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Music is embedded into society, resulting in not only the way in which people dress and behave, but also in their general attitude and politics. But music is also a reflection of society, revealing some of the values that it possesses. Each decade has its own texture and flavor, which is expressed and generated through music. Whether it’s the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, who brought “The Twitch” dance move to the stage; the Beatles, who helped fuel a political peace movement; or Madonna singing about virgins and breaking down some of the walls of sexuality, musicians — with their styles, lyrics and political stances — have helped carve out a tangible representation of what each decade has meant. In this essay, I will focus on the second half of the 20th century and set out examples of the way in which music reflects culture and vice versa. This will help me come to the conclusion that music is now the fueling agent to the way the United States behaves and appears.

It should be noted before proceeding that while songs and genres affect varying numbers of people, it is pop music that generally plays a role in defining a society. “The basic principle behind it is that one need only repeat something until it is recognized in order to make it accepted. This applies to the standardization of the material as well as to its plugging,” (Adorno, 2002). So while heavy metal, for example, can affect a small subsection of society, it is popular music that has its defining stake on culture.

1950s: Onset of Rock ‘n’ Roll
The 1950s represents a venture into controversial music when Bill Haley and the Comets set out the rock ‘n’ roll form of music in 1954. Lead singer Bill Haley spawned the split curl hairdo, a hairstyle that became an icon in society. The Comets are perhaps best known for their smash hit “Rock Around the Clock.” But while the Comets brought the guitars and some of the stage presence that would eventually reach its peak in the 1990s, it wasn’t until Elvis Presley entered the scene that he took the music to a controversial level. Rolling Stone Magazine called Elvis “an American music giant of the 20th century who single-handedly changed the course of music and culture in the mid-1950s,” (Gnader, 2011).

Elvis has been such an influence on culture that many people emulate him today. Entire careers are built on the hip shakin’ butt wingglin’ styles of this unique performer. But the affects go far beyond just his dance moves. Elvis was such an icon that his original hairdo inspired a generation of men to rock the greased-out look. Honorable mentions of the decade include Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, but it was Elvis that stands out the most. He had to ability, popularity, magnetism and impression that makes him the King of Rock. “Actually, Elvis is more than the King of Rock and Roll; he is a cultural phenomenon who has affected our entire society,” (Moore, 1998).

Despite being dead for more than 25 years, Elvis is very much alive. Millions of dollars are spent each year on Elvis products and the economy of Graceland is driven much by the fact that Elvis was born there. He also enticed millions of people on the big screen in what many consider to be “B movies.” And it was Elvis who created the consolidation of musicians and movies, (Kellner). Incidentally, this combination of music star and film actor, which persists today, has been the product of some of the worst acting performances and it has even led to the combination of sports stars accepting movie roles, an unfortunate by-product of great entertainment.

His impact is largely due to the appeal of his music. The songs Elvis performed were original, with influence from African American and rhythm and blues, blended with country, gospel, classical and kicked up with a new form of music: rock ‘n’ roll. “It was Elvis who most distinctively blended white and black musical traditions, who created the most special and singular music and personae of the decade and that therefore he deserves the serious attention from those of us engaged in the project of seeking a deeper understanding of the intersections of media culture and society,” (Kellner).

Elvis was also one of the first people to be marketed, a phenomenon that is commonplace today. He was an ideal product to turn into a commodity and circulate to the masses. But he must be more than just a product, considering even today he is a cultural icon. His music and personality must be what keeps his impact on society (Kellner).

He was so impactful that his use of African-American music legitimized the race during the civil rights movement by blending the two races’ music. This was a time when African Americans were entering mainstream culture, in the form of music, sports and into society as a whole. He didn’t speak out in favor of African Americans – his role was much more subtle, as he just strummed his guitar and sang the words and tone of the African American race. He grew up in the south and learned first-hand about African Americans, soaking up their culture and even attending gospel services that featured the music of African American singers. When he walked down his street, he could hear their music (Kellner).

Elvis also represented the American dream. He came from an ordinary family, and climbed up the ranks on his way to realizing the dream. He helped people to dream and to achieve wealth and success.

As the University of California, Los Angeles points out, Elvis is the embodiment of a “particularly striking and dynamic way” that emphasises sex, class and race, and these are all central to the American experience. All this happened in a time of major conformity and conservatism, so these instinctual desires became “bottled up” and developed a rebellious energy that would eventually fuel the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

1960s: Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll
The 1960s are commonly associated with “flower children,” a generation that wanted to expand their consciousness, (Allusions, 2010). The use of distortion in music began to take hold, and some believe this use of music “alienates performers from their audiences,” (Frith, 1986). But it was during this period that music not only affected society, but the culture affected music. It was a time of embrace, of accepting Eastern thought, spiritualism, philosophy and political and social activism.  During the time of experimentation, many musicians also partook in the marijuana and sometimes hallucinogenics. “The effects of these substances – upon artists as well as other members of popular American culture – became evident in the allusions to these new experiences in the lyrics of popular music,” (Allusions, 2010). The Beatles, the most famous rock group of the decade, referred to the effects of the substances in their music. The group was part of the mid-1960s “European Invasion.”

The Beatles were much different than anyone had experienced. They played a new and distinct form of rock ‘n’ roll. This features never-before-seen chord progressions. The melodies and lyrics were different and it could have been the drugs that helped spawn the new sound. Lyrics like, “I’d love to turn you on,” referred to the act of getting high. The lyrics “I get high with a little help from my friends,” refers to the community appeal of the drug culture. It expressed the attempts, during a period of open-mindedness, to expand people’s imaginations and increase in the ability, and perhaps desire, to escape from the limits of the mind’s sober state.

Further to the drug-craze rock music, African Americans had a more political use for music. Certainly, music is an important component of all cultures, but it has helped African Americans express themselves, particularly during severely troubling times. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, African Americans used the gospels and a resurged spiritual music to accompany the movement. The rhythm and blues was pulsating and provided a beat for the cultural movement. Groups such as The Stylistics, The Delphonics and The Chi Lights were major components of the period. Jazz was also in the mix and it would later be referred to as “America’s Classical Music.”

The sounds were what helped African Americans fight for their rights: “More than just the music of a generation, it was the music that motivated a generation,” (Powell). The music was a source of pain relief, and the lyrics spelled out what it was they were fighting for. And it wasn’t just in the 1960s that this music was impactful, it was a reference point for other music styles, such as “funk.” It was this era that produced artists such as James Brown, Sly Stone, Ray Charles and George Clinton.


The music genre named after the first label to bring African American artists on was called “Motown.” The record label is ground breaking in that it provided a voice to the African American people. It was a changed musical expression, which was common throughout the decade. Motown brought people together and broke down barriers that were considered to be dividing formal and informal music. Motown recorded singers such as Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, The Supremes, Marvine Gaye, Jackson 5, The Temptations, The Four Tops and Stevie Wonder. The record label helped inspire African Americans to get an education and show themselves to the world, (Provenzana, 2010).

It was the Motown sound in Detroit that reflected the civil rights movement, but quite a different sound was found in the western United States, with the Beach Boys representing and helping to spawn the California surfing culture. This added to the “eclectic nature of the 1960s musical landscape,” (Allusions, 2010).

1970s: Defiant New Forms of Music
The 1970s expressed a defiant tone of music. The decade marked the beginning of genres such as heavy metal, punk and rap. This music defied the values of an older society.
The use of the term rock ‘n’ roll carried almost no meaning by the 1970s. The Beatles broke up and Elvis died, taking away two major cultural influences – though these greats found a way to live on. The genre fell into an array of categories, including soft rock, hard rock, folk rock, punk rock, country rock and shock rock. It was a decade that produced some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll and many of these groups still perform today: Aerosmith, David Bowie, Elton John and Rod Stewart. The decade also produced a few easy listening greats, such as Bob Marley and the Carpenters. It was also during the 1970s that Michael Jackson’s career launched, (American, 2008).

This was where the first organized rap music was formed. (It should be noted that rap began thousands of years earlier, which will be discussed in the next section.) In the 1970s, two deejays, DJ Hollywood and DJ Kool Herc, said they were fed up with aging disco and wanted to create a new style. The men, using records from their parents’ collection, began spinning various sections of them on turntables for people at parties. Many historians now call these men the “founding fathers of rap.” The genre broke ground in 1979 with “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang. It wasn’t your everyday song. The 14-minute piece was a “rapping frenzy,” that had the song “Good Times” sampling in the background. This was the beginning of rap music, (Wood, 2004).

While the Beatles gained prominence in the 1960s, one of their members continued to impact the tone of music through the 1970s: John Lennon’s “Imagine” helped to define people’s identity and belief in who they are as a society, (What Can Songs, 1998). But other ground breaking artists came to light in the 1970s and had their own impact on society. For example, Neil Young released two songs that were distinctly anti-southern: “Southern Man,” and “Alabama.” These songs expressed anti-southern opinions, (What Can Songs, 1998). Lynard Skynard a few years later would respond to Young with his song “Sweet Home Alabama.” Lines contained in the music said, “I hope Neil Young will remember a southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.” So it was these popular songs that affected the values and attitudes of the south and the cultural attitude towards the south.

1980s: Expressionism in Rap and Madonna
While many people believe that rap music began in the 1970s and then gained prominence in the 1980s, the genre actually has its roots thousands of years ago in Africa with “Griots,” who were village story tellers, (Wood, 2004). The Griots played a simple hand-held instrument as they told their stories. This is still a major form to story telling in areas of Africa. This represents the most basic form of rap music: talking while playing music.

But the roots of rap music are also evident in the African American people’s experience with slavery. These slaves would often sing while they were at work. The style was called “call and answer,” where a leader would call a portion of the song and the rest of the slaves would answer with the next line. The form of music even went on inside churches during service, even after slavery ended: “Can I get a woo woo?” (Wood, 2004).

Grandmaster Flash hit the scene in 1982 with his single “The Message,” the first rap song to paint the dismal picture of the slums of America. This helped society see the unfortunate position many people, mainly African Americans, were living in. Until Grandmaster Flash, rap music had a more upbeat nature, full of fun messages. “This was a landmark recording which paved the way for social and political commentary in rap music, which still continues on today.”

Madonna also entered the scene in the 1980s, playing the sex-addict, which helped her to be recognized by the mass media. “Beyond her explorations of the feminine, Madonna has also personified numerous cultures such as gay culture, Indian, Asian and Latin Cultures,” (Madonna, 2003). Either she is extremely interested in the various cultures, and of being a female, or her managers are aiming for shock value – because society is so influenced by music, Madonna wants to appeal to each crowd, while being shocking enough to get people’s attention. She became famous during an extremely materialistic time. She is considered by many to be the representation of the 1980s era of greed. Madonna had arguably attained the most reach out of any woman, including Marilyn Monroe, up to the 1980s. Her influence on young girls to “express” themselves has certainly taken hold and helped transform a gender that was traditionally silenced. But the way in which she delivered this message wasn’t taken kindly by all: “Madonna’s image at the time was that of a blatant sexual being that was not only in control of her sexuality but also proud of it, (Madonna, 2003).

1990s: Kurt Cobain and Grunge Rock
The 1990s are possibly most famous for the grunge-rock tactics of musicians such as Kurt Cobain and his group, Nirvana. The band provided the voice of the decade and it inspired a generation. Cobain was able to accomplish what he did in the early 1990s despite only recording three albums. Many consider his effect on culture to be stinted, though his impact still raises debate about whether he was a musical genius. He accomplished what he did “despite the lingering gloom of his untimely demise, a limited catalog of recordings and a lot of unfulfilled potential as a musician and cultural trailblazer,” (Stout, 2004). His lyrics still play often on radios and this reminds people of his powerful songs to which people can relate – songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium,” “In Bloom” and “Come as You Are.”

Musicians are still inspired by Cobain and they emulate his style, not only musically, but also his torn jeans and shaggy hair. Ann Powers, senior curator at the Experience Music Project, told the Seattle Post that Cobain has an emotional legacy. “The stance, the outpouring of emotion that he was brave enough to give us, I think it’s still relevant. As long as there are blond-haired boys in ratty T-shirts mumbling their hearts out, then Cobain will have a legacy.”

Charles R. Cross, who wrote Cobain’s biography, said recently that Nirvana was the most influential rock band of the past 20 years. Cobain is credited as providing the blueprint of where music would go in the following years. But Cobain’s life was cut short after he shot himself in the head in 1994. It represented the death of a cultural alternative that provided shelter to outcasts and those who were deemed losers, (Stout, 2004).

While Cobain was incredibly influential, there was an array of music available, arguably much less genius. Latino music came on scene with performers like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. Country music also became more mainstream, making more impact on general society, rather than just on people living in areas where the music was always popular. Gansta rock and R&B also appeared. The decade also features an array of “boy” and “girl” bands, such as Boyz II Men, The Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. Each of these groups had their own effect on culture, inspiring dance moves, fashions and attitudes that many would like to forget.

“Some people think of music as mere entertainment or a distraction, but we see music as a force that speaks to us in deep ways and helps make us who we are:” University of Michigan Associate Professor of Music Mark Clague.


Prior to the philosophical onslaught of realism, the Catholic Church was largely responsible for dictating the attitudes and behaviors of society. However, music and other forms of pop culture, such as movies and television, have taken the role as the example-setting for the way people behave – whether it was Elvis setting the stage for controversy in the 1950s, the African-American music leading the way of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the rebellious tones of the 1970s, the representation of life in the ghetto that was depicted in rap music in the 1980s, or the grunge rock that gave a demographic a voice – music is a guiding force in everything that is American culture.

Works Cited
Adorno, T. (2002). Essays on Music. University of California Press. London, England. University
of California Press.

Allusions to and Influences of the Drug Culture on 1960s Music. (2010, Aug. 23). University of

American Cultural History. (2008, Jan 30). Lone Star College – Kingwood.

Frith, S. (1986). Media Culture and Society. Art Versus Technology: The Strange Case of Popular 
Music. Warwick University.

Gnader, M. (2011, March 13) What Music Gives Me. The Hawk Eye. Hawk Eye News Online.

Kellner, D. (N.D.) The Elvis Spectable and the Cultural Industries. University of California, Los

Madonna: A Critical Analysis. (2003, July 3). Madonna Tribe.

Moore, W.K. Scott, D.L. (1998. Jan. 29). Elvis: Truly the King of Rock and Roll. Voldosta State

Powell. A. (N.D.) The Music of African Americans and its Impact on the American Culture in the 
1960s and 1970sMiller African Centered Academy. Chatham University.

Provenzano, F. (2010, Feb. 25). The Magic of Motown: Symposium Examines Label’s Cultural
Impact. The Record Update. University of Michigan. Retrieved from

Rose, T. (1994). Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary AmericaWesleyan
University Press.

Stout, G. (2004, April 1). Ten Years Later: Kurt Cobain’s Legacy Endures. Seattle Post. Retrieved

Tucker, L. (1997). Child Slaves In Modern India: The Bonded Labor Problem. Human Rights 
Quarterly 19(3) 572. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 15 July 2012.

What Can Songs Tell us About People and Society? (1998, Dec. 2). George Mason University.

Wood. J. (2004, April). Rap Music. Northern Virginia Community College.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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