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'Pop' Goes the Culture, as the Culture Goes 'Pop'


In the50's, if you  weren't

Disneyland opened. Polyester appeared. Drive-ins debuted. There were radio-controlled lawnmowers and there were electronic brains. Volkswagen made a boom with its first Beetle and the sound barrier broke.

Moms went hog wild over Tupperware and kids laid waste to supermarket shelves lined with brand new sweets like Oreos and Sugar Smacks. A televised Tarzan swung across living rooms as families peeled off the tops of their first heat-and-serve TV dinners.

Louis Armstrong jazzed. Elvis Presley rocked. Billie Holiday blues'd...and teenagers, threatening the moral fabric of society, popped coins into the jukebox and danced their way across America wearing poodle skirts and pompadours.

Kitty shakes it up at a 50's style Chicago hot spot

It was 1950s post-war America and U.S. culture went "pop". Popular, that is.

Having emerged from WWII as a world superpower and a socio-political rival to the communist Soviet Union, the US was neck-high in desire to make its capitalist model shine. The national economy fell into full force post-war production and miners and steelworkers sweated to provide a hungry public with all the necessities and luxuries in life.


Catty Kitty...a diner's phenomenon

At the same time, real-estate developer William Levitt was stamping out cookie cutter homes just as fast as World War II veterans could pack their bags and park them in suburbia. In the midst of a population boom and a housing crisis, the US could not market itself until it could provide decent homes for its people. For that reason, building and moving into suburban homes fully equipped with the latest and greatest appliances became a patriotic mission.

Riverside gave birth to suburbia and Levittown gave it a cookie-cutter edge
It was outside of Chicago in the 1860s when Frederick Olmstead designed one of the first suburban towns in America. Little did he know then that the basic layout of his town, Riverside, in which extended clusters of houses radiate out from a town center, would find its way into William Levitt's visionary plans for the 50s. Levitt built tens of thousands of nearly identical, inexpensive homes, organized them into neighborhoods connected by village centers and commercial districts, and marketed them to struggling war veterans as the ideal American community. These new instant neighborhoods became a nationwide overnight success, and suburban America as we know it was born.

For the five long years of WWII, there was little to no stimulus for consumer spending, but with a pumped-up domestic-centered economy, the new suburban public became fascinated with fads like collecting electronic appliances, playing with hula hoops, and buying newly-designed cars. There, in 1950s suburbia, modern American culture was fed to the ideal US citizen. New gadgets demonstrated technological progress and innovation. Music revealed liveliness and youth. Recreation showed wealth and prosperity.

By this time in the 1950s, the US and the Soviet Union were heavily involved in the Cold War, a period of about forty years during which the two nations competed for international influence and economic control (Check out Neda's 'nuclear' news!) The US found in American suburbia a battlefront in which to combat Soviet communism. With all of its popularity, trend setting, and progress, suburban America sent a message to the world that the promises of capitalist democracy were strong and thriving.

Cart wheeling through the oldest planned suburb in the U.S.!!!

This was suburbia in the phenomenal Fifties, and even today suburbia is still 'pop'ing, with popular culture and the capitalist dream....perhaps now even louder than before. I do not challenge that moral dilemmas, personal goals, and family squabbles are undeniably more complex and colorful than they were in the black and white Fifties. If you have a problem, you probably are not going to "Leave it to Beaver". You may not even love contemporary pop icons (Check out Jennifer's dispatch about Mickey Mouse!) as much as "I Love Lucy," but have our values as a culture really changed?

Riverside, Illinois still exists, friends. Nick and I went there. We walked through its streets, strolled by its river, and emerged from the trees of its 'all-natural' forest preserve. Just as we left Riverside, though, we ran into Brookfield right next door. Past Brookfield, was Oak Park, and Naperville a little further beyond. Suburban Chicago, today, extends far outside of the borders of Riverside and well into lands more than an hour and a half's drive from the city. There are newspapers called "The Suburban," and radio stations slogans indicating the "sound of the 'burbs".

Suburbia is EVERYwhere. It's outside of Chicago and Miami, New York and Detroit, and it's still cleaned with capitalism. Decorating the US landscape, the beaming lights of Starbucks, the 24-hour convenience of Wal-mart, and the endless seas of strip malls make being thirty minutes outside of Atlanta identical to being an hour outside of L.A. Contemporary suburban American towns are as visibly homogenous as they were in 1950s Levittown.

Progeny of American Suburbia...Trekkers Nick, Stephen, Stephanie, Irene, Becky, Neda, and Jennifer

In the Fifties, suburban Americans became convinced that in a culture washed with progress and innovation, everything was okay. Countercultures like that of the Beatniks were strange and illogical, and social protests like those at the beginning of the civil rights movement were a complete surprise. If, in the Fifties, the suburban boom and its popular culture was a symbol of capitalist success for the cold war world, then what significance does its continued growth have for us today? What is popular culture in the new millennium? Does it shelter us or change our identities?

Hold that thought....I've got a call on my cell phone.


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Marching and writing to a beat all their own
Irene - That's not just an orange you are eating. It's history
Nick - Moving to the city? Get ready for a fight
Jennifer - You ain't nothing but a SUPERSTAR!!!!!!!
Nick - That's it. You're done. We terminate you