Skip to main content


Popular Culture

February 2024
6min read

The Fifty Biggest Changes in the Last Fifty Years

With American Heritage approaching its fiftieth birthday in December 2004, we’ve asked five prominent historians and cultural commentators to each pick 10 leading developments in American life during the last half-century. In this issue Alien Barra, American Heritage ’s film reviewer and a wide-ranging historian and cultural critic, whose most recent books include Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends and Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century, selects the 10 biggest changes in popular culture. In other issues this year our authorities offer their choices of the half-century’s biggest transformations in politics; innovation and technology; business; and the home and the family.



This essay began as a listing of the 10 greatest changes in popular culture in the past 50 years, but the more I mulled it over, the more I grew convinced that the discussion could have meaning only if it focused on people—artists and writers who either were at the forefront of change or best symbolized it. No one would deny that art and culture are the products of complex socio-economic forces, but if they aren’t also shaped and formed by the personalities and talents of human beings, what is? Andy Warhol didn’t create pop art (well, he did, sort of, though somebody would surely have done it if he hadn’t), but he certainly created the look of pop art as we know it.

How does one measure the 10 greatest changes in popular culture over the past half-century? Well, how do you define “popular culture”? I ask only two things of popular culture: first that it be popular and second that it have something legitimate to do with culture. (Stephen King, for instance, has probably been the most popular novelist over this period, but it would be hard to make a case for his changing our culture.)

Culture takes in many different art forms, so I have tried to include people whose intelligence, creativity, and dynamism have effected change in jazz, rock, film, television, and pop art as well as literature and journalism. To say that I could have legitimately extended this list to 20 or even 30 names in no way lessens the impact of the 10 (or 11) offered here.

1 James Dean

Yes, Brando, of course. But James Dean popularized the same acting style and made it a focus for teenage rebellion. It could be argued, in fact, that as a beacon for teenage angst, his image predates rock ’n’ roll.

It could also be argued that by dying dramatically in 1955, he did as much for the next generation of actors as Brando did by living. Nearly every moody, sexy young actor to follow in his wake, from Paul Newman (who was cast in roles that would have gone to Dean) to Benicio Del Toro (who gave Dean’s style an ethnic flavor), owes him much.

2 Miles Davis

Let us count the ways in which he influenced popular culture. No jazz musician since Louis Armstrong has been so widely known or popular. For better or worse—you make the call—he pioneered jazz-rock fusion. And he became the first and only jazz artist to create an image of rock-star proportions.

Have we left anything out? Oh, yes, as the story goes, he told a middle-aged white woman at a party when she asked what he had done to be invited, “I changed music about five or six times. What have you done?”

3 Raymond Chandler

Most of Chandler’s short stories, books, and film scripts were written in the thirties and forties, though the script that was arguably his best, done for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train , wasn’t filmed until 1951, and his best novel, The Long Goodbye, was published in 1953. Still, although Chandler evokes the forties as does no other American writer, his real influence was to be on later decades.

Chandler perfected the American private-eye genre begun by Dashiell Hammett in the late twenties, but more important, his oeuvre helped create the look and feel of film noir that haunts Hollywood to this day. (See Memento and the film version of L.A. Confidential.) His influence can be perceived in such varied works as Antonioni’s Blowup (which hinges on a murder recorded on film, a play on Chandler’s Playback ) and Blade Runner (which projects Chandler’s Philip Marlowe into a futuristic Los Angeles). Martin Scorsese got the title for Mean Streets from Chandler.

And, for what you might think it’s worth, Chandler has been cited as the grandfather of the graphic novel.

4 Pauline Kael

The greatest age of American film began in the late sixties and ran till the end of the seventies, and no one did more to create the intellectual climate that helped usher it in than Pauline Kael, who was the most visible and eloquent champion of Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, M*A*S*H, Last Tango in Paris, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Carrie, Mean Streets, Nashville , and virtually every other American and foreign film with deep cultural impact in that period.

Kael was the first American writer to champion exhilarating domestic popular films over highbrow European cinema. “There is more energy,” she wrote in 1964, “more originality, more excitement, more art in American kitsch in Top Hat, Strangers on a Train, His Girl Friday, The Crimson Pirate, Citizen Kane, The Lady Eve, To Have and Have Not, The African Queen, Singin’ in the Rain, Sweet Smell of Success, The Manchurian Candidate, The Hustler and Hud than in the presumed ‘High Culture’ of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, La Notte, and The Eclipse.”

No other American critic of any art form, before or since, has had anything like her impact.

5 Buddy Holly

Well, yes, Elvis, of course, but American boys couldn’t realistically hope to grow up to be Elvis, whereas any horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing geek with a couple of friends and a garage to practice in might, in theory, become the next Buddy Holly. Holly and the Crickets were the first three- and four-piece rock band to go into a studio and record as such, and with the possible exception of Chuck Berry, who approached rock ’n’ roll from the other end of the color spectrum, no one did as much to fuse black blues and raucous white country music into the monster that would become rock ’n’ roll. Holly’s death in a plane crash in 1959 set the standard for rock-star denouements and inspired Don McLean’s “American Pie.” About a year after Holly’s death, some English kids in Liverpool got together and began looking for a name for their band that would remind people of the Crickets.

6 Andy Warhol

If we leave aside all debates based on purely aesthetic matters—and who knows whether the basis for such debates even exists today—Warhol’s influence swamps that of any 10 other artists you could name combined . As the art critic Dan Bischoff writes, “Andy Warhol was the most influential artist of the past fifty years … because with Warhol came the retirement of a whole raft of skills that artists had needed to have before in order to create art—the talent for painting, the talent for putting together complex images, arranging a sort of depth in two dimensions.” Warhol was the first artist for whom the subject became culture itself—that is, the popular culture of modern times, and not the way it was represented or rendered.

7 Frank Sinatra

So much has been written about Sinatra’s significance as a cultural icon that it’s easy to forget he was first a great popular artist. Sinatra was the first recording artist—and, arguably, the only one before the Beatles—to grasp the import of the album as the primary artistic and economic unit of pop music. He is the only pop singer of the fifties whose records have remained continuously in print, and no one, not even the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, has yet matched his longevity as an album artist.

8 Ernie Kovacs

Television is both a medium and an art form, and no one used the former to influence the latter like Kovacs, whose mix of video tricks, quick cuts, voice-overs, blackouts, and plain dark humor had a profound effect on everything from Laugh-In back in the sixties to today’s late-night talk shows and cutting-edge cable comedy. Kovacs wrote the grammar for modern television.

9 Norman Mailer

American culture became too fragmented in the second half of the twentieth century for any fiction writer to dominate his age the way Hemingway and Fitzgerald had done theirs, but even though he never wrote the great American novel, Norman Mailer may have had a greater impact on his time than Hemingway and Fitzgerald did on theirs. Who else produced so much vital work over so long a period or kept his finger on the pulse of the American heartbeat for so long? And if Mailer didn’t invent the new journalism, he was its most creative and prolific exponent.

“Literature,” Octavio Paz once said, “is journalism that stays journalism.” Mailer’s journalism has stayed journalism.

10 Francis Ford Coppola

Certainly there are directors with more box-office successes, but no one else in the history of American film has combined commercial success with critical acclaim as Coppola did in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II . No other American films added so many phrases to the lexicon; who among us has not, at one time or another, heard or used “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business,” “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” “Badda-bing!,” even “Forgetaboutit” (from a scene deleted from the original and restored by Coppola for the TV version).

The Godfather films made enduring stars of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and James Caan. Coppola’s great set pieces, the opening wedding scene and closing baptism scene in the first film and the Havana sequence from the second, have been imitated endlessly. Perhaps more than any other American movies, Coppola’s masterpieces have justified the concept of the extended-version DVD.

And without Francis Ford Coppola, there would be no Sofia Coppola, one of the most interesting new directors of the twenty-first century.

And, just for good measure …

11 Malcolm X

Forget, for a moment, the political and religious aspects of Malcolm’s life, and consider just his cultural impact. Without Malcolm, Cassius Clay would never become Muhammad Ali. Richard Pryor would probably not become the greatest standup comic who ever lived. Alex Haley would not cowrite Malcolm’s autobiography and be inspired to ponder his own roots. Spike Lee, perhaps, would never become a filmmaker. In the pungent phrasing of the jazz critic Gene Seymour, “For better and for worse, the whole culture of grievance with attitude, of shock and all rhetoric in public discourse does not exist without Malcolm X, whether in hip hop nation or even in talk radio.”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.