By Maria Popova
The 1950s were a time of monumental transition — color replaced black-and-white, the century of the self was coming into full bloom, and the American Dream was taking its first bold steps into new economic freedom after the sequential devastation of the Great Depression and World War II. But one particular change that took place in that seminal decade grew to be a central driving force of contemporary culture.
In The Fifties (public library), Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist David Halberstram considers how Elvis Presley’s music, at the perfect confluence of the golden age of portable radio, the rise of credit buying, and the rock-and-roll cross-over spearheaded by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, ushered in a new era of the teenager as a flag-bearer of consumer culture:
Presley’s timing was nearly perfect. … Parents might disapprove of the beat and of their children listening to what they knew was black music. But their disapproval only added to Presley’s popularity and made him more of a hero among the young. Local ministers might get up in their churches (almost always well covered by local newspapers) and attack demon rock as jungle music and threaten to lead a crusade to have this Presley boy arrested if he dared set foot in their community (generally, there was no problem, their towns were too small for him to play). It did not matter: Elvis Presley and rock music were happening.
A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music. There was nothing the parents could do: This new generation was armed with both money and the new inexpensive appliances with which to listen to it. This was the new, wealthier America. Elvis Presley began to make it in 1955, after ten years of rare broad-based middle-class prosperity. Among the principal beneficiaries of that prosperity were the teenagers. They had almost no memory of a Depression and the great war that followed it. There was no instinct on their part to save money. In the past when American teenagers had made money, their earnings, more often than not, had gone to help support their parents or had been saved for one treasured and long-desired purchase, like a baseball glove or a bike, or it had been set aside for college.
An essential byproduct of this, just as the new middle class had begun to take over the country, was the rise of a new consumer class: youth. By 1956, the 13 million teenagers in America had a cumulative income of $7 billion a year, a staggering 26% increase over the figures from three years prior. Those numbers, Halberstam notes, were astounding at the time, not far from the disposable income of an entire family of average Americans after basic billpay a mere fifteen years earlier.
But beyond the changing social structures, what fueled this tectonic shift in consumer culture was technological innovation:
Technology favored the young. The only possible family control was over a home’s one radio or record player. There, parental rule and edicts could still be exercised. But the young no longer needed to depend on the family’s appliances. In the early fifties a series of technological breakthroughs brought small transistorized radios that sold for $25 to $50. Soon an Elvis Presley model record player was selling for $47.95. Teenagers were asked to put $1 down and pay only $1 a week. Credit buying had reached the young. By the late fifties, American companies sold 10 million portable record players a year.
What this technological liberation achieved above all, Halberstam argues, was a reshuffling of the authoritarian hierarchy:
In this new subculture of rock and roll the important figures of authority were no longer mayors and selectmen or parents; they were disc jockeys, who reaffirmed the right to youthful independence and guided teenagers to their new rock heroes. The young formed their own community. For the first time in American life they were becoming a separate, defined part of the culture: As they had money, they were a market, and as they were a market they were listened to and catered to. Elvis was the first beneficiary. In effect, he was entering millions of American homes on the sly; if the parents had had their way, he would most assuredly have been barred.
The Fifties goes on to explore the social, political, and economic changes swept in by the era’s whirlwind of affluence and anxiety, control and chaos, uplift and unease.
Public domain images via Flickr Commons