What must it have been like to hear Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” on the radio for the first time in 1955? His white audience must have thought they were hearing music from another dimension. They likely would not have been familiar with what was then called “the chitlin circuit,” the clubs throughout the south where black performers like Little Richard honed their style. They would not have known the sweaty air of clubs in which the original lyrics of that song—Tutty frutti/ good booty—were right at home. But more importantly, they would not have understood or cared about the realities of being black in America: the threat of racial terror, the indignities of segregation, the poverty and marginalization, the redlining, the disenfranchisement, the lack of opportunity and movement, the formal repression of the state and informal policing of everyday white folks. The stifling limits of being black in a country that defined itself in terms of white supremacy would have been as invisible and incomprehensible for most white people then as they seem to be to a lot of white people today. They would not have understood, then, that the libidinal exultation of the body in a song like “Tutti Frutti” is related to the restrictions placed on black bodies by the dominant society. “Tutti Frutti” in its nonsensical lyrics, its gentle references to sex, and, most importantly, in its driving rhythm demands the free movement of the body. And if black music in America has often been oriented toward rhythms and beats, it is not just because of that music’s African inheritance but also because black music has always celebrated the movement of the black body in the face of the violent restrictions placed on it. Public Enemy expressed this perfectly: “the rhythm, the rebel.”
Yet, white people loved that song. Why did white people love rock and roll from the moment Little Richard invented it? They loved it because through an instant transmutation, white people took the call for the freedom of the black body and understood it as a demand to free the individual body from the controls placed on it by modern bourgeois society. In particular, they read rock and roll as a fundamental challenge to the self-disciplining that modern society requires of all individuals. Modern society as Weber, Marx, Foucault, and many others have shown requires less coercion—except if you belong to groups, like black people, that need to be constantly coerced—because it expects its subjects to be self-disciplining. The feudal lord forces you come work in his fields and you know you don’t have a choice; modern bourgeois society, conversely, requires everyone to work and frames this necessity as a freedom: You want to do wage labor and become a consumer. Modern society runs more smoothly when no one makes you show up to work on time or send your children to school or contribute to the state. It works best when we make ourselves do what we’re supposed to do. And that constant self-disciplining that modern society requires from us is exactly what rock and roll can be seen to challenge. The exultation of the freedom of the black body that gave birth to rock and roll is reinterpreted to mean the freedom of any body. Finally, rock and roll came fully alive for its white audience when performers like Elvis Presley purged it from the associations with racial repression that black performers through their blackness inevitably brought to the stage.
Rock and roll was perhaps not the first time the deracialization of black music served this purpose. The dialectics of American music have been defined by the rearticulation of the black meaning of freedom by white musicians. And listening to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande mimic the phrases and intonations of black music on the radio today suggests to me that this won’t soon end.