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Decade of Revolution

In: Film and Music

Submitted By RocknRobin
Words 4521
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The 1960s was a decade filled with change. It started out with optimism among America’s youth that was unprecedented in history. Before too long headlines of civil rights, university reform, pacifist movement against the Vietnam War, women’s rights, and sexual liberation were made and the “Camelot” vision was quickly shattered. America’s youth began to revolt against the establishment and the foregone conclusion that they would adopt the lifestyle of their parents. In ten short years societal norms were turned completely around. Never before had change happened so quickly or been driven by the same group. This rapid change is breathtaking, considering most young people are generally naïve and disinterested in events outside their immediate scope. I have therefore decided to investigate what role the media played in the youth revolutions of the 1960s.

This paper will identify media’s influence in driving change and analyze relationships between media, specific historical events, and the reaction of America’s youth. This will be achieved by looking at both primary and secondary sources to determine how much influence the media played in manipulating America’s youth via songs, marketing, and select writings.

The media industry’s reaction to the social and technological upheavals of the twentieth century was to encapsulate the mantra “youth as fun” and sell it to America’s teens. . It was the social exposure that the media promoted that resulted in the heightening of knowledge among America’s youth, leading to their liberalized views. As a result, the role of the media industry was crucial to the revolution of the 1960s. Without the media providing the mass communication and marketing opportunities as agents for change, the feeling of belonging, freedom, and empowerment never would have taken hold in the hearts and minds of America’s youth.


At the beginning of the 1960s, the United States had a young, charismatic and handsome new president in John F. Kenney. His assurance that “the government possessed big answers to big problems” appeared to be the start of a golden age for the United States. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1960s the opposite had taken place and it seemed that the nation was falling apart (History 1). How was it possible that in the span of ten short years a superpower like the United States could go from having an optimistic outlook on the future to becoming a nation whose basic beliefs and foundations were being violently challenged? The challengers were not an external force, but rather a segment of the American population; its youth, whom in 1961 at an impressionable young age, heard Kennedy, say in his Inaugural Address, “ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country” (US History 1). It seems inconceivable that a group of naïve and susceptible individuals such as America’s youth could undermine and challenge the basic foundations of American society as dramatically and quickly as it did happen. It is easy to assume this generation of young people would follow the same protocol set by previous generations: mildly challenge authority and “sow wild oats” for a few years, then settle down and pursue the trappings of adulthood; stable job, marriage, and children. Yet this did not happen. So, why was this generation different and what influenced their behavior? This essay will investigate what role the media played in the youth revolution of the 1960s. Was the media’s influence merely reflective of a self-perpetuated youth culture focused on ideology or falsities devised by the media to sell an image to America’s youth with the secondary effect being unprecedented change?

The Jolly World of Gangs, Games, Movies, and Music – The 1940s

"They live in a Jolly World of Gangs, Games, Movies and Music. They speak a curious lingo, adore chocolate milk shakes, wear moccasins everywhere, and drive like bats out of hell." -Life magazine, 1941

America’s youth and their role in society began to change as the United States became more industrialized and children were no longer needed to work on farms or in factories. By the 1930s, compulsory education laws and changes in the economy - especially the Great Depression, had taken America’s youth out of the workplace and into the classroom. In 1920, 28 percent of American youths between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were in high school; by 1930, 47 percent of this age group was attending high school (Spring 94). Since schooling was no longer reserved exclusively for the upper classes, a generation of youth began to be recognized in their common experiences as students thereby forging a new and distinct identity.
It was during the 1940s, that the term “teenager” came into common usage and with it an unprecedented opportunity to sell goods to this unique market, as described by Palladino: “The fact that the population of fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds was larger than usual (9,720,419 in 1940) also gave high school students new visibility. Advertisers and merchandisers were beginning to recognize an attractive new market in the making, one that was not necessarily bound by adult standards or tastes. Celebrating the notion of carefree, high school bobby soxers (whose only concern in life was to have a good time and dance), they began to promote a new social type they dubbed 'teeners,' 'teensters,' and, in 1941, 'teenagers.' Like bobby soxers, teenagers were tied to the new high school world of dating, driving, music, and enjoyment. Although it would take a few years for the term 'teenager' to catch on in the popular mind, the concept was spreading rapidly, particularly as a marketing tool “(Palladino 52).
An explosion of goods and services were aimed at this new teenage market. Magazines, record shops, clothing, new dances, foods, and cars were specifically and carefully aimed to appeal to the new market of teens. An important ideology embedded in teenage marketing during this period was "youth as fun," the notion that being young in twentieth-century American culture was a carefree, independent, happy existence (Hebdige, 3).
Carefree Youth – the 1950s
America’s teenagers during the 1940s and 1950s were more than happy to embrace the marketing ideology of “youth as fun” and in fact, expanded this notion into the previously taboo area of premarital sex. Although the 1960-decade is identified as the era of sexual revolution, the foundation was set during the 1940s and 1950s. According to Cathy Keen, a University of Florida professor, many of these cultural changes occurred in the forties and the fifties but were not publicly acknowledged until the sixties because of the changes in society in terms of a different openness to sex in music and the media.
Music during the 1940s and 1950s was a mixture of white and black musical forms from the Mississippi Delta, country music, and the grinding beat implicit in machinery and automobiles. The rock n’ roll genre evolved from this mixture, becoming popular among the white youth during the 1950s (Kingman 122). By the mid 1950s, white bands were performing covers of popular black rhythm and blues songs and Alan Freed, a host on a radio station in Chicago, began not only playing but arranging shows for white audiences to hear these black artists (Kingman 123). Soon white artists began to incorporate these tones and beats into their music. The most successful white artist to do this was Elvis Presley, who became the main focus of teenagers in the 1950s earning him the title of “King of Rock n’ Roll” (Stevenson 235-36).
Presley and other artists from the 1950s wrote lyrics that were relatively benign and required no analysis to understand. The emphasis was on short, snappy, memorable sing-along melodies that were entertaining for a nation constantly on the go (Stevenson 250). Sexual overtones, revolutionary thoughts, and violence were simply not incorporated into the music of the 1950s; instead, many of the 1950 song lyrics focused on teenagers escaping the perceived “tyrant rules” of high school, their first love, and their obsession with cars. For example, the lyrics of 1957 hit record "School Days" by singer/songwriter Chuck Berry epitomized the attitudes of high school students of that time. Many teenagers would listen to the rock tune and say, "That's just how my day was." (Kurtus 1).
By the time the post-World War II generation or “baby boomers” came along the ideology of "youth as fun" was especially well developed. Baby boomers were an important step in the development of American youth culture, coming into the world during a booming post-war economy, growing media technology (e.g., development of TV and FM radio), and unprecedented amounts of leisure time for both youth and adults (Palladino 120). “Between 1946 and 1951, a record 22 million kids had been born in the United States, forming the first bulge of that demographic goiter in the population known as the baby boom" (Douglas 22). Teenagers had more independence from their families than in previous generations, and as peer groups and market advertising, became as influential as families once were, the ideology of "youth as fun" also began to be read by many adults as "youth as trouble" (Douglas 25).

The Age of Innocence – 1960-1963

As the decade began America’s youth believed they could change the world. This concept was perpetuated by the leaders of the day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who had dreams of a truly equal America, John F. Kennedy dreamed of a young vigorous nation that would put a man on the moon. As time passed, this ideal vision began to become clouded by historical events yet through it all popular music and media were at the eye of every storm (Burns 30). Musicians and writers reacted to what they saw, with the result often being youth living out the lyrics and words (Anderson 40). The Civil Rights movement was one of the most emotionally charged events during this decade (Anderson 85). Soul music and Motown became the driving factor by which the black artist fought for equality. Songs by Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown expressed the sentiments of the times. When morale was down songs like Curtis Mayfield’s “We are winners” and James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” provided support to the downtrodden black youth (Szatmary 56). Women’s rights also began to take center stage in the early 1960s. Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking work The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 after she sent a questionnaire to other women in her 1942 Smith College graduating class. The survey indicated a general dissatisfaction among the responders with their lives, prompting Friedan to conduct more detailed research into “the problem that has no name”. Friedan defined this “mystique” as the worthlessness women feel in roles that require them to be financially, intellectually and emotionally dependent upon their husbands. Through her findings, Friedan hypothesized that women “are victims of a false belief system that requires them to find identity and meaning in their lives through their husbands and children” (National Satellite Corp 1). Inspired by Friedan and singers such as the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin women all over the United States began to demand equality (Burns 68). Franklin’s song “Respect” is an example of how women felt and desired to be treated (Szatmary 83). Every time Janis Joplin went on stage she made a political statement. She held nothing back during her performances. Her stage presence was just as strong if not stronger than the male stars of the day (Szatmary 86). These events along with the music and writings of the early 1960s continued to follow, and subsequently encourage, a non-violent approach to change. In the mid 1960s, a new phenomenon came to America, the British Invasion, and with it more change. Turning Point – 1964-1967

The music of Britain and of America was extremely interdependent from the mid-sixties onward due to two bands that defined the music industry: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Both helped to define this new youthful generation but each had a different approach. The Beatles dominated the pop music industry after a mere five years of beginning the band because of three main aspects. The first is that they debuted as a youthful, clean-cut group winning the approval of parents (Stevenson 236). The Beatles also had an open-minded respect for black musicians as a result of their liberal upbringings in a working class society, which they depicted in their music (Trifan 84). Ian Macdonald, a lyrical interpreter connected this racial liberalism that the Beatles embodied with the revolution in sexual attitudes, stating that, “The Beatles acted as a major conduct of black energy, style, and feeling into white culture, helping to restore it to its undernourished senses and thereby forwarding the ‘permissive’ revolution in sexual attitudes” (Trifan 84). The other aspect of the Beatles that helped to determine their success was that their audience determined their image not the commercial world. The Beatles were able to embody whatever image their fans demanded of them, becoming the faces of popular culture (Trifan 86).
The same year that the Beatles came across the Pond, a significant event known as The Free Speech Movement (FSM) took place at the University of California at Berkley. It was the first of the 1960s campus student movements to make headlines all over the world. Lasting a little over two months, it ended with the arrest of 773 persons for occupying the administration building, the removal of the campus administration, and a vast enlargement of student rights to use the University campus for political activity and debate (Burner 2). It was unique because the movement leaders, in order to assure a good turnout, prevailed on Joan Baez, the popular folk singer and a sympathizer with the FSM, to give a free concert during the meeting. Her involvement brought out a crowd of three thousand students (Burner 2). It also represented a turning point to America’s youth. One of the greatest social ills of a nation is the absolute refusal by almost its entire membership to examine seriously the presuppositions of the establishment. In the eyes of America’s youth, the FSM stood as a microcosm for all the problems society reflected (Weinberg 1). The FSM gave America’s youth the “right to be heard” and the artist became the megaphone for their interests and ideals with the power and voice to communicate with the rest of the world (Trifan 85).
As the decade wore on, music and the media began to change. Music became associated with outward symbols of deviance such as “long hair, beards, acid rock, pot, sexual permissiveness, gentleness, and short-term horizons” (Unger 159). The second British invasion, the Rolling Stones, depicted the image of this revolution. The Rolling Stones deliberately sold themselves as an anti-Beatles group, depicting the images of sex, drugs, and violence (Rielly 165). It was this revolt against conformity that allowed the Rolling Stones to have the effect on music and culture that they did. They were “dirtier and streakier and more disheveled than the Beatles” which made them in certain places, more popular than the Beatles had ever been (Wells 26). It was because of these images, that the Rolling Stones attracted a different fan base than the Beatles. In the words of Sid Bernstein the Rolling Stones’ promoter: “The Rolling Stones’ crowd was different…they were never perturbed by the group’s unruly behavior; instead they viewed them as gods” (Wells 47).
Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones lead singer, summed up the new sentiment of youth quite simply: “When you’re young, sixteen, seventeen, you don’t want anything to do with responsibility to society, you want to get on with one’s own, very small life within a teenage group. You don’t want to care about anything…the main thing to start off with is just to have as good a time as possible” (Wells 145). The Rolling Stones introduced a new, direct treatment of sex into music through the aggressiveness and straightforwardness of their songs. An example of this was in the song ‘Let’s spend the night together’; a song in which people thought the sexual lyrics were sending the wrong message to teens (Wells 117).


Two events occurred in 1968 that completely eliminated what little ideology still remained in the minds of America’s youth: the assignations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Aretha Franklin’s song “Freedom” was written after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It inspired the world to “think about what you are trying to do to me, think, let your mind go and let yourself be free, ooh freedom, freedom, I said freedom” (Szatmary 1996). Also in 1968 the Beatles released a double album called the white album. On that album there is a song called “Revolution”. John Lennon wrote the song not as a call to arms but as a personal statement to demonstrators saying “’so you say you want a revolution, well you know, we all want to change the world…when you talk about destruction brother you can count me out…you better free your mind instead” (Hertsgard 1995). So, did these calls for restraint and freedom resonate with America’s youth or were the media’s marketing tools targeted at teens having more influence on their actions?
In the last two years of the decade, sex evolved from being an act of procreation to becoming acceptable in terms of temporary pleasure. It was a new view in which sexual partners were viewed as individuals that were mutually giving and receiving pleasure with no commitment expected or required (Rielly 28). One reason for this view was birth control going “main stream” within the media. The pill was portrayed by the media as a symbol of women’s rights and generational change, which made it very popular with teens (Rielly 40). On the flip side, the acceptance of “sex for pleasure” became the foundation for the sex industry, leading to the objectification of the image of women in the media. This image altered the role of women, who quickly began to be seen as sex objects to men (Asadi 15). Not only did the media dictate the role of women but it also dictated the amount of sexual experience among teenagers. It presented the “popular image of a youth group looser in morals, more promiscuous, and more unconventional than their predecessors” (Trifan 54). There were many different forms of media that portrayed these images to the public, for as the media came to learn; sex sells.

Media’s Role: Selling Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll

During the 1960s, the media cashed in on teens’ want for intimacy through music and different publications such as magazines among girls and comics among boys. Magazines were an invaluable source of sexual knowledge, especially for young girls with private relationships (Trifan 55). Magazines served two purposes. First, they created self-conscious images among young girls, dictating what one had to be to be considered “desirable” among the opposite sex (Trifan 55). They lured girls in with features about the “love secrets” of their favorite movie stars along with filling their publication with articles about love, and romance and advertisements for clothing and cosmetics (Trifan 55). Its other purpose was to publicize the amount of teenagers participating in premarital relationships with no intentions of marrying; feeding into the image the media had previously created (McWilliams 16). As a result, “the more the media insisted that the average teenager was sexually experienced, the more the average teenager desired to be sexually experienced” (Trifan 54).
Like magazines, comics illustrated the mass concept of sexuality. They captured the youthful spirit of adventure and technology, and illustrated an image of a perfect man, a helpless woman, and “violent and sexual fantasies that embodied the concept of ‘manliness’” (Trifan 56). An example can be seen in the comics of Captain America. Captain America’s friendly boy sidekick was no longer mentioned after the hero began to chase after women placed in provocative and dangerous situations. The comics promoted the image of “selfless goodness” among the characters with a need for immediate physical gratification, feeding into what is known as admass mentality (Trifan 56). This mentality was that one deserved to be rewarded for their hard work, which in this particular case, the reward would be sex (Trifan 56).
Teenagers continued to be the perfect market because they existed in a world full of celebrity worshiping, sexual curiosity, counter-culture desires, and zesty hormones (Trifan 47). Music, and particularly music in live settings, created an environment in which participants could adopt new identities and realize repressed desires (Powers 1). The culmination of media’s vision and teen’s desires occurred in the summer of 1969 at one of the biggest events in history: Woodstock.

The final frontier: Woodstock

Woodstock was a three day music festival in Bethal, New York that consisted of three days of “music, pot, acid, grooving, skinny-dipping, and love-making, along with rain, mud, garbage, broken limbs, dysentery, freak-outs, two deaths and one birth” (Unger 161). Woodstock represented “an open, classless, society of music, sex, drugs, love, and peace, all the more so because they even remained largely free of violence and the tragic consequences one might expect from a gathering so large and so young. For many, it seemed to promise a new America” (Rielly 171).
This freedom was exciting to some and terrifying to others. Rick Gavras remembers, “It was a very moving and powerful time because I think it was that night when I was so connected with the music and with everything that was going on around me…that’s when I seemed to have a sense that it was all kind of a oneness of experience, that everybody was there together and enjoying themselves and celebrating in that sense of togetherness” (Makower 168). However, Kathleen McDevitt thought about the freedom a little more hesitantly. “It was a little bit frightening to have such freedom, like another world where you could do anything, say anything, be anyone, nobody would stop you. It was hard on all of us having that much freedom; it could have gone the other way and been really dangerous. The balance was unnerving, and everybody at the end said, “We all did it”” (Smith 349). Woodstock became a place where the youth of the sixties connected with one another and invoked a sense of freedom and power to them that has not been repeated in America’s history.


The 1960s was a decade filled with change. Civil rights, university reform, pacifist movement against the Vietnam War, women’s rights, and sexual liberation all made headlines during the 1960s. These changes were exciting and sometimes horrifying but nonetheless they carried America from old to new standards. The media industry’s reaction to the social and technological upheavals of the twentieth century was to encapsulate the mantra “youth as fun” and sell it to America’s teens. The most prevalent vehicle for selling this image was via the lyrics of songs written to promote an image the artist had of what youth should be. Lyrics epitomized the revolution within the music, associating the music with power, drugs, and sex (Rielly 172). While the media industry did not write the actual lyrics, they certainly did use music and the images that music conjured to sell an image to America’s teens. Music became the rallying point for youth; it was as if the ‘rebellion’ of the young was put into a message. This message was one that was sent through the most influential bands of the decade such as, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. These messages centered on a broad feeling of disillusionment, paranoia, drugs and sexual liberation (Stevenson 243). The easiest ways for teenagers to rebel was through their general appearance and their music choices. It was not long before teenagers began spending their money on alcohol, drugs, tobacco, fashion clothing, concerts, make-up and hair care, magazines, radios and records. The media capitalized on this trend by designing and marketing their products with the youth in mind. Everything was transformed from magazines, to comics, to music, completely changing the youth popular culture. It was the social exposure that the media promoted that resulted in the heightening of knowledge among the youth, leading to their liberalized views. The role of the media industry was crucial to the revolution of the 1960s. Without the media providing the mass communication and marketing opportunities as agents for change, the feeling of belonging, freedom, and empowerment never would have taken hold in the hearts and minds of America’s youth.

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