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The Devil's Music, by Randall J. Stephens

22 June 2018

Harriet Baber on how rock music was feared and then co-opted

A HISTORY of “how Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ’n’ roll”, The Devil’s Music is the story of conservative Christians’ negotiation with the surrounding secular culture from the 1950s to the present, through the lens of their engagement with the popular music of the period.

Conservative Christians in the United States were by turns hostile to the transgressive race-mixing early-1950s rock ’n’ roll and Elvis Presley’s hip-grinding sexuality, relieved by the early-1960s white-boy surf and hot-rod bands, and subsequently horrified by the Beatles.

In the end, the rock idiom became the musical lingua franca of emerging non-denominational Evangelicalism: the music that the conservative Evangelicals rejected became the cornerstone of Evangelical liturgy. The oppressive, driving beat of rock and its variants boomed from the sound systems of every Evangelical megachurch.

This story of cultural conflict and accommodation is as old as St Paul’s struggle to distinguish universally binding moral principles from cultural practices of local provenance, which were not to be imposed on Gentile converts.

The rock ’n’ roll that emerged in the early 1950s was black music appropriated by white performers. “Colored folks”, Elvis said, “been singing it and playing it just like I’m doing now, man, for more years than I know.” Horrified critics condemned the rock idiom as “jungle music”: barbaric, primitive, incantatory — dangerous. It was “Negro music” and, they feared, promoted race mixing.

Popular music also, according to critics such as Billy Graham, encouraged gender-bending: “Ancient historians tell us”, Graham announced, “that one of the symptoms of declining civilization is a desexualization of the human race, with men becoming more effeminate and women becoming more masculine.” He and other conservative Christians took popular male musicians’ long hair to be evidence of effeminacy.

PAElvis Presley is the centre of female attention in a publicity shot for the film King Creole (1958). His bad-boy reputation was soon to be transformed by his very public entry into military service, for which less smouldering was required

In the end, though, it was not the transgressive views of race or gender which frightened and repelled conservative Christians, but the symbolic part that popular music played as a defining feature of the youth culture that emerged in the mid-20th century. It was then that the teenager as such was invented, the generation gap opened, and adolescents become a cultural Other — the barbarian within. Conservatives imagined a “juvenile jungle, filled with gangs, blaring music, drugs, and crime”. Anything adolescents did independent of adult tutelage was deemed a threat to the social order.

Ultimately, rock became religiously respectable because youth had become respectable. The old, as always, groused about the shortcomings of the younger generation, but, by the early 21st century, they no longer regarded the young as vectors of barbarism or threats to public safety. On the contrary, they complained that the young were ineffectual, hypersensitive “snowflakes”.

Conservative concern reverted to the usual suspects — above all, immigrants, who, President Trump warned, were “rapists”, bringing crime and drugs. The theme was the same: sex and drugs, violence and crime. Once adolescents were cast as the drug-crazed barbarians within, driven to sex and violence by the inexorable jungle beat of “Negro music”. Now conservative Americans imagined Mexicans pouring across the border to rape and pillage, under the auspices of a liberal elite.

The Devil’s Music chronicles the development of popular music in America since the mid-20th century, attending to the audience as well as the performers. Focusing on the reception of rock by conservative Christians, it is a commentary on the emerging social role of Evangelicals and the politics of the period.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in the United States.

The Devil’s Music: How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced Rock ’n’ Roll
Randall J. Stephens
Harvard University Press £21.95
Church Times Bookshop £19.75

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