The Nicest Kids in Town
American Bandstand, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia
University of California Press 2011
New Books in African American StudiesNew Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in HistoryNew Books in MusicNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in SociologyNew Books Network April 20, 2012 Erin Lee Mock
Matthew Delmont‘s The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia (University of California Press, 2012) weaves a fascinating narrative in which the content of a popular television show is only one element of its phenomenal impact. Nor is American Bandstand‘s popularity the limit of Delmont’s interest. In The Nicest Kids in Town, American Bandstand marks the confluence of competing, contradictory, and even some complementary forces in 1950s Philadelphia: local civil rights activism, inter-ethnic tensions, defensive localism, housing discrimination, and concerns over youth behavior influenced the content and reception of the program.
Part of the book’s brilliance lies in its use of character to create a sense of the place and time. From smaller characters like Walter Palmer, a black teen who organized against the segregation of Bandstand, to earnest liberal anti-segregationists like Maurice Fagan, whose treatment is more extensive, to the television icon Dick Clark, Delmont makes the people in the book both historical agents and complex human beings.
Though it is most unusual as a piece of scholarship in so fully evoking a time and place filled with real people, The Nicest Kids in Town is equally a model for American Studies research. Delmont’s painstaking thoroughness yields incredible specificity, which is most useful to making major claims about the importance of popular culture and about particular cultural products.
Finally, the book offers a perspective on the major industrial shifts in the television and music industries of the period, revealing how the displacement and/or appropriation of local talent and culture through the giant apparatus of television both expanded TV’s possibilities and complicated (for better and worse) the potential for local change.
In addition to the book itself (which is available both in text and for Kindle) and its website, and the author’s website , check out The Nicest Kids in Town digital project which includes 100 related images and video clips including American Bandstand memorabilia, newspaper clippings regarding protests of American Bandstand, photographs from high school yearbooks, and video clips from American Bandstand.