We can see the result: the extinction of the protest song and the rise of disco music.
I recently heard a documentary on the history of rock and roll. Having grown up during that era, I listened with interest. “Rock was born in 1955 when Bill Haley and the Comets released ‘Rock Around the Clock.’ By 1956 Elvis Presley was a legend. Twenty million kids watched “American Bandstand” every week. The transistor radio was introduced well within the price range of the baby-boom-turned-teen-age market, and the world has never been the same.” So began the radio documentary: brash, boisterous, and unabashedly optimistic. But the story of rock ends dismally. In the last 25 years rock music has progressed through several critical stages.
Christians ought to be aware of these stages—which are not simply about music, but about people who have developed non-Christian world views that are propagated through rock music. People’s lives are falling apart. They do not realize that their failures are in part the result of the attitudes conveyed in their music. Rock and roll went through an adolescence for the first 10 years—1955 to 1965. But in the late 60s, teen-agers began to hear a different beat—the rock beat of social conscience that led to a folk music revival. Peter, Paul, and Mary were in the forefront. They sang music with a strong social conscience. But the John the Baptist of this movement was Bob Dylan.
This music had wider airplay when Barry McGuire’s “The Eve of Destruction” hit number one in September of 1965. This song started a trend of music that was not rock, not folk, but protest. Race relations, war, and materialism became accepted subjects until 1972.
Simultaneously, while rock developed a social conscience it also developed a soul. As young people wrestled with the difficulties of social justice and rebelled against materialism, they sensed that man has spiritual needs to be satisfied. But how?
Drugs. Brotherly love. Relaxed sexual mores. And religion. In 1969 and 1970, 10 percent of rock songs had a religious theme, though not necessarily Christian. George Harrison, for example, could sing “My Sweet Lord” (1970) with the background “choir” singing both “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna.” Hardly anyone noticed the difference. Even when the Byrds were singing, “Jesus is just alright with me,” most young people were looking to themselves or their peers for spiritual answers.
Social conscience and soul developed twin-like, side by side. As they grew stronger, the counterculture became cocksure that they could give birth to their dreams. The song “Aquarius” from Hair (1966) became the name of an era, which culminated in Woodstock, New York, in the summer of 1969. There 400,000 young people attended the Woodstock Rock Festival. The crescendo of optimism resulting from Woodstock was best expressed by Joni Mitchell: “We are stardust. We are golden. We are caught in the devil’s bargain, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” The Woodstock nation, as the counterculture now called itself, was confident that for them Eden was just around the bend. What happened? Don McLean in 1971 gave an answer: his “American Pie” is one of the most significant rock songs ever released; but he admitted failure.
Why had the music died? The drugrelated deaths of superstars Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (1971) demonstrated that drugs was not the answer. The Beatles, who symbolized the optimism of the rock movement, disbanded amid legal hassles. The rock scene turned ugly after Woodstock. At the Rolling Stone’s Altamont, California, concert (1970) the Hell’s Angels, who were hired to maintain order, stomped a man to death. “American Pie” describes this scene in detail:
As I watched him [Mick Jagger] on the stage,
My hands were clenched in fists of rage.
No angel born in hell could break that Satan spell.
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite,
I saw Satan laughing with delight,
The day the music died.
Rock and the counterculture did not make the social problems disappear. Much of the social conscience had been a sham. Promoter Bill Graham explained, “An artist would go on stage and say: ‘Let’s get together and fight and share and communicate.’ Then he’d get into his jet and fly off to his island and play with his 16-track machine. It was hypocrisy.”
There seemed only two conclusions: either life has no purpose (put the group Kiss in that category); or, that man hasn’t got the answers to life and he must look to God (the view represented by Larry Norman and Andrae Crouch).
Strangely enough, the majority of the rock world has taken a route different from those two. Soon after McLean had sung his funeral farewell, rock musicians found renewed interest in the rock and roll of the 1950s. From the film American Graffiti and the television spin-off “Happy Days,” the 50s came to be viewed as the “innocent, golden age” of rock.
We can now see the result: the extinction of the protest song and the rise of disco music. Former Beatle Paul McCartney applauds the former in “Silly Love Songs” (1976): “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. What’s wrong with that I’d like to know?” He admits that the social commentary of rock is dead. This is vividly underscored in the 1978 song “I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight.”
“What are you going to do tonight so that it won’t bother you?” we should ask today. The answer is, “Go to the disco, of course,” for now the major movement is disco music, a form of rock only good for dancing. Thousands of young people are religiously devoted to disco music. Disco music and dancing are the direct result of the search for spiritual fulfillment through having a good time—as the kids of the 50s supposedly did.
We must know enough of the history of rock music to point out where it went astray. We should show them the gospel. Man was not made for one-night stands as the disco music claims. Instead, Christ says that “We are stardust. We are golden. We are caught in the devil’s bargain.” Christ alone brings us back to the Garden.
Finally, Christians must show God’s love through their compassionate involvement in social issues. If we have no evidence, the apathetic rock audience will assume that the gospel is no different than their own self-serving apathy.
Philip M. Bickel is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Lafayette, Indiana.
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