Through the 2018-19 Sagan National Colloquium, Ohio Wesleyan is exploring “Art and Engagement” – the myriad ways that art can impact our world. This is one in a series of articles by OWU faculty addressing the SNC theme. Explore the schedule of SNC lectures, exhibits, and events.


By Sean Kay, Ph.D

Joan Jett and Sean Kay
Sean Kay with Joan Jett.

My work as a political scientist often explores ideas around international relations, and as a result, a look at American values of freedom, equality, human rights, and peace. Rock ’n’ roll is a part of that equation, in that as an art form and an ethic, it reinforces ideas we have about who we are as Americans and our collective experience.

I explore these linkages in my book, Rockin’ The Free World! How Rock and Roll Changed America and the World. I was fortunate to interview over 60 prominent American and international performing artists, from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees and Grammy winners to regional and local musicians. I also spoke with industry insiders, including music managers, journalists, heads of nonprofits, and activists.

Rolling Stone magazine founding editor and publisher Jann Wenner commented that, "Bob Dylan is the voice of my America."  What Wenner was talking about is something a number of us can relate to — the idea that rock and roll connects ideas and people.

I’ve been studying rock ’n’ roll in recent years because it has always been a part of my personal experience, including as a musician. I was born in the San Francisco Bay area in 1967, during the Summer of Love. Art and protest were everywhere.

It was all very normal to me; it was only when I moved to Ohio in the sixth grade that I realized everything else was strange!

But it wasn’t just that era. Rock ’n’ roll artists, their work, and the impact of their work are everywhere today, and their influence is more profound than just galvanizing people around an issue or a cause.

“Because of its mass communicative appeal, rock ’n’ roll goes beyond form because it’s an ethic and attitude that challenges authority and is expressive, and it manifests this in two ways.”

First, it connects people through the art they experience — it essentially builds community. For instance we see that in the Beach Boys song “In My Room” — it offers us opportunity for introspection, which links people because they can relate to it.

Second, rock ’n’ roll also has a volume to its expression, which helps elevate a message.

Rock ’n’ roll helps to revitalize and modernize a number of important American values of freedom, equality, human rights, and efforts toward peace, and we see this everywhere. In a 1965 video of the band the Byrds’ song, “I’ll Feel A Lot Better When You’re Gone” — which is not a political song — you can just see expressive freedom in the dancing, and that in and of itself becomes an act of liberation.

We have countries today where young people have been arrested for dancing to a Pharrell Williams song on YouTube in Iran, or in Russia, where the band Pussy Riot was put in jail for exercising freedom of expression. This isn’t some historical thing – this is happening right now.

I am not saying that rock ’n’ roll is causal. For example, the Cold War in Eastern Europe didn’t end because of the Beatles, but Beatles songs resonated with people in the Soviet Union, and it showed them that there was a real difference between a beautiful bright life full of color and music and being in prison. As Serj Tankian, singer and songwriter from the alternative metal band System of a Down, says, “Ultimately, you can call things as they are — be they realpolitik, realist, and . . . in the end, depress everyone to death. But, without telling them, ‘Look, this is a choice’ — that’s very important — giving them the optimism to make that choice and [realize] it doesn’t have to be this way: War is Over!”

Graham Nash from Crosby, Stills and Nash told me, “Ideas transcended those walls and broke through the barriers of people’s hearts.” Joan Jett, in her 2015 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, called rock ’n’ roll “a subculture of integrity, rebellion, frustration, alienation, and the glue that set several generations free from unnatural societal and self-suppression.”

There’s power in that.

Unfortunately, dramatic changes in the music industry — the shift to streaming platforms and the consolidation of the radio stations (only six corporations own 90 percent of U.S. radio stations) — means the music we hear today is from a corporate-mined playlist.

But what won’t change is this: The revolutionary power of rock ’n’ roll to connect people and effect change.


A new paperback edition of Sean Kay’s recent book, Rockin’ The Free World! How Rock and Roll Changed America and the World, will be released November 30. He is Robson Professor of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan University, where he also is Director of the International Studies Program.