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“We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say…” – The Monkees, “The Monkees Theme”
An essay published in Time Magazine in 1951 dubbed individuals born between 1925 and 1942 as the “Silent Generation. The Silent Generation is characterized by an overall air of conservatism as well as sense of passively obliging to a a social order that was constricting and repressive towards women, young people, and non-whites – hence the “silence.” It was an era where people entertained and believed in gender roles; it was an era that enforced “children should be seen and not heard.” By the time the 1960s came about, members of the Silent Generation were becoming parents. Those who were born in the earlier half of the Silent Generation had teenage children by this point in time, and these children were raised in a society where the adults in their lives – be it parents, relatives, or teachers – instructed and enforced a sense of order that reflected the social and societal constraint that they grew up with. However, the younger generation did not merely yield to the norm. In fact, they adopted their own culture that actively rebelled against the compliance that was instilled within the preceding generation. This catalyzed the booming social revolution that was youth culture in Britain.
With the perils and strife of World War II left behind, 1960s Britain fostered an environment of freedom and promise. As a result, many young people desired to transcend beyond simply being an extension of mainstream order and carve out a place for themselves in society, a place that could not be permeated by the newly conceived notion of “the establishment” and societal constrictions. As journalist Barry Miles wrote in an article entitled “Spirit of the Underground: The ‘60s Rebel,” this youth culture “saw peace, exploring a widened area of consciousness, love, and sexual experimentation to be of more attention than entering the rat race.” For the first time, young people in Britain were defying social norms on a large scale. They were creating a collective culture and identity that were characterized by actions and beliefs that were not only wholeheartedly their own, but likely countered those of their parents and other preceding generations. They embraced aspects of life and society that were previously considered to be private or taboo, thus laying the blueprints for widespread social change to manifest – and it would.
A notable component of British youth culture was the music that reflected its ideology. This music so immaculately encompassed a voice for this movement because the musicians themselves were a part of it. Two University students, Roger Waters and Nick Mason, were immersed in the whirlwind of the youth subculture when they formed a band that would soon go on to form what would later be dubbed “London’s farthest-out group”– Pink Floyd. Childhood friends Michael Jagger and Keith Richards, who participated in both London’s underground and political subcultures, would later go on to create music that explored British youth culture’s ideas of gender and sexuality as part of a group called The Rolling Stones. Additionally, youth culture across the globe overwhelmingly aligned itself with four young men from Liverpool who would ultimately achieve legendary status under the collective name of The Beatles- but only Britain got to call them their own, and experience them first at that.
As a longtime objective of mass media has been to document change and cultural shifts, the booming pandemonium that British youth culture incited on a national scale was ultimately reflected in the media. The intriguing symbiotic relationship between British youth culture ideology and sonic stylings converged on the public stage through a television show entitled “Top of the Tops.” The show followed a formulaic premise that consisted of the chart-topping artists of the week performing their hit songs in front of a live studio audience that was comprised of young people. Though music television had experienced a small-scale introduction prior to the show’s creation in 1964, nothing preceding Top of the Pops amassed to anything even remotely near the same degree of both media and cultural significance as it did. Lasting nearly fifty years, Top of the Pops evolved into a distinctly British cultural phenomenon, and provided a visual component to music media – thus altering citizen’s media diets and consumption habits. But, above all else, Top of the Pops hosted artists on their show whose music reflected the ideals of the young generation, thus allowing them to be heard by all. Top of The Pops changed Britain’s media landscape by giving this younger, liberated demographic and the popular music that had become associated with it a mainstream cultural presence, which subsequently created a platform for more progressive ideals to be (quite literally) broadcasted within the realm of British media. Both the cultural and media impact Top of The Pops made can be understood through exploring the cultural significance of the artists who performed on it and that of music television as a whole.
“Yes it’s Number One, it’s Top of The Pops!”
Many lyrical aspects of rock music were regarded as illicit by certain pockets of the general public, but that didn’t stop the nation’s largest and most prestigious broadcasting network, The BBC, from seeing potential in putting it on television. On conceiving the idea for the show, former BBC Head of Variety Bill Cotton said that he “saw something in a show that merely reflected the biggest selling singles of the day” and that it “seemed simple and right.” Charismatic radio personality Jimmy Savile was soon recruited to take on the role of the show’s host. The premise was set: the top singles of the week would be counted down to number one by having the bands themselves come into the studio to perform live in front of a studio audience. The inaugural episode aired on New Year’s Day in 1964, and featured The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, Dusty Springfield, and the Dave Clark Five among the first group of artists to perform on the show. As the months, years, and decades progressed, Top of The Pops developed and maintained a sense of universal appeal. This is a feat that was set in motion from its very first episode, as proven evident by the wide range of artists it included. In its primitive years especially, the sonic diversity of the artists that appeared on the show enabled it to be enjoyed by a plethora of subgroups within Britain’s youth counterculture, be it hippies, punks, stoners, activists, or pop lovers. Not only did Top of the Pops give a platform to artists who tapped into the heart of British youth culture, they gave a platform to artists who could cater to every facet of it. In his book Top of The Pops: Mishaps, Miming, and Music, author Ian Gittins writes that the show carved a path between the establishment and the counterculture. Not only is its diverse artistic lineup representative of this, but some of the artists that were regular fixtures on Top of the Pops were revolutionary in introducing and subsequently assisting in the normalization of what could arguably be perceived as “controversial” topics – topics that were apart of the daily lives of young people- within the media. Among the most notable artists to do this were there from the very beginning. They are The Rolling Stones.
“I know it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it.” – The Rolling Stones, “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
The Rolling Stones were prominent figureheads of Britain’s youth culture, especially within London. They were comprised of then-young men who looked like the kind of people one would pass in their school halls, or live down the street from them. They had the aura of an “everyday kid,” so to speak – and they were. For British youth in the 1960s, The Rolling Stones were the relatable kind of rockstar. Like a lot of young people their age, for example, they got in trouble for drugs. As author Andrew August notes in his text Gender and 1960s Youth Culture: The Rolling Stones and the New Woman, this particular arrest further cemented the bond between the band and their listeners, as it perpetuated a mutual sense of being victimized by the establishment. What was significant about The Rolling Stones particularly is that the lyrical content of their songs, generally speaking, reflected the everyday experiences and ideas of this new young Britain. This made their many Top of the Pops appearances so notable, as each and every performance served as a road map for British media and culture alike to learn how to both navigate and digest themes such as casual sex and drugs having a newfound presence within both entities. For example, in a 1967 episode the band performed their hit “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” As given away by the title, the song is about a one-night stand. While The Rolling Stones performed a number of their tracks on Top of the Pops (such as “Last Time,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and “Brown Sugar”), their “Let’s Spend the Night Together” performance was of note because it introduced noncommittal sexual relationships into both the media and culture alike. It broke the ice; the taboo was shattered which thus paved way for future discourse of a similar nature to manifest – and it should. Young people were exploring sex, and it was important that this topic be made open not only to encourage safety and health awareness, but because it was a societal barrier being broken down in the face of changing times. Sexual liberality was one of the cornerstones of youth culture (a notable evolution from the “wait until marriage” ideology of the Silent Generation), and it was generally regarded as a completely taboo topic within the media and society at large. One simply just didn’t speak of it. But now, here were The Rolling Stones singing a song about casual sex on a network that was once dubbed “Auntie Beeb” for its overt censorship of content in rock music. Seeing content of this nature on the nation’s most beloved and esteemed broadcasting network wielded the power to not only shed stigma, but change minds and attitudes. As August wrote, “The Stones helped thousands of kids bust out.”
Also appearing on Top of The Pops that same year were fellow British rock phenomena Pink Floyd, whose exuberance of sonic psychedelia acted in tandem with the recreational drug culture that had arisen during this time. This association was so prominent that it was mentioned in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Pink Floyd exhibition during the fall of 2017. Recreational drug use had become an identifying component of youth culture by this point in the ‘60s, and the musically and lyrically hazy nature of the specific track the band performed – “See Emily Play” – has made it rumored to either allude to or be about the use of psychedelics. While the use of recreational drugs is of course dangerous, it was a part of the contemporary cultural landscape of the time. As a result of this, it was important for the issue to be at least (subtly) addressed in mainstream media – something Pink Floyd made possible. For those who had yet to become attuned to the widespread scope of societal change that British youth culture was spearheading, Pink Floyd – and the platform they were subsequently given on a popular show like Top of the Pops – acted as a massive educator. After all, they were regarded as the “house band” of the youth counterculture movement.
In the early 1970s, British glam rock band Slade reached widespread popularity – so much so that they became something of weekly regulars on Top of The Pops. Two of the band’s most beloved tracks, “Cum on Feel the Noize,” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” were performed on the show in 1973 and 1972 respectively. Both tracks shared the common theme of rejoicing in youth rebellion and freedom. For example, the chorus of “Cum on Feel the Noize” contained the lyrics of “Girls, rock your boys/We get wild, wild wild.” “Mama Weer All Crazee” now, as proven by the title, alludes to the fact that the Silent Generation viewed youth culture and the young generation as being “crazy,” rambunctious or unruly. But, as suggested by the title, that’s just how they “are” now. It acknowledges the cultural shifts that manifested a decade prior. If bands such as The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were the cause, then Slade was the effect. The fact that, in 1970s Britain, one of the most popular bands had a discography of songs that championed rebellion is a testimony to the social change that the media attention given to bands of youth culture brought about. For if it had not been for this preliminary demographic of rock artists in the ‘60s, could The Spice Girls have gone on Top of The Pops thirty years later and sung the lyrics “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends”? Could Alice Cooper (who the more conservative listener often branded as a “satan worshipper”) have made his appearance on the show to perform “School’s Out,” another track that enouraged youth rebellion? The answer is, most likely, no. Top of the Pops served as both a media and cultural vehicle for acknowledging “controversial” topics as a normalized part of society.
After all, there’s a reason a generation hasn’t been labeled as “silent” since the 1940s.
Exploring the Media Significance of Music Television
Top of the Pops actualized music television as a multimedia platform – so much so that it came thirty years before America bought MTV to fruition. Top of the Pops pioneered what would later evolve into a global media phenomenon, one that blended audio with visuals and assigned faces and styles to the sounds that defined a generation. Television was already regarded as a potent cultural medium, and blending it with music only advanced the myriad of uses television had as both an entertainment and media outlet. The fact that popular music was being aired on television shaped both social and cultural meanings carried by certain artists and genres, and this was inherently true in terms of another British phenomenon – glam rock. Glam rock is a subgenre of classic rock that is characterized by the visual appearance of the musicians – something that would have been impossible to manifest in Britain if Top of The Pops did not enable artists to regularly perform on television. Bands that fell into this category were T. Rex (in fact, it was rumored that glam rock was catalyzed by a Top of The Pops makeup artists who put glitter and stickers on frontman Marc Bolan’s face before going on set), Slade (the members would often dress up in costume pieces such as large, sparkly top hats), Kiss (who became infamous for their use of face makeup – though not British), and David Bowie, who would often change his physical appearance for his performances to fit one of the many stage personas he developed throughout the span of his career. Glam rock is something that is distinctly British because came to fruition on Top of The Pops – thus revealing the potency that the multimedia combination of music and television had. The fact that music television has since become a global phenomenon that is still in existence to this day is a testimony to this power. Even though this band not fall under the category of glam rock, many young men began growing their hair out after The Beatles began to perform on television in both England and the United States – again revealing the dominant media effects of synthesizing audio and visual mediums.
In their text Introduction to Music and Television Special Issue, Keith Negus and John Street write that for teenagers and children, seeing music performances on television was a powerful, transformative experience and defined the nuances of popular music more clearly than ever simply because it could be seen. Top of the Pops not only detected he faces and voices of a changing Britain, but took them and put them on screen. In a move that altered the national media landscape, The BBC put infinitely more than just sound on television through the creation of Top of The Pops. They broadcasted change; they broadcasted new ideology. Media was used as a tool to introduce the beliefs, heart, and ideas of an evolving Britain to the nation at large, and music was the communicator.
During the first ever episode of Top of The Pops, host Jimmy Savile recalls being asked if he thought the show would last. He responded by saying “As long as people buy records, because they will loved seeing the artists on the telly.” Savile was right. Music would continue to introduce new ideas into society on Top of the Pops for forty-two years, and, as a result, it has become a bona fide British media hallmark. In fact, it has become so much of a British media hallmark that it is being revived on the BBC for a holiday special later this month. Its legacy not only lived on, but is experiencing a revolutionary rebirth in a digital media landscape.
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