It was a change that hardly anyone, outside of a few crotchety old folks, bothered to notice.
It was the biggest change in culture that the US, and by extension, the now- US dominated European powers, had ever witnessed. This change in cultural mores, long in the making, was, in the 1920's, for the first time, out in the open: a change in clothing, behavior, music, the arts and the humanities. It was the beginning of a new age of crassness, cynicism, decadence and nihilism. Many trace the beginnings of this new nihilism to the opium dens and bordellos of Paris and Berlin, but the origins were firmly in the world's new cultural capital: New York City.
America had been a pioneer land, a land of farmers and manufacturers. America's cultural output had long sought to emulate European models, cultural models firmly rooted in Europe's Christian heritage. This would all change. Along with the change in culture, came a change in values; no longer were the good of society and the upholding of integrity and honor of highest benefit; instead, the new era celebrated the individual, and the self-aggrandization of the self as the supreme good. The bootlegger, mobster, robber baron and burlesque queen were the new reigning cultural heroes. How one gained success, whether through ingenuity or graft, was now beside the point.
William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming", written in the aftermath of WWI, clearly explicates this new moral illness that has taken its grip upon the West. As prophesied by Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That this change was accompanied by Prohibition, a puritanical movement akin in spirit to Oliver Cromwell's ill-fated takeover of British society in the 1600's, is all the more ironic. Cultural descents into nihilism and decay are almost inevitably linked to counter-movements which seek to enforce morality through law. In such times, as man loses the moral fibre and will to control the beast within, he turns desperately to outward authority, hoping to quell the rising tide of inner chaos. Although Prohibition sought to fight the outward symptoms, the inner decay and rot had firmly set in, and we began, to paraphrase Robert Bork, "slouching toward Gomorrah".
As this change in attitudes occurred, the fruits began to show- changes in modesty, morality, ethics, music and politics. America began to follow the path that brought down ancient Rome. As in latter day Rome, moralists who decried these developments were scoffed at as being "old fashioned". Seneca had decried the changes that he saw in ancient Rome. Tacitus, in his famed "Annals", had stated that Rome's moral degeneracy was the root cause of its decline; similarly, a decline in the American Empire is taking place, one that began in the years after the first World War.
The first obvious change was in standards of modesty. Suddenly, for the first time since the Christianization of Europe, we began to see women dressing immodestly. For thousands of years, fashions had changed, and hemlines had gone up and down, always settling somewhere between knee length and floor length. Women in ancient Phoenicia and Egypt, as in many pre-Christian civilizations, had freely exposed their thighs and breasts; in Christian countries, this was unheard of. After the 1920's, however, it became soon hard to tell the difference between a prostitute and a housewife, as more and more women began to emulate the behaviors and fashions of prostitutes.
As in latter-day Rome, women's clothing became more and more skimpy. What began then, with the slight raising of hemlines, ends in today's society, in which 10 year old girls prance about in skin-tight clothes, hotpants and bare midriffs, and pedophiles and perverts snatch them off the streets to do as they like with them. Women of all walks of life are referred to as "hos" in today's popular music, and those who take offense are seen as "uptight". This is the shadow side to our much-vaunted "sexual liberation".
Another change would occur in music. Gone were "romantic" sentiments, now replaced by crass admonitions to "give a kiss", or "make love". Of course, by modern eyes, these popular tunes are slightly risquÈ, but nothing new. However, what we now, in out corrupt era, see as kitschy and quaint, was at the time shocking. This change in sexual mores was predictably coupled with a rise in divorce and abortion. We have now progressed to the point that premarital sex is taken for granted, and parents can expect to accompany their children to the drugstore to buy their first condoms. But is this "progress" or the sign of a culture and society collapsing? The values that existed for centuries have been thrown aside, with nothing to replace them but negation, or facile exhortations to "do what seems right".
Before the 20's, a woman could expect that her first kiss might be on her wedding night, or at least on the day of her engagement. After the 20's, however, the norms had changed, and women were encouraged to kiss as many men as possible. Soon, by the 50's, the standard was "heavy petting". By the 60's, free sex was the standard. We now are seeing an era in which many teens are considered "uncool" and "uptight" unless they participate in orgies. Not only do we espouse these new "virtues", we export them worldwide, in the form of "entertainment", all the while holding a hypocritical stance, by pretending to be "shocked". We have become the new Babylon, a nation that seduces the world with hedonism. Is it any wonder that many countries call America the "great Satan"?
In the 1920's, a commonly held belief was that the new mania for jazz, with its syncopated rhythms and "African" influences, could be held to blame for the sudden sea change in cultural values. This glib response can be seen to be overly simplistic. It would be putting the cart before the horse. The new ideals were as equally expressed by Stravinsky's paganistic "Rite of Spring" as by boogie woogie piano playing. As opposed the what Nietzsche called the "Apollonian" side of culture, that which seeks balance and structure, we were now moving into the realm of the "Dionysian"- the irrational, the delusional, the fanatical side of human nature.
As a matter of fact, jazz progressed very rapidly from being simply a new syncopated dance form to being a full-fledged art music; in just a couple decades, it threw off the shackles of populism, and with its introspective passages and an intellectual language of its own, began to strive towards being an art music. Concurrently, as jazz became more artistic, however, it was seen as more and more culturally irrelevant- as well as less financially lucrative- by the music business. African American music reached a peak in the 1950's and 1960's, and was instrumental in giving African Americans a new, more positive image. Motown, Gospel R and B and jazz became popular all over the world; at this point, the music was a positive force.
Gradually, this, too, began to change and devolve; the "black music" that is been promoted today is more the doing of white businessmen who promote the stereotype of the black prostitute and criminal, as a means to have their cake and eat it too- to promote debauchery, all the while using "black culture" as a convenient front.
Thus the racist naysayers of the early 20th century were proved wrong by their earlier prophesy that jazz, as "black music" would be the undoing of America. What has, in reality, been the undoing of America, and its musical culture, is the unfettered capitalism of the music "industry". Music, always at the behest of patronage, became a "product" in a coolly objective machine of advertising, payola and graft, and as a result, became objectified and debased. In Classical music, as well, the intelligentsia has replaced tradition with "deconstructed" music. Nowadays, the more chaotic and lifeless the music is, the more popular it is with music critics.
The content of popular music and entertainment has also changed dramatically over the past century. Once, most popular songs dealt with home, hearth, family and love, as well as heart-felt religious sentiment. Films, once light-hearted dramas and comedies featuring the triumph of good over evil, happy-ending romances and musicals, have become bloodbaths with foul-mouthed criminal "anti-heroes". Good is seldom portrayed; godliness is unheard of, and the word "irreverent" now is taken to be the highest praise for any form of entertainment. Scoffing at "old fashioned" values is now so blasÈ that nudity in the theater or film is merely yawned at. "Oh! Calcutta", the seventies- era musical that was billed as the longest-running musical of all time, was performed entirely in the nude. At the time, this was a sensation, meant to provoke shock or excitement. Today, most films and many theater pieces feature nudity, many also depicting incest or rape.