Rock’n’roll music has defied its critics. When it debuted in the 1950s, many adults ridiculed the phenomenon. Elvis, Chuck Berry, and their peers would soon be forgotten, another passing fancy in the cavalcade of youth-induced fads. The brash conceit, “rock’n’roll is here to stay,” however, proved astute.
Why were American adults and, for that matter, their Soviet counterparts frightened of rock’n’roll? Commentators ranted indignantly about the new music. Frank Sinatra complained that rock’n’roll featured: “cretinous goons” who used “almost imbecilic reiteration and sly, lewd, . . . dirty, lyrics” to become the “martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.” The New York Times quoted psychiatrist Francis Braceland, who called rock’n’roll, “a cannibalistic and tribalistic form of music.”
Rock’n’roll’s destructive and subversive force knew no bounds. A Florida minister claimed that “more than 98% of surveyed unwed mothers got into their predicament while under the influence of rock’n’roll.” New Jersey Senator, Robert Henrickson claimed, “Not even the Communist conspiracy could devise a more effective way to demoralize, confuse, and destroy the United States.”
Behind the Iron Curtain, Russian officials claimed that rock’n’roll was “an arsenal of subversive weapons aimed at undermining the commitment of young Russians to Communist ideology.” An East German observer believed rock’n’roll would “lead them [German youth] into a mass grave.” If these officials were correct, rock’n’roll was truly one of the most destructive forces in history.
Rock’n’roll inspired a conspiracy theory in a decade rife with conspiracies. How did rock displace established musical styles? Patti Page’s rendition of “How Much Is that Doggie (In the Window)” reached the top of Billboard’s chart, an indication of the popular pabulum pervading America during the early 1950s.
How could rock’n’roll compete with “How Much Is that Doggie?” The answer, my friend, was flowing out of wallets. Independent record producers paid disc jockeys to play daring, new forms of music. Authorities claimed that rock’n’roll would have proved stillborn, had it not been for subversion by good, American dollars. The rock’n’roll cretins had usurped the air time of wholesome performers.
Songwriters paying performers to play their songs was a long-standing tradition. This practice, known as payola, was a way for newcomers to break into the music business. Many of the top music publishers had once engaged in payola.
When independent record label producers began paying disc jockeys to play songs by unknown performers, the practice raised the ire of public crusaders and legislators who viewed the practice as novel and sinister. The 1950s were a decade of America “losing its innocence.” Rock’n’roll joined quiz-show rigging, the U-2 (the spy plane, not Bono), and a host of other incidents of lost innocence; Americans must have been careless with their innocence back then.
Rhode Island Senator John Pastore discounted payola’s importance by comparing the practice to paying a headwaiter to get a better table. Other legislators, though, recognized a heaven-sent opportunity to garner publicity and to curry favor with the legions of decency: Commercial corruption and rock’n’roll have got to go. Arkansas representative Oren Harris claimed that payola, “constitute[s] unfair competition with honest businessmen who refuse to engage in them. They tend to drive out of business small firms who lack the means to survive this unfair competition.”
Ronald Coase, Nobel-Prize Winner in Economics, pointed out the fallacy of this argument. Banning payola benefited established music publishers and producers, who could afford lavish marketing and distribution campaigns. Payola was an effective way for independents to enter the market.
Coase argues out that disc jockeys could not indiscriminately play any song for payola. Disc jockeys had to weigh the cash inducement against the effects upon his program’s ratings. If the disc jockey played unpopular music, his cachet and his job might disappear. Disc jockeys, therefore, would only accept payola for unknown songs and performers with potential appeal.
The legislators also had difficulty finding a law that payola participants violated. It was not necessarily bribery because station owners often approved of payola, since it meant more people wanted to be disc jockeys, thereby lowering salaries. Legislators eventually enacted legislation making payola illegal.
Disc jockey Alan Freed was rock’n’roll’s first martyr. Freed’s popularity plunged after he admitted accepting cash.
By the 1980s, even Ronald and Nancy Reagan claimed to be fans of the Beach Boys, although Secretary of the Interior James Watt tried to ban the group from playing on the National Mall for a Fourth of July celebration. Watt believed the band’s fans indulged in drug use and alcoholism. Even the Soviet Union was now happy to invite the band to play in Leningrad (the imagery of Lenin bopping to the Beach Boys’ beat tickles the imagination).
The furor over payola is largely forgotten, but rock’s beat remains.
Heading image: Chuck Berry 1971 by Universal Attractions. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.