The development of popular music in the 20th century in the United States was influenced by a range of cultural factors. Demographic changes brought various independent cultures into contact, resulting in the creation of new cultures and subcultures, and music evolved to reflect these changes. Three significant cultural influences on music were migration, the evolution of youth culture, and racial integration.
Migration played a crucial role in shaping popular music in the United States over the past century. The Great Migration occurred when many black Americans moved from the South to the North, beginning in the early 20th century. The migration was a response to restrictive laws that segregated schools, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals. In addition, black farmers were seeking a more prosperous lifestyle and better opportunities for their talents in the North. As a result, blues musicians migrated from the Mississippi Delta to urban areas such as Chicago. Migrant blues musicians combined their original style with vaudeville and swing, creating a hybrid of blues. This new style of blues, including the electric blues of Mississippi-born guitarist Muddy Waters, influenced many musicians and became the basis for rock and roll.
Youth culture began to emerge in the post-World War II era as a result of a growing middle class and an increased focus on consumer culture. Teenagers found that they had more freedom and financial means to make decisions for themselves, leading to the rise of rock and roll music. Teenagers were beginning to listen to rhythm and blues songs, which were played on the radio by disc jockeys such as Alan Freed. The acceptance of Black musicians and their music, which was considered “cool,” contributed to the popularity of rock and roll music among teenagers.
Musical Influences on Culture
Although pop music has often been criticized for having a negative impact on society, particularly on young people, it also has a positive influence on culture. In the 1950s and 1960s, many artists challenged the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior with sexually charged performances and androgynous appearances. These artists paved the way for acts like the Rolling Stones and David Bowie to achieve mainstream success.
However, over the past five decades, rock and roll have been blamed for juvenile delinquency, heavy metal for increased teenage aggression, and gangsta rap for a rise in gang violence among young urban males. A recent study suggested that youths who listen to music with sexually explicit lyrics are more likely to engage in sexual activity at an early age. The study concluded that exposure to a large amount of sexually degrading music sends a specific message to teens about sex (MSNBC, 2006).
In the 1950s, Chuck Berry’s and Little Richards’ music was increasingly popular with white teenagers in America. As a result, many new acts were signed to independent labels, and larger companies like RCA lost their market share. To capitalize on the enthusiasm for rock and roll and prevent further losses, major record companies began signing black artists to cover the music of black artists.
The lyrics were removed from songs that contained references to sex, alcohol, and drugs. Pat Boone was one of the most popular cover artists of that era. He released songs originally written by Fats Domino and the El Dorados, as well as Little Richard and Big Joe Turner. This practice was called “hijacking” a hit, and it often led to black artists signing with independent labels and going bankrupt. Record sales often outsold original records by large companies like RCA, such as when they could distribute and promote their records widely.
Producers and artists of color would often take credit for songs that they cover and would purchase the rights to songs written by black writers without paying royalties or songwriting credit. This practice led to racial discrimination in the music industry. Okeh Records’ Danny Kessler, an independent record producer, stated that “the odds of a black record breaking through were slim.” The chances of a black artist covering a black record were slim – and big stations would play white records… But there was a line, and it wasn’t easy to cross.
While cover artists made money from work done by black R&B singers, sometimes they also promoted the original recordings. Many teens who heard cover songs on mainstream radio stations searched for the original versions. This increased sales and led Little Richard to call Pat Boone “the man that made me a millionaire.” Covers can also be a benefit. Ray Charles, a soul singer, covered Don Gibson’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in 1962. This song became a huge hit on Western and country charts and helped black musicians gain mainstream acceptance. Otis Redding performed the Rolling Stones’ hit “Satisfaction,” and Jimi Hendrix covered Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”