Popular culture and mass media in the 1950s

In the 1950s, financial prosperity allowed young Americans to participate in a shared culture of rock and roll music, movies, and television.

Overview

  • In the 1950s and 1960s, young Americans had more disposable income and enjoyed greater material comfort than their forebears, which allowed them to devote more time and money to leisure activities and the consumption of popular culture.
  • Rock and roll, a new style of music which drew inspiration from African American blues music, embraced themes popular among teenagers, such as young love and rebellion against authority.
  • In the 1950s, the relatively new technology of television began to compete with motion pictures as a major form of popular entertainment.

The postwar boom and popular culture

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States emerged as the world's leading industrial power. Generous government support for education and home loans coupled with a booming economy meant that Americans in the postwar era had more discretionary income than ever before.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the bumper crop of children born after World War II, known collectively as the baby boomers, grew into teenagers and young adults. As the largest single generation up until that point in American history, the baby boomers had a tremendous effect on popular culture thanks to their sheer numbers. Starting as early as the 1940s, savvy marketers identified the baby boomers as a target demographic and marketed products and entertainment geared to their needs and interests.
The baby boomers developed a greater generational consciousness than previous generations. They sought to define and redefine their identities in numerous ways. The music of the day, especially rock and roll, reflected their desire to rebel against adult authority. Other forms of 1950s popular culture, such as movies and television, sought to entertain, while reinforcing values such as religious faith, patriotism, and conformity to societal norms.

Rocking around the clock

In the late 1940s, some white country musicians began to experiment with the rhythms of the blues, a decades-old musical genre of rural southern black people. This experimentation led to the creation of a new musical form known as rockabilly; by the 1950s, rockabilly had developed into rock and roll.
Rock and roll music celebrated themes such as young love and freedom from the oppression of middle-class society. It quickly grew in favor among American teens during the 1950s, thanks largely to the efforts of disc jockey Alan Freed. Freed named and popularized rock and roll by playing it on the radio in Cleveland—where he also organized the first rock and roll concert—and later in New York.
The theme of rebellion against authority, present in many rock and roll songs, appealed to teens. In 1954, rock group Bill Haley and His Comets provided youth with an anthem for their rebellion with the song ”Rock Around the Clock.” The song, used in the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle about a white teacher at a troubled inner-city high school, seemed to be calling for teens to declare their independence from adult control.
Haley illustrated how white artists could take musical motifs from African American musicians and achieve mainstream success. Teen heartthrob Elvis Presley rose to stardom doing the same. Thus, besides encouraging a feeling of youthful rebellion, rock and roll also began to tear down color barriers in popular culture, as white youths sought out African American musicians such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Photo of Elvis Presley dancing in a promo shoot for the song Jailhouse Rock.
Rock musician Elvis Presley enthralled teens and scandalized adults with his suggestive lyrics and dance moves. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
While youth had found an outlet for their feelings and concerns, their parents were much less enthused about rock and roll and the rebellion and sexuality it seemed to promote. Many regarded the music as a threat to American values. When Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a popular television variety program, the camera deliberately focused on his torso and did not show his swiveling hips or legs shaking in time to the music.
Despite adults’ dislike of the genre, or perhaps because of it, more than 68 percent of the music played on the radio in 1956 was rock and roll.

Hollywood on the defensive

At first, Hollywood encountered difficulties in adjusting to the post-World War II environment. Although domestic audiences reached a record high in 1946 and the war’s end meant expanding international markets too, the groundwork for the eventual dismantling of the traditional "studio system" was laid in 1948 in a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court. Previously, film studios had owned their own movie theater chains in which they exhibited the films they produced; however, in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., this vertical integration of the industry—the complete control by one firm of the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures—was deemed a violation of antitrust laws.
Hollywood also felt the strain of Cold War fears. The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings targeted suspected Communists in Hollywood. When Senator Joseph McCarthy called eleven “unfriendly witnesses” to testify before Congress about Communism in the film industry in October 1947, only playwright Bertolt Brecht answered questions. The other 10, who refused to testify, were cited for contempt of Congress on November 24. The next day, film executives declared that the so-called “Hollywood Ten” would no longer be employed in the industry until they had sworn they were not Communists.
Eventually, more than three hundred actors, screenwriters, directors, musicians, and other entertainment professionals were placed on the industry blacklist. Some never worked in Hollywood again; others directed films or wrote screenplays under assumed names.
A photograph shows Edward Dmytryk testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
One of the original Hollywood Ten, director Edward Dmytryk publicly announced he had once been a Communist and, in April 1951, answered questions and “named names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Image credit: OpenStax College.
Hollywood reacted aggressively to these various challenges. Filmmakers tried new techniques, like CinemaScope and Cinerama, which allowed movies to be shown on large screens and in 3-D. Audiences were drawn to movies not because of gimmicks, however, but because of the stories they told. Dramas and romantic comedies continued to be popular fare for adults.
To appeal to teens, studios produced large numbers of horror films and movies starring music idols such as Elvis. Many films took espionage, a timely topic, as their subject matter, and science fiction hits such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers—about a small town whose inhabitants fall prey to space aliens—played on audience fears of both Communist invasion and nuclear technology.

The triumph of television

By far the greatest challenge to Hollywood, however, came from the relatively new medium of television. Although the technology had been developed in the late 1920s, through much of the 1940s only a fairly small, wealthy audience had access to it. As a result, programming had been limited.
With the post-World War II economic boom, however, all this changed. Where there had been only 178,000 televisions in homes in 1948, by 1955, over three-quarters of a million US households—about half of all homes—had television.
A photograph shows a man, a woman, three teenage girls, and a teenage boy sitting in a living room, watching a television.
An American family relaxes in front of their television set in 1958. Many gathered not only to watch the programming but also to eat dinner. The marketing of small folding tray tables and frozen “TV dinners” encouraged such behavior. Image credit: OpenStax College.
Various types of programs were broadcast on the handful of major networks: situation comedies, variety programs, game shows, soap operas, talk shows, medical dramas, adventure series, cartoons, and police procedurals.
Many comedies presented an idealized image of white suburban family life: happy housewife mothers, wise fathers, and mischievous but not dangerously rebellious children were constants on shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best in the late 1950s. These shows also reinforced certain perspectives on the values of individualism and family—values that came to be redefined as “American” in opposition to alleged Communist collectivism.
Westerns, which stressed unity in the face of danger and the ability to survive in hostile environments, were popular too. Programming designed specifically for children began to emerge with shows such as Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room, and The Mickey Mouse Club designed to appeal to members of the baby boom.

What do you think?

What can popular culture tell us about a historical time period? Are trends in music, film, and television important for understanding an era? Why or why not?
Why do you think rock and roll became so popular?
What messages about American values were promoted by popular culture in the 1950s?

Attribution

This article is a modified derivative of "Popular Culture and Mass Media" by OpenStaxCollege (CC BY 4.0).
The modified article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
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