March (1958) Madness
63 years after the release of Link Wray's "Rumble," the moral panic cycle continues.
Hi, and welcome to the March—well, it’s after midnight on April 1 so let’s just call it March/April—edition of Switchblade.
Usually I send this newsletter earlier in the month, but I’ve spent much of my free time lately trying to score a Covid vaccine appointment. I finally got my first vax this morning! I’ve heard a lot of people say they've gotten emotional or felt immense relief after getting vaccinated, and I did get a little choked up a little while thanking my nurse, but we still have a long road ahead of us and a lot of dumb-dumbs out there actively making things worse than they need to be. It is really nice to have some semblance of light at the end of the tunnel, though. Cautious optimism!!
No new news this month! Still plugging away on edits and photo licensing. As always, this newsletter, plus Bazillion Points’ Instagram, is the best way to find out about pre-orders, pub date, events and everything else book-related when the time comes.
If you’re in a position to review books professionally, work at a book store/publication, have a book club, host a podcast or are otherwise working in music book-adjacent territory, reply to this email and let me know so I can add you to my media list for press releases and the like when my Link Wray biography is published.
Donate to Radio K!
I’m 100% biased because I spent years employed there, including pitching on-air for contributions and working the phone bank, but if you can spare a few dollars and want to support independent radio, I’d suggest donating to Radio K (KUOM) in the ONE remaining day of their spring pledge drive.
If you’re not familiar with Radio K, it’s the student-run radio station of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities—but it’s so much more than that. It’s the perfect blend of the best programming with room for lots of freeform weirdness, authentic music appreciation and the most endearing, unpretentious DJs. Long before I worked there, I started listening in middle school. Radio K, zines and magazines, record stores and occasional glimpses of MTV at rich classmates’ houses were how my friends and I discovered new music. The station allows students to get unparalleled hands-on experience in all kinds of industries, from audio engineering to news broadcasting. Even if you don’t donate, please give it a listen anywhere at radiok.org or in the Twin Cities at 770 AM/100.7FM/104.5FM.
The Theme Songs of Juvenile Delinquency
If there’s anything we do well here in America, it’s a good old fashioned moral panic.
This week’s outrage is courtesy of a small, although likely disproportionately represented in the media, group of Christian conservatives decrying “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” the latest video from Lil Nas X. You and/or your kids probably know Lil Nas X from “Old Town Road,” and in my opinion he happens to be an absolutely brilliant artist and marketer. He also wrote a children’s book.
The over-the-top “Montero” video sees Lil Nas X, an openly gay man, sliding down a stripper pole down to hell where he twerks on, and gives a lap dance to, Satan. Who, side note, kind of reminds me of “HIM” from “Powerpuff Girls”?
As Andre Gee writes in Complex:
He was clearly trying to upset the kind of conservatives who believe “all gay people go to hell” by throwing their hateful rhetoric back at them, as if he were saying, “If this is what homophobes think I am, I’ll lean all the way into it to make a spectacle.” But the satire was lost on the people who immediately deemed it satanic, a not-so-new allegation often levied on videos depicting religious and spiritual imagery in a not-so-reverent light. Some of the most compelling music visuals of all time have faced such criticism.
We’ve been through this cycle so many times before: jazz in the 1920s, Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Catholic schools banning The Twist, Tipper Gore vs. “rock porn,” Madonna and “Like a Prayer,” WAP, etc. It usually goes something like this: The youths, as is their wont, seek out and latch onto an innovative new cultural product that challenges the status quo—a style of music, a dance move, a song with risqué lyrics, a satirical video. Using their innate clout and ample disposable income, they push it into the mainstream. Adults—typically religious groups and/or parents—take notice, fail to comprehend context, get offended and try to snuff it out in the name of “protecting the children” from some perceived urgent threat: violence, sex, Satan or general depravity, depending on the day. I’m no psychologist, but based on my own experience entering middle age over the past few years, I’d venture a guess that this overreaction is fueled just as much by the adults’ newfound cultural irrelevance as it is by the content itself.
It’s always related to the idea that youth culture is becoming too powerful and transgressive, and also that American sexuality is becoming too shameless.
This time, it’s a gay, Black artist at the heart of it—one who was already shunned by the country music establishment despite having a bona fide hit country song that is literally about riding horses. And who, by his own account, has been shunned (and probably worse) by anti-LGBTQ religious zealots because of his identity.
No matter the roots circumstances of an individual panic cycle, the end result is always the same: The content in question gains popularity. Lil Nas X, whose video has gone viral and whose song is anticipated to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart next week, fully understands this cycle, and I have a feeling that this was his intent from the start. (Dan Ozzi’s latest Reply-Alt newsletter contains some great thoughts on this.)
Link Wray’s hit song “Rumble,” released 63 years ago today, didn’t inspire religious shaming or carry an overt social message like Lil Nas X’s does. It’s an instrumental and obviously music videos were not around in 1958, but its trajectory is similar.
Even two years before the release of “Rumble,” rock music was controversial. Cities such as San Jose and San Antonio sought roundabout ways to ban rock ‘n’ roll like forbidding concert permits and prohibiting rock from jukeboxes at municipally owned properties. The media fed the frenzy: A Time magazine article noted a “passing resemblance” between teenagers’ allegiance to rock musicians and Hitler Youth (ummmmm...). In March 1956, the New York Times called rock ‘n’ roll a “communicable disease.” West Side Story debuted on Broadway shortly thereafter, and teens rumbling in the streets was a very real, intense fear for Americans. Clearly, teenagers enjoying the devil’s music would encourage such behavior and destroy our nation’s moral fabric.
So when this feedback-driven, down-tuned, primal, sleazy rock ‘n’ roll song the likes that no one had ever heard before appeared—created by a Native American and called “Rumble,” no less!—many adults considered it the 1950s audio equivalent of Satan getting a lap dance from Lil Nas X. As Steven Van Zandt puts it in the Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World documentary, “Rumble” was “the theme song for juvenile delinquency.”
“Rumble” elicited outrage and became, to my and other music historians’ knowledge, the only instrumental song ever to be banned from radio, including in important markets such as New York City and Boston. The reason? For one, the evocative title, which was actually chosen by a teenager who loved West Side Story. But mostly, it just sounded menacing. Listen to it now and see if you don’t get the urge to start a knife fight.
Link probably wasn’t this savvy, but there were people behind the scenes who knew the moral panic formula well enough to take advantage of it. He got an assist during a radio interview shortly after the release of “Rumble.” The DJ cryptically confided off-mic that he was going to give Link a hit. He then surprised him by announcing to listeners that he’d never play the record, smashing it to pieces live on the air. He was right, said Link: making it taboo only made kids want it more.
This ban was unofficial, but effective—in the opposite way that Link’s critics would have liked. It ended up peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard “Best Selling Pop Singles in Stores” chart in June 1958, and remained in the top 40 for 10 weeks. The song was a million-seller and launched Link to stardom in the States and in Britain, garnering him new tour opportunities, plenty of press and eventually more lucrative record deals. Even his extremely conservative label, Cadence, which did not hide its disdain for Link and his raucous music, spun the controversy into a marketing campaign featuring a housewife who was presumably turned into a leather badass after listening to “Rumble” once.
It will be interesting to see how long the “Montero” outrage lasts and even more interesting to see what Lil Nas X’s career looks like after this. Either way, I’m rooting for him.
I have a long watch list of music documentaries that I somehow never seem to get around to. But there are three recently released ones that I’m especially excited about—and that I think might finally get me out of my streaming rut. Have you seen any of them?
TINA. This one may be the reason I finally shell out for HBOMax. It’s streaming on HBOMax now.
I Am a Cliché. If you ever listened to my old Radio K show Girl Germs (which later became a podcast; you can listen to our old episodes here), you’ve probably heard me talk about Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex. I mean…if “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” doesn’t give you chills, are you even human?
This new documentary sees Poly’s daughter retracing her mom’s steps to better understand her and her music. It just debuted in the States at SXSW this month, so hopefully that means we’ll see a U.S. streaming release soon.
The Go-Go’s. Absolutely iconic. I’ve heard so many good things about this one. Will they finally get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year? This doc premiered at Sundance last year and is streaming on Showtime.
Thanks for reading, and talk to you next month.