What Roll Did the CIA Have in Promoting Rock’n’Roll?

In the political world, “soft power” is the use of culture and consumer products as a way of influencing foreign policy.  Rather than guns and bombs, things such as consumer goods and music can be used to coerce, persuade and co-opt a population.

One of America’s greatest contributions to the world is rock’n’roll–and we don’t need to discuss the power this music has.  So here’s the question:  did the CIA ever use rock’n’roll as a weapon?  The Awl takes a look.

Pretty much every government uses culture as propaganda, so it should not be surprising that the United States did so throughout the Cold War. As a superpower involved in a multi-pronged proxy war for the hearts and minds of each and every inhabitant of Earth, how could it not? And the CIA was behind most of it.While Hoover and his FBI men were busy red-baiting, tapping phones, and compiling dossiers on just about any American with even the most minuscule of leftist leanings, the CIA was simultaneously funding and promoting art by many of the same people the FBI was watching. Meanwhile, Joe McCarthy was attacking anything and everything with even the slightest hint of communism, once even raising a ruckus when he found a citation—a citation mind you—to a book by avowed Marxist Corliss Lamont in the bibliography of an Army publication.

At the exact same time that such insanity was sweeping across the government, the CIA was paying for the publication of books and articles by plenty of ex-communists and others with leftist leanings and Marxist pasts. The CIA showed a willingness, since its inception, to fund whoever made sense as a tool regardless of the political climate, and despite the politics of those funded.

As the twentieth century wore on, it seems safe to assume that the CIA continued acts of cultural propaganda. The files remain secret and the names redacted. We know some of what they did in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, but nothing after that.

An informed guess would point to rock ‘n’ roll and its various offshoots as an obvious art form to fund.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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