American Culture in the 1950s

By Martin Halliwell | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Music and Radio

Whereas theatre and performance styles developed slowly in the 1950s and did not really diversify until late in the decade, the rapid growth of the music industry marked a decade of changing consumer tastes and an expanding market for records and live events. The record industry was prevented from expansion during the war because of production restrictions but grew quickly afterwards with 400 record labels in existence by 1949, just one year after the launch of the 33 rpm twelveinch disc and the 45 rpm single. Many labels did not exist very long and five main companies – Decca, Capitol, RCA-Victor, Columbia and ABC-Paramount – were quick to capitalize on the increase in disposable income, particularly among middle-class teenagers. The launch of the Billboard Top 40 in 1951 changed the way in which music was played on radio. Formulaic programming was common among the four major radio networks – NBC, CBS, ABC and MBS – with many channels playing only hit songs which listeners could be confident they would hear regularly.

Before the Top 40, Billboard did produce lists (such as 'the hit parade', most radio plays, and most popular jukebox songs), but beginning in Omaha, Nebraska and expanding through the prairie towns the new format of repeated plays meant that 'announcers' (newly dubbed disc jockeys or DJs) did not need to have specialist musical knowledge. Some critics were appalled that the diversity of radio shows was being sacrificed in the name of repetition, but in the 1950s the Top 40 'became a crucial conduit for giving people what they wanted to hear – particularly when what they wanted to hear was not what the guardians of cultural taste supposed'.1

Musical tastes were not alone in changing. The whole dynamic of the music and broadcasting industry was in transition, as Detroit, Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans became important regional

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American Culture in the 1950s
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Figures vi
  • Case Studies vii
  • Acknowledgements viii
  • Chronology of 1950s American Culture xi
  • Introduction - The Intellectual Context 1
  • Chapter 1 - Fiction and Poetry 51
  • Chapter 2 - Drama and Performance 85
  • Chapter 3 - Music and Radio 119
  • Chapter 4 - Film and Television 147
  • Chapter 5 - The Visual Arts Beyond Modernism 189
  • Conclusion - Rethinking the 1950s 225
  • Notes 245
  • Bibliography 285
  • Index 303
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