The paradoxical nature of the Fifties was evident in the cultural arena. The Eisenhower era was a time of both squeaky-clean Disneyland and unkempt, edgy beatniks. It was a time when the defiantly sexual Elvis competed with the insufferably bland Perry Como. Rebel Without a Cause, a film about teenagers fighting with switchblades and driving cars off cliffs, was a box-office hit; so too was The Ten Commandments, in which Moses parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites out of Egypt in a grand retelling of one of the Bible's most famous stories. Why all the contradictions?
During the Fifties, mass culture began to dominate in the United States. This accounted for much of the blandness that critics lamented. Television network executives in particular wanted to cater to the largest audience possible, so they shaped their programs to offend the least number of viewers.
But mass culture also left room for diversity. If you didn't like Western movies, there were Biblical epics; if you didn't like comedies, there were quiz shows. The culture offered something for everybody. And if that something became popular, as rock n' roll certainly did, the engines of mass culture could make it huge.
But the popularity of mass forms of entertainment did not mean that they crowded out other types of culture. Recordings of classical music still sold well during the Fifties. Many theater companies, art museums and symphony orchestras survived, even though the exodus of urban dwellers to the suburbs shrank their audiences. Books sold well. And because of the G.I. Bill, which had paid for college for veterans, the country was increasingly well educated.
Though television had been invented in the 1930s, few Americans had watched a TV show even into the late 1940s. But by the end of the Fifties, TVs were present in 90% of homes and watching television was the favorite leisure activity of nearly half the population.
Television was the ultimate purveyor of mass culture. Before its arrival, people had to venture out to a theater or cinema or concert hall to seek entertainment. And they had to pay for it. With television, the entertainment came to them for free. Millions could tune in and watch the same show—and millions did.
The customer that executives at television networks catered to was not the viewer but the advertiser. Advertisers pushed for the kind of mild entertainment that attracted the most viewers. At first, networks mounted serious dramas, with top actors and writers on shows like Playhouse 90 and Kraft Television Theater. But these shows appealed mainly to the wealthy viewers who owned the first, expensive television sets. Within a few years, as cheap TVs entered many more homes, shows began to feature bland comedies that focused on middle class families. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver were typical. Programs featuring African Americans, ethnic minorities, or, with a few exceptions, working class characters, were rare.
Television became the realm of what was called "middle-brow" entertainment. It appealed to the large middle class whose tastes were mostly conventional. These people tended to like entertainment that depicted a world they were already familiar with. They had minimal interest in shows that challenged accepted notions or put forth radical ideas. Only a very few programs of the time addressed any serious issues. Even nightly news shows in the Fifties only lasted fifteen minutes.
Did television have a negative effect on America? Did it destroy the sense of community, discourage reading, shorten attention spans, promote violence, or turn citizens into passive consumers? The debate began almost immediately during the Fifties and has continued down to the present without reaching any definitive answer. Television probably reflected rather than influenced its audience. The majority of Americans were not interested in social ferment during the decade. They wanted to see people on television who were like them—or like what they hoped to be.
Certainly television had its effects. The movie industry was put on the defensive. Studios scrambled tried to wow audiences with an experience they couldn't get on the small screen. Cinerama, introduced in 1952, used three projectors to create an ultra-wide-screen viewing experience. In 1953, 3-D movies enjoyed a brief vogue. Movies began to feature lavish sets and panoramic scenes. Biblical extravaganzas became popular—The Ten Commandments in 1956 and Ben Hur in 1959 were both huge hits.
In 1961, Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said that television had become a "vast wasteland."47 He was pointing to the endless soap operas, unsophisticated comedies, and Westerns that appeared on the "boob tube." But because of television, people across the country had something in common—they all watched I Love Lucy and Ed Sullivan and Gunsmoke—and some analysts argued that this helped pull the country together. Citizens could watch political conventions, hear presidential speeches, and follow local sports teams without leaving their living rooms. Television helped sell the products that kept the economy moving ahead. And above all, it entertained. People watched it because they found it an enjoyable way to spend their time.
There was a flip side to the homogenized fare of television. Those who saw middle-brow books, TV shows, and movies as insipid, particularly with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust hanging over the world, lashed out at the meaninglessness of it all.
This sense of alienation from the mainstream was expressed in movies like Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and Blackboard Jungle. These films depicted young people who were lost, directionless, and unhappy. James Dean, who starred in Rebel Without a Cause, became a prime symbol of the misfit. The fact that he died in a car crash before the movie was released in 1955 only added to his dark mystique.
Outside Hollywood, the Beats formed an artistic movement that challenged the dominant culture. This small group of artists and writers formed in the early 1950s around poet Allen Ginsberg, novelist Jack Kerouac, and other bohemian writers. An obscenity trial in 1956 over Ginsberg's scalding poem Howl brought the movement to national attention. That poem, with its frank references to sex and drugs and its blistering criticisms of modern life, set a tone that was picked up by other writers and artists of the time. Kerouac's novel On the Road, released a year later, became second pillar of the Beat movement. Its depiction of a frantic but aimless wandering back and forth across the country rang true to a restless generation. The Beats protested the hypocrisy of society and the sheer normalcy of the era. They wanted raw experience—often enhanced by drugs or drink.
It's worth noting two things about this alienated sector of culture. First, it was largely passive. In The Wild One, a girl asks the Marlon Brando character, "What are you rebelling against?" He answers, "Whaddaya got?" These "rebels" really had no cause. The Beats did not intend to start a revolution or to reform society. They believed in the pursuit of happiness just like the suburban TV watcher, only they pursued it in different ways. When Kerouac stated that if he had voted, he would have voted for Eisenhower, he was admitting that his political views were conventional. Unlike the later rebels of the 1960s, who aimed to overturn society, the Beats were seeking personal revelation, not social revolution.
The other thing to remember is that mass culture swallowed all. The Beats rose to prominence because they were depicted in the mass media, which made them popular even as it parodied them as "beatniks." Likewise, movies of alienation were marketed by savvy film producers to mass audiences. Mass culture was able to "co-opt"—that is, defuse—the counterculture.
The cultural phenomenon of the Eisenhower era with the greatest long-term impact was the advent of rock n' roll. In the mid-1950s, black and white music blended into a robust new hybrid. (The same thing had happened in the 1920s, resulting in the jazz age.) Rock drew on the culture of alienation as well as the increased buying power and sense of identity of the nation's young people.
It's important to keep in mind, though, that the era had many types of popular music—rock did not suddenly conquer all. In the early Fifties, Rosemary Clooney (actor George Clooney's aunt), had a hit with "Come On-a My House." Perry Como sang, "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes," and Patti Page's "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" was a big hit. The tame lyrics—Don't you linger in the moonlight when I'm gone! — and smooth style of these songs wasn't much different than the music of the 1920s. When rock pioneer Bo Diddley opened his 1956 hit "Who Do You Love" with, I walk forty-seven miles of barbed wire, it was a sign the old conventions were toppling.
Late in the decade, folk music also enjoyed a new wave of popularity. Young people were attracted to the authenticity of earlier, simpler music. They turned modern renditions of this style, as sung by Harry Belafonte or The Kingston Trio, into big hits. This trend continued into the 1960s and was a big influence on performers like Bob Dylan.
Probably the most critical juncture of rock history took place on 22 February 1956. That day, Elvis Presley released a song called "Heartbreak Hotel." Elvis had been stirring up increasing excitement among fans in the previous two years, but this was to be his first big hit. Presley knew how to depict alienation—he was a close student of James Dean. He understood that gesture, sexuality, and attitude were as important as the music itself.
Yet even Elvis, the archetypical rebel, made use of the established media of mass culture. Ed Sullivan hosted one of the most popular television programs of his era, a Sunday-night variety show. Though at first reluctant, he finally had Elvis on his show in September 1956. Elvis did not pass up the opportunity to reach millions of new fans. Mass culture rolled on, Elvis became a superstar, and rock n' roll was here to stay.
Many critics of Fifties looked on the audience as victims of some kind of cultural conspiracy. Comic books corrupted the young; rock n' roll encouraged rebellion; television dulled the mind.
There was some truth in these assertions, but there was no conspiracy. Mass culture gave mass audiences what they wanted. Nothing was foisted on the public. The consumer could always switch the dial, refuse to buy the record, stay home from the film. The audience had the power, and the culture that resulted was far more diverse than most Fifties stereotypes admit.