If history repeats itself then the next big rock and roll movement will be here soon. It will be very short lived, powerful and strong, and its popularity will not be denied. It may have already started and we just haven’t realized it yet. No telling where it will come from or what it will sound like when it gets here. But it’s coming.
Fads move faster than ever in recent years. This includes movements in art, music, or pop culture. What is here today may literally be gone tomorrow. Certain things seem to stick around and become part of our cultural fabric while others quickly vanish into the oblivion and show up on VH1. It has been a while since rock music has seen an intense movement, but the ingredients are here, and the temperature is right, and we’ve had just the right amount of time; 25 years.
The first great movement in Rock and Roll was in the early 1960’s. Although the first rock and roll song was credited to 1951’s “Rocket 88”, Rock and Roll wouldn’t take on the form that we know it to be today; free, strong, moving, powerful, until the middle 1960’s brought to us via the British invasion. The second great movement came through underground bands in the 1980’s but exploded on MTV in the early 1990’s as Seattle grunge sound. It is unclear whether the ingredients brought together the perfect meal or whether the public was so hungry they would have eaten anything. But regardless, both major, important, and popular rock movement has been preceded by two awful things that seep into the public conscious, poisoning our collective well, and splitting the public; racial injustice and televised war.
The accounts of racial injustice to people of color throughout early American history have been many. But a few incidents around the mid 1950’s seem to stick out as a throbbing beacon of inequality. Around this same time the Vietnam War was officially started and America’s involvement would increase in Vietnam and similarly here in the states the war on racial justice was slowly reaching its acme. Resentment towards the government grew for being involved with the war, towards conscription, and with inaction towards the ethical treatment of all people.
In recent news the sign that commemorated the life of Emmet Till was shown to have been punctured several times with bullet holes. The story of 14 year old Emmet Till is a brutally sad and sadistic one. Till was murdered in Mississippi for talking “familiar” with a shop keeper while visiting cousins from his home town of Chicago. The two men charged with the crime were acquitted by an all-white jury after only 1 hour of deliberation. An investigation 7 years later found that most jurors believed that the 2 men who faced the charges were guilty, but didn’t want to convict them because life imprisonment for killing a black boy seemed unjust and only months later the killers would confess their crime in a story run in LOOK magazine. The killers were paid $4000 each for the story.
The year Emmet Till died was 1955, just one year after the Vietnam War was officially started. Stories of injustice were often worded strongly in favor of white supremacy. War and death, domestic injustice and perceived international justice were plastered across the newspapers and televisions and radios around the country. People started to become divided; those who supported the war and those who didn’t and those who supported desegregation and those who didn’t. The public was inundated with horrifying stories of young men dying for their cause, whether in a fight overseas for war or a fight here on our own soil for segregation, and sides continued to mount. The racial divides would come to their acme with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.
The British invasion and rock music exploded at nearly the same time the civil rights act was passed in 1965. The timing may have been coincidence, but it could have just as well have been alchemy. The people had spoken and the war was beginning to end, segregation was beginning to end, and a feeling of freedom left the public feeling liberated. 1969 was the summer of love and what was started in the 1950’s with the Beat Generation had culminated into liberation at a high (no pun intended) and deep level. Woodstock was anti war, pro unity and all about the music and love. The consciousness had changed and the nation was ready to accept the proliferation of rock, social awareness, and a peaceful, incorporated ideology. What was once counterculture was now accepted American culture.
Unfortunately that feeling wouldn’t last long. The 70’s ushered out a feeling of freedom and love as the 80’s brought in a “normalcy” and “prosperity” period. Although this piece is directed towards rock and roll and its two major movements in particular, failure to mention Punk Rock and Hip Hop here would be an epic failure. Both sounds were invented in the underground, paralleling general American sentiment at the time with a counter culture from the packaged 80’s pop music that dominated the airwaves. Punk and Hip Hop were sown from deep emotions from real people without the white wash (pun intended) of corporate America. The movement was strong yet largely ignored by the mainstream for years. Turns out punk and rap did more than just invent music; they both respectively spawned variations of their sound and generated billions of dollars in revenue and actually helped to shape the landscape of American vernacular. Although this music wasn’t considered rock music, rock had its deep roots in both form and cultural aesthetic.
As these genres gained popularity and current pop music was starting to meet its demise in the late 1980’s, a new sound started to emerge. Again, this new sound seemed to be enveloped in racial injustice and a televised war overseas. The sound was raw and powerful and had integrated lyrics to match the noise. It brought on a different type of social awareness, one that seemed more forceful and boisterous than the last one in the late 1960’s. This one was more morose, slightly more deafening, and its messages of peace, love, and understanding were backed by anger first before acceptance.
The Grunge movement in rock and roll could have started with The Replacements and Husker Du in the 80’s or just as easily with the Pixies or arguably REM depending on the critic. But its sound was made most famous by the explosion that was known as the Seattle sound; Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots just to name a few were the bands that made the sound the most famous and took over the airwaves. Grunge’s peak of popularity happened to again coincide with racial tensions here in America and a war overseas. Oddly, the culmination was eerily similar and exactly 25 years apart.
Again racial injustice started to build years before any major event would capture the nations attention. On December 20th, 1986 23 year old Michael Griffith and two of his friends were chased down by a group of white teens in Howard Beach, New York and brutally beaten. Griffith, while trying to flee, ran into oncoming traffic and was struck and killed. Griffith’s friend, Cedric Sandiford, continued to withstand the onslaught even as his friend lay dying near him. He survived. Although the case would eventually receive interference by Governor Cuomo, the initial charge for the teens was reckless endangerment. The teens eventually faced stiffer sentences.
On August 23rd, 1989 a similar occurrence deepened the ruts of racial injustice when 16 year old Yusef Hawkins and some friends were walking through Brooklyn when a group of 30 white kids of similar age gathered around them with bats and clenched fists. One of the boys was apparently upset as his love interest would not date him because she had a current boyfriend who happened to be black. These particular teens had no connection but the mob set upon them anyway. One of the kids in the mob had a gun and Hawkins was shot twice. He passed away at a nearby hospital. Justice did not come swift for the man with the gun, and over a year later he received his sentence.
These two mob mentality stories are cleverly forgotten as 1991 brought us one of the most memorable scenes of our lifetime. March 3rd of that year, Rodney King did not pull over for Los Angeles Police and led them on a short high speed chase. After the officers got King out of the car and subdued him, they beat him relentlessly. The entire thing was captured on camera and released upon the world. Racial tensions flared across the country, people gathered over a line in the sand and again took sides. The Gulf War was brief but officially had ended only days before on February 28th. The images of US Military intervening and winning plastered heavily over the news. Sometimes the stories ran back to back on the evening news expertly intertwining perceived moral obligations while clashing with human rights. A year later the cops involved were found not guilty and Los Angeles was enveloped in riots.
August 27th of the same year the icon Grunge band Nirvana released their most popular single and one that would become synonymous with the Seattle Grunge sound forever “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It is to this day a dystopian anthem that blends a dark and foreboding sound with the perfect blend of pop. It’s opening line a requiem for the country and the world at that time “Load up on guns / Bring your friends”. It sang to both sides of the spectrum. As the “Alternative Sound” grew so did its popularity and it could be argued that Woodstock was brought back to capitalize on the moment and line pockets or that 25 years later that feeling of freedom had returned, ushered in by war and racial divides and then played out through guitars, melodies, and emotion.
Now to our present date; the cusp of 2017, 23 years later from that 1994 Woodstock and a movement that shaped and changed our mainstream pop culture, fashion, and vernacular. Our conflicts in the Middle East have now been present on our television screen and personal devices steady since 2001. The war has been alive for 15 years and counting and not a moment has gone by that we aren’t reminded of it. Racial tensions have again flared, this time over countless senseless acts of violence from police from around the world. Again the line has been drawn and the public stands on one side or the other. From kneeling for the national anthem to Donald Trump the lines have been drawn and there isn’t much middle ground. Nobody wants to be a little bit right or a little bit wrong. It is all or nothing. It looks as if the perceived moral obligations abroad have nestled into our everyday thinking. You are either with us or against us and there isn’t much else in between.
Art imitates life. That feeling of drawing a line and taking a stand is a very raw emotion and one that brings courage and deserves valor. We are again approaching the 25 year mark and the ingredients are again available. Will 2019 provide us again with ground breaking music? 1994 was the epitome of the alternative and grunge movement. 1969 was the epitome of the Rock and Roll movement (now considered “Classic Rock”). 25 years before 1969 we had 1944 with the beginning of the end of WWII and Miles Davis moving to New York City to find Charlie Parker and the beginning of the wild “Bop” era in Jazz music. All the ingredients are here and the timing is almost right.
25 years, war, and racial divide are here again and who can know where it will lead.
Anthony N. White is a writer currently living in Rochester, NY.
He can be heckled on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat @Ruthieshusband