Jugend – Pop – Kultur. Eine transnationale Geschichte

Mrozek, Bodo
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Jeff Hayton, Department of History, Wichita State University

From the perspective of the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine that pop culture wasn’t always an integral and accepted part of everyday society. Yet as Bodo Mrozek explores in his book, such a time did exist, and it wasn’t even that long ago. Tracking a shift which took place between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, Mrozek details how youth and pop culture emerged, and how they moved from fringe marginality to mainstream ubiquity.

At the outset, Mrozek elaborates two main goals: first, to explain the transnational emergence of a youth and pop culture by using America, England, West Germany, and East Germany as his primary case studies; and second, to record the turbulence which accompanied its establishment. In so doing, Mrozek argues that historicizing pop is not simply about contextualizing a specific phenomenon (although it is that too) but is also a means of uniting often disparate spheres of research into a powerful analysis of contemporary history (p. 13). The movement from marginal to mainstream was not easy, and the bulk of his study examines the disruptions and debates which accompanied the establishment of pop. And yet, by the mid-1960s or so, activities which had once been deemed aberrant if not criminal by authorities, experts, and the public, had become normalized and ripe for mass appropriation throughout the modern world.

To investigate how pop became mainstream, Mrozek divides his study into three large sections, each representing a specific stage in this evolution. In the first section, a period from the early-to-late-1950s which he calls the Konfliktphase, societies around the world began grappling with a new generational cohort which was attracted to new sounds, images, fashions, and behaviors. Despite emerging from diverse local contexts, this new youth and pop culture was universally understood in both East and West as a form of deviance and criminality. As Mrozek shows in extraordinary detail, judicial proceedings against youth gangs, debates about motorcycle noise, new fashion trends and bodily practices, and confrontations between young people and authorities like the Notting Hill Riots in 1958, led to the creation of negative stereotypes about youth and considerable cultural pessimism among observers. Although some voices challenged this hegemonic discourse, most societies came to associate youth and pop culture with deviance and delinquency. Crucially, what was often a local manifestation (Teddy Boy-style) had, by the end of the 1950s, been universalized by the media into an international threat (working-class hoodlums).

In the second section, the so-called Transformationsphase from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, the new youth culture progressively permeated the mainstream. Despite continued disturbances and critical commentary, pop – especially rock ‘n’ roll – increasingly appeared in cinema, on the radio, and in concert halls during this period. For Mrozek, two trends set the stage for the coming diffusion and normalization of pop. First, experts examined pop culture much more carefully and developed less pejorative interpretations of youth behavior and practices. Second, fans demanded greater access to pop, which encouraged more cautious institutions like the BBC to satisfy these desires. Even in East Germany, authorities began to cater to youth. While their attempt at creating a socialist dance was a flop (the Lipsi), the fact that they recognized its necessity shows they were taking youth culture seriously.

Finally, in the third section, what Mrozek calls the Etablierungsphase in the early-to-mid-1960s, pop became a mainstream phenomenon. Beginning with the Twist and then consolidated by the Beatles, new television shows, radio stations, dance steps, magazines, fashions, hairstyles, music, and more, all helped pop become mainstream youth culture, especially among middle-class consumers. Of course, the establishment of what Tom Wolfe called a Pop Society didn’t end controversy: violent confrontations involving youths continued to occur such as the Mod and Rocker brawls in South England in 1964. But what had once been condemned as deviant was now met with less outcry and more understanding: as Mrozek explains, these incidents sparked far less outrage than comparable events only a decade prior. Thus, except for East Germany which continued to repress (Western) youth culture as the Leipzig Beat Riots in 1965 demonstrate, by the end of this period, pop was no longer considered scandalous but was widely accepted and popular.

It is nearly impossible to do justice to a text that is more than seven-hundred pages long in a short review. Specialists perhaps will not find much new about the individual events or trends under discussion (to take the German case which this reviewer is most familiar with, much of what Mrozek surveys has already been covered by numerous other scholars).1 However, what is immensely profitable is how Mrozek places these national events in a transnational dialogue and draws insights from these comparisons. Consider his discussion of the Twist: when Chubby Checker debuted his new dance on the Dick Clark Show on August 6, 1960, little did he know a step rooted in postwar African-American youth culture was about to become perhaps the most popular dance in Western history. But thanks to cover songs and dance instructors and, not least, Brigitte Bardot, the Twist spread throughout the world. And while there remained moral (racist, sexist) outrage at the dance, these outbursts were quickly silenced as a majority of white, middle-class consumers—including older adults—found out they liked to Twist as well, one (twisting) step further in the solidification of pop as culture.

As his discussion of the Twist illustrates, Mrozek is at his best when analyzing small details and then connecting them to larger contexts and developments. There are countless fruitful examples demonstrating this approach from the sonic language of a Bill Haley concert to debates among experts concerning the differences between „rhythm“ and „beat“ to the emotionality of Beatles fans. At times, however, these micro-level detours impede the macro-level analysis. This is a big study, and one wonders whether a less sprawling understanding of pop might have tightened its arguments. Mrozek deliberately eschews a narrow definition of pop, instead speaking of a wide field of media, spaces, practices, products, etc. (see pp.19–20, 21–23, and 741–743). Such expansiveness allows him to range widely from film to television to music to fashion but can leave the reader a bit adrift in the details. For instance: do we need a series of sub-chapters on youth riots following rock ‘n’ roll films in each country rather than a single discussion? If the youth riots of the 1960s weren’t as controversial as those of the 1950s, why spend twice as much space minutely documenting them? On the other hand, elsewhere, one wishes Mrozek had devoted more space to his argumentation and evidence. This is especially the case in the last section as he rushes to pop’s arrival in the mainstream. Where did America go after the Twist? Had film become irrelevant by the 1960s? How much profit did the Beatles generate? By glossing over these and other questions, Mrozek’s arguments concerning the mainstream acceptance of pop in the 1960s are more cursory and less convincing than those he developed in the earlier stages of his story.

To say all this hints at the difficulties presenting any researcher trying to unify such diverse subject matter into a single, comprehensible narrative and should not detract from the achievement which Jugend, Pop, Kultur represents. Historicizing pop, as Mrozek has done, is long overdue, and his book is an excellent history of pop. And while Jugend, Pop, Kultur will not be the last word on either youth or pop, it is nonetheless an ambitious contribution to our understandings of these constructs and how they came to saturate the modern world so deeply that it is hard to remember that once they did not.

1 Kaspar Maase, BRAVO Amerika. Erkundungen zur Jugendkultur der Bundesrepublik in den fünfziger Jahren, Hamburg 1992; Michael Rauhut, Beat in der Grauzone. DDR-Rock 1964 bis 1972 – Politik und Alltag, Berlin 1993; Dorothee Wierling, Die Jugend als innerer Feind. Konflikte in der Erziehungsdiktatur der sechziger Jahre, in: Hartmut Kaelble / Jürgen Kocka / Hartmut Zwahr (Hrsg.), Sozialgeschichte der DDR, Stuttgart 1994, pp. 404–425; Uta G. Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels. Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany, Berkeley 2000; Mark Fenemore, Sex, Thugs and Rock’n’Roll. Teenage Rebels in Cold War East Germany, New York 2007; Detlef Siegfried, Time is on my Side. Konsum und Politik in der westdeutschen Jugendkultur der 60er Jahren, Göttingen 2006.