A cultural and music critic, Pomona College Professor of English Kevin Dettmar explores the role of rock ‘n’ roll in American cultural history. Long before the Nobel Prize in Literature was bestowed upon rock ‘n’ roll hall-of-famer Bob Dylan, Dettmar was researching and teaching British and modern Irish literature as well as contemporary popular music.
A co-editor for the 33 1/3 book series about influential albums, Dettmar is editor of “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” and teaches a course on Flashpoints in Rock ‘n’ Roll History.
“Controversy has surrounded popular music since its earliest days; exploring those controversies can tell us a lot about American culture’s uneasy relationship with youth culture—about what we expect from music, and about our displeasure when rock won’t do what it’s told. Since at least Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” (1951), the history of rock ‘n’ roll is a pretty sensitive barometer of American cultural history,” says Dettmar.
Here are 10 “flashpoints” in the history of rock and pop music from Dettmar’s English class.
1. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” (1955)
You might not think there was anything especially shocking about a chubby 30-year-old nerd in a checkered blazer singing an anthem to youth and freedom. No one had paid any attention when the song was released in 1953; when director Richard Brooks put it on the soundtrack for his gritty drama about juvenile delinquency Blackboard Jungle, however, audiences erupted, and the enduring figure of the rock ‘n’ roll hooligan was born.
2. Dylan “Goes Electric” at Newport (1965)
The quintessential rock flashpoint: Bob Dylan desecrates the sacred space of the Newport Folk Festival by plugging in his Sunburst Fender Stratocaster and playing “Like a Rolling Stone” and other new songs at ear-splitting volume and high voltage. What was at stake? Nothing less than the authenticity and truth-telling potential of rock ‘n’ roll.
3. The Beatles Are “More Popular than Jesus” (1966)
John Lennon’s off-the-cuff remark to reporter and friend of the band Maureen Cleave—“We’re more popular than Jesus now”—whether accurate or not, was surely ill-advised. The comment didn’t attract notice in the U.K., but when reprinted in the U.S. prompted boycotts, record-burnings and threats on the band; the American tour proved to be their last. Rock and religion often proves a toxic cocktail: see No. 8, below.
4. Bowie’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (1973)
Having failed to provoke any real outrage with his earlier behavior, such as wearing a “man’s dress” on stage, David Bowie took it all a bit further, inventing the first space-alien rock star, Ziggy Stardust. When the 18-month-long world tour wound down on July 3, 1973, on Bowie’s home turf of the Hammersmith Odeon in London, he closed the show with the track that closes the Ziggy Stardust album—“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”—and prefaced it by saying: “Of all the shows on the tour this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, it’s the last show we’ll ever do.” Fans were aghast; the press was abuzz. But it wasn’t Bowie’s retirement—only Ziggy’s. Bowie quickly re-emerged in the next of his seemingly infinite series of chameleon poses, Aladdin Sane.
5. George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord” (1976)
“Subconscious plagiarism”? Though it was a new concept in the law, Harrison was found guilty of having committed it, since his hymn to the Lord Krishna bore such striking similarity to the Chiffon’s 1963 hymn to “that handsome boy over there,” “He’s So Fine.” Harrison said it was the 18th-century (and long out of copyright) Christian hymn “Oh Happy Day” that provided his inspiration; had he been more persuasive on that point, he could have saved himself $1.6 million.
6. The Milli Vanilli Lip Sync Scandal (1990)
Lip synching has long been the open secret of slickly produced pop music when it’s performed live. But Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan weren’t just miming the catchy singing they’d sung on the six-time platinum album Girl You Know It’s True, for which they won a Grammy: the handsome models’ voices are nowhere on the record. The jig was up when, during a “live” MTV performance, their CD malfunctioned; Rob & Fab vamped, then panicked and finally ran off stage. Their Grammy was revoked, and the band’s name became a punch line. In 1998, Pilatus died of a drug and alcohol overdose that was ruled accidental.
7. “Cop Killer” (1992)
When Ice T and his band Body Count recorded their inner-city revenge fantasy with lyrics expressing violence against police to protest racial profiling and police brutality (c.f. N.W.A, “F— tha’ Police,” 1988), the police—and President George H.W. Bush, his vice president Dan Quayle, Tipper Gore in The Washington Post, &c.—fought back. In the process, we learned that the right to create fiction isn’t equally granted to all. Ice T, under his “civilian” name Tracy Marrow, has starred for the past decade and a half as Detective “Fin” Tutuola on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
8. Sinéad O’Connor Tears Into the Pope on Saturday Night Live (1992)
In October 1992, on live television, the Irish singer who had come to public attention for her gorgeous version of Prince’s “Nothing Compares to You” performed Bob Marley’s “War,” slipping oblique references to the burgeoning Catholic child abuse scandal in Ireland into the lyrics, before dramatically holding up a photograph of the Pope, tearing it to bits and demanding, “Fight the real evil.” The studio audience sat in stunned silence; the television audience crashed NBC’s switchboards. “Official” NBC footage of the program substitutes her dress-rehearsal performance of the song, but you can find the broadcast footage on YouTube. It’s still stunning.
9. 2 Live Crew, “Oh Pretty Woman” (1994)
While 2 Live Crew’s entire undistinguished career was a calculated offense to middle America—just Google the cover of Nasty as They Wanna Be if you’re not familiar with their oeuvre—the Crew did in fact strike one important blow for artistic freedom. Sued by Roy Orbison’s music publisher for an infringing use of “Oh Pretty Woman,” the band was vindicated under the fair use exception for parody under the Copyright Act of 1976.
10. Beyoncé’s Half-Time “Formation” at Super Bowl L (2016)
It’s fitting that we close with this moment from Beyoncé, a.k.a. Queen Bee. Dropping the first track from her new album the day before the Super Bowl, Beyoncé came out to perform it flanked by female dancers dressed up in black leather outfits meant to invoke the Black Panthers, and herself wearing an outfit that gestured to the one Michael Jackson wore for his Super Bowl performance in 1993. Over 100 million Americans—many of them doubtless unfamiliar with Beyoncé and her music—were forced to confront the Black Lives Matter movement in a venue normally thought impervious to politics.