Happy Birthday James Dean!

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

James Dean would have been 81 years old today. Whether or not you’ve seen his movies or read anything about him, you know who James Dean is. You know the name. You know the face. He was the bad boy rebel who became a symbol of a generation of young Americans trying to find their place in the world.

Born in 1931 and raised in Fairmount, James Byron Dean achieved stardom in Hollywood for his leading roles in the classic films East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Three films. That’s all. His potential for greater success in Hollywood was cut short on Sept. 30, 1955, when, at the age of 24, he was killed in a tragic car wreck. However, his influence lives on.

Very few Hollywood actors have influenced popular culture to the degree that James Dean has. He is instantly recognizable as a cultural touchstone for American youth culture, rebellion, beauty and desire. Not bad for a man who stopped contributing to his own legacy at the age of 24. In the 56 years since his death, references to James Dean in media and popular culture have been ever present.

For pop culture junkies, James Dean is a kaleidoscope of opportunities for exploration. With music, for example. I myself am a music junkie. I have over 4,000 songs in my music library and one of the ways I like to “constructively” spend my time is to create odd playlists just for the fun of it. For instance, one list is called “It-Factor” because all of the songs begin with the word “It.” Another playlist is of songs with someone’s name in it. You see where I’m going.

So, if we wanted to create a playlist of songs mentioning James Dean or about James Dean, where could we begin? How about in 1963 with the Beach Boys tune, “A Young Man is Gone,” wherein they lament, “But his life is through/ For the story is true/ For he died just as he lived.” Bringing it up to the present, we can turn to Beyoncé and “Rather Die Young.” On this 2011 track she sings, “Boy you’ll be the death of me/ You’re my James Dean/ You make me feel like I’m seventeen.” These are just two examples, but through the years, artists from all genres of music have used James Dean as a muse in their lyrical narratives. His name and image have been invoked over and over as the iconic symbol of sexy and cool.  

To further your studies of James Dean musicology and build your own playlist, I recommend:

  1.  “A Young Man is Gone,” The Beach Boys, Little Deuce Coup, 1963
  2. “American Pie,” Don McLean, American Pie, 1971
  3. “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed, Transformer, 1972
  4. “James Dean,” the Eagles, On the Border, 1974
  5. “Jack and Diane,” John Mellencamp, American Fool, 1982
  6. “Come Back Jimmy Dean,” Bette Midler, No Frills, 1983
  7. “Vogue,” Madonna, I’m Breathless, 1990
  8. “Picture Show,” John Prine, The Missing Years, 1991
  9. “Electrolite,” R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996
  10. “Allure,” Jay-Z, The Black Album, 2003
  11. “Speechless,” Lady GaGa, The Fame Monster, 2009
  12. “Rather Die Young,” Beyoncé, 4, 2011