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Nicest Kids in Town: Not Actually So Nice May 21, 2012

Posted by Conventioneering in essay, review.
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Cover of The Nicest Kids in Town I’ve been getting interested in classic rock and swing, apropos of nothing, particularly the culture surrounding rock n roll fandom, and so I asked the internet (meaning: various social networks) about what books they could suggest on the history of rock n roll. My Facebook feed enthusiastically suggested ¬†The Nicest Kids in Town as an example as the book to look at. When I picked it up, it looked exactly right: a look into Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and specifically into the race tensions surrounding it. The book’s premise is that contrary to Dick Clark’s claims that his show helped American racial integration, in fact American Bandstand helped reinforce racial segregation and never truly integrated.¬†Fascinating stuff, I thought, this could be an interesting ride. So I put in an Interlibrary Loan request and checked it out.

Boy was I disappointed. I didn’t even get past Chapter Three.

Delmont does indeed talk about rock n roll, American Bandstand, and race relations. The problem is that he barely talks about the former two at all. Rock n roll and American Bandstand are, at least in the first three chapters, mere footnotes to another discussion: that of integration in housing developments in the 1950s. This, too, could have been an interesting topic, save that Delmont adresses it in the driest manner possible. There is no personal touch here, no look at individual stories, nothing to make me care about these events. There is, instead, a lot of dry statistics about housing developments in the 50s, about legal procedures and specific laws and rules put into place to reinforce segregation, and an awful lot of politics and examination of the weasel words that government officials used to pretend that they totally weren’t segregating anyone, and were totally integrating people, see?

The way the book is advertised, I was expecting a close look at personal struggles and at the youth culture. I was expecting testimonies by individuals, a look at the youth scene and how the teenagers of the time felt about this, with the politicking as the backdrop and background information. There is a little of this personal touch, but only just a sprinkling, a tiny bit about house parties held in people’s basements, about the local skating rinks… but these are glossed over, barely mentioned. It’s a shame, too, because these touches are where the book shone for me, the only thing keeping me reading before the narrative plunged back down into another long discussion of Philadelphia zoning laws.

I understand that dry history books absolutely have their place. This book is important in that it takes a much harsher look at race relations in 1950s Philadelphia. The problem is that this isn’t what the book is marketed as, and I suspect that a marketing agent must have looked at it and gone “We can’t call this ‘Zoning Laws in Philadelphia in the 1950s’! Hey, why don’t we play up that American Bandstand thing you keep mentioning, relate it to rock and roll? People love rock and roll, right?” Maybe I’m wrong, maybe after Chapter Three the book starts to actually look at youth culture and American Bandstand and race, but it sure didn’t look like it; it looked like Yet More Housing Discussion. In any case, even if it did, the prose style wasn’t enough to engage me.

It’s an excellent resource if you need to do historical research or background information on housing developments in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Not so much if you’re looking for some light summer reading on the trials and struggles of young rock and roll fans in the ’50s.

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