Written by Fay Marsden
We have all heard of parents gazing in horror while their children stared in awe at Elvis gyrating his pelvis on television in the Fifties; most of us have probably found this strange, considering how hyper-sexual music videos are normalised today. Likewise, during a time when black people were still fighting for their civil rights and women were still subordinate to men, there were black women in massively popular bands such as The Supremes and The Ronettes. Black musicians, female musicians, and gay musicians were part of the 1960s pop scene as they had never been before. This was a seismic cultural shift which becomes ever clearer when examining the disputes between those who despised the new pop culture, and those who were fully immersed in it. This was generally a dispute between the old and the young: as Roger Daltrey famously sang in The Who’s 1965 hit ‘My Generation’: ‘I hope I die before I get old’.
But what was the larger significance of pop music at the time, other than a generational change? The music of the 1960s was ultimately about freedom. Pre-marital sex became generally socially acceptable. It also became socially acceptable to be a pacifist rather than an unbending and patriotic supporter of war. It was socially acceptable to take drugs, have multiple sexual partners, and more importantly, to have fun without the constrictions of the consequences: enter, the contraceptive pill. This freedom from conservative social codes was an entirely new phenomenon, which could be pinned down to the arrival of the ‘Baby Boom’ generation who escaped the debilitating effects of two world wars. The inhumanity, loss of life and economic uncertainty following the wars had been overturned by the time this generation had become teenagers, and hence came a period of ‘mass-youth’. In the West, unemployment was low, global growth was high, cars and domestic appliances were becoming the norm, and oil prices were generally low. People had more leisure time, and more disposable income to see shows and purchase records. The freedom from austerity and conservatism was arguably conducive to the liberal atmosphere of the 1960s, summed up well in the Rolling Stone’s lyrics ‘I’m free to do what I want, any old time. So love me, hold me.’
Of course, Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger went on to collaborate with David Bowie in 1985 in a cover of the 1960s hit ‘Dancing in the Street’. Bowie was known to be fluid with his sexuality, yet he remained beloved, accepted and incredibly popular. In other words, his sexuality was not a barrier to his creativity and musicianship. In contrast to this rebellious attitude was the British government’s Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalised gay sex. To further highlight the growing gap between the old and new, the song Jagger and Bowie covered – Dancing in the Street – was originally by Martha and the Vandellas, in 1964 – a classic from another popular group of black women. Suzanne Smith has argued in her book Dancing in the Street that this song became an anthem for the 1960s civil rights movements, and was chanted at rallies and protests. Likewise, Martha and the Vandellas were signed by one of the largest record labels in the Sixties – Motown – created by Berry Gordy, a black American. His label signed predominantly black soul musicians – The Jackson 5, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder, just to name a few. Again, this music was widely accepted as an essential part of 1960s pop culture. The acceptance of sexuality, race and gender in music shows the new and liberal atmosphere of the 1960s, which highlighted that ‘popular culture’ was not just ‘white culture’.
This new era of culture and pop music was, of course, massively aided by the media and technology. The headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror on 8 February 1964 read ‘YEAH! YEAH! USA!’, in response to the massively euphoric reaction that The Beatles garnered when first visiting North America. Furthermore, developing technologies aided the growth of this revolution; it made it more revolutionary. Music was, for the first time, digitally altered and enhanced, with advanced effects being utilised to create new, psychedelic music. Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, for example, was an innovative production technique in which Spector arranged an ensemble of musicians in the recording studio to create a full and strong sound, as opposed to using one musician per instrument. This technique was most famously used in songs such as ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes (1963) and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ by The Beach Boys (1966). The use of new production techniques to create new sound was attractive for those already part of youth culture who wished to remove themselves further from the predictability of classical music.
The significance of 60s pop music is not to be underestimated. These musicians blunted the sword of social conduct hanging over people’s heads. The contributions of black, gay and female musicians helped to create a more liberal backdrop and culture, which in turn contributed to civil rights movements; a new acceptance of homosexuality; and, finally, the coming of second-wave feminism. The media and technological advances helped musicians to promote and alter their work in a way that had never been done before, which pulled in a younger audience perhaps bored of the unchallenging music that their parents listened to. These elements combined to create an atmosphere conducive to social change. The impact that ‘60s music has on our culture today is extraordinary – most musicians today, for example, will credit an artist from the 1960s as an influence, and many of our fights for equal rights today stemmed from achievements made during this period. Conclusively, therefore, ‘60s pop helped the youth crash into a new era of liberalism and freedom just as their parents had crashed through an era of globalised warfare.
- Evans, E., ‘Lonely hearts and holiday flings: a history of dating’, BBC History Magazine, Feb 2017.
- Smith, S. E., Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit’, 2001, Harvard University Press.