The Jazz Age (and Other "Evil" Music)
"That's not even music!"
Lately, I have enjoyed driving around with my MP3 player set on “play all,” shuffle mode. With the approximately 2,400 songs that I have stored on the thing, it’s like listening to the greatest radio station in the world. I often wonder what someone would conclude about my musical tastes if he or she was listening along. My collection, after all, is quite eclectic, including everything from traditional folk music to some occasional heavy metal, with some of it very old and other songs brand new. I am no longer the “classic rock snob” that I once was, ranting and raving about how music was better in the “old days.”
There is still, however, plenty of classic rock stored there, which means that I have some music that “back in the day” was considered by some to be wild, “devil music”: Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Some of the older people living in the late 1960’s and 1970’s would even go further when describing what their kids were listening to at the time, proclaiming that it wasn’t even real music. It was just a bunch of crazy noise, nowhere near the quality of the stuff that they listened to when they were young. They also claimed that it made people dance like crazy people, take drugs, and want to have sex with anyone who moved. Apparently, if you listened to Janis Joplin, then you would start to live like Janis Joplin.
Today, you don’t hear as many old people complaining about the classic rock of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. This is because the people who grew up listening to this stuff now make up a significant percentage of the old people. It doesn’t mean, however, that many of these grandparents of the modern world refrained from complaining about the music that their kids listened to back in the 1980’s or 1990’s or that their grandkids are listening to now. Most (or all) of that punk, heavy metal, new wave, rap, hip-hop, pop or whatever their kids (or now grandkids) were (or are) calling it was (is) crap. Why can’t they just listen to that good, wholesome Led Zeppelin music? Ah, those were the days.
There are plenty of exceptions to these generalizations. Every semester, I see several young students wearing tee shirts of classic rock bands. There are also old(er) people like myself who have downloaded plenty of modern songs and even grudgingly admit that they like (or at least tolerate) some Taylor Swift and One Direction songs. (Although I generally can’t stand hip-hop.) Still, it is undeniable that virtually every generation of the 20th and now 21st centuries has had young people listening to music that their parents and grandparents thought was at worst wild and dangerous or at best pure crap. Then, somehow, as the music gets older, it starts to become both higher in quality and more wholesome. And eventually, groups like the Rolling Stones and the Who were being booked for Super Bowl halftime shows because they were considered more safe and wholesome than artists like Janet Jackson who might have clothing “malfunctions.” Just like people, the older a song becomes, the harder it is to imagine that it could have ever been immoral and dangerous. Aging makes people and things more wholesome. After all, grandma and grandpa could have never done anything really bad, right?
In the 1920’s, the new wild and crazy music was jazz, which is considered an integral part of the “Roaring ‘20’s” lifestyle of heavy drinking, more overt sexual behavior, and a general challenge to the Victorian rules of earlier eras. Women, in particular, were challenging the double standards of the past, openly smoking, drinking, and dancing provocatively with men. They also cut their hair short and wore loose-fitting, flashy clothing that seemed to be the polar opposite of the standards of their parents’ generation. And to many more traditional people, jazz music seemed to feed into this irresponsible, pleasure-seeking, rebellious generation, leading them to dance and behave in almost animalistic ways. To many people in the 1920’s, dancing the Charleston was perceived in the same way as older people viewed slam dancing in the 1980’s. But if anything, the Charleston was seen as more dangerous. Slam dancing might make people violent. The Charleston made them want to have sex.
Part of the appeal of jazz was the music itself: the pulsating rhythms, driving beats, and loose structure. It just naturally seemed to lend itself to the style of dancing that some at the time viewed as so wild and overly sexual. The other attraction, however, was the source of the music. The popularity of jazz was one part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of African-American art, literature, and music that became popular among white Americans in the 1920’s. If you were a white American living in New York at the time and wanted to be considered “with it,” you would visit black nightclubs in Harlem in order to be part of this scene. So many white Americans began visiting some of these clubs, in fact, that their owners sometimes began to cater to an exclusively white audience.
Unfortunately, white people’s interest in African-American art did not translate into real racial integration. If anything, society in the 1920’s may have been even more racist than earlier eras. Segregation remained entrenched, and the Ku Klux Klan and other secret societies grew in popularity, largely as a product of post-World War I paranoia regarding the influence of “foreigners.” So white Americans did not generally visit Harlem to interact with black Americans. They came to watch the show, and the black people were as much a part of the show as the music that they performed. As Langston Hughes put it, it was like white Americans were going to the zoo. And given all of the legendary stereotypes about the sexual prowess and animal magnetism of black people, the music that they performed became even more exciting.
The same could be said about rock and roll, derived straight from African-American rhythm & blues, when it exploded on the scene in the 1950’s. When Sam Phillips discovered Elvis Presley, he knew that he had hit a gold mine. He had finally found a white man who could “sing black.” And many, of course, would perceive Elvis in an even more negative light than people had viewed those jazz singers, driving women crazy with his raunchy voice and gyrating hips. This would not be the first or the last time that distinct styles of music would develop through white people imitating what had originally been African-American music forms, whether it was swing, ragtime, country, blue-eyed soul, or what has become generically known as pop.
Today, the jazz of the 1920’s and the rock and roll of the 1950’s are seen as rather quaint or old-fashioned. It’s stuff that old people might listen to, performing their old people dances if they still can. The music of the 1960’s and 1970’s often shows up on oldies or easy listening stations. For the moment, hip-hop has largely taken up the mantle as the young people’s evil music. We’ll see how long its popularity lasts. At some point, the next generation has to take up something new. Something cannot be cool, after all, if your parents listen to it.