Friday, April 15, 2011

#19: As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s by Karal Ann Marling

325pp, Harvard University Press, 1994

Marling's main thesis in this text is the idea that "life in the 50s imitated art--as seen on TV." (6). In a sense, all of us (or our parents/grandparents) who sat down to watch Davy Crockett with a dinner straight from the Betty Crocker Home Cookbook after Dad drove home in a 1957 Olds with tail fins the size of Christmas Trees with lights to match were living the life we saw on TV. This is not a Marxist reading of the sheep sucking soma in the form of TV dinners and paint-by-number sets while the Organization Man heads out to his cubicle. It reads in some ways like a celebration, in some ways a slightly sad reminiscence. It works because of Marling's writing style and the subject matter itself.

Each chapter addresses a certain element of what adds up to a life on TV. The focus is the visual characteristics; Marling is an art history professor, and her discussion of the color "pink" in the first chapter (Mamie Eisenhower's New Look) and chapter five (When Elvis Cut his Hair) is first rate. Who knew that the "feminization" of the color pink probably comes from Mamie Eisenhower's obsession. Mamie had an entire pink bathroom in the White House, and a pink motif in her bedroom at the Eisenhower's retirement home in Gettysburg. While some businessmen were getting pink shirts for Christmas in 1951 and 1952, by the time Elvis bought his mom the pink Cadillac in 1960 a pink shirt was unthinkable.

Marling also equates Disneyland with a TV show, a place where we all walk through Main Street USA to places we see on TV. I loved the description of the souvenir shops of Main Street as "antique stores in reverse", especially as the Main Street that Disneyland celebrates is long gone. Marling is refreshing in that this absence is not Disney's fault; it is no ones fault. Disneyland is presented as a living TV show, but is also presented as an organic growth from Walt Disney's interest in trains. Disney in this text is most definitely NOT a symbol of suburban sprawl and its attendant inanity. Marling sees it as a reaction to the increasing importance of the suburbs, cars and freeways. I had not seen this take before, and it struck me as very thoughtful and refreshing.

Ahhhhhhhhh, then there is Elvis. I did not know that the first show that Elvis did after returning from the army was a duet, in tux, with....Sinatra. Marling quotes Feisty Rock Critic Lester Bangs who wrote in 1977 that "When Elvis got his hair cut, rock died." I agree with Bangs, and so does Marling. Think of the Rock Acts bouncing around in 1958: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Link Wray (inventor of the power chord), Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps...the list goes on and on. Bad ass attitude, cars, sex, playful thuggery. Only the Rolling Stones and The Who approached this in the 1960s. Elvis sings with Sinatra, puts away his dick and becomes a caricature in Hollywood for the next eight years. Marling places Elvis in his time using his eclectic wardrobe and a welcome discussion of his voice, something that routinely gets missed.

Finally, Marling wraps up the text with the famous "Kitchen Debate" between Dick Nixon and Khrushchev in Moscow. She points out that "Khrushchev was utterly baffled by Nixon's enthusiasm for product redundancy." (278) This is the central theme of the text; that the 1950s emphasized the triumph of style over function, a very visual triumph. Khrushchev saw function, Nixon and the Americans saw style. Think about the Beatles in those matching suits. The music (function) was toned down in favor of style. Only live could it come out, and only then in 30 minute increments.

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