to come into being, young people have to have a way to play it. The jukebox was one delivery mode: kids could listen to the music in a diner or an ice-cream shop, someplace outside the home and in the company of other kids. More significant, as Ennis points out, were several inventions. The 45-r.p.m. record—the single—was developed by RCA and marketed in 1949. Soon, RCA introduced a cheap plastic record player, which played only 45s and sold for twelve ninety-five. This meant that teen-agers could play “their” music out of their parents’ hearing. They did not have to listen in the living room on the family phonograph.

In 1954, transistor radios came on the market. Kids could now carry the music anywhere, including to school. A robust national economy in the United States after 1950 meant that teen-agers were staying in school longer than they had in the nineteen-thirties or during the war years. High school became an important social space. Material conditions therefore existed for a quasi-autonomous “teen culture,” and rock and roll beautifully fit the bill.

It has also been tempting to make sense of the rise of rock and roll as somehow related to the civil-rights movement, whose origins date from the same period. White enthusiasm for R. & B. music looks like a cultural indicator of future changes in race relations. This, too, seems largely a retrospective reading. The music of the movement was gospel, not pop or rhythm and blues.

In fact, the racialization of the rock-and-roll story, which continued after the nineteen-fifties in the form of charges that white artists had appropriated an African-American art form, is a simplification. It’s based on the idea that there is or was a “black” sound or a “black” musical style. That idea is an artifact of the old Billboard charting system, which was premised on just such an assumption. When you get down to cases, the racial elements become complicated very quickly.

Louis Menand, “The Elvic Oracle”, The New Yorker (16 November 2015), 86-87.