Popular Music and the Culture Wars

Friday, April 3, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Music; Popular Culture


The past decade has seen a flowering of scholarship on the late twentieth-century American culture wars. While James Davison Hunter’s 1991 volume Culture Wars, long the dominant interpretation of the phenomenon, argued that the conflict was simply a battle between evangelical Protestants and secular Americans, more recent scholars of the period have embraced a more nuanced analysis. Books by Andrew Hartman (A War for the Soul of America), Daniel Rodgers (Age of Fracture), David Sehat, and Robert O. Self, among many others, have reinterpreted the culture wars as a conflict between multiple competing visions of America – visions that differed over not only religion but ideology, politics, media, behavior, and family life. In fact, many aspects of the culture wars were more complex and less binary than they appeared in earlier interpretations – and nowhere was this complexity more obvious than in the battles over popular music in the 1980s and 1990s.

This panel argues not only that popular music was central to the cultural debates of the last fifty years, but that approaching the culture wars through the interpretive lens of music recasts conflict in important new ways. The four papers presented here return again and again to two overlapping themes: the centrality of race to cultural debates over popular music, and the complexity of the conservative response to cultural change within the musical realm. Indigenous people in post-1967 Detroit, explains Kyle T. Mays, drew on the musical languages of Hip Hop culture to demonstrate solidarity with Black revolutionaries and to advance their own cause of radical resistance. Meanwhile, in Chicago and other Midwestern cities, according to Brian M. Ingrassia, Italian-American “arena rock” band Styx articulated their own incipient whiteness by modernizing racist concepts such as “the Great White Hope” for Reagan-era audiences. The 1985 Parents’ Music Resource Center crusade against heavy metal music, argues Chelsea Watts, revealed not only the tensions within the conservative response to cultural change but also the strange connections between the politics of heavy metal performers and those of their conservative antagonists. And the enduring popularity of Lee Greenwood’s 1984 conservative anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.,” opines Jeremy C. Young, shows that a broad desire for unity persisted throughout the “age of fracture” – and that the divide between dreaming of unity and celebrating diversity was at its heart a racial one.

Taken together, the papers on this panel embrace the multifaceted nature of the culture wars by drawing fresh conclusions from a series of late-twentieth-century musical debates that animated the complexities of the age. Randall J. Stephens, whose The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll (2018) is one of the most important books to consider the role of music in the modern American cultural divide, will chair the panel and offer a concluding comment.

Papers Presented

Great White Hopes: Arena Rock Politics in the Age of Reagan

In 1978 Chicago-based rock band Styx released a song called “The Great White Hope,” the lead track on their multiplatinum album Pieces of Eight. The song’s narrator portrays himself as a down-on-his-luck boxer “up against the ropes,” having to “kick and scratch and claw” to survive. Of course, the term Great White Hope has a long history, dating back to the early 1900s search for a white prizefighter to defeat African American champion Jack Johnson. This paper shows how midwestern “arena rock” bands such as Styx utilized coded racial references to appeal to whiteness in an age of Reaganomics and anti–civil rights backlash. Styx originated in the Chicago suburb of Roseland in the 1960s, when three descendants of Italian immigrants formed a band called The Tradewinds (later renamed Styx). Although some historians have argued that Chicago’s Italian immigrants were “white upon arrival” in America, this paper follows historiographical assertions that such immigrants were, in fact, “in-between peoples” who were “working toward whiteness” at midcentury. Music was one way they did so. Such bands’ popularity was based in part on their appeal to white listeners who apparently felt like “white hopes” struggling against a rising tide of deindustrialization and perceived gains by African Americans. This paper utilizes primary sources including newspapers, lyrics, and band members’ memoirs to explore arena rock’s racial politics in the age of Reagan. It engages secondary works by historians including Jefferson Cowie, James Barrett, and David Roediger.

Presented By
Brian Mario Ingrassia, West Texas A&M University

“We Right Here!”: Indigenous Arts and Culture from Red Power to Hip Hop in Detroit

The 1967 rebellion is often narrated as the point of decline for the city of Detroit. That is, black Americans rebelled, and this caused the major decline of the city, which includes extreme poverty, depopulation, abandoned housing, and a crime-ridden, lawless city. Moving into the 2010s, this lack of lawlessness led Detroit to go bankrupt, the largest U.S. municipality ever to so. Now, the city needs reform. Private citizens such as Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert can come in and save Detroit (from its black population?) with investment in downtown, with the Detroit 2.0 rhetoric. This rhetoric is similar to the 19th-century rhetoric of the United States, where settlers talked as if they no indigenous peoples existed, and they could come in and settle on indigenous land. Missing from the larger narrative of postrebellion Detroit, of course, are the experiences of the first nations of Detroit. The erasure of indigenous people from Detroit’s past and present is an example of what the late settler colonial studies scholar Patrick Wolfe called the “logic of elimination.” A long-forgotten aspect of postrebellion Detroit is the history of radicalism among Detroit’s indigenous people. From forming American Indian Movement chapters to aligning with black revolutionary struggles, in the past and into the present, through hip-hop culture, this paper tells the untold story of indigenous resistance in the Motor City, the enduring legacy of an indigenous presence, and their contribution to radical activities in postrebellion Detroit

Presented By
Kyle T. Mays, University of California, Los Angeles

Bringing People Together: “God Bless the U.S.A.” and Dreams of Unity in an Age of Fracture

Late twentieth-century America, argued Daniel Rodgers in 2011, experienced an “age of fracture” as groups across the political spectrum rejected the desirability of a single, unified American culture. This paper, however, argues that a pervasive American desire for unity existed and coexisted with, and even intensified in response to, the increasing reality of fracture. It takes as a case study Lee Greenwood’s 1984 country/crossover hit “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which has become practically the national anthem of the modern conservative movement—played at Republican presidential inaugurations, in the Gulf War and after 9/11, and as the official warm-up music at every Donald Trump rally. Despite Greenwood’s own conservative bona fides, however, the singer has claimed he wrote the song not to promote conservatism but “to bring people together.” Drawing on Greenwood’s two coauthored autobiographies, published interviews, and a textual analysis of lyrics and music videos, the paper situates Greenwood’s body of work within two recent cultural trends that cut across ideological lines: the late twentieth-century canonization of World War II veterans as “the greatest generation” and the enduring popularity of a mythic agrarian past built on communitarian values. “God Bless the U.S.A.” suggests that the notion of an “age of fracture” may obscure a deeper conflict in late twentieth-century American culture between an authentic embrace of diversity among historically marginalized groups and a pervasive, yet frustrated, longing for unity and homogeneity among white men (and some white women) that transcended political and ideological boundaries.

Presented By
Jeremy C. Young, Dixie State University

We’re Not Gonna Take It: The Parents’ Music Resource Center’s Crusade against Heavy Metal

This paper offers a case study of the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), and their conservative crusade against what they considered the “smut and sadism of porno rock.” Though their list of objectionable music spanned many genres and artists, their attack on popular music in the 1980s gradually zeroed in on heavy metal as their primary target. Though they promoted themselves as simply a group of concerned mothers, the founders of the PMRC were, in reality, the wives of prominent Washington politicians who used their clout to wage war against heavy metal, one of the decade’s most popular and profitable musical genres. Benefitting from an increasing public concern over Satanism and child abuse, the PMRC capitalized on a culture of fear to gain support for their cause. Their efforts culminated in a 1985 Senate hearing that brought heavy metal music and heavy metal culture into the national spotlight—contributing to an overwhelmingly negative perception of the genre among mainstream Americans. As one of the most heavily publicized battles in a series of “culture wars” waged by conservatives in the 1980s, the PMRC’s attack on heavy metal revealed tensions inherent in conservative ideology as the unrestricted free market, considered essential by many fiscal conservatives, bred the very excesses that social conservatives sought to contain.

Presented By
Chelsea Anne Watts, College of Central Florida

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Randall J. Stephens, University of Oslo
Randall J. Stephens is an Associate Professor of American and British Studies at the University of Oslo. He previously taught at Northumbria University (Newcastle upon Tyne) and Eastern Nazarene College (Quincy, Massachusetts). He is a historian of religion, conservatism, the South, environmentalism, and popular culture. He is the author of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard University Press, 2008); The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, co-authored with physicist Karl Giberson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); and editor of Recent Themes in American Religious History (University of South Carolina Press, 2009). His most recent book is The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll (Harvard University Press, 2018). Stephens has written for the Atlantic, Salon, the Wilson Quarterly, Christian Century, the Independent, History Today, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and the New York Times. In 2012 he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. He will be a Wigeland Fellow at the University of Chicago in spring 2020. Stephens is also an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer.

Presenter: Brian Mario Ingrassia, West Texas A&M University
Brian M. Ingrassia is assistant professor of history at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. He is author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (Kansas 2012), which won several commendations, including the 2013 North American Society of Sport History (NASSH) monograph award. Ingrassia serves as series editor of the Sport and Popular Culture Series at the University of Tennessee Press. He has published articles in journals including The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Journal of the Early Republic, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, and Georgia Historical Quarterly. Currently, he is completing a monograph on the early years of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tying the history of automotive spectacle to Progressive Era urban planning and the early-1900s good roads movement. The proposed paper outlined below is part of a projected book that will analyze late-1970s and early-1980s Midwestern arena rock bands within the context of late-twentieth-century deindustrialization and globalization. Ingrassia earned his PhD at the University of Illinois in 2008 and his BA at Eureka College in 2001. Before coming to West Texas A&M University in 2015, he taught for several years at Georgia State University in Atlanta and at Middle Tennessee State University in metropolitan Nashville.

Presenter: Kyle T. Mays, University of California, Los Angeles
Kyle T. Mays (Black/Saginaw Anishinaabe) is a transdisciplinary scholar of urban history, Afro-Indigenous studies, and Indigenous popular culture. He published his first book, Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America (SUNY Press, 2018). He is finishing another book titled, The Indigenous Motor City: Indigenous People and the Making of Modern Detroit (under contract with the University of Washington Press). He is currently writing a book on Black American and Indigenous encounters in unexpected places.

Presenter: Chelsea Anne Watts, College of Central Florida
Chelsea Watts has her PhD in American History from the University of South Florida. She is currently an Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of Central Florida. Her work explores the relationship between politics and popular culture, in particular the role of popular music in the modern conservative movement. Her current work, Nothin' But a Good Time: Hair Metal, Conservatism, and the End of the Cold War in the 1980s, argues that the seemingly transgressive cultural form of heavy metal was in fact an influential medium for disseminating conservative ideas about gender, free market capitalism, and American exceptionalism in the eighties.

Presenter: Jeremy C. Young, Dixie State University
Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017). He earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 2013. His articles have been published in the Journal of Social History and the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. His op-eds have appeared in such publications as the Washington Post and the Salt Lake Tribune. He also serves as Membership Secretary for the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He is currently completing an article on the history of experience and beginning research on a new book project on alternate realities in twentieth-century American culture, from which this paper is drawn.