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The massive popularity and worldwide scope of rock music resulted in a powerful level of social impact. Far beyond simply a musical style; rock and roll influenced daily life, fashion, attitudes and language in a way few other social developments have equalled.



Rock and rebellion

As the original generations of rock and roll fans matured, the music became an accepted and deeply interwoven thread in popular culture. Beginning in the early 1970s, rock songs and acts began to be used in a few television commercials; within a decade this practice became widespread. Starting in the 1980s rock music was often featured in film and television program soundtracks.

Just as jazz lost its ability to offend, so did rock. While mainstream rock music was no longer able to shock or offend, new forms of music, particularly the punk scene in the late-1970s and rap and hip-hop in the late-1980s as well as some pop acts, emerged to fill this role.

Sex, drugs and rock and roll

The rock and roll lifestyle was popularly associated with sex and drugs. Many of rock and roll's early stars (as well as their jazz and blues counterparts) were known as hard-drinking, hard-living characters. During the 1960s a decadent lifestyle of many stars became more publicly known, aided by the growth of the underground rock press which documented such excesses, often in exploitative fashion.

Musicians had always attracted attention from the opposite sex; groupies (girls who followed musicians) spent time with and often did sexual favors for band members, and appeared in the 1960s. While some rock groups eschewed such attention in favor of long-term relationships, other groups and artists did little to discourage it, and many tales (both true and exaggerated) of sexual escapades became a part of rock musics legacy. As the heyday was over, rock lost a lot of its connection with sex while rap, R&B and later on Pop have far more sexual content in their songs than rock and have also took over the idea of artists being sex symbols.

Drugs were often a big part of the rock music lifestyle. In the 1960s, psychedelic music arose; some musicians encouraged and intended listeners of psychedelic music to be under the influence of LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs as enhancements to the listening experience. Jerry Garcia of the rock band Grateful Dead said "For some people, taking LSD and going to Grateful Dead show functions like a rite of passage.... we don't have a product to sell; but we do have a mechanism that works."

The popularity and promotion of recreational drug use by musicians may have influenced use of drugs and the perception of acceptability of drug use among the youth of the period. When the Beatles, once marketed as clean-cut youths, started publicly acknowledging using cannabis, many fans followed. Journalist Al Aronowitz wrote "...whatever the Beatles did was acceptable, especially for young people. Pretty soon everybody was smoking it, and it seemed to be all right." The relationship of rock music to the hippie and counterculture movements, which espoused use of marijuana and other drugs, is complex and intertwined, and it is not always clear in which direction influence flowed. What is clear is that by the end of the 1960s, drugs and rock music were part of a common youth scene and both a percentage of rock musicians and rock fans were experimenting with many types of drugs.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s however, much of the rock and roll cachet associated with drug use dissipated as rock music suffered a series of drug-related deaths, including the 27 Club-member deaths of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Although some amount of drug use remained common among rock musicians, a greater respect for the dangers of drug consumption was observed, and many anti-drug songs became part of the rock lexicon, notably "The Needle and the Damage Done" by Neil Young (1972).

Many rock musicians, including Lemmy,John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Steven Tyler, Scott Weiland, Sly Stone, Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Kurt Cobain, Anthony Kiedis, Dave Mustaine,David Bowie, Elton John and others, have acknowledged battling addictions to many substances including cocaine and heroin; many of these have successfully undergone drug rehabilitation programs, but others have died. In the early 1980s, along with the rise of the band Minor Threat, the straight edge lifestyle became popular. The straight edge philosophy of abstinence from recreational drugs, alcohol, tobacco and sex became associated with hardcore punk music through the years, and both remain popular with youth today. Many rock stars who suffered from drugs and quit or those who were close to drug abusers that died have supported rehabs and have raised awareness about the danger of drugs.

The lessons of the excesses of the earlier eras were sometimes ignored; some early punk rock was vociferous about promoting the abuse of drugs. Late 1970s acts such as The Stranglers, The Psychedelic Furs, and The Only Ones reflected their use of heroin in their lyrics in a fashion that sometimes seemed to cross over into advocacy. Later bands such as Guns N' Roses, Jane's Addiction, Primal Scream and Ministry were associated with a resurgence in abuse of heroin and other hard drugs.

During the early 1990s and even before so, Christian influences came into play as many Christian bands and older musicians who became born again frowned upon the rock 'n' roll life style of the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, it has mainly been rap and hip hop, (and a few electronica) acts which have been glamorizing and promoting drug use in songs, although a few current rock acts like The Libertines and Brian Jonestown Massacre have been as well. However, the lifestyle of most rock stars nowadays falls within the social norm. An example of this trend would be the formerly drug-abusing Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have since cleaned up their act.

This young woman in 1974 is wearing a glittery dress inspired by glam rock artists such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop

Rock and fashion

Rock music and fashion have been inextricably linked. The tough, leather-clad image of early rockers such as Gene Vincent influenced a generation of young people on both sides of the ocean. A cultural war broke out in the mid-1960s in the UK over the rivalry between the "Mods" (who favored high-fashion, expensive styles) and the "Rockers" (who wore T-shirts and leather); followers of each style had their favored musical acts, who eagerly fed into the conflict by releasing records praising one style and disparaging another (the Mods versus Rockers controversy would form the backdrop for The Who's rock opera Quadrophenia). In the 1960s, The Beatles brought mop-top haircuts, collarless blazers, and Beatle Boots into fashion.

Rock musicians were early adopters of hippie fashion and introduced such styles as the Nehru jacket; bands such as the Beatles had custom-made clothing that influenced much of 1960s style. As rock music genres became more segmented, what an artist wore became as important as the music itself in defining the artist's intent and relationship to the audience. The Glam rock of the 1970s brought fashion to new heights of importance in rock music with the "glitter" image of artists like T. Rex and Alice Cooper being widely influential. Some artists who had been active in the late 1960s such as David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop also adopted a glam-influenced look. In the late 1970s, Disco acts helped bring flashy urban styles to the mainstream, while New Wave groups began wearing mock-conservative attire (including suit jackets and skinny ties) in an attempt to be as unlike mainstream rockers (who still favored blue jeans and hippie-influenced clothes) as possible.

In the early 1990s, the popularity of grunge brought in a fashion of its own. Grunge musicians and fans wore torn jeans, old shoes, flannel shirts, backwards baseball hats, and grew their hair against the clean-cut image that was popular at the time as well as heavily commercialized pop music culture. Musicians continue to be fashion icons; pop-culture magazines such as Rolling Stone often include fashion layouts featuring musicians as models.

French punk in 1981

The "Sell Out" dilemma

Rock musicians and fans have consistently struggled with the paradox of "selling out" -- to be considered "authentic", rock music must keep a certain distance from the commercial world and its constructs; however it is widely believed that certain compromises must be made in order to become successful and to make music available to the public. This dilemma has created friction between musicians and fans, with some bands going to great lengths to avoid the appearance of "selling out" (while still finding ways to make a lucrative living).

If a performer first comes to public attention with one style, any further stylistic development may be seen as selling out to long-time fans. On the other hand, managers and producers may progressively take more control of the artist, as happened, for instance, in Elvis Presley's swift transition in species from "The Hillbilly Cat" to "your teddy bear".

It can be difficult to define the difference between seeking a wider audience and selling out. Ray Charles left behind his classic formulation of rhythm and blues to sing country music, pop songs and soft-drink commercials. In the process, he went from a niche audience to worldwide fame. In the end, it is a moral judgement made by the artist, the management, and the audience.

Helping the world

Love and peace were very common themes in rock music during the 1960s and 1970s. Rock musicians have often attempted to address social issues directly as commentary or as calls to action. During the Vietnam War the first rock protest songs were heard, inspired by the songs of folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, which ranged from abstract evocations of peace Peter, Paul and Mary's "If I Had a Hammer" to blunt anti-establishment diatribes Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio". Other musicians, notably John Lennon and Yoko Ono, were vocal in their anti-war sentiment both in their music and in public statements.

Famous rock musicians have adopted causes ranging from the environment (Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and the Anti-Apartheid Movement (Peter Gabriel's "Biko"), to violence in Northern Ireland (U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday") and worldwide economic policy (The Dead Kennedys' "Kill the Poor"). Another notable protest song is Patti Smith's recording "People Have the Power." On occasion this involvement would go beyond simple songwriting and take the form of sometimes-spectacular concerts or televised events, often raising money for charity and awareness of global issues.

Rock and roll as social activism reached a milestone in the Live Aid concerts, held July 13, 1985, which were an outgrowth of the 1984 charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and became the largest musical concert in history with performers on two main stages, one in London, England and the other in Philadelphia, USA (plus some other acts performing in other countries) and televised worldwide. The concert lasted 16 hours and featured nearly everybody who was in the forefront of rock and pop in 1985. The charity event raised millions of dollars towards famine relief in Africa.

Live Aid became a model for many other fund-raising and consciousness-raising efforts, including the Farm Aid concerts benefiting family farmers in North America, and televised performances benefiting victims of the September 11 attacks. Live Aid itself was reprised in 2005 with the Live 8 concert raising awareness of global economic policy. Environmental issues have also been a common theme, the greatest example being Live Earth.

A German Goth, also known as a Gruftie

Spiritual and moral aspects

Rock music has generated much discussion on where it lies in the realm of good and evil. Songwriters like Pete Townshend have explored these spiritual aspects within their work. The common usage of the term "rock god" acknowledges the religious quality of the adulation some rock stars receive. Incidentally, John Lennon became infamous for a statement he made in 1966 that The Beatles were "bigger than Jesus".[1] However, he later said that this statement was misunderstood and not meant to be anti-Christian at all. [2]

Religious rock

Christian rock, alternative rock, metal, punk, and hardcore, are specific, identifiable genres of rock music with strong Christian overtones and influence. Many groups and individuals who are not considered to be Christian rock artists have religious beliefs themselves. For example The Edge of U2 is a Methodist and Brandon Flowers of The Killers is a Mormon.

However, a few conservative Christians single out the music genres of hip hop and rock as well as blues and jazz as containing jungle beats, or jungle music, and claim that it is a beat or musical style that is inherently evil, immoral, and/or sensual. Thus, according to them, any song in the rap, hip hop and rock genres is inherently evil because of the song's musical beat, regardless of the song's lyrics or message. Some extend this analysis even to Christian rock songs.[3] Christian conservative author David Noebel is one of the most notable proponents of the existence of jungle beats. In his writings and speeches, Noebel held that the use of such beats in music was a communist plot to subvert the morality of the youth of the United States.[4]

Pope Benedict XVI famously stated his belief that:

""Rock"... is the expression of the elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a sometimes cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship."[5]

Atheist rock and Satanism

Lemmy of Motörhead, Kerry King of Slayer and Noel Gallagher of Oasis are well known rock stars that are atheists or agnostics. John Lennon released the famous hit Imagine, describing a better world in which religion was absent.

Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, King Diamond, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Marilyn Manson, Slayer and numerous others have also been accused of being satanists, immoral or otherwise having an "evil" influence on their listeners. Though this is often denied and have led counter-accusations that such critics are being misrepresentive of certain bands' views and work. These bands often use Satanic imagery but do not worship, or necessarily even believe in Satan. Furthermore, Ozzy Osbourne is reported to be Anglican and Alice Cooper is a born-again christian

However Varg Vikernes and numerous others in the early Norwegian black metal scene and the Mexican Metal Revival, such as David Benito were Satanists, to the extent that they burnt down churches. Even within this localized musical sub-genre though, the arson attacks were condemned by some prominent figures within the Norwegian black metal scene, such as Kjetil Manheim.[6]

Anti-religious sentiments also appear in punk and hardcore. There's the example of the song ""Filler" by Minor Threat, the name and famous logo of the band Bad Religion and criticism of Christianity and all religions is an important theme in Anarcho-punk/Crust punk.


  • Alain Dister, The Story Of Rock Smash Hits And Superstars, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 40.

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