"Tell Tchaikovsky the News": Postmodernism, Popular Culture, and the Emergence of Rock 'N' Roll

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The contemporary notion of the postmodern, developed in the early 1970s and being argued almost to meaninglessness today, arose in the context of pop in the broadest sense of the term (Huyssen 1984). In its most significant manifestations, postmodernism has challenged the official culture of modernism and .its underlying aesthetic categories and assumptions. One of the original inspirations for that challenge came from early rock 'n' roll performers, most notably Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, all of whom first appeared when modernism, having lost its original adversarial character, had become the basis of mainstream cultural authority in America. I want to argue that postmodernism, though a problematical concept, gives us a way of better understanding those early musicians and that those early musicians are our culture's proto-postmodernists.

This will require a brief excursion into the history of modernism and its place in postwar America, a definition of the highly controversial notion of the postmodern, and a discussion of each of these early rock 'n' rollers in terms of one aspect of their postmodernism--their trafficking in significations of the Other and of marginality. As these terms suggest, I will be calling on a number of poststructuralist critical discourses to help unfold the postmodernist nature of some early rock 'n' roll, though I do not for a moment assume that poststructuralism and postmodernism are synonymous, that the former is merely the critical voice of the artistic practices of the latter. Finally, I will suggest some general ways in which a rereading of early rock 'n' roll in light of postmodernism may help unsnarl some of the conceptual tangles--themselves rooted in modernist assumptions--that impede black music research.

I am risking the absurdity of bringing all this critical apparatus to bear on rock 'n' roll because in a quite straightforward sense rock is now one of our dominant cultural practices. I hope also to defend early rock 'n' roll from its cultured despisers as well as rescue it from its simple-minded supporters. But before embarking on such an immodest project, I want to be clear about what I am not saying. I am not arguing that postmodernism is somehow inherently superior to modernism or that modernist works are not good. Nor am I saying that low culture is superior to "elitist" high culture, a position which accepts the modernist distinction between high and low and merely inverts the value judgment. Further, I am neither absolving the numerous white musicians and music industry figures of guilt for their unconscionable exploitation of black artists nor denying the black musical provenance of rock 'n' roll. However, I am saying that a reductionist concentration on the history of exploitation or of musical influence misunderstands cultural production, obscures the accomplishments of these early rock 'n' rollers, and, in rendering early rock 'n' roll nearly invisible in black music research, deforms the critical discourse of the discipline.

None of these early figures was consciously postmodernist. They formulated no explicit theory about mid-fifties modernism; rather, their musical, sartorial, and performing styles proposed what, following Foucault (1977), I would call a counter-discourse. (1) And it is in this counter-discourse that we glimpse postmodernism not merely as a style or as the latest chapter in the unending revolt of modernism against itself, but as a historical condition, the understanding of which can unlock whatever critical potential remains in the much-abused concept of the postmodern.

Modernism was many things--expressionism, dadaism, surrealism, futurism, and constructivism in the visual arts; epic theater and theater of cruelty in the drama; Eisensteinian montage in film; serialism and the twelve-tone row in music; International Style and the Bauhaus in architecture; the polysemous texts of Joyce, Eliot, and Pound in literature. …