What Musicians Besides Elvis Changed America?

Scholars and Critics Offer Candidates. Hint: One Claimed Not To Be Billie Jean's Lover.

Historian David Halberstam once identified the three most important events of the 1950s as the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the building of Levittown, and the rise of Elvis Presley. That a musician should rank among the top three important phenomena of a 10-year span is unusual, and no musician since has achieved such significance. Still, music matters a lot. It influences our perceptions, our social lives, and, sometimes, even our politics. And musicians do keep influencing us. Therefore, in advance of the Zócalo/Occidental College event “Can Popular Music Still Change Culture?”, we asked several writers and critics to address the following question: What musician, aside from Elvis Presley, changed American society the most?

Mark Anthony Neal

Michael Jackson

When Michael Jackson reached the commercial apex of his career in the mid-1980s, he did so not only on the strength of his formidable talent and creative vision, but also as the most visible embodiment of the broad traditions of African-American musicality.

For many, Jackson’s ascendance to the pinnacle of popular music could only be read through the prism of figures who defined the stakes in popular music, namely Elvis Presley and the Beatles. But both Presley and the Beatles owed much of what they did to the oft-diminished earlier generation of black blues and rhythm-and-blues artists (something that Presley never denied).

Jackson’s inspirational archive was wide-ranging, but he drew especially heavily on the Chitlin Circuit—the network of clubs, speakeasies, theaters (the Apollo being the most well known), restaurants, and even barns that incubated much of the Black music tradition during the early 20th century. Fully understanding that heritage gave Jackson his signature performance quality:  making such thorough and inventive use of all those primary influences that people couldn’t even tell he was doing it. This move by Jackson was as much about his artistic ego—his interest in literally being the “Greatest Show on Earth” (he loved P.T. Barnum)—as it was about his respect for cultural and artistic roots.  Michael Jackson’s singular brilliance was his capacity to archive a comprehensive history of Black musical performance and then both reproduce it, yet also create something that was truly original.

Jackson’s championing of Black musical traditions became particularly important when Jackson became a global phenomenon, in effect making those Black musical traditions part of an emerging global language—an effect seen in the huge global popularity of hip-hop culture and rap music. In this regard few could claim to have had the kind of impact that Jackson did.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke University and the author of several books including the just released Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (NYU Press).

Grant McCracken

Frank Black

Frank Black (aka Black Francis), founder of the Pixies, was the man who gave inspiration to Nirvana and helped stage a late 80s, early 90s revolt against the ascendancy of Whitney Houston and perfectly palatable and polished popular music. This may have been the last time popular music was able to “reset” popular culture and American society. Our tastes and markets are now so fragmented that music cannot be a staging area for cultural change. This is not to say that there will not be cultural change or that music will not play a role in expressing and shaping that change.  But the revolt may have to come from other media and mediators.

Grant McCracken is an anthropologist and the author of Chief Culture Officer and Culturematic.

Sara Marcus

Common people with a cause

The history of pop music is full of stars who influenced the mores and values of their times. African-American musicians from Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson to Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington modeled dignity and depth for a polarized nation. Folk revivalists in the 1960s—Joan Baez, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary—used song to strengthen people’s resolve to make the world better. Madonna’s sexual frankness turned the erotic into mass-culture gold in the 1980s and ’90s.

But if we’re looking for musicians who changed America, the real answer isn’t in the stars at all. It’s in the vast ensembles who sang while they worked to change the country and who were heartened in their work by singing: marching in Selma and Montgomery to the tidal swell of “We Shall Overcome”; chorusing “De Colores” at a union meeting near the lettuce fields; or even forming a band with other teenage girls at a summer camp and learning, by screaming into a mic or letting guitar feedback rise to a squall, how to take up space, how not to be afraid.

Pop stars—along with their handlers, their publicists, their labels, and the underground cultures they distill their material from—change our sound tracks and our styles, to be sure. But music can do far more than that. If so many of our latest movements, from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, have been strangely lacking in melodies, perhaps it is because we now expect change to come from superstars instead of from the music we might make ourselves.

Sara Marcus is the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Currently a doctoral student at Princeton, she writes about books, culture, and politics for publications including Artforum, Bookforum, and The Nation. Find her on Twitter.