One of the popular novels in the '50s was a book called AUNTIE MAME by Patrick Dennis. It was about a guy growing up in the '20s and '30s. There's a wonderful chapter where he talks about how he and his friends are in college and they all worship Fred Astaire just like people would later worship Elvis Presley. They want to dress like him, talk like him, light cigarettes like him. They all walk around in this absolutely hilarious, unknowing parody of sophistication and adulthood. That's exactly what people in the '40s and particularly the '50s were not doing. They were not in any way imitating or acting out adulthood. They weren't like little girls putting on their mother's dresses, high heels and lipstick. The rebelliousness that was everywhere perceived and what has today become a cliche wasn't about politics. It wasn't about changing society or addressing injustices.
The rebelliousness was the insistence of young people of all kinds on autonomy, on being able to act as they wished for no particular reason and engage in play or delinquent activities that weren't going to lead into adulthood or jobs or family or responsibility.
There is something sort of, but only sort of, right about what Marcus says above. I don't think there was anything particularly new about it for starters. You can find the same attitude in the letters John Dos Passos and his friends write to one another just before they go to take part in World War 1. Marcus is being a typical boomer here and imagining that his generation had experiences that no one before them had or could have had.
Greil Marcus from a 1997 interview
And, much as Marcus pretends otherwise, the 1960s rebellion was mostly an elite thing that played out in a small number of elite universities of industrialized nations.
It was in the 1970s that our society was finally wealthy enough that the entire middle class could take part. Some of us didn't want to. And thus the appeal of fern bars. They may have been a poor example of adulthood but they were an example and, in the town where I grew up, they seemed to be the only part of the culture where people went who looked forward to growing up. They were a place where some people, people who didn't feel like they fit in with the whole youth rebellion thing, chose to, as Marcus puts it above, "walk around in this absolutely hilarious, unknowing parody of sophistication and adulthood."
They didn't create this sense themselves. Like any cultural moment of any significance at any time anywhere, the bars put together elements that were already lying around just waiting for someone to put them together in the right way. My mother in those days wanted to have a wing chair and a Tiffany-style lamp for her house. And she did have all those things because she could afford to. I suspect, although I don't know, that a lot of people who went to fern bars could not afford such things.
But they aspired to them.