Popular Culture

By Barra, Allen | American Heritage, April-May 2004 | Go to article overview

Popular Culture


Barra, Allen, American Heritage


With American Heritage approaching its fiftieth birthday in December 2004, we've asked five prominent historians and cultural commentators to each pick 10 leading developments in American life during the last half-century. In this issue Allen Barra, American Heritage's film reviewer and a wide-ranging historian and cultural critic, whose most recent books include Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends and Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century, selects the 10 biggest changes in popular culture. In other issues this year our authorities offer their choices of the half-century's biggest transformations in politics; innovation and technology; business; and the home and the family.

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This essay began as a listing of the 10 greatest changes in popular culture in the past 50 years, but the more I mulled it over, the more I grew convinced that the discussion could have meaning only if it focused on people--artists and writers who either were at the forefront of change or best symbolized it. No one would deny that art and culture are the products of complex socioeconomic forces, but if they aren't also shaped and formed by the personalities and talents of human beings, what is? Andy Warhol didn't create pop art (well, he did, sort of, though somebody would surely have done it if he hadn't), but he certainly created the look of pop art as we know it.

How does one measure the 10 greatest changes in popular culture over the past half-century? Well, how do you define "popular culture"? I ask only two things of popular culture: first that it be popular and second that it have something legitimate to do with culture. (Stephen King, for instance, has probably been the most popular novelist over this period, but it would be hard to make a case for his changing our culture.)

Culture takes in many different art forms, so I have tried to include people whose intelligence, creativity, and dynamism have effected change in jazz, rock, film, television, and pop art as well as literature and journalism. To say that I could have legitimately extended this list to 20 or even 30 names in no way lessens the impact of the 10 (or 11) offered here.

1 James Dean Yes, Brando, of course. But James Dean popularized the same acting style and made it a focus for teenage rebellion. It could be argued, in fact, that as a beacon for teenage angst, his image predates rock 'n' roll.

It could also be argued that by dying dramatically in 1955, he did as much for the next generation of actors as Brando did by living. Nearly every moody, sexy young actor to follow in his wake, from Paul Newman (who was cast in roles that would have gone to Dean) to Benicio Del Toro (who gave Dean's style an ethnic flavor), owes him much.

2 Miles Davis Let us count the ways in which he influenced popular culture. No jazz musician since Louis Armstrong has been so widely known or popular. For better or worse--you make the call--he pioneered jazz-rock fusion. And he became the first and only jazz artist to create an image of rock-star proportions.

Have we left anything out? Oh, yes, as the story goes, he told a middle-aged white woman at a party when she asked what he had done to be invited, "I changed music about five or six times. What have you done?"

3 Raymond Chandler Most of Chandler's short stories, books, and film scripts were written in the thirties and forties, though the script that was arguably his best, done for Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, wasn't filmed until 1951, and his best novel, The Long Goodbye, was published in 1953. Still, although Chandler evokes the forties as does no other American writer, his real influence was to be on later decades.

Chandler perfected the American private-eye genre begun by Dashiell Hammett in the late twenties, but more important, his oeuvre helped create the look and feel of film noir that haunts Hollywood to this day. …

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