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Fads, Follies and Delusions of the American People: A Pictorial Story of Madnesses, Crazes and Crowd Phenomena

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The Soup. Preheated

  • Jan 12, 2012
This is another of my bag-o'-books book-sale pickups.  Yes, it is hopelessly dated, so one of my reasons for buying and reading this book is to consider how fads and other crowd phenomena were defined, viewed, and chronicled so nearly  50 years ago.

It turns out that I found this an early attempt at a popular culture review and send-up that feels like a print version of The Soup, E's television network show hosted by Joel McHale that both popularizes and punctures the silliest of popular culture.  In a couple of pages of introduction that purport to define the terms, it becomes clear that any pretentions of serious purpose will be brushed off--"Folly is perforce in the eye of the beholder."  In other words, like on The Soup, the puncturing is predicated on the preferences of the host or author, and the humor is in the eye of the punctured, and the audience that participates by watching it.  

A fad is defined as a crowd phenomenon that fades within six months to a year.  A definition of delusions is completely brushed off as "unnecessary here", even though Sann goes on to talk of "momentary madness, of moral epidemics, of emotional contagion and of collective behavior which have been a source of wonder."   The key in these definitions is the dynamic of crowd behavior, and here Sann does tangentially poke on the since-surfaced power of "crowdsourcing".  

It does reward to pay a bit of attention to context.  This book was published in 1967, before the explosion of political violence at home, with the assassinations of Dr. King, Robert Kennedy, and the Kent State students  in the future, and the worst of the campus violence against Vietnam only foreshadowed, and mentioned here (as a fad, folly, or delusion, the author doesn't say) in the guise of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.  A second edition of this book published five years later would have been darker, less flippant, and more serious.

Enough of that, as this is more silliness than serious.   Mostly this is just a time-traveling goof with some fascinating pictures, and a couple of misses on "fads" that Sann expected to fade, but the long trend of crowdsourcing determined otherwise.  The chapter on skateboarding stands on both counts.  The front cover montage of photos shows a skateboarder that on second glance I noticed was a girl, and I thought that was the story ("Look!  Girls ride skateboards too"), until I opened to the chapter, where the full-page reproduction of the photo revealed that this rider wasn't just a girl, it was a woman, and in fact it was Katharine Hepburn!  Yep, Kate Hepburn on a skateboard, a picture worth looking twice at this bag-o'-books bargain.

Then the section concludes "That hunk of wood with the wheels under it had seen its one and only 100-million-dollar year:" (1966).  The crowd voted otherwise, and the exploding sports and entertainment industry, with a focus on youthful adventurism, led to the creation a couple decades later of its own alternative Olympics, the X Games, all built on and around the skateboarding culture that far outgrew and long outlasted that 1966 fad.

"The New Beat" (rock music) merits its own 10-page chapter, whether as a fad, folly, or delusion it was perhaps too soon to tell in 1967.  A separate chapter outlines a historical chain of "songs for sale" from Rudy Vallee to Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley without either making a serious effort to document the relationship between these artists or to tie them into the rock music phenomenon.  Folk Rock (capitalized by the author) is mentioned as an off-shoot, led by the "fluffy-haired Bob Dylan, a walking slum but the Poet Laureate of the Hipsters".  Walking slum may be the best and most unintentionally flattering description ever applied to Dylan.

Other chapters focus on, among others:
  • marathons of dance, pole sitting, and running (The cross-country Bunion Derby of 1928 sounds like a hoot worthy of further reading).
  • superhero fads comic (Batman/Superman), cowboy (Davy Crockett and Hopalong Cassidy), and cool (007--cool from the 60's perspective, which is basically misogenyst and sexist by today's standards).
  • games and other nonsense like mah jong, hula hoops, gold-fish eatting, panty raiding, and Silly Putty (remember that?  I loved to Silly Putty when I was a kid!).
  • clothing styles (long hair and short skirts).
The chapter about religious figures seems out of place, as none are identified as to whether they are fad, folly, or delusion, even though the mainstream and mostly well-respected Billy Graham is included along with the proven fraud Aimee Temple McPherson and the fraudulent and mostly forgotten Omnipotent Oom.

So what can we conclude about how fads and other crowd phenomena were defined, viewed, and chronicled nearly  50 years ago?  They looked a lot like The Soup today--snarky, sharp, sometimes funny, sometimes flatfooted, sometimes both depending on your sense of humor and tolerance of cynical smart-aleckism.  The lesson we can also take from this is the danger of assessing the value of crowdsourcing as fad, folly, delusion--or future mainstream--from limited data or limited horizons.

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February 07, 2012
Interesting perspectives !
January 12, 2012
Katharine Hepburn on a skateboard? I had to look that one up and alas, there she was...one of my all-time fave femmes doing one of my all time favorite things. Thanks for that! I'm also a fan of The Soup so this may be a fun read if I ever see it in the library...it'd also be fun to see a later version. Great write-up!
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