Soundscapes of Power in the Youth Quake: The politics of celebrity, music and youth culture in 20th-century Europe

A one-day conference at Aarhus University.

2017.12.05 | Sofie Wulff Sørensen

Date Tue 12 Dec
Time 10:00 16:00
Location In building 1461, room 516

Celebrity is everywhere! The boundaries between celebrity culture and politics seem increasingly blurred. Well-known actors, singers, sports stars and other media figures are rising to prominent political positions.  ‘Unpolitical’ popular culture and its celebrities are revealing political implications or are being exploited for particular political causes. The discourses and practices of celebrity and fan culture are echoing in the political sphere. Et cetera.

This seminar traces the roots and lineages of such phenomena, studying earlier political mobilizations and implications of popular celebrity culture as crucial forms of ‘soft power’. We are particularly interested in the crucial phase from the mid-20th century during which new genres of popular music became defining characteristics Western youth cultures, contributing to  an emblematic soundscape of the general ‘youth quake’ of the post-war years.

Taking the height of the cold war during the 1950’s as a vantage point for studies of longer-term developments, and combining perspectives from both sides of the iron curtain, this one-day conference will be devoted to discussions of the historical emergence and forms of interaction between music, celebrity culture and politics as well as methodological approaches to such questions.



Unworthy representatives of Danish youth and the democratic jitterbug, by Rasmus Rosenørn (Curator at Ragnarock – the museum for pop, rock and youth culture, Roskilde)

Selling Elvis: the nuclear-powered singer and the Cold War, by Mathias Haeussler (Lumley Research Fellow, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge)

From Hound Dog to Soldier Boy: Cold-war politics and changing perceptions of Elvis Presley viewed from the Danish public sphere 1958-60, by Bertel Nygaard (Associate Professor, Aarhus Univerity)

From Elvis to Bruce.  Sonic weapons in the Italian Cold War, by Marilisa Merolla (Associate Professor of Contemporary History & Director of Music Making History Research Unit, Sapienza University of Rome)

Rock music and political counter-culture in communist Poland, by Tom Junes (Visiting Fellow, European University Institute, Florence)

The Cold War Roots of Icelandic Pop Music Export: Bo Halldorsson Tours the Soviet Union in 1982, by Rosa Magnusdottir (Associate Professor, Aarhus University)


Abstracts and author info


Unworthy representatives of Danish youth and the democratic jitterbug

Rasmus Rosenørn

In March 1949 a popular Danish illustrated magazine reported from a jitterbug contest. The header stated that jitterbug was “The most democratic Joie de Vivre”. This statement was the culmination of a year long process of containment of swing music and the youth cultures surrounding it. This paper examines the changing political understandings of jazz and swing music in Denmark during the 1940’s and 1950’s. During these two decades swing music and later revival jazz was not only popular music, but also cultural concepts used from various political positions in the negotiation of Denmark as a part of a cultural and political “West” and engagement in the Cold War. Jazz and swing culture had its own idols and stars, but the practitioners of music seemed to play a relatively small part in the changing understandings of swing and jazz music. This lack of celebrity power in this process opens for a broader discussion of the understandings of the celebrity and youth culture before the decade of youth quake in the 1960’s.


Rasmus Rosenørn, Curator, Phd, Ragnarock – the museum for pop, rock, and youth culture. Rasmus Rosenørn is a historian dealing with 20th century Danish and Western World cultural history. His main fields of interest and research are within the Americanization, Cultural Transfer, Popular Culture, Youth Culture and Popular Music



Selling Elvis: the nuclear-powered singer and the Cold War

Mathias Haeussler

When Elvis Presley first started out in 1954, his scandalous and allegedly ‘vulgar’ live performances led many to depict the young artist as an ‘enemy from within’; a deeply ‘un-American’ performer threatening very core of the post-McCarthy spirit and character. In his famous television appearances in 1956, the broadcasters even decided to film him only from the waist up, trying to prevent his gyrating hip-moves from corrupting the American youth. Yet, Elvis’s unprecedented commercial success both at home and abroad made America think twice, and Elvis quickly but lastingly morphed into the supreme global icon of US popular culture and power at home and abroad. By 1958, such was his appeal that he even got drafted and sent to West Germany to serve as soldier at the very frontline of the Cold War: not only winning West European hearts (and minds?) in a massive propaganda coup, but also profoundly changing American self-perceptions on the home front.

This paper investigates how Elvis was transformed from being America’s ‘inner enemy’ into one of its key Cold War figureheads within only a few years. It reveals that, even though the US had initially sought to fight the cultural conflict primarily on the grounds of ‘high culture’, Presley’s success unexpectedly gave America what would become one of its most potent cultural weapons – the public image of a nation freely endorsing innovation, freedom of expression, and above all consumerism. The paper also analyses how non-state actors, such as record labels, managers, and the press, increasingly focused on Elvis’s personal story – the poor Southern working-class boy going from rags to riches – rather than on his controversial music to project images of US society to Europe and beyond. In so doing, the paper not only builds on historiographical trends investigating the role of popular music and consumerism in the Cold War, but it also shows how Elvis Presley’s global stardom shaped European perceptions of US society and culture, as well as American self-perceptions in turn.


Dr Mathias Haeussler is currently Lumley Research Fellow at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. He holds a Ph.D. in History and M.Phil. in Modern European History from the University of Cambridge, as well as a B.A. in Politics and History from Queen Mary University of London. In recent years, he has been a British Research Council Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., as well as a DAAD-funded visiting scholar at the University of Bonn (2012-13). His main interest is in post-1945 International History, with a particular focus on European integration and the Cold War. He also have has broader interests in twentieth century British and German history, British attitudes towards Europe, Anglo-German relations, the transatlantic relationship, and the cultural history of the Cold War.


From Hound Dog to Soldier Boy: Cold-war politics and changing perceptions of Elvis Presley viewed from the Danish public sphere 1958-60

Bertel Nygaard

From the late 1950’s to the early 1960’s there was a wide-spread, dramatic shift in dominant perceptions of Elvis Presley. 1950’s Elvis personified rebellious rock’n’roll, simultaneously challenging several of the most well-established distinctions in Western perceptions of civilization, culture and morality (race, gender, class and more). 1960’s Elvis was reconceived as an establishment-friendly pop star affirming such distinctions (identifying with slightly readjusted conceptions of whiteness, masculinity and other signs of social respectability). Between the two phases lie his much-publicized army stint from 1958 till 1960, most of which was served in West Germany, at a symbolically important military position near the border to the GDR and thus to communist Eastern Europe. This pronounced association with the ‘right’ side in the cold war seemed to dispel the fear of Elvis Presley in the other, more general terms too.

In retrospect, this makes the shift in public perceptions of Elvis Presley an interesting case study on the study of cold war mentalities and cultural politics. This paper will study such development at a micro-level through Danish newspapers, magazines and general reception of Elvis products (records, movies, etc.).


Bertel Nygaard is an associate professor of modern European history at Aarhus University. He specialized in the study of political cultures, concepts and ideas, particularly in times of crisis and transformation.


From Elvis to Bruce.  Sonic weapons in the Italian Cold War

Examining the Italian case, this contribution aims to explore the political power of celebrity, music and youth culture in 20th-century Europe at the beginning and at the end of the Cold War. This paper moves from two separate perspectives: one inspired by the interpretation of Elvis’ impact as a sort of white archetype of the blues on European societies, during the early Cold War, when – with the Eisenhower’s “People to People program” - blues, jazz, soul and rock’n’roll were used by the US Department of State as “sonic weapons” to combat the perception of the US as a racist society. The second suggests that during the Born in the USA tour in 1984-1985, Bruce Springsteen expressed the complexity of the upcoming end of the Cold War era.  Rock and roll music was able to express the many instances not yet recognized – we could say removed - by the main institutions (e.g. political parties) and contained the social effects of the collapse of the geopolitical balance between communism and anticommunism.


Marilisa Merolla (Napoli, 1970) is associate professor in Contemporary History at Sapienza Università di Roma. She is the founder and the director of “Music Making History Research Unit” ( which co-operates with several Universities and teaching facilities throughout Europe and United States and the GRAMMY Museum. She has taught and made numerous conference presentations on sound as historical source. Her publications include the monographs ROCK ‘N’ ROLL, ITALIAN WAY. Propaganda americana e modernizzazione nell’Italia che cambia al ritmo del rock (1954-1964), Coniglio Editore, Roma 2011; and ITALIA 1961. I media celebrano il Centenario della nazione, Franco Angeli, Milano 2004. Among the numerous international book chapters and journal articles, she is the author of “Rock ´n´ roll, Politics, and Society during the Italian Economic Boom” in New World Coming: The Sixties and the shaping of global consciousness, Between the Lines, Toronto 2009, and “Jazz and Fascism. Contradictions and ambivalences in the diffusion of Jazz Music under the Italian Fascist dictatorship (1925-1935)”, in B. Johnson (ed.), Jazz and Totalitarianism, Routledge, New York and London 2016. 



Rock music and political counter-culture in communist Poland

Tom Junes

In 2015, Polish rock musician contributed to a shake up of Poland's political scene by coming third in the presidential elections garnering one fifth of the votes. He subsequently formed a political formation and entered parliament. Kukiz, who had been gradually entering the political scene in the past year riding populist sentiments, was among a generation of Polish musicians who came of age and became known during the 1980s post-martial law period of the final communist decade. While it was only in recent years that Poland saw something of a 'celebritisation' of its politics, the roots of this phenomenon can indeed be traced to stretch back decades. This paper will provide a discussion of how music contributed to the emergence of a political counter-culture under communism from the 1950s to the 1980s.


Tom Junes is a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the KU Leuven (Belgium). He is a member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia and currently a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. As a postdoctoral researcher he has held fellowships in Warsaw, Vienna, Budapest, Helsinki, Potsdam, Jena and Sofia. His research interests cover Eastern European history, Cold War history, and the history of youth and student movements. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent and has published widely on topics relating to student protest in Eastern Europe.



The Cold War Roots of Icelandic Pop Music Export: Bo Halldorsson Tours the Soviet Union in 1982

Rosa Magnusdottir

In the fall of 1982, Icelandic Pop Star, Björgvin Halldórsson, toured the Soviet Union with his band Brimkló, giving 27 concerts in 25 days all over the vast country. From Moscow to Novokuznetsk, Yerevan to Tbilisi, this was a massive endeavor, planned in close cooperation with Goskonsert, the Soviet state concert agency, Icelandic-Soviet Trade Council, and other cultural and political authorities. About 50.000 Soviet people attended the concerts and Bo Halldorsson, as he was called in the Soviet Union, was recognized on the streets and he received much media attention during his stay. However, recently uncovered Soviet reports about his stay also show that the off stage behavior of Bo Halldorsson and his entourage was considered anti-socialist; they were labeled hooligans, and a bad influence on Soviet youth. This paper will explore this first ever organized international tour of Icelandic pop stars and place it in the context of Cold War cultural relations. The sources allow for an analysis of the tension between the official Soviet support of the tour and their ever present internal anxiety about the potential influence of Western popular culture on Soviet youth.


Rosa Magnusdottir is an Associate Professor at Aarhus University. She specializes in Soviet, Communist and cold war cultural and political history.

Historie og Klassiske Studier