We sometimes think of the Fifties, the Eisenhower years, as a time of
blandness, naive optimism and conformity. As a kid in the Fifties
that’s how it seemed to me — I took everything at face value. I
was a member of the Mickey Mouse Club — I had the ears.
Looking back today at the popular culture of the Fifties, with wiser
eyes, perhaps, the picture is much different. The sunny side of
things looks like the thinnest of veneers. Film noir
flourished in the Fifties. Pulp fiction got unspeakably bleak and
harrowing. The subversive sexuality and energy of rock and roll
bubbled up from the black underclass with astonishing ferocity.
Some white performers tried their best to tone it down, but it stayed
dirty. Ed Sullivan could present it as a kind of vaudeville
novelty act, but kids knew better — soon it would become the
soundtrack for everybody’s life.
The Beats had already started turning on and dropping out, in an unsettling but
compelling rehearsal for the Sixties. At the time it seemed like a bizarre aberration.
The film cycle depicting middle-class teen-aged angst and rebellion was born.
A girl to the Brando character in The Wild One: “What are you rebelling against?”
Brando: “What have you got?”
Low-budget sci-fi movies retailed images of apocalypse by the score.
Even the kinder, gentler manifestations of popular culture reveal, on
closer examination, dark undercurrents. Charles Schulz said this
of his mildly satirical comic strip Peanuts:
“All the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are
lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes;
and the football is always pulled away.”
And consider the apparently frivolous comic visions of Frank Tashlin —
which are, if examined closely, savage deconstructions of popular
Indeed, the more you look at Fifties culture the more it comes to seem
that those mouse ears weren’t at the heart of it — they were
distractions from a deep national anxiety, a brooding sense of dread that permeated everything.