1962, Not 1968, Was When Everything Changed

In a fascinating column for the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout notes that 1962–not the oft cited annus horribilis of 1968–was when popular culture decisively pivoted into new and uncharted territory:

But it was in 1962, not 1968, that the curtain first started inching up on our age of full-color anxiety. Turn the clock back exactly a half-century and you’ll find yourself in a different America—but one fraught with subtle signs and portents of what was to come….

Yet the caldron of change was already bubbling away. Take a second glance at the guest list for Carson’s “Tonight Show” debut and you’ll note the unexpected presence of Mel Brooks, whose raucously, unabashedly vulgar movies would soon help to undermine Hollywood’s long-established sense of the appropriate. Nor was Mr. Brooks the only portent of things to come. Nineteen sixty-two was also the year when Bob Dylan cut his first album. Andy Warhol’s first solo show, an exhibition of Campbell’s Soup cans, opened in Los Angeles in 1962, and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opened on Broadway. As dissimilar as these now-venerable objets d’art may seem to us now, they all had in common the iron determination of their creators to break decisively with the earnest, self-confident tone of postwar culture.

Referring to Albee’s haunting and disturbing play, Teachout notes that its debut marked the first time in American culture that a popular playwright captured the public’s imagination by “declaring that the values by which it lived were false.” 

In the second act of the play, George, a bitter college professor, rants drunkenly about the meaninglessness of life:

You endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind…you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same…you bring things to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the ‘Dies Irae.’ And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.

This monologue just goes to show how far we’ve come since 1962: George’s rant seems almost milquetoast compared to the cultural indiscretions that today entertain the popular public. The question is, are today’s improprieties a direct legacy of 1962, the year our culture abandoned “the long-established sense of the appropriate,” in Teachout’s words–or is their cause found elsewhere?

  1. James Lileks
    C

    A direct legacy. But it had been building before ’62. There’s the nihilism of the best film noir, the rise of trashy expose-mag pop culture in the 50s and the juvenile-delinquency panic – a slowly coalescing sense of moral corruption and societal fallibility that coincided with the elevation of the adolescent sensibility as an ethical barometer, and the increased population of boomers keen to throw off all that old square stuff. 

    The exact moment it went off the rails can be tied to the introduction of wood-grained plastic, but that’s just my theory.

  2. Misthiocracy

    Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may have been the first play to capture the public imagination which declared that the values by which it lived were false, but I don’t think it was the first work of popular culture to do so.

    After all, The Catcher In The Rye was written in 1951.  On The Road was written in 1951 and published in 1957.  The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit was written in 1955, and the film came out in 1956.

    On the other hand, 1962 is a convenient year to use as a cultural turning-point, as it is 17 years following the end of World War II.  That means that 1963 is the year that the first early wave of baby boomers reached voting age.

    The counter-cultural works of the 1950s were targeted at folk who had become adults during the war years, while counter-cultural works after 1962 were targeted at the kids who were still in the process of becoming adults, and had never known war or economic depression.

  3. Mel Foil

    I’ve heard that before, with the proposed trigger being the combination of the civil rights movement and the Cuban missile crisis. It was dawning on young adult Baby Boomers that something in society was seriously wrong, and their elders were not seeing the big picture. They were stuck in the past.  The Baby Boomer’s response was to get completely unstuck, to the point of being untethered. They ended up going a little too far in the other direction.

  4. Peter Meza

    I thought that the agreed upon moment when everything changed was November 22, 1963, 12:30 p.m. (Central Time).

  5. Mel Foil
    Peter Meza: I thought that the agreed upon moment when everything changed was November 22, 1963, 12:30 p.m. (Central Time).

    I think that’s when the grown-ups stopped claiming superior wisdom, and the beatniks could finally say, “I told you so.”

  6. Johannes Allert

    “Catcher in the Rye” published in 1951 comes to mind… but as a young kid growing up, 1968 always was for me the most chaotic  year. A lot of craziness, mayhem, and revolution all balled up into one.

  7. Misthiocracy
    Peter Meza: I thought that the agreed upon moment when everything changed was November 22, 1963, 12:30 p.m. (Central Time). 

    That just happens to be exactly 18 years, 1 month, and 20 days after Japan signed the surrender document that ended World War II.

    Personally, I subscribe to David Foot’s theory that 75% of history can be explained through demographics.

    The baby boomers started hitting voting age in 1963. Their numbers didn’t stop growing until Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972, at which point the earliest baby boomers were already 27 years old and had voted in two presidential elections and were about to vote in a third.

  8. AHLondon
    Mel Foil:  It was dawning on young adult Baby Boomers that something in society was seriously wrong, and their elders were not seeing the big picture.

    I’ve often wondered if part of their finding something wrong was that they went looking for something wrong.  The children of the Greatest Generation, they wanted to be able to change something big, make a difference, the way their parents had.  The relative lack of gravitas in post-war life made them dissatisfied.  

  9. Emily Esfahani Smith
    C
    James Lileks: A direct legacy. But it had been building before ’62. There’s the nihilism of the best film noir, the rise of trashy expose-mag pop culture in the 50s and the juvenile-delinquency panic – a slowly coalescing sense of moral corruption and societal fallibility that coincided with the elevation of the adolescent sensibility as an ethical barometer, and the increased population of boomers keen to throw off all that old square stuff. · 24 minutes ago

    I wonder if the negative effects of this have reached their climax already–in, say, the ugly nihilism of punk rock or the violence of hard-core porn–or if the worst is yet to come.

  10. Nathaniel Wright

    I’m less worried about the corruption of modern society and our “making the vicious our virtues.”  While I concur with Lileks that the adolescent sensibility as ethical barometer of the boomer generation has had negative affects on society, it is also a part of a much longer conflict.

    One should point out that the 1948 film ROPE was already arguing that moral relativism had invaded and corrupted our culture, and that academia was in large part to blame.  I think one can point to Freud, Nietzsche, Heiddegger, and Marx to find the roots of the vicious becoming the virtuous.  But I also think that those in power have often equated the vicious with the virtuous, or that those who want power — as the boomers did when they rose up against their “elders” — do so.

    The Athenians executed Socrates.  The Romans killed Cicero and Jesus. 

    There is no end to society choosing the Golden Calf over self-sacrifice and the pursuit of the highest good.

    How does the nihilism of punk rock or the violence of hard-core porn compare with the depravities of the 30 years war?

  11. James Lileks
    C

    Nathaniel: agreed. And “Rope,” if I remember correctly, was vaguely influenced by the Leopold and Loeb case of . . . 1924. 

    Punk rock had almost no impact on society, except for stripping down pop music to the basics so better talents could rebuild it.

    Emily: the clawback will begin when the Left is uniformly horrified by a product of the cultural Left. Not before. 

  12. flownover
     if the worst is yet to come.  (not the nuptial between Warren Beatty’s and Cher’s kids ?) 

    I have been trying to say that about SAW in re today’s massacre, but people tell me that because millions have watched it, then it is acceptable. Relativistic nonsense, they think box office is a blessing.

    Terry is one of the best observers of culture we have,  his theories on middlebrow culture are lapidary. Don’t forget Mario Savio ,one of the flashpoints. Big spread in LIFE magazine, which was a clarion call of the popculture or whatever else came along, topless fashion, you name it.  And remember what Derbyshire says ” all pop culture is trash “. That’s universal and eternal to the viewpoint of the generation that has to watch and pay for alot of it. 

  13. Tom Lindholtz
    Misthiocracy:   On the other hand, 1962 is a convenient year to use as a cultural turning-point, as it is 17 years following the end of World War II.  That means that 1963 is the year that the first early wave of baby boomers reached voting age.

    Although proposed earlier, the drop in the voting age came later than that.

  14. Misthiocracy
    Nathaniel Wright: But I also think that those in power have often equated the vicious with the virtuous, or that those who want power — as the boomers did when they rose up against their “elders” — do so.

    The Athenians executed Socrates.  The Romans killed Cicero and Jesus. 

    There is no end to society choosing the Golden Calf over self-sacrifice and the pursuit of the highest good.

    God and Man At Yale: Published in 1951.

  15. Tom Lindholtz

    All of the leading cultural indicators cited above were certainly clues that change was afoot.  In my mind, the biggest argument against the 1968 date is the fact that the Berkeley Free Speech Movement began in the 1964-65 academic year.  That was, in my view, the final act that completed the cultural revolution’s emergence.  Those students had been taught by their elders who’d drunk deeply at the iconoclastic well.

  16. Misthiocracy
    Tom Lindholtz

    Misthiocracy:   On the other hand, 1962 is a convenient year to use as a cultural turning-point, as it is 17 years following the end of World War II.  That means that 1963 is the year that the first early wave of baby boomers reached voting age.

    Although proposed earlier, the drop in the voting age came later than that. · 6 minutes ago

    Thank you for the clarification.

    So, the earliest boomers hit voting age in 1966, and there was a “double-cohort” of boomers voting after 1971 when the voting age was lowered to 18.

    As such, I say that the “beginning of the end” was in 1966.

  17. Ed Driscoll
    C

    Our local multiplex has been running a series of classic movies each week. A week ago, we attended Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 production of Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange. This week, it was Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant’s 1959 North By Northwest. These films are only a decade apart, but the gap between them seems bottomless. The culture confidence inherent in North By Northwest had been replaced with the dank nihilism of the late ’60s and 1970s. 

    Not coincidentally, Hollywood itself had collapsed in the interim; Kubrick shot Clockwork on a shoestring, because the funding had fallen through on Napoleon, which he had planned as his ultra-big budget sequel to 2001, until another film about Napoleon had tanked at the box office — which happened to loads of old-style epics in the post Bonnie & Clyde/Easy Rider-era, and Kubrick turned to Clockwork as a more affordable alternative project.

    By the way, according to Wikipedia, Burgess wrote the original Clockwork Orange novel…in 1962. 

  18. Tom Lindholtz

    Another thought: the role of WWII.  Consider the hoards of young men exposed to utterly immoral savagery to an unimaginable degree, and then coming home to people who still lived by virtue that the GIs had been forced to upend.  Today we call it PTSD.  Then there was no name for it, but using a flame thrower to burn Japanese soldiers alive in their caves still has an impact, nameless or not.

    And, of course, the nihilists in Europe had already sown their seeds well before even WWI.

  19. Bill Walsh

    Philip Larkin famously put the milestone a year later. I think it’s safer to actually back up to the wars. Europe’s civilizational self-confidence was shattered by the first world war, and the second just interred it. America, in my view, had a less-traumatic mid-century, having won the war and become an economic colossus by default, but I still think that it broke something inside the country, as Mr. L said, the nihilism and amoral universes of a lot of post-war film and fiction (in natively American genres) is an early warning. The decline of beauty in not just high art (arguably bound up more closely with European trends) but design is obvious to me. Architecture, automobile design, furniture, etc., all get palpably uglier and more trivial from the ’40s to the ’70s (de gustibus and all). In the ’80s, post-modernism let some traditional proportions and designs through an ironic back door, but I still don’t think we’ve seen an optimistic, forward-looking, original culture in a long time (the ’80s was in certain ways, but it was undercut by an apocalyptic trend—dancing at the end of the world).

  20. with me where I am
    James Lileks: Emily: the clawback will begin when the Left is uniformly horrified by a product of the cultural Left. Not before.  · 19 minutes ago

    They haven’t uniformly disavowed Lars von Trier. I don’t think they ever will.