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Development of Popular Culture in the Roaring Twenties

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The 1920’s were a decade of dramatic social change and political realignment. Forms of mass media were shaping popular culture by spreading information and bringing new ideas to the table. This new era of free-spirited popular culture, known as the “Roaring Twenties”, kicked off with the creation of a dance called the Charleston. Young people enjoyed this fast-paced dance but older Americans, however, were not amused. The Charleston caused a lot of controversy between generations because it was an indication that American culture was developing, “This conflict over a dance was a sign that American culture was changing, sometimes far faster than many people could or would accept”.

During the 1920’s, Americans had extra money to spend, and they spent it on the new products of the decade, particularly the radio. The press was the main source of current events, but that changed once the first commercial radio station aired in 1920. Radio became the easiest mass medium to reach a large audience and soon enough popular culture would have a voice.

Motion pictures were first developed in the 1890s, but at the time, movies were silent. Films became a huge business in the 1920s due to World War I. People were excited to escape the problems of postwar recession. Movies allowed people to experience emotions other than the ones they felt in their everyday lives. In 1927, the movie industry was revolutionized. The discovery of adding sound to films helped to create more jobs, like script writers and actors. Movie stars did not get their rise to fame until dialogue became an important part of films. These actors became national celebrities that fans worshipped. Motion pictures in the 1920’s shaped popular culture by exposing Americans to new fashions, new hairstyles, and a loosening of the rules of social behavior; ‘Radio told the masses what to do, and movies showed them how to do it’.

The roaring twenties changed the lives of women forever. They got to experience more freedom than ever before. In 1920, the right to vote was granted to women and they were now able to enter politics. Women began to feel empowered, which produced a new lifestyle called the “flapper”, a young woman who drank, smoked, and was overall known as unladylike. These women cut their hair into short bobs, and wore dramatic makeup and short skirts. The Flapper represented youth and independence, but most women knew that this carefree lifestyle was only a phase. This new lifestyle was foreign to older generations, who strongly disliked these new American customs.

The decade is often called the Jazz Age due to the popularity of Jazz music. Jazz was developed by African Americans, but became influenced by other music forms and musical traditions. African American migrants brought their love of jazz with them to New York City and the African American neighborhood of Harlem. Harlem became a magnet to jazz lovers and soon thousands of jazz clubs would spread across the area. These jazz clubs consisted of African American musicians and dancers, but the majority of patrons were white. Many first heard this new style of music on records, which radio helped spread. Records allowed people to be creative by making their own music and putting it out there to be discovered. Young people enjoyed this new style of music and created dances like the Charleston, which swept the country. These new dances involved kicks, twists, and turns that seemed too wild and reckless to older generations, “Many older Americans were shocked by jazz. They felt that its fast rhythms and improvisations were contributing to a loosening of moral standards”.

Harlem wasn’t only a place for jazz, it was also a place for musicians and writers, mainly African American. The Harlem Renaissance era took off and African American went to Harlem to share their creativity amongst others. These musicians and writers would give each other feedback and overall encourage one another. However, this era wasn’t only for African American writers, it was also a time for white writers to be creative. Some white writers were sickened by the slaughter of the war. These people were called the “lost generation” who considered themselves as postwar writers. Their writing would consist of depressing topics about postwar experiences, “The Sun Also Rises, describes the rootless feelings of many young people after the war. The Great Gatsby critiques the moral emptiness of upper-class American society. This passage from another Fitzgerald novel reveals the impact of the World War on the Lost Generation”. They found fault in American life and would express their emotions in their writing. These writers developed new themes and writing styles that still define modern literature. Artists would portray modern life in their artwork. Their paintings expressed a sense of loneliness and isolation by using moody tones to set the scene. However, this explosion of culture brought enthusiasm to these writers and artists. Art museums began displaying work for everyone to see, while magazines and newspapers introduced the new writers to a range of readers.

Overall, new ideas of the decade brought a huge change in American popular culture in the roaring twenties. Radio, magazine, and motion pictures brought information and entertainment to millions of Americans. The regional differences in the United States began to fade as ideas spread around and a new popular culture became a part of daily life. Women’s lives changed drastically as they were granted with the right to vote. They felt a sense of freedom and wanted to redefine the image of a modern day woman. They started participating in activities that were once restricted from them. The Jazz Age was a time of honoring African American traditions to discover a new form of music and dance. Jazz expressed the mood of the decade. It soon became popular throughout the country and eventually the whole world. The Harlem Renaissance gave a voice to the experiences of African American musicians and writers, which spread into the lost generation joining the movement. The 1920’s roaring twenties can be seen as very influential in the shaping of modern American society. The impact of the decade’s ideas can be seen by the freedoms we have in daily American life today.

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