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Those Crazy Rockin' Teenagers.

In the 1950s, a new creature appeared on the American cultural scene: the teen

The police decided they had to act. Connecticut adolescents were going wild at dance parties with a new kind of music. So Bridgeport's police superintendent banned such events. The New York Times reported his explanation:

Recently there was real trouble ... and the authorities outlawed this `rock `n' roll' business. I think the musicians start it with their capers. The kids take it up and pretty soon the whole thing is out of hand.

The year was 1955. No crime was reported, but to adults something indeed was out of hand: For the first time, America's teenagers were claiming a new culture all their own.

Today, the nation's 32 million teens --the biggest group of teens ever--are recognized as a giant market that spends more than $100 billion a year on hip-hop music, gross-out movies, instant messaging, and the like. But while there have always been people aged 13 to 19, they haven't always been a cultural, social, and economic world unto themselves. That world came into full flower in the 1950s, the decade that gave us the wild, moody, rebellious, soulful, and idealistic creature we know as the American teenager.

For most of U.S. history, young people were either treated as children or set to work as apprentices learning adult jobs or domestic skills. As late as 1890, only 6 percent of children went to high school. But during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Congress passed laws limiting most jobs to adults. By 1940, two-thirds of Americans ages 14 to 16 attended school.

With the prevalence of high school came the increasing recognition of adolescence as a distinct phase of existence. In the 1940s, the press began using the word "teen-ager," and these teens began to adopt their own styles of dress. So many girls wore white rolled anklets called bobby socks that they became known as "bobby-soxers." Teens also began to choose their own music. Many bobby-soxers were among the 10,000 people who blocked traffic in New York City on October 12; 1944, trying to get into the Paramount Theater to hear a skinny young crooner named Frank Sinatra. Sinatra didn't belong to teens done, but the frenzy he created was a taste of things to come.

In the 1950s, America was prosperous, at peace, and rapidly growing. The new medium of television was linking the nation's households, and housing developments were sprouting like weeds in the nation's suburbs. But it was a New York City kid in the pages of a book who became one of the decade's first teen icons. Holden Caulfield, hero of J. D. Salinger's 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, was a literary embodiment of teenage angst and alienation that teens took to heart. He was a sensitive, 16-year-old screwup, and his first-person story told of a world full of "phonies"--like the old history teacher he visits as he flunks out of another in a series of prep schools:

"Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy?"

"Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right. Sure. Sure I do." I thought about it for a minute. "But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess."

"You will," old Spencer said. "You will, boy. You will when it's too late."

I didn't like hearing him say that. It made me sound dead or something. It was very depressing.

"They think he's a cool guy, so they imitate his casual talk and nonchalant attitude," wrote one young critic about the teen attraction to Holden. But another young antihero soon captivated millions of teens. In 1955, actor James Dean lit up movie screens in East of Eden playing a tormented youth vying with his brother for his father's affections.

Dean's virile but vulnerable screen image sent girls into a swoon--and boys to the bathroom mirror to work on their slicked-back hair and soulful looks. When he screamed "You're tearing me apart!" to his doting but bickering parents in the film Rebel Without a Cause, a whole generation knew just what he meant.

By then, Dean's screen presence had extra poignancy. Rebel included a drag-racing scene, and in a promotional trailer made for the film, Dean, an off-screen race-car enthusiast, had warned America's teens that fast driving was for the race-track, not the highway. "Take it easy driving," he had joked. "The life you might save might be mine."

But on September 30, 1955, less than a month before the release of Rebel, James Dean was killed when he crashed his Porsche on a California highway. He was 24. He would forever be remembered for the teens he played in his three starring roles; no one would ever see him grow old. One teenage boy mourned: "Something in us that is being sat on by convention and held down was, in Dean, free for all the world to see."

Dean's popularity helped awaken Hollywood to the huge potential of the teen movie-going market. Ever since, whole genres of films have been aimed at teens. But it was in music that the new teenage cultural revolution really shook the rafters.

It started with rhythm and blues (R&B), music with a heavy beat that was popular in the African-American community. In 1951, Alan Freed, a Cleveland disc jockey, heard that a friend's black-oriented record store was full of white teens dancing to R&B records. Freed started playing those tunes on his radio show and emceeing live concerts. Then a white group with a country-music background, Bill Haley and the Comets, began to record R&B songs. "Rock Around the Clock" had modest sales when it was released in 1954, but a follow-up, "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," hit the Top 10. And in 1955, when "Clock" was re-released and featured in the film Blackboard Jungle, it hit No. 1 and set teens around the world dancing in movie-theater aisles.

Rock `n' roll, as Freed dubbed the new music, spread like wildfire--and made record sales soar. By 1958, teens were buying 70 percent of the records sold in the U.S. Rock `n' roll transformed song lyrics overnight from the tame sentimentality of "How much is that doggie in the window?" (Patti Page, 1953) to the anarchic zaniness of "A wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!" (Little Richard, 1955).

Then came the King. When the golden-voiced, pompadoured Elvis Presley sang "Hound Dog" on The Ed Sullivan Show in September 1956, the cameras stayed above the waist so viewers wouldn't see the scandalous way he swiveled his hips.

Rock was loud, rhythmic, and full of energy. And best of all, adults didn't get it. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the new music "a corrupting influence," and the Times quoted Joost A. M. Meerlo, a Columbia University psychiatrist, who compared rock-inspired dancing to the nervous malady known as Saint Vitus' dance. Meerlo went on:

Rock `n' roll is a sign of depersonalization of the individual, of ecstatic veneration of mental decline and passivity. If we cannot stem the tide with its waves of rhythmic narcosis [stupor] and of future waves of vicarious craze, we are preparing our own downfall in the midst of pandemic [widespread] funeral dances.

Across the country, defenders of virtue tried to ban rock and held public record-burnings, only cementing its place as the soundtrack of teen rebellion.

The rockin'-and-rollin' 16-year-olds paving the way to hell in 1957 are now 60. Their heroes have been supplanted again and again by those of new waves of adolescents--including the baby boomers of the 1960s, who embraced "flower power" and crusaded against a war in Vietnam. But the teen subculture born in the 1950s lives on, and is constantly renewed. Teens still rebel, still cling to ideals, and still savor the power of their icons to baffle the unhip. What, for instance, would Meerlo say about Eminem?

Things are out of hand, all right, and they seem likely to stay that way.

Those Crazy Rockin' Teenagers

FOCUS: In the 1950s, Teenagers Created a Cultural and Economic World of Their Own


To help students understand the origins of the teenager, a phenomenon that came into its own on the American cultural scene only in the 1950s.

Discussion Questions:

* Should the teen years be a world apart, or should teens be treated simply as older children, then as younger adults?

* Like Depression-era laws that limited most jobs to adults, some state laws now limit the number of hours teens can work. Do you approve of these laws?

* Do you believe that teens as a group experience the angst(anxiety or insecurity) and alienation that the fictional Holden Caulfield feels? If so, why?


Critical Thinking/Reading: Have any students read The Catcher in the Rye? Those who have read it may be asked how they feel the portrait of Holden as a teen in the 1951 book comes off today. Which aspects seem dated? Which still ring true?

Whether or not students have read the book, how do they react to Holden's conversation with his history teacher in the quoted section? Have students had similar conversations with adults? Do today's teens take a different view of life and the future than adults? If so, does this help identify teens as a distinct social group?

Discuss why any group might find it valuable to celebrate its distinct culture. Is teens' need to identify themselves as a distinct group similar to the need indigenous people feel to preserve their identity?

Finally, ask: Can works of fiction be useful evidence for the historian, who is concerned with facts? Why or why not?

Interviews: Ask students to interview grandparents or other older adults who were teenagers just before the 1950s. Students should survey adults on a number of issues and bring the results to class. Here are a few suggested questions:

What music did their interviewees enjoy? Was it different from their parents' music? Did they dress differently than. adults? Were pre-1950s teens required to address adults in any prescribed manner? What is the major difference between today's teens and teens of the 1950s? What was adults' most serious criticism of teens in the 1950s?
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Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 30, 2001
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