I’ve just gotten around to reading Louis Menand’s new piece in The New Yorker about the Cold War; he aptly says,
“The Wild One,” “Blackboard Jungle,” and “Rock Around the Clock” caused youth riots in both East and West Germany in 1955 and 1956. In the notorious “cultural Cold War,” during which the C.I.A. covertly supported—and the State Department and American museums and foundations overtly funded—the dissemination of American art, books, literary and intellectual journalism, dance, theatre, and music, the one product that can plausibly be argued to have made a difference in the eventual overthrow of Communism was rock and roll. Bill Haley and Frank Zappa likely did more to inspire the dissidents in Eastern Europe than Jackson Pollock or the writers at Partisan Review.
Jazz also inspired people like Vaclav Havel, as it had inspired anti-Fascists and anti-Nazis in the 30s and 40s. Jazz and rock are both clearly musics of freedom.
It was rock that energized the opposition to totalitarian regimes; likewise, what charged the opposition was at least as much the hope of consumer goods and Hollywood movies as it was big ideas about freedom and democracy.
I’ve been giving this some thought. It’s not immediately clear what lessons we should draw.