Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll: The Evolution of an American Youth Culture (Popular Culture and Everyday Life)

by: Douglas Brode

This book is somewhere between a text book and popular non-fiction - it's scholarly in its sheer weight of information, and fun to read in its reference to popular culture, and if you're old enough to have lived through these eras, a grab-bag of fond (and not so fond) memories.

Brode's thesis is simple: the kids born in the earliest part of the post-war baby boom (say, in 1945 or 1946) grew up to become something that had never really mattered before: teenagers. And this, as the saying goes, changed everything.

Where people who have noted this phenomenon before have always referenced music, and the power of not just radio, but high-wattage radio (radio that could broadcast in New York City and be picked up in the plains of the midwest, uniting the generation across miles, means, and milieus) Brode believes it all started at the movies.

To be fair, he gives his first chapter to the genesis of the "big beat," and the rockabilly roots of Rock 'n' Roll, which did define the entire generation - they definitely danced to a different drummer, and with small, individual radios (transitors) now available, they could listen without their parents interference (or guidance). This was the first major rift between parent and child, and a real establishment of a group that was no longer children, but not quite adult.

At some point, Brode says, movie makers got the bright idea that they were missing the boat with a group of paying attendees. Those teenaged kids who were looking for a way to get apart from their parents, and carve out some space on their own.

Movies made specifically for the kids were certain to bore the parents, and where movie-going had been a family entertainment in the past, now movies aimed at a teenaged audience not only tapped into an audience, but also modeled behavior and ideas in a group of impressionable kids who could easily be convinced they were "all that."

Brode spends quite a while on the "JD" movie, or "juvenile delinquent" "flick," as he retrospectively calls them. The bad kids, the disturbed kids, the hidden homoerotic messaging in the films aimed at the confused kids - these replaced the Andy Hardys of yesteryear.

There were many influences, and many privileges, that made the "teenager" possible: an economic boom that allowed young people to stay in school where in previous years they'd had to go to work - often leaving home to start their own homes and families while still in their teens; a notion of family life that included an extended period of time in the "nuclear" family (all puns intended); the growing conviction that education, first high school, then college, would be the making of the young person.

What interests the writer, however, is how the popular culture of the teenager was formed - you might even say "deliberately" formed by the influence of films and music, which either led or followed what was going on in the growth and social development of the teens.

Whether the films reflected the social trends, or they modeled them for a generation nursed on movies, TV and radio, Brode does an incredible job of walking us through the various genres of (mostly) movies that seemed to follow the restless seeking of the Baby Boom generation - through the nuclear age monster movies, the surfer movies, the spy films, the evolution of the female persona in films, the "druggie" movie, even the "British invasion" as a genre.

While none of this is new territory - I think if you lived through it you were well aware, even subliminally, of the ideas that were either being sold to you, or reflected back at you - Brode's accomplishment is the sheer volume of documentation: he has encyclopedic knowledge of films you've most likely forgotten (and clearly, he not only know about them, but has seen them), or perhaps missed when they were out. Another accomplishment is his ability to link the films to one another, or to a larger social issue that in some films was not as evident as in others.

When my daughter was young, and first interested in popular music, we'd listen to the radio as we traveled. A song would come on, and I'd ask her, "Who is that?" My contention was, if you're going to like current Rock 'n' Roll, you're going to know where it came from. That way you can appreciate it more. So we played our game, and she won - that is to say, she was able to identify obscure songs by bygone but popular at the time artists, simply by the sound or the nature of the lyrics. She understood, and could appreciate, the "sound" of an era.

So I would recommend this book not just to Baby Boomers who will revel in the recollections (and get a deeper understanding) of their lives as referenced in film, but to young people who want to understand not just their elders, but their heritage. Popular culture, particularly as reflected in movies, TV, and music, doesn't just appear out of nowhere. It evolves, taking cues and clues from what went before - even re-making the same old stuff but with the eyes - and ears - of a new generation.

This book will certainly become a textbook for a course in the history of film, but I would suggest that anyone interested in the "why" of our lives take a dive into it. You'll have many an "aha" moment, and most likely a daydream or two of your own growing up years, and what "that song," or "that movie" meant to you.


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