Los Angeles, The Image Capital of the World – Part 1

Essential Question

How did the development of Los Angeles and its entertainment industry create an image culture that informed both the character of the city and the experiences of the young people living there?


In the Sonic Highways “Los Angeles” episode featured in this lesson, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan reflects on the transient population of his adopted Southern California home. “To this day,” McKagan remarks, “I can count the people I know that are from here. It’s, like, six people. People come here looking for something.” Guitarist Joe Walsh emphatically adds, “people come to L.A. to make it.”

When one looks at population growth, the more than century-old lure of Los Angeles seems irrefutable. Between 1900 and 1910–before the rise of the film industry–the population of Los Angeles county tripled. The first Hollywood film was released in 1910, and by the 1920s more than eighty percent of the world’s films were created in Los Angeles. In 1930, the region’s population was over two million.

Some argue that the region’s long engagement with visual culture has shaped Los Angeles’ overall environment on a broader conceptual level as well, that if it came to be associated with the “spotlight” of stardom, Los Angeles was itself an experience of light and spectacle. In Sonic Highways, for instance, Dave Grohl refers to the city’s streets as “eye candy,” suggesting that they emanate a sense of “glitter, glam, fame and fortune” to a degree that it can feel as if a spotlight shines on everyone, all the time.

In Part One of this lesson, students use a clip from Sonic Highways, maps, and historical photography to contrast mid-19th century Los Angeles with the city of New York during the same period. They consider how the a quick farmland-to-city turnover, sudden emergence as a media superpower, and rapidly increasing population might have helped shape the overall character of the region. The included homework prepares students for Part Two of this lesson, in which they consider how the music of 1970s Los Angeles was shaped by the geography and visual culture they explored in Part One.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The basic history of the formation of Los Angeles County including details about urban planning and population growth
    • About the rise of the Hollywood film industry
    • How ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity” are constructed through visual symbols and how the teenagers in the 1970s Los Angeles “Glitter Rock” scene experimented with those symbols
    • How Los Angeles’ Glitter Rock scene created a space in which an all-female Rock band could perform
    • How popular media outlets responded to males who experimented with symbols of “masculinity” and “femininity”
    • How popular media outlets both celebrated and objectified the all-female Rock and Roll band the Runaways
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Assess visual images and analyze their cultural power
    • Recognize New York and Los Angeles on a map
    • Evaluate the effects of visual technology on history and culture
    • Draw connections among and between various print, audio and visual texts
    • Integrate and evaluate information presented in visual, oral and audio formats
    • Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text


  1. Display Image 1, Hollywood Sign and ask students:
    • Have you ever seen this sign? Where is it?
    • Does this sign simply name a place, or does it represent more? If so, what?
    • What do you think this sign might suggest to someone from another culture?
    • What do you think happens in Hollywood? (Note to teacher: The Hollywood sign was erected in 1923 to advertise a new suburban home development and originally read “Hollywoodland.” The sign became public property in the late 1940s and the “land” was removed so that it would represent the broader geographic area rather than a single development.)
  2. Show Clip 1, “Dave Grohl on Los Angeles” and ask:
    • Why do you think Dave Grohl might describe the streets of L.A. as seeming like “eye candy” to him? What images do you see in this clip that stand out?
    • Why do you think a city that hosts an international entertainment industry might have what Grohl refers to as a sense of “glitter, glam, fortune and fame” that extends beyond movie studios onto its streets?


  1. Inform students that you’ll now investigate the development of Los Angeles. Display Image 2, LA and NYC on the Map, and ask:
    • Look at the location of New York City and Los Angeles within the United States. How do you think each city’s location might have impacted its development?
  2. Display Image 3, Map of Los Angeles, 1871, and ask:
    • What do you think most of the land on this map is used for?
    • Do you think Los Angeles was considered a “major” U.S. city in 1871? Why or why not?
  3. Display Image 4, Downtown Los Angeles, 1869, and ask:
    • Based on the map you just viewed, as well as this view of “downtown” Los Angeles, do you think the area was heavily populated in 1870?
    • How would you describe the construction of the buildings in the upper right of this image? What do they seem to be made of? Do you think they still stand in Downtown Los Angeles?
  4. Tell students they will now contrast the previous views of Los Angeles with images of New York from the same era. Display Image 5, Map of The City of New York, 1870 and ask:
    • How might you compare this map to the one of Los Angeles you just viewed?
    • What does this map show other than streets and buildings, and what do you think that might say about the city?
  5. Display Image 6, the Bowery neighborhood of New York City, 1880, and ask:
    • Do you think New York was densely populated? What elements of this image inform your conclusion?
    • How would you describe the construction of the structures you see here? Do you think some of them may still stand?
    • Do you think New York was a “major” US city in 1880?
  6. Display Image 7, Map of Los Angeles, 1932, and ask:
    • Based on this map, how do you think has Los Angeles changed since 1871? (Encourage students to discuss the new developments, the “downtown” high rises, the subdivision of the farm lands closest to the water, the large Long Beach hotels, etc.)
    • What do you see in the air on this map? What do you think the inclusion of these things might have suggested about this area to a viewer at the time? (Students should note that the plane and blimp would likely have been read as signs of affluence and modernity at the time.)
  7. Display Image 8, Hollywood Boulevard at Night, 1930, and ask:
    • How might you compare the Los Angeles photo from 1869 with this 1930 photo? How have the structures changed? What else do you notice?
  8. Distribute Handout 1 – Los Angeles and read it out loud as a class. Then ask students:
    • Considering the 19th century images of Los Angeles you have seen today, what factors do you think might have allowed the city to grow so quickly? (Encourage students to consider the possibility of a largely empty space. Fields can quickly become roads, wood buildings give way to stone and steel.)
    • Look at the photo from the 1927 opening of the Chinese Theater on the handout. How do you think an image like this might have looked to someone in a small town in 1927? How might the migrants attracted by this image differ from those encouraged to relocate by an advertisement for factory work?

Summary Activity:

  • Ask students:
    • In what ways do you think the development of Los Angeles in the early 20th century led to “Hollywood” becoming both a place and an idea?
    • How do you think an entertainment culture such as Hollywood’s might affect a music industry located in the same area?


Glitter and Gender: Inference Reading using 1975 Phonograph Record excerpt

Note to teacher: The excerpt from a 1975 Phonograph Record article in this activity contains strong language as well as gendered terminology that might have been acceptable in 1975 but will raise eyebrows now. While students will be guided to question these terms and the article overall, the teacher should review the reading for appropriateness first.

Assignment: Read the excerpt from “Rodney Bingenheimer: The Patron Saint of Teenage,” by John Mendelsohn, Phonograph Record, March 1975 and answer the included inference questions.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
  • Core Music Standard: Connecting
  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.