Religion and popular music -- yes, even rock 'n' roll -- have been close cousins for most of the century. Only in the last thirty years has rock 'n' roll put a premium on aggression and revolution, forsaking melody, harmony, and spiritual expression. Amazingly, in the last few years -- and leading into this year's Grammy Awards -- rock 'n' roll seems to be finding its authentic voice again. This may be the year that the Woodstocking of pop at last comes to an end.
Of course, according to Rolling Stone, Spin, and MTV, rock 'n' roll has always been about rebellion. In the early 1950s, Elvis emerged, and after his arrival nothing would be the same. The hypocrisy of button-down America was exposed, the kids were freed from sexual and emotional restraint, and the careers of such lightweight crooners as Patti Page and Bing Crosby were destroyed. And the musical assault on conformity continued through the Beatles, punk rock, and rap. The whole point, as Spin writer Eric Weisbard puts it, is that rock is an "innately unruly form."
In her marvelous 1994 Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, Martha Bayles concedes that Elvis was shocking for a few. But she insists that the Elvis phenomenon wasn't as much about American teenagers' revolution as it was about American teenagers' dancing. By the time Elvis came along, the old swing bands had been largely replaced by such wispy pop stars as Perry Como and Doris Day, and the kids wanted to dance. As Bayles noted in a 1998 article in the Public Interest, Elvis had much in common with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra. "Return to Sender," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "Love Me Tender" have more to do with swing than with later rock. And the early Beatles songs -- "Love Me Do," "Eight Days a Week," "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- called for dancing in the streets rather than fighting in them.
The swing and rhythm and blues that gave birth to Elvis was primarily religious. As Ted Gioia's Jazz: A History reveals, jazz developed not in the whorehouses of New Orleans, but in the churches. Buddy Bolden, widely regarded as the first jazz musician, didn't learn his horn in the red-light district -- which had little music in it -- but in church. As Steve Turner explains in Hungry for Heaven: Rock & Roll and the Search for Redemption, the rockers of the 1950s were similarly reared. Elvis grew up in the Baptist church and claimed his "wiggle" was based on a revival preacher he had seen. Buddy Holly was also a Baptist, and based his group's vocal harmonies on country spirituals. Such black singers as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Little Richard often blurred the line between popular and religious music. In both forms the ethos was the same: to deal with the tragedy, humiliation, and occasional exuberance of life with elan, charm, and wit rather than pettiness, vanity, and solipsism -- the markers of today's rock.
So how did we get from Elvis to Woodstock? According to Bayles, the real shift came not in the 1950s, but in the 1960s. It was then that the positive, funny, sensual, and spiritual idioms of the African-American tradition collided with "perverse modernism": "the antiart impulses of the European avant-garde, which gave rise historically to such movements as decadence at the end of the nineteenth century; futurism at the start of the twentieth; dada in the 1920s; surrealism and the theater of cruelty in the 1930s; and postwar retreads of these movements, such as happenings and performance art in the 1950s and 60s."
These influences came into rock 'n' roll when the products of England's art schools began playing American music. The most famous practitioners were the Rolling Stones, who began as a third-rate blues cover band and turned into the menacing alternative to the Beatles. The Stones quickly gained fame by their rudeness toward authority and bourgeois values and Mick Jagger's cross-dressing -- antics that are regarded as part of rock's tradition but in reality had nothing to do with the positive spirituality of American pop music forms.