Post 22: Iconic America


Outrageous tail fins, chrome, sensuous chrome bumpers (made from steel!), elaborate hub caps, massive horsepower, and did I mention chrome?

Elvis, Marilyn, Chuck Berry, and James Dean!

Drive-In theaters, drive-in restaurants and car hops on roller-skates.

Big movie classics like The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, in theaters where you still had to reserve your seats and you bought full color movie brochures.

That’s right the 50’s, a truly iconic period in American history. When you hear the music, see the movies or watch the cars go by you know the era and you know that they are American! The fashion, music and automobiles of the fifties and early sixties were distinctively American, more so than at any time in our history.

I thought about this this past week after I heard (Hat tip to Mark Belling sitting in for Rush Limbaugh for making this point) that a giant in the world of American music Jerry Leiber died this past week.  This man and his partner authored some of the most iconic anthems of the 50s and early 60s, songs such as,

“Hound Dog”

“Poison Ivy”

“Yakety Yak”

“Stand By Me”

When I hear these songs there’s no question in my mind that they are American and that they defined a specific period of time in this country – the fifties and early sixties.

Then you have the cars!  Wow! The Big Three automakers were locked in a knock down drag out battle to design the most aggressive and flamboyant tail fins, bumpers and chrome trim that have ever graced an automobile.  And they combined the flash with ever larger and more powerful engines.  Chrome and horsepower, a match made in heaven.

Additionally, the cars of this era were the perfect blank canvas for hot rodders, customizers and tuners.  Car crazy Americans would  invest time, money and creativity to produce what seemed to be an endless montage of fast and beautiful cars.  Cars that always turned heads (For those of you too young to appreciate the fifties culture rent George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”).  Again,  uniquely American.

Now I don’t make this point about the 50’s because I think America was a better place back then.  We know full well that the 50’s and early 60’s were also defined by some extremely challenging, ugly and dark elements.  Racism, the Cold War, the fear of nuclear annihilation, the Korean War and the seeds of Vietnam.

My question is about the cultural style of the fifties versus what we see and experience today.  Looking back through the prism of history there was something unique and striking about the 50’s and early 60’.  Something about the culture at that time that was pronounced and memorable.  Something that was truly American.

Can we say that today?  Is there an American style?  Do we want one?

What’s the defining style of music, fashion or cars today?  In fifty years would someone hear a song or see a car and immediately think, “That’s American,” let alone what year they were created.  I don’t think so.

So what’s the difference and does it matter?

With no training as a cultural anthropologist I can’t make any statement about what caused the 50’s culture, I can only reflect on what it appears to be.  For me this period in our history represented an innocent exuberance, a celebration of individuality and creativity.  Maybe the distinctive and unique 50’s style was in reaction to the end of World War II and the prosperity that was in deep contrast to the difficult economic times before and during the War, I don’t know.  All I know is that the period was memorable and distinctive.

So who cares?  Is it really any more than a passing “brain burp” that the idea be considered at all?  Is there a lesson for us today?  After all the cars of today are safer, better built and have better overall performance than the Pontiac’s, Chevys, Fords and Dodges of the fifties.  There’s no question that the current Shelby GT350 is technically a “better” car than the ’65 version, but does it have the same visceral appeal of the original? There are great cars out there today, they just don’t stand out as distinctive or defining of an era.  The cars from Japan, Korea, Germany or America all seem to have more similarities as opposed to distinctive features, at least visually.

The music of the Fifties was simple, basic and unsophisticated.  The music today is complex, full and produced with greater skill and quality.  Is the music of today better?  Technically yes but can you tell a British performance from an American? Even the difference between POP and country music has become less pronounced.

Are there legends being developed today that we’ll look back twenty years from now and say that was America in the second decade of the new millennium?  There’s a polished sameness to our culture that appears to blur the boundaries of cultural identities.  Some would say

this is a good thing, part of the creation of a “one world order,” the result of the multicultural initiatives that are such the rage of the intellectual elites.  Again, I don’t know.

I’m reminded of an old movie, I think it was called, “Getting Straight,” staring Elliot Gould.  I don’t remember anything about the movie other than one concept, education was focused on the creation of “Grey Dots.” I don’t even know this is what they were trying to say, it’s what I remember after 4 decades of other useless knowledge flooding my meager brain cells.  Yet that’s the way I see society today, “grey dots” no distinctiveness, no personal responsibility, nothing memorable culturally and that concerns me – I don’t know why.

All I know is that when I see a restored car from the fifties or early sixties something happens inside me.  A jolt of excitement combined with recognition of something familiar and cherished – I’m reminded of my youth and the blessing of growing up as an American!  How about you?

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About rightthoughts
Husband/ Father/ Grandfather/ Architect

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