World War II profoundly changed adolescent life and relationships between parents and children. One of the major reasons for this change is the growth of the mass media. Teens are not only passive recipients of mass media's messages; they interact with the images the media presents to them, making choices about what content they wish to attend to. The process is interactive, and the end result is the shaping of teen attitudes and behavior, even as teens shape the wider culture. Music, movies, and television have had the most powerful effects on teens. Music and movies were also powerful before World War II; but in the postwar world, economic prosperity contributed to a sharp increase in the birth rate, and the children of that "baby boom" generation grew up to form an enormous teen market. In the 1950s, the advent of television on a mass scale gave adolescents an additional outlet for their own entertainment, much of which featured music tailored to teen tastes.
The early years of the Cold War (1946–1991) ushered in a period of tensions that affected adults and teens alike. School life was filled with reminders of these tensions. After World War II, for example, came a seemingly inexhaustible supply of atomic bomb and monster movies, usually warning audiences that the world was about to end. As part of the school day, students were required to practice air raid drills; signs for fallout shelters were common reminders of the threat of nuclear war. Current events classes taught about the arms race, the hydrogen bomb, the bad intentions of the Soviets, the spreading threat of Communism. Senator Joseph McCarthy's socalled Communist witch hunts were prominent in the news.
For teens, however, prosperity and new technology counterbalanced Cold War tensions and worries. The transistor radio, appearing in 1948, made it easier for teens to carry music with them. More people were able to buy houses, allowing more teens to have their own rooms (and their own record players) and privacy. The ubiquity of the automobile gave older teens the freedom to go where they wanted. The privacy that a car afforded also encouraged sexuality, certainly "petting" and sometimes "going all the way" to actual intercourse. Adults held the official view that teens should remain chaste until marriage. The reality was often far different. Teenagers emerged as their own category, no longer children and not yet adults.
In the postwar years the number of magazines for teens, such as Seventeen, increased, as did radio and TV programs that appealed to teen audiences. In the late 1940s "race music" began to be heard on some urban radio stations. Rhythm and blues became more available and popular to teens of all colors. B. B. King, Ma Rainey, and Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup became favorites of white and black teens, paving the way for rock and roll.
During the Great Depression, teens had found it difficult if not impossible to get work; in the postwar years, it was easier for teens to get part-time jobs and to keep the money they earned. They began to buy music and clothing for themselves. At the same time more teens stayed in high school longer and were able to share their tastes in music and clothing with one another. A true teen subculture was developing.
The 1950s were a period of rebellion, and hairstyles became a major symbol of teens' rejection of the middle class. Imitating Elvis Presley, young men wore long side-burns and let their hair grow, greasing it with pomades and hair tonics. They combed their hair into a pompadour in front and a "DA," or "duck's ass" style, in back. Girls began wearing DA's as well.
As depicted in a popular movie of the time, The Blackboard Jungle, rebellion went into the schools. Clothing styles became a major issue. Schools attempted to establish dress codes, which were supposed to be voluntary. Girls could not wear jeans and were expected to wear skirts or dresses. Boys were supposed to wear dress shirts or sports shirts with ties or sweaters with jackets. Pegged pants were forbidden. Many adults believed that dress codes would end juvenile delinquency.
Also at this time, the teen market for movies took off. That market became increasingly important to Hollywood as television reduced the adult market for its films. American-International Pictures (AIP), founded in 1954, produced films that mocked sexless or repressed authority figures and celebrated hip teens. Edward Bernds's Reform School Girl, Gene Fowler's I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Roger Corman's Apache Woman, Oklahoma Woman, and The Gunslinger all featured teens against an uptight establishment. Teen rebellion became a prominent theme in the popular culture.
The music of the period created a great deal of controversy. Adults worried that it encouraged sexuality and delinquency, or complained that it was nothing but noise. But with the rise of the middle class, teens had greater economic power than ever before—they could buy and listen to their own music. They bought LPs (33s) and singles (45s), which replaced the fragile 78s of earlier times and helped make music more portable. The new music was one of true fusion, melding black rhythm and blues with hillbilly (country) music. Rock and roll transcended gender, class, and racial divides.
The youth culture that had been gaining in size and prominence as the baby boomers came of age came into its own during the 1960s. This was the period of the Vietnam War, and youthful idealism and wealth were dampened by the ugliness of a war that would not go away. As more young Americans died in the war and the TV news showed havoc, destruction, and death direct from the frontlines, young people led the cry for an end to war.
During the 1960s rock music increasingly reflected the concerns of youth and the reality of the war. Music became a driving force of antiwar culture, which was enmeshed with the social, sexual, and drug revolutions. The Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, and other groups simulated the drug experience in their music. This evocation of the psychedelic experience became known as acid rock. With the "British invasion," American teens literally went wild over British bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In 1967 the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that tied all its songs together and that became known as the first "concept album." This and other albums, like the Who's Tommy, became further symbols of the separateness—and, to some adults of the period, the impenetrability—of teen culture.
After World War II, driven by prosperity, technology, and the demographic explosion of the baby boom, teenagers emerged as a new cultural and economic force in American society. Their values and identity were influenced mainly by a conflicting mixture of consumerism and escapism, rebellion and conformity, skepticism and idealism, and the threat of instant annihilation should the Cold War become a nuclear holocaust. The baby boomers who came of military age in the 1960s played a significant role in the civil rights movement and protesting the Vietnam War. They were also part of the intergenerational conflict that was produced by that war. Since the 1960s and 1970s, teenagers have continued to be a distinct cultural group in American society. They wield influence as part-time employees, as consumers, and as arbiters of a vast entertainment and fashion industry—often at the expense of civic and political engagement. In American society today, the teen years appear to be a time of devotion to one's own desires and interests.
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Norton, Bonny. "When Is a Teen Magazine Not a Teen Magazine." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 45, no. 4 (2001): 296ff.
Rollin, Lucy. Twentieth-Century Teen Culture by the Decades A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Shary, Timothy. "The Teen Film and Its Method of Study: A Book Review Essay." Journal of Popular Film and Television 25, no. 1 (1997): 38–45.
Steele, Jeanne R., and Brown, Jane D. "Adolescent Room Culture: Studying Media in the Context of Everyday Life." Journal of Youth and Adolescence 24, no. 5 (1995): 551ff.
Frank A. Salamone
See also:Drugs and Vietnam; Higher Education; Levittown; Music, Vietnam Era; Popular Culture and Cold War; Selective Service; Who Served in Vietnam?