Rhetoric and Writing in the Public Sphere: An Introduction/Music and the Public Sphere
MUSIC AND THE AMERICAN PUBLIC SPHERE DURING THE 20TH CENTURY
Music has always, in one way or another, been an integral part of the public sphere. However, during the 20th century music’s impact on the public sphere grew considerably. With new technology in the 20th century, music was been able to reach definitively larger audiences. In doing so, music’s effects on the public sphere became far more prevalent. With advances in technology and means of communication, local issues were brought into the national spotlight through music. Prior to these technologies, musicians had little influence outside their communities. Limited exposure and expensive transportation made it difficult for musicians to branch out and reach national audiences. Once they were able to, we began to see music’s true influence on the public sphere.
MUSIC VERSUS AMERICA
Music has often sparked controversy, particularly when it is perceived to go against cultural norms. This held true during the 20th Century; music reshaped our culture’s values, incited protest, brought the extent of our rights under the first amendment into question, and initiated censorship as a means of fighting a war.
The Changing of Moral Values
The music genre known as Rock and Roll emerged during the 1950s. With its emergence, America’s youth began to stray away from the traditional moral values held by previous generations. At the time, conservative America believed the lyrics and dancing in popular music were too risqué; in an attempt to maintain conservative values, mainstream music began to be censored. In 1955, Rock and Roll icon, Elvis Presley, was warned by both San Diego and Florida police that he would be arrested for obscenity if he moved at all during his performance (examiner). Later in 1957, Elvis performed on the Ed Sullivan Show and was filmed from the waist up because it was believed his swaying hips would offend viewers (examiner). Music critics too were unimpressed with this new “suggestive dancing. Jack Gould of the New York Times wrote, “The gyration never had anything to do with the world of popular music and still doesn't” (history).
Despite resistance from conservative America, Rock and Roll’s popularity among younger generations continued to grow. Morals are defined as principles relating to right and wrong behavior (merriam-webster). Morals in the U.S. were changed as a direct result of music; what was previously thought to be raunchy or lewd behavior slowly became acceptable due to mainstream music. Less conservative behavior was made public through music and America’s youth was happy to accept this new culture. Initially, Rock and Roll was met with resistance. However, its popularity led to the loosening of moral values; ultimately, reshaping American culture.
Protest Through Music
The Vietnam War marked the first time in America where the Government’s decision to invade a country was largely unpopular amongst citizens. Protests erupted throughout the U.S. as a result of the war’s unpopularity, and music soon emerged as a major outlet for public dissent. Songs such as “War” by The Temptations resonated with those opposed to the war and motivated them to become more active in their protesting. Another song, “Ohio,” by Neil Young captured the spirit of protest against the government. Young’s song was about Kent State where four students were killed and another nine were wounded by National Guardsmen during an anti-war protest. This song made sure the horrific incident would not be forgotten, and remain in the public’s eye. Both of these songs helped to inform and remind listeners of the perceived injustices their government was committing, both overseas and at home; highlighting the problems they saw with society.
Freedom of Speech
The first amendment of the United States Bill of Rights grants freedom of speech to all. Since the American Revolution, freedom of speech had been established and largely forgotten about in the U.S. However, during the 1990s the debate reemerged as a result of popular music. In 1990, freedom of speech was first brought into debate by the controversial hip-hop group, N.W.A. Two years earlier, N.W.A. had released a track entitled, “Fuck Tha Police,” highlighting the tensions between black-urban youth and the police. In 1990, the FBI sent letters to the members of N.W.A. verbalizing their disapproval. This was merely the beginning of the debate regarding what falls under freedom of speech.
In June of 1990, the debate on lyrics and obscenity was brought to the United States District Court in Florida. 2 Live Crew, another hip-hop group, had released an album that caught the attention of the American Family Association, or AFA. AFA believed that 2 live Crew’s album, “As Nasty as They Wanna Be,” violated Florida’s obscenity laws (allmusic). District Court Judge, Jose Gonzalez, ruled that “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” was legally obscene and therefore illegal to sell (allmusic). Music retailer, Charles Freeman, was arrested two days after the ruling for selling the record in his store (allmusic). 2 Live Crew was also arrested for performing songs from the album at a club in Florida (allmusic). In 1992, the Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned Gonzalez’s ruling that the album was legally obscene.
The War on Drugs
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs; emphasizing the effort that the U.S. government would put into ending drug use in America. Music was seen as a large contributor to excessive drug use among America’s youth and repeatedly denounced for it. In 1971, the FCC sent threatening letters to radio stations for playing rock music which glorified drugs (freedomforum). A year later John Denver’s song, “Rocky Mountain High,” was banned from the radio because it was feared that “high” was a reference to drugs (freedomforum). Both of these instances show the effects of music in the public sphere. By banning these songs, America acknowledged the presence of music in the public sphere. If the music had no effect on public debate there would be no reason to ban it.
MUSIC AND SOCIAL ISSUES
As a result of radio and television, music has been able to reach much larger audiences. This allows for local issues to reach the national spotlight and become national issues. Music has influenced the public sphere by educating the uninformed; as well as, instigating debate and legislation over issues facing society.
Civil Rights Movement
The 1960s marked a drastic change in the American public sphere; the civil rights movement was in its prime, and the United States had just started a new war with Vietnam. Racial issues and inequality were brought into the public sphere through music in the 1960s. Popular musicians wrote songs about the troubles facing America, fueling the debate over race and equality within the country. In 1964, Bob Dylan released a song about the assassination of civil rights activist, Medger Evers, titled, “Only a Pawn in their Game.” In the song, Dylan suggests that Evers’ killer was not solely to blame, but was instead an instrument of racism in America. A call for change was made, and through Dylan’s celebrity status and mainstream popularity it was finally heard. Many white Americans were not exposed to the injustices African Americans faced daily, but with the help of musicians such as Dylan, their troubles were made public.
In 1975, Loretta Lynn released a track entitled, “The Pill,” which was about birth control. Following the song’s success, Lynn was congratulated by physicians who said that her song had done more to inform people in rural communities about birth control than any amount of literature they had given out.
Who’s to Blame
On April 20th, 1999 two senior students killed 12 other students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. Following the massacre, musician Marilyn Manson was accused of influencing the two teenagers through his music. The accusations were quickly taken back and a much larger debate grew out of the controversy involving music and influence. After receiving a lot of criticism over his music, Manson took an interesting defense. Instead of simply brushing of the accusations, Manson questioned what effect society as a whole had on the two teenagers. This simple question incited by Manson brought forth an enormous debate. Americans, who were first quick to attack Manson, took a step back and realized there was truth to his seemingly simple question. They soon realized they had used Manson as a scapegoat for their society’s much larger problem of overlooking bullying. Events such as these and ones later in the 21st Century have led to legislation to prevent bullying.
The enormous effects music during the 20th century has on the American public sphere are quite clear. It has reshaped our cultural, brought existing laws into question, gave local issues national recognition, and sparked debate over societal problems. The public sphere is defined as an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems. Music may not offer a location for the public sphere, but what it does offer is a voice to the previously unheard and a means of popularizing debate of overlooked issues.