G.A.M. Mitchell: Adult Responses to Popular Music

Adult Responses to Popular Music and Intergenerational Relations in Britain, c. 1955–1975.

Mitchell, Gillian A.M.
London 2019: Anthem Press
Anzahl Seiten
232 S.
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jacob Bloomfield, Zukunftskolleg/Department of Literature, Art and Media Studies, University of Konstanz, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent

The common perception of a „generation gap“ between youngsters swept up in the zeitgeist of contemporary youth culture and their wary elders features prominently in cultural histories of the 1950s through 1970s. This view has long been supported by historians who argue that young people have, by establishing ‘subcultures’, made postwar societies more open, anti-authoritarian and democratic.1 Historian Gillian A. M. Mitchell challenges the popular narrative of generational conflict in post-Second World War British society and culture by arguing that the phenomenon was altogether more complex and slippery than the tale of „with-it“ youngsters versus out-of-touch oldsters flipping their wigs presupposes. In urging historians to question the standard generation gap narrative of the 1950s through 1970s, Mitchell does not take a totally contrarian view and outright deny the existence of a generation gap, but thoughtfully measures the gap’s depth and gauges the extent to which it was traversable.

Mitchell admits that the older generation tended to not be completely conversant with the contemporary youth culture of rock and roll music, „teenpics“ films, and venues for leisure that catered to the teenage demographic. However, there were conspicuous examples of earnest, good-faith attempts on the part of individual elders and institutions run by the older generation, including the BBC and the Anglican Church, to accommodate youths and youth culture. Conversely, icons of the youth culture, like pop stars-turned-all-round entertainers Cilla Black and Cliff Richard, made overtures to the older generation. Most young people, meanwhile, did not consider themselves in active rebellion against their elders even if the ethos of the youth culture sometimes encouraged deviation from the older generation’s social mores.

Adult Responses to Popular Music presents its arguments in three main chapters. The first chapter covers how contemporary generational differences were navigated within nuclear families. Drawing primarily on oral history sources, the chapter argues that, while some parents held negative attitudes towards their children’s interest in contemporary popular music, this negativity was not always expressed as outright hostility (p. 40). For example, some parents reacted to their children’s taste in music with mere curmudgeonliness, but not censoriousness. One rock fan recalled, for example, that her father tolerated her musical fancies despite his „disapproval of the ‚things that teenage girls [did] in those days‘“, so long as her grades were good (p. 28). Other elders actively supported their children’s interests (pp. 19, 25). Mothers in particular appeared to be more permissive, and sometimes actively encouraging, of their children’s engagement with rock music, as was the case in one instance when a mother was reported as sharing in the „joy“ of her daughter winning a contest to meet The Beatles in 1963 (pp. 15, 21). For the youths’ part, some may have supported rebellion against their elders in the abstract but did not want to upset their parents specifically (pp. 21, 31). Institutions like the BBC worked to bridge domestic generational divides between youths and their parents with programmes like Two-Way Family Favourites (1955–1967) and Juke Box Jury (1959–1967) which aimed for cross-generational appeal by featuring newer as well as more traditional entertainment and entertainers (pp. 36, 43–44).

Chapter Two discusses how youth clubs and Christian institutions responded to, and largely accommodated, youth culture and popular music. A conspicuous example of this was the 1964 Passion Play A Man Dies, devised by minister Ernest Marvin and actor-director Ewan Hooper (pp. 65–66, 93–100). The play featured a rock and roll score and an amateur cast of teens, including 19-year-old Roy Harkness as Jesus, dressed casually in a striped shirt and jeans (p. 96). The production of the play, which was staged at a number of prestigious venues including the Royal Albert Hall, as well as being screened on television, exemplified the sometimes fraught but ultimately well-intentioned, and somewhat successful, attempts by the church to relate to young people on young people’s terms.

Chapter Three contends with the decline of variety theatre in the 1950s and 1960s and how youth culture changed the face of contemporary leisure. Rather than repeating the narrative of upstart popular musicians, such as crooners and rock and roll artists, abetting the death of British variety, Mitchell argues convincingly that young artists such as Cliff Richard and Cilla Black were the direct inheritors of the legacy of variety and kept some of the medium’s traditions alive (pp. 132–152). Further, young musicians and more traditional variety artists, rather than being at loggerheads, were frequently seen collaborating amicably on stage and screen, in addition to forming bonds backstage (pp. 126, 130, 151). Teen idol Tommy Steele, for instance, regularly shared bills with variety entertainers as he toured the Moss Empires circuit in the late 1950s, and his rapport with the older performers was such that he eschewed his more luxurious hotel rooms in order to rub elbows with the variety artists in their shabbier accommodation (p. 127). Branching out into light entertainment also gave young musicians cross-generational appeal, demonstrating that rockers like Steele were not purely the preserve of the youth market (pp. 144–145).

Adult Responses to Popular Music is particularly commendable for its central argument, which is generally relevant to cultural historians of Britain who research the period under consideration, and for its geographic scope. Mitchell has made a special effort here to marshal primary sources relating to localities all over England and Scotland (p. 14). These include local archives in cities such as Bolton, Dundee, and Glasgow, as well as specialist archives pertaining to the arts and ecclesiastical history. Mitchell makes no assumptions that cultural trends in London’s Soho were concurrently reaching Falkirk in Scotland, for example (p. 37). In addition to being a useful text for scholars of cultural and social history, the nuance imbued in the book’s approach to the topics of generational, geographic, and other divisions in postwar Britain might prove instructive to students who are new to encountering methodological conundrums related to these issues. Each chapter of Adult Responses to Popular Music, most notably Chapter Two, provides a good deal of social, cultural, and political context for the main topics it addresses. This contextual information will probably be welcomed by newcomers to these topics, but those who are even fairly au fait with subjects such as the Albemarle Report (1960) and the decline of variety theatre might find themselves skipping through several sections until Mitchell returns to offering an original argument.

Mitchell’s general line of argument could also be applied to a study of the postwar generation gap in other countries of the global North, including the United States, where many of the allegedly rebellious youth cultures originated from. Across the Atlantic, even the straight-laced Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952–1966) fame, encouraged their rock-and-roller son Ricky’s music career; perhaps just one indication that the generational divide in mid-twentieth-century U.S. was similarly permeable compared to that of Britain. Nuclear family dynamics, religious and youth club responses, and the leisure industry’s commodification of youth culture, all major themes in Adult Responses to Popular Music, would also be worthy topics to explore in American and Continental European contexts. Ultimately, Mitchell’s intervention deserves attention from scholars of mid-twentieth-century cultural and social history, popular music, and adjacent fields.

1 For recent examples, see titles in the Palgrave Studies in the History of Subcultures and Popular Music book series, edited by Keith Gildart et al.

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