Monday, August 27, 2012

American Popular Culture Research Paper

American Popular Culture Research Paper

I completely agree that popular culture is not a slideshow. Popular culture adopts to the existing realities in which people live and serves those realities. The change in popular culture is affected by numerous social, economic, political and other factors, which, joined together, form the conscience of the society at large. Of course, popular culture is often artificially imposed; nevertheless, it cannot be compared to the ‘slideshow’. The times America went through during the Second World War and couple of decades after war illustrate how popular culture adopted to the existing realities of the contemporary life in the United States.

Along with the explosion of countless bombs and artillery shells, popular culture burst on the landscape of World War Two. Consumer products and entertainment, pleasure and diversion - particularly for the millions of young Americans who became soldiers - were introduced to large numbers of civilians. Chewing gum and candy bars, the jokes of Bob Hope and the music of Glenn Miller were such military exports. Like the simply drawn figure with nose and fingers appearing over a wall, with the caption “Kilroy was here,” popular culture became widely familiar, if not commonplace. (Edgerton, 2001)


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As warfare expanded to new dimensions, so did the manufacture and distribution of military equipment. What was later called “globalization” - worldwide marketing, primarily of commodities, by multinational corporations - was first battle-tested. The most significant (if unintended) effects of the war effort on postwar popular culture were aspects of this spread of things. (Lowenthal, 1996) The two chief ones were spatial: proximity and mobility, an exceptional distribution of goods and services reaching most war fronts, and reaching them quickly, a phenomenon that would only increase after the war to become the vast commodification of our own age.

War material both amazed people in America and littered their places of residence. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had none of this in mind when he referred to the United States as the “arsenal of democracy.” (Seabrook, 2000) Nor could he imagine that the country was becoming the proto-supermarket to the world. If any proof were needed of this “avalanche of stuff coming at you,” to go back to Gehry’s statement, it was easily and amply provided by Coca-Cola. (Seabrook, 2000) Considered a refreshing means to boost morale, Coca-Cola followed the troops wherever they went.

By war’s end some 64 Coke plants had been constructed around the world and five billion bottles of the beverage had been consumed. (Seabrook, 2000)

By the end of the war American cigarettes, appearing in packages of five in the field C-rations of American soldiers, were serving as surrogate currency in Germany. As for “durable goods,” the omnipresent product then was strictly military: the Jeep.

(Edgerton, 2001) Both the most affectionately treated and the most versatile of war weapons, the Jeep raced across the North African desert, bounced along jungle trails in New Guinea and plunged ahead in heavy snow during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in December 1944. The Jeep was just about everywhere, the 586,489 produced during the war assuring that it was indeed commonplace, equally so because it was clearly an all-terrain vehicle, an SUV before its time. (Lowenthal, 1996) When produced after the war, it continued to be popular among American youth as the first sport utility vehicle.

The Jeep also suggested a further democratization of the technology that had made the automobile the conveyance of large numbers of people. The Jeep was driven by both corporal and colonel, a new equality of military position. And when the high-ranking officer was not at the wheel, he was at the side of the driver. Everyone drove a Jeep, and no one of consequence sat in the back seat. And then there was military clothing. So much of it was produced that it became a postwar commodity featured in the army and navy surplus stores that flourished in the United States. Surplus khaki clothing, the summer wear of fighting men, became popular casual wear of the 1950s.

Clothing companies now also produced it, as it joined the blue blazer in the new style of “casual smart.” (Edgerton, 2001) Popular figures like the movie star James Dean and the author Jack Kerouac were seen in khakis.

The Civil rights movement, which many historians state started in the 1960’s, actually started to evolve slowly after the war was over. With this change in the American conscience, popular culture changed to adopt as well. The major production shift in the 1960’s was the obvious one: consumer goods replaced military equipment, reversing the earlier shift to military equipment from consumer goods. World War Two, if viewed as a commodity enterprise, a matter of statistical advantages, was able to assure mass destruction because of effective systems of mass distribution. (Lowenthal, 1996)

Little more than a year after MacArthur’s declaration, millions of American servicemen had also returned, but to the United States. By then the conversion of swords into plowshares was moving forward at great speed. The austerity of war gave way to the new abundance of peace. Automobiles were quickly weighed down with chrome (in some instances 45 lb of it) and their bodywork alluded to features of the aircraft that the automobile manufacturers had turned out during the war. In the first decade after the war, automobiles sported rear fins and hood ornaments (“bonnet mascots” in British usage) suggestive of fighter planes. (Boorstin, 1992) Buick even provided a chrome-plated variant of a bomb sight as a hood ornament, and named its new model Le Sabre after the F-86 Sabre jet fighter - with the French article inserted, one can guess, to suggest interior comforts a fighter plane never had.

Plastic, a new and soon a major product of the chemical industry, began as the wartime substitute for battle-consumed metal. When the Civil Rights Movement became an essential part of America, plastic was widely used in kitchenware, in furniture and in textile fibers, and made its dramatic appearance as a major automobile material in the first plastic body sitting on the frame of the 1964 Chevrolet Corvette. (Seabrook, 2000) Easily produced, easily shaped and very versatile, plastic became the new building material of the age, as vinyl covered floors and outside walls and became the characteristic material of the first generation of McDonald’s restaurants.

Through its “baby boomer” children of war veterans at home and through its servicemen serving as occupation troops abroad, the United States introduced new attitudes and practices easily grouped under the phrase “casual living.” (Seabrook, 2000) Clothing distinctions, so long the visual demarcation between rich and poor, gave way; and youth dress, formerly little more than a derivative of adult fashion, emerged as the new and profitable fashion line.

The two obvious items that expressed youthful rebelliousness against formality during the Civil Rights Movement era were T-shirts and jeans. Both quickly won acceptance, because they were worn by the young. One other element completes the current global fashion in clothing: the baseball cap. During World War Two, this headgear moved from the ball park to the Pacific naval theater of operations where it appeared as part of the on-ship wear of naval officers. With deliberate irony about twenty years later the anti-war movement adopted the neo-military look as casual fashion. (Boorstin, 1992) The hippies, youngsters who happily disengaged from the work-ethic society, laid back, as the term goes, in communes of simple self-sufficiency. Their counter-culture attire, mismatched and misplaced, consisted of army uniforms: jackets, overcoats with military regalia left sewn on.
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