This year, the Foo Fighters and Jay-Z were both selected for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Pretty amazing stuff considering their music is part of genres that weren’t always embraced by the American public. So, what changed?
As the 60s came to a close, Americans had been numbed by a thousand body bags a month heading home from Vietnam, back-to-back summers of violent riots, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
But, in that last summer of the historic decade, rock and roll was ascendant as some of the most popular groups headed to the Hudson Valley for Woodstock. In that moment of August 1969, rock represented the counterculture — free love, plenty of weed, long hair, peace and freedom — but worthy of a hall of fame? Doubtful.
In what appears to be the first major poll asking about rock, a 1969 Louis Harris & Associates Poll found 77% of people said that young people who liked rock ‘n’ roll were neither “harming” nor “helping” American life. Rock just was.
But, as the Woodstock generation grew up and shed some of its anti-establishment idealism, rock — especially from the 60s and 70s — started being seen through a nostalgic lens. In a 1989 Media General/Associated Press Poll, 50% of Americans said that they looked back on the rock music of the time as either “good” or “excellent.” Right on.
But, current music? That was a different story. The mid-80s featured loud controversies about rap and rock lyrics. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) — headed by Boomers from the rock ‘n’ roll generation — led the charge over what it considered violent and misogynistic music and videos and got the recording industry to start a voluntary rating system, similar to the movies, that survives to this day.
By the time the Foo Fighters emerged from the grunge rock scene in the mid-90s, rock was still thriving and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland. But, Americans were split over rock’s legacy in society. A 1999 Pew Research Poll found 45% of Americans thought rock and roll had been a “change for the better”, while 23% thought it had been for the worse.
A 2002 NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll appeared to show things going downhill for rock with 34% of Americans saying rock had a “negative impact” on society and only 4% saying it had a “positive impact.” Still, it continued to be incredibly popular, with a 2006 Ipsos/AP/Rolling Stone Poll and a 2013 CBS News Poll both finding rock and roll as the favorite type of music among Americans.
And what about hip hop and rap?
In a 2007 Princeton Survey Research Poll, 70% of Americans said they “rarely” or “never” listened to hip hop or rap. In the same poll, 62% of Americans said that hip hop was a “bad influence” on society and, when asked to elaborate on what made it a bad influence, they most often cited offensive language (47%), promoting violence or gangs (24%), and negative stereotypes of women (20%).
These criticisms have persisted over the years, and despite hip hop’s increased popularity during this century, as recently as 2015, a CBS News Poll still had rap and hip hop cited as the second hardest music genre to “enjoy” (29%), behind only heavy metal (36%).
But in the music biz, what really matters is the benjamins, and the latest data shows hip hop as the #1 streaming genre while rock is #1 in physical sales. Which brings us back to the Foo Fighters and Jay-Z entering the Hall of Fame this year.
Despite public concerns about how rock, hip hop, and rap impact society, Jay-Z and the Foo Fighters have had incredible success, winning 23 and 12 Grammys, respectively, selling millions of records, and becoming cultural icons.
Which may just show the oldest rule of pop music — if your parents hate it, it must be good.
College to Career interns Stefan Feibel and Patrick Beglane wrote this report.