What role has popular culture played in the Western world since World War II? What are some examples?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the best examples of how pop culture has influenced ideals and values in the Western world can be seen with respect to the influence of popular music. Even during the pre-war and World War II years, popular music coincided with values and beliefs and influenced social movements.

In his book titled Cultures of Popular Music, author Andy Bennett cites studies conducted by Ralph Willett on Swing Jugend, the Swing Kid movement of the 1930s and 40s, found in Willett's 1989 article titled "Hot Swing and the Dissolute Life," published in volume 8, issue 2 of the journal Popular Music. During these years, American big band jazz music, also called swing, of artists like "Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw" became widely popular all over central Europe even in Germany (as cited in Bennett, p. 8). When America joined the war on the side of the Allies, the Nazi regime began forbidding the sale of swing. European youth used swing and the formation of the Swing Kid movement to instigate a "salient form of resistance to Nazi ideology both in occupied European countries and in Germany itself" (as cited in Bennett, p. 8). Hence, the pop-cultural trend of swing music in the 1930s and 40s played a prominent role within Western culture to protest against the Nazi regime.

After the war years, in the 1950s, popular music also significantly influenced and coincided with changes in Western culture. In the 1950s, the emergence of rock n' roll, a blend of both white and African-American music cultures, played a significant role in developing and underscoring changes in Western cultural ideologies and values. Elvis Presley was one of the most influential contributors to merging white and African-American music cultures by, according to Bobbie Ann Mason in her book Elvis Presley: A Life (2007), merging "disparate strands of blues, country, and gospel into a fiercely dynamic sound." This mergence helped to influence and underscore America's growing drive to break divisions between races, particularly seen in the racial segregation laws of the South. Hence, the pop-cultural trend of rock n' roll music coincided with and further helped to develop America's fight for civil rights.

Beyond merging racial music cultures, rock n' roll served to merge other cultural values, such as with respect to sexuality. African-American rock n' roll was far more sexual than the tamed down white versions of rock n' roll. Author Bennett points out that Presley also played a significant roll in bridging the racial divide between sexual values through singing while employing hip thrusts and other sexual gyrations. Bennett cites Jon Michael Spencer's chapter found in the book In Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Art, Religion (1997), edited by Vernon Chadwick, to argue that "Presley was instrumental in what [Spencer] terms the 'sexual seduction of whites into blackness' which ultimately gave rise to 'new and acceptable attitudes about sexuality' in white society" (as cited in Bennnett, p. 14).

The changes in attitudes toward sexuality influenced and underscored by the pop-cultural trend of rock n' roll also coincided with the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 70s, since one thing women of these eras protested against was the imprisonment of sexual values still being held on to since the Victorian era. Hence, the pop-cultural trend of music also influenced pop-cultural movements such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement.

jenx1128 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hello! Well, if we focus on the United States as a major part of the Western World, we've got several cultural changes that coincided with popular culture. For example, we've got the feminist revolution, inspired in part due to women in the workforce during WWII who then had to go back to their former housewife roles after having had so many opportunities for leadership and independence while their husbands were away at war. Then, several smaller wars (including Vietnam) brought them back in and back out of the workforce. Women, having discovered that they were fully capable of owning and applying marketable skills, were no longer content to have their gender defined without their consent, and thus, a new feminist revolution arose, fighting gender oppression and promoting freedom of expression.

Teenage culture also arose after WWII. The Beatles and other rock bands took precedence in the lives of teenagers, as music and related activities became primary activities, leading to a great culture clash between that generation and the “workhorse” generation of their parents. Individuality and celebration of diversity began to dominate the minds of the younger generation, and race relations affected politics, music, movies, and every aspect of American lives. Song lyrics reflected opinions against fighting and war while promoting love and celebration. While parents found themselves content with classical tunes or Skiffle music, the younger generations sought lyrics that spoke their minds, which promoted free love and discussed deeper emotions.

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a great question. In order to give an answer, we should first define popular culture. Pop culture is the sum total of ideas, attitudes, symbols, and other phenomena that are central to a culture. 

American popular culture post–World War II has played an enormous role on a global level. After World War II, America gained center stage. America grew in stature as the new superpower of the world, partially because it was one of the few modern countries that was not destroyed in the war. Therefore, as America grew, the popular culture of American also grew and began to spread abroad. 

From this perspective the role of popular culture was enormous. American popular culture was able to spread into the world. Therefore, we can say that globalization was in many ways the Americanization of the world. America became the standard by which other nations measured themselves. In a word, America exported its popular culture to the world and it influenced the world. 

sezra | Student

Examples could include music, film, comics, fashion, and other products (such as Coca Cola) that were internationally influential on mass culture. One could easily discuss the interaction of these cultural products (e.g., music & consumer products in particular films) or consider the degree to which pop cultural artifacts established their presence in intellectual culture (e.g., Andy Warhol, the Beat poets, lots of films and post-war literature). 

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