The sixties were a decade of extremes. The joys of The Beatles and the British Invasion, the hipster excess of Frank Sinatra’s Ratpack, the birth of Marvel Comics, the Space Race, and trippy, free-loving hippies were opposed and even overshadowed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, The Martin Luther King Assassination, the Viet Nam War, and dirty smelly evil hippies. Historian Mark Kurlansky alleges that 1968 is when things took a turn for the sober because it is the year that television started showing uncensored and unfiltered images of the Viet Nam war and other important news from the other side of the world, and those real-life horrors certainly colored and shaped the events of subsequent decades.
I don’t think that the decade of the sixties was ground zero for the birth of pop culture as we know it, but I do think it started to codify around college campuses and having access to more forms of mass media. Books were cheap. Comics were everywhere. Nearly everyone could read and most folks had access to a television. Airlines were flying people from Los Angeles to New York. Pop art was emerging. The Cult of celebrity was nascent. It was a groovy, happening time, driven mostly by the ever-mercurial “Youth Market” and it drove the first tentative wedge between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.
This decade, then, was the battle ground between generations, as the protests on college campuses later in the decade would attest. Things changed, seemingly overnight, and the world became a darker, more frightening place. It made the Elvis movies and the Beach Romp Teen Comedies seem more vacuous and out of place, but there were suburbs everywhere that these movies were playing to packed houses.
In some ways, the decade was also the last hurrah for the American Dream; the bill of goods that Generation X would inherit bore little resemblance to what the Greatest Generation or even the Baby Boomers had access to. The myth of America had been exposed, but it would take a few decades more to fully die. The horror of the 1960s is largely about exposure, metaphorically or otherwise and commentary on our collective impressions of the status quo. We don’t know who the monsters are anymore, and that’s because we are the monsters.