I've always been fascinated by the culture of the early '60s, and this article by Bruce Bawer, "The Other Sixties," gives a great overview of the period, fusing pop-culture, art, and politics into a portrait of an era whose theme was trying to balance tradition with progress. The defining symbol of the era was the Rat Pack, a group of old-school entertainers who gave America a carefully filtered look at what entertainers do for fun. What makes the era so appealing today is the sense that there was a social consensus, an agreed-upon balance between traditionalism and taboo-breaking (I'm not sure whether I really believe this, but it sure feels, in reading about the era, like there was more of a social consensus than there is now). It was a time that was still rooted in the culture of the '50s, but with increasing acceptance of fun, partying, trying new things. Still another defining cultural symbol of the era is the husband who comes home to his house in the suburbs, goes to his fully-stocked bar, and fixes himself a martini -- you can find this symbol in many movies and sitcoms of the era, and it somehow seems very cool, even though we know that it's likely to lead to the ending of Days of Wine and Roses.
Bawer notes that a lot of the cultural heroes of the early '60s didn't last into "The Sixties." The Rat Pack was pretty much doomed after 1963, but the same thing happened to a lot of people. One example I'd give is Allan Sherman. A former TV producer who responded to the failure of his TV career by cutting an album of song parodies, Sherman had three gigantic hit albums: "My Son the Folk Singer" (1962), "My Son the Celebrity," and "My Son the Nut" (both 1963). The albums represented much of what we have come to identify with the culture of the period: a friendly attitude; a sense of what Bawer calls "easy sophistication"; an emphasis on the integration of Jews and Jewishness into the mainstream of American culture; an assumption of cultural consensus in the use of popular and folk songs that the whole audience would be likely to recognize. Sherman did several albums after 1963 but none of them did anywhere near as well as his first three, and most of his later song parodies don't have the qualities that we associate with those three albums -- the easygoing attitude, the unselfconscious ethnic humor. In 1962, someone supposedly wrote an academic essay on the cultural significance of "My Son, the Folk Singer," concluding that it represented the mainstreaming of Jewishness and even "people's subconscious wish to be Jewish." By the late '60s, the defining work of Jewish humor was "Portnoy's Complaint," a novel about the un-mainstreaming of American Jews, the extent to which Jews were different from other people.
Like most post-sixties culture, it was about fragmentation,; the early '60s culture, on the other hand, is the last outpouring of genuine, sincere can't-we-all-just-get-along culture. Maybe that's why we value it so. I mean, it was hardly a great era for popular culture; television was pretty good (Bawer is too hard on The Beverly Hillbillies, which was terrific for its first two years -- and another example of "consensus" culture, where people from Red America live more or less harmoniously in Blue America), but I don't know that there was a lot of great work going on in novels or poetry or plays or musicals or serious music or popular music. American movies were mostly disappointing, over-expensive, chintzy-looking, and slow; the good news was that it was a good time for European movies, and more and more Americans were enjoying foreign movies as an alternative to the declining American cinema (there's an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Laura chides Millie for imagining that life is like all the Italian movies she's been seeing). But all in all, I think the '50s and the late '60s/'70s produced more art and pop culture of enduring value; it's not the work of the early '60s that's so appealing to me on the whole, but just the attitude embodied in that work, the cheerful, optimistic, we're-all-in-this-together attitude. Maybe it was fake. But it's fun to revisit it, a sort of lounge-lizard golden age, a Rat Pack Eldorado.