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What a bottomless chasm of vacuity they reveal!
September 3, 2014 9:50 PM   Subscribe

If the Beatles and their like were in fact what the youth of Britain wanted, one might well despair. I refuse to believe it – and so will any other intelligent person who casts his or her mind back far enough. What were we doing at 16? I remember reading the whole of Shakespeare and Marlowe, writing poems and plays and stories. At 16, I and my friends heard our first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; I can remember the excitement even today. We would not have wasted 30 seconds of our precious time on the Beatles and their ilk. Are teenagers different today? Of course not.
posted by paleyellowwithorange (74 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Helpful numbers: Paul Johnson was born in 1928, turned 16 in 1944, and wrote this article at age 36.)
posted by Iridic at 10:05 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Never trust anyone over 30.

Or under 30. Or 30.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:10 PM on September 3, 2014 [10 favorites]


The Beatles? Just another damned skiffle band, but with a stunt hairstyle. Take no heed of them and it will pass.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:19 PM on September 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


Old fuddy-duddies actually tend to peak surprisingly young; at about the same age in the previous decade, poor Philip Larkin was railing in a similar fashion against the "pinched, unhappy, febrile" "anti-music" of Bird and Diz.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 10:22 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


I remember the existential horror I felt in my early 30s when I began seeing, on the cover of music magazines, artists who I had not only never heard, but never even heard of.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:27 PM on September 3, 2014 [11 favorites]


I remember the existential horror I felt in my early 30s when I began seeing, on the cover of music magazines, artists who I had not only never heard, but never even heard of.

When I was about 25 or 26 I was back in town for a few days and ran an errand for my folks that took me back to the local high school to drop off some forms, since one of them was doing physicals for fall sports later that week. The realization that I had no idea what was going on with the kids I saw was exhilarating.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:30 PM on September 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


Old fuddy-duddies actually tend to peak surprisingly young

Proof of which can be found in the youtube comments of any song older than a decade or so, as there inevitably will be that solemn sixteen year old declaring that this old music is real music not like today's rubbish and that they spent their days listening to the giants of yesteryear, like 2 Unlimited and Ace of Bass.

It's no longer just elitist fools who can express their ignorance, the democratisating force of the internet gives everybody the chance.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:30 PM on September 3, 2014 [13 favorites]


It pains me to come to his defense, but....
Sure, this is an early sign of the prat that Johnson would soon become; but, to be fair, the late-1963/early-1964 Beatles were a lot more dismissible than the gods-striding-the-earth that they would become a few years later.

They had only released the first two albums - only a couple dozen songs - and half of them were covers.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 10:59 PM on September 3, 2014 [6 favorites]


BOTH TV channels, mind you ...
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:31 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


to be fair, the late-1963/early-1964 Beatles were a lot more dismissible than the gods-striding-the-earth that they would become a few years later.

Not really - their early style contains probably half or more of the musical ideas that they would spend the rest of their career unpacking, and if Johnson had actually been an educated and open-minded music critic he would have recognised their brilliance just like William Mann had done in The Times in December 1963 in another famous article.
posted by colie at 11:32 PM on September 3, 2014 [10 favorites]


the late-1963/early-1964 Beatles were a lot more dismissible than the gods-striding-the-earth that they would become a few years later

Yeah but:
  1. Please Please Me
  2. I Saw Her Standing There
  3. There's A Place
  4. From Me To You
  5. She Loves You
  6. All My Loving
  7. I Want To Hold Your Hand
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 11:33 PM on September 3, 2014 [7 favorites]


we were writing poems and plays and stories aged 16

Such an ignorant piece of snobbery, typical of British class relations of the time - if this idiot had done any research for his article, he would have been known that Lennon had written dozens of stories, poems, and plays by age 16, a book of which was published less than a month after this was written and hence John had been talking about in interviews.
posted by colie at 11:40 PM on September 3, 2014 [8 favorites]


Summary of the article: Get off my lawn!
posted by SisterHavana at 12:41 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Clicking on the main link in the FPP is incredibly worthwhile if only for the image used to illustrate the piece: "Get down with the common people: Annus Mirabilis" (Rose Blake's tribute to Larkin and the spirit of the Sixties.)
posted by chavenet at 1:31 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was almost disappointed when I reread the caption to that image and discovered that it was in fact called Annus Mirabilis and not, as I had read on the first pass, Anus Mirabilis.
posted by Dysk at 1:48 AM on September 4, 2014


To paraphrase A Fish Called Wanda, 16 year old do read Shakespeare, they just don't understand him.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:51 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Groups with jeremiads are on the way out, anyway
posted by thelonius at 2:27 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


IIRC, Paul Johnson was one of those leftists who shifted sharply to the right later in life, becoming an arch-conservative. This essay could be a foreshadowing of this.

(That, incidentally, seems to be a not-uncommon pattern; Melanie Phillips started off at the Guardian, and ended up being fired by the Daily Mail for being too right-wing.)
posted by acb at 2:32 AM on September 4, 2014


if this idiot had done any research for his article, he would have been known that Lennon had written dozens of stories, poems, and plays by age 16, a book of which was published less than a month after this was written and hence John had been talking about in interviews.
Except that the author is not comparing his younger self to members of the Beatles, he is comparing his younger self to young fans of the Beatles. So Lennon's book is not germane.
if Johnson had actually been an educated and open-minded music critic he would have recognised their brilliance
What does it matter to the author's argument whether the early Beatles made "brilliant" pop music? What do you think the nature of a pubescent fan's response to their music was in 1964? Surely it was not appreciating the music's innovative dimensions in the context of the history of popular music (listeners of an age to have done so were not the subject of the article). The majority of the Beatles' pubescent fans in 1964 would not have been interested in understanding why they responded to the Beatles' music as they did, or in intellectualizing their experience of the Beatles in any way: they responded to the bodily, the social, and narrowly and unsophisticatedly the aesthetic components of the music.

The author argues, and I agree with him, that for a child to pass their time listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is less valuable than for a child to pass their time with intellecually enriching experiences. That seems to me obvious enough. He further decries the cultural hysteria around the early Beatles; in other words, the valorizing for and by young children of what was for them an intellectually empty obsession. (For an adult or a sophisticated older teenager, listening to popular music can be an intellectual exercise, but for young fans of the Beatles in 1964, it was certainly not.)
16 year old do read Shakespeare, they just don't understand him.
I agree that a sixteen-year-old will be incapable of understanding Shakespeare in a sophisticated way, but that doesn't mean they engage in a worthless activity by reading Shakespeare's work. They develop their interpretive abilities by testing them against a difficult text, they develop their vocabulary and potentially other language skills, and they contribute to the growing base of their cultural literacy.
posted by Cucurbit at 2:35 AM on September 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


The author argues, and I agree with him, that for a child to pass their time listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is less valuable than for a child to pass their time with intellecually enriching experiences.

Meh. I would argue that neither of these pursuits compares to a child being a part of a loving and healthy family and social network. Get that sorted, and how you pass your time engaging with media is neither here nor there.

I would rather be a child at a rock concert who has good parents than a child engaging in an 'intellectually enriching experience' (whatever that might be) but whose parents are phoning it in.

Q: "What did we do that was wrong? We didn't know it was wrong!"

A: "Something inside which was always denied for so many years."
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 2:49 AM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


The author argues, and I agree with him, that for a child to pass their time listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is less valuable than for a child to pass their time with intellecually enriching experiences. That seems to me obvious enough.

Well, okay, then.

I find few things more pathetic than attempting to moralize about matters of taste.

More interesting to me is the question of what function do phenomena like The Beatles, or creative people or celebrities more generally, serve for their fans? These are human beings acting as they do for human reasons. I feel no particular urge to judge their emotions, as others clearly do.

Moreover, how does anyone know they're not also reading Shakespeare? When I was 16 I split my time equally between literature & contemplation on the one hand, and complete debauchery on the other, and I probably had a musical soundtrack for both.

Furthermore, your favorite band sucks.
posted by univac at 3:06 AM on September 4, 2014 [18 favorites]


At the time of Shakespeare there were doubtless a bunch of toffee-nosed prigs going around saying how degenerate the people going to watch his plays were. It's only a couple of hundred years later, when his work became the domain and property of the snobbish elite, that it turned into an "intellectually enriching experience".
posted by iotic at 3:14 AM on September 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


Except that the author is not comparing his younger self to members of the Beatles, he is comparing his younger self to young fans of the Beatles.

OK, strictly he is talking about the fans, but he says the performers are 'blind and empty.' But even just being a fan of the Beatles had more power to change the world at the time than listening to Beethoven or reading all of Shakespeare: I wonder how many young writers were inspired to work on their own stuff after Lennon's wildly surreal book sold 50,000 copies on its first day? Why not have 24 year-old writers who are also working performers at loud rowdy events as your cultural leaders - like Shakespeare was himself 300 years previously?

What do you think the nature of a pubescent fan's response to their music was in 1964?


We know what it was: pure joy. Even their first 'fan' in Hamburg, photographer Astrid Kircherr's boyfriend, said the first time he saw them play, he simply went 'out of his mind with joy'. The fact that there is a discourse of music theory that attempts to explain formalistically (with varying degrees of success) how the music achieves some of its effects, but that this discourse is not shared by the fans, doesn't matter much in our quest to understand what we're listening to.

Example: In the well-known book 'Revolution in the Head' there is an interesting example of their tight integration of purely musical, formal effects with their audience's intuitive perception of tension-release/joy. The author notes that the screaming you can hear on a live recording reaches a peak in 'I'll Get You' when the build-up to the refrain strikes a very unexpected v minor chord (Am7), not part of the major key of the song but 'borrowed' from the minor for dramatic effect in a way that previous pop composers were usually too inhibited and unadventurous to be able to make work. Hear how the hi-hats have to open up to wash away the huge wave of tension after the moment. And that's before we've considered that the lyrics are clearly a lewd vow to have intercourse with the listener. Without all of this, listen to the verse alone and you've got not much more than a tin-pan alley potboiler. But the fans knew.

(The vocals also hit a very tender seventh that perhaps Paul really enjoyed, because I think he tries to recreate the feeling years later in 'Fool on the Hill' at the sublime moment the refrain changes to a i minor chord at the line 'But the FOOL on the hill sees the sun going down' - a moment of 'unpacking' their early work to create the apparently more sophisticated later stuff.)
posted by colie at 3:19 AM on September 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


the late-1963/early-1964 Beatles were a lot more dismissible than the gods-striding-the-earth that they would become a few years later

Comparing the 1963 Beatles to the older Beatles in this way is not very meaningful. If you compare their early music to the rest of pop music of that time, it is and was clear that they were something special.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:23 AM on September 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


We wouldn't have wiped our floral-scented bottoms with your so-called "popular" music (unpleasant term, that, bringing to mind The Populace). No... no, WE were writing POETRY.

Funny how superior taste isn't necessarily accompanied by the self-awareness that it takes to realize you're being a jackass.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 3:53 AM on September 4, 2014


I think you can make a fair case that when the Beatles exploded in the UK, most proto-Pitchfork 'serious' music fans were listening to either folk or trad jazz and looked down on the new pop.

It was simply the teenage girls (who most recently had been listening to the similarly great records of the early 60s 'girl groups' that the Beatles also loved) that were first to recognise the Beatles revolution - and yet still there is a residue of sexism that leans towards downplaying their early love of the Beatles as primarily motivated by the band's image and style and sex appeal etc etc. and not the music.

There is some interesting academic work by Sheila Whitely about the 'dialogue' that the Beatles early songs articulated with the form and content of the girl groups' material, and obviously there is a straight line between 'Please Mr Postman' or 'Will you still love me tomorrow' and 'She Loves You.'
posted by colie at 4:05 AM on September 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


> The author argues, and I agree with him, that for a child to pass their time listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is less valuable than for a child to pass their time with intellecually enriching experiences.

This might be true but to spend every waking moment grinding intellectually enriching experiences into a child is the surest way to send them running to the arms of pop culture for relief.
posted by ardgedee at 4:21 AM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by scratch at 5:29 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


"At the time of Shakespeare there were doubtless a bunch of toffee-nosed prigs going around saying how degenerate the people going to watch his plays were."

True! But they were literally Puritans.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:34 AM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


the late-1963/early-1964 Beatles were a lot more dismissible than the gods-striding-the-earth that they would become a few years later

I'm a non-Beatles-fan (yes, your favorite band does suck, blah blah) but I quite like the music that launched them. Their later stuff really bores me, but that early music is good and compared to the mainstream music of the era their popularity makes sense. Even more, the palpable energy that you can see in footage of the era (screaming fans and all) is what the author of this piece must have been writing against, more than just the music itself. No one was jumping up and down and tearing off their underwear for Beethoven's Ninth.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:38 AM on September 4, 2014


16 year old do read Shakespeare, they just don't understand him

At sixteen years (in 1992) old my two very favorite things in the entire world were The Beatles and Shakespeare. They were foundational. Thanks to some really excellent teachers and probably more time than was entirely healthy spent in the theatre, I'm pretty sure I understood Shakespeare. Although some plays certainly make more sense to a teenager (R&J, Hamlet, MSND, Henry IV 1&2, As You Like It, etc) than others (I don't think I'd give King Lear to tenth graders).

No one was jumping up and down and tearing off their underwear for Beethoven's Ninth.

That was really more of a Liszt thing.
posted by thivaia at 6:00 AM on September 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


we were writing poems and plays and stories aged 16

Nowadays sixteen year-olds spend their time writing stories and plays based off the stuff they're obsessed with (including the Beatles), and large corners of the internet think that it's the worst thing ever.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:10 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


The author argues, and I agree with him, that for a child to pass their time listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is less valuable than for a child to pass their time with intellecually enriching experiences.

This suggests that listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is, by definition, never an intellectually enriching experience for a child, and I'm not sure you really want to make that strong claim. It further suggests that there are not other aspects of pop music fandom that are just as valuable, though for different reasons, than intellectual enrichment. I'm not sure you want to make that claim, either.

If you do mean to make those assertions, I'd be interested in how you would defend them against challenges that they are not true.
posted by layceepee at 6:21 AM on September 4, 2014


This reminds me of one my undergrad professors (whom I've mentioned earlier) who called the Beatles "whores" whose music appealed solely to listeners' base instincts and not to their intellects. He said that "Eleanor Rigby" was (and I am trying to remember this as accurately as possible) "a slap in the face to 500 years of Western Civilization and Christianity."

He was born in Canada in the early 1960s.
posted by dhens at 6:29 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


The author argues, and I agree with him, that for a child to pass their time listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is less valuable than for a child to pass their time with intellecually enriching experiences.

A lot of us managed to do both, and anyway it's not like popular music is somehow absent all enrichment, intellectual and otherwise - the "either/or" itself is an idiotic assertion. As a 16-year-old (in the 80s, no less), I was listening to the Beatles, while also doing stuff like going to friends' houses for parties....where we lay around in the dark listening to Britten's War Requiem. (I no longer remember why, exactly, but it probably had something to do with whatever piece we were rehearsing in glee club in school.)
posted by rtha at 6:30 AM on September 4, 2014


IIRC, Paul Johnson was one of those leftists who shifted sharply to the right later in life, becoming an arch-conservative. This essay could be a foreshadowing of this.

(That, incidentally, seems to be a not-uncommon pattern; Melanie Phillips started off at the Guardian, and ended up being fired by the Daily Mail for being too right-wing.)


Nuh-uh! I have it on good, scientific authority that political orientations are biologically determined at birth. Conservatives walk like this, and liberals walk like this.

At least, that's what my Facebook feed keeps telling me.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:45 AM on September 4, 2014


Cucurbit: "That seems to me obvious enough."

Show your work.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:45 AM on September 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


People in Shakespeare's day no doubt gave him crap about being too low-brow, too.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:46 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


My family had a big collection of Collier's encyclopedias (which dates me but that's the point). From '62 onwards they would get a yearbook, cataloging the past year. When I was a high school kid ('70 to '75) I used to amuse myself by reading the entries on popular culture for each year. Let's just say their music coverage was a little stiff in the collar. '64 was hilarious. I seem to remember the author of the piece was rending their garments because they thought that folk was about to dominate pop music for once and for all but then these filthy English heathens showed up on the television and RUINED EVERYTHING. Their coverage of pop music really didn't improve until the '70s.
posted by Ber at 6:55 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


The contrast with the quote from Bill Deedes is amusing. For non-Brits who won't know, Deedes personified upper-class Toryism, was a Conservative MP and Cabinet member, and for many years edited the Daily Telegraph, the biggest-selling right-wing newspaper in Britain. He was often thought to be the 'Bill' to whom the fictional letters from Denis Thatcher in Private Eye were addressed. If he thought the Beatles were a refreshing voice of necessary youthful renewal, there really can't be many excuses for anyone who got crusty about them.
posted by Segundus at 6:57 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


> 16 year old do read Shakespeare, they just don't understand him.

The groundlings Will was writing for weren't exactly Oxbridge dons either. But they knew what they liked.
posted by jfuller at 6:59 AM on September 4, 2014


"a slap in the face to 500 years of Western Civilization and Christianity."

He was onto something.

I have a book called 'The Beatles with Lacan: Rock 'n' Roll as Requiem for the Modern Age' that argues something similar (I think - it's pretty dense), but the author reckons it's all good.
posted by colie at 7:30 AM on September 4, 2014


Maybe Western Civilization and Christianity needed a slap in the face. Arguably a bigger one than The Beatles were able to provide.
posted by iotic at 7:38 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thanks to those who replied to my earlier comment, I enjoyed reading your responses.
At the time of Shakespeare there were doubtless a bunch of toffee-nosed prigs going around saying how degenerate the people going to watch his plays were. It's only a couple of hundred years later, when his work became the domain and property of the snobbish elite, that it turned into an "intellectually enriching experience".
People in Shakespeare's day no doubt gave him crap about being too low-brow, too.
Why does it matter whether the cultural valuation of Shakespeare's work changed? That fact is meaningless (besides for historical/anthropological context) to a teenager reading his work in the modern era. The important thing is that, by engaging with Shakespeare's work, a modern young person can (quoting myself from my first post) "develop their interpretive abilities by testing them against a difficult text, develop their vocabulary and potentially other language skills, and contribute to the growing base of their cultural literacy." Teenage fans of the Beatles in 1964 did not have anything like that experience in their engagement with the Beatles' music. Do you disagree?
This suggests that listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is, by definition, never an intellectually enriching experience for a child, and I'm not sure you really want to make that strong claim. It further suggests that there are not other aspects of pop music fandom that are just as valuable, though for different reasons, than intellectual enrichment. I'm not sure you want to make that claim, either.

If you do mean to make those assertions, I'd be interested in how you would defend them against challenges that they are not true.
I do want to make the claim that listening to the Beatles in 1964 was an intellectually valueless experience for the majority of teenagers who listened to them. Their lyrics (at least of that era) do not occasion sophisticated interpretation, their early music had no political content, and most teenage listeners would not have been able to make any engagement with their music on a music-theoretic or music-historical level. If someone wants to make the case that a teenager's shrieking along with the shrieking herd at an early Beatles show was an intellectually enriching experience for the majority of teenagers who did so, I'm skeptical but happy to read it.

I would not claim that all pop music is intellectually valueless for all teenagers. A minority of teenagers are able to listen to and discuss pop music in a sophisticated way that develops their critical faculties; a minority of those teenagers who listen to older pop music have an interest in history encouraged by doing so; and some pop music has political content that could either provide fodder for enriching discussion with other fans or, more productively, encourage fans to seek out books on the topics treated by the lyrics. Teenage Beatlemania in 1964 included none of these things (except perhaps the first for, I would suspect, an extremely small minority of their teenage fans).

I do agree, as you imply, that listening to pop music can be valuable in other ways besides intellectual, particularly social. Of course, being a fan of many things can be socially valuable to the fan, and given the intellectual vacuousness of teenage fans' experience of the early Beatles, I think a degree of unhappiness that their music was chosen for widespread cultural obsession is justifiable.
A lot of us managed to do both [listen to pop music and engage in intellectually enriching pursuits]
Sure, I agree that it's not an absolute either-or. But the author isn't objecting to occasionally listening to pop music, he's objecting to spending a lot of time on pop music, as well as lamenting that so many young people have chosen pop music as an obsession rather than more valuable things. I certainly do think that pop music can crowd out more valuable activities in the limited amount of time a teenager has after school and homework, and while I wouldn't advocate authoritarian parental enforcement of Shakespeare reading in a teenager's free time, I do think that good parents do what they can to encourage a teenager's more valuable inclinations and model valuable behavior themselves, of which listening to intellectually null pop music is generally not one (again, referring to the early Beatles and the experience of their younger fans at the time, who were not in a position to experience their music as intellectually contentful).
posted by Cucurbit at 7:47 AM on September 4, 2014


Can we drop the groundlings myth? Shakespeare wrote a few plays for the groundlings, and they're generally considered his worst (Two Gentlemen, Titus, Comedy of Errors). After that, he made a living off royal commissions, with performances for the groundlings strictly gravy.

Anyway---while I like the Beatles m'self, this piece does have an awful lot of great Frankfurt-school thinking dressed up in British nasty wit, which I'm greatly enjoying:

"...here is a generation enslaved by a commercial machine. Behind this image of “youth”, there are, evidently, some shrewd older folk at work."

" On the Saturday TV shows, the merits of the new records are discussed by panels of “experts”, many of whom seem barely more literate or articulate than the moronic ranks facing them. The teenager comes not to hear but to participate in a ritual, a collective grovelling to gods who are blind and empty. “Throughout the performance,” wrote one observer, “it was impossible to hear anything above the squealing except the beat of Ringo’s drums.” Here, indeed, is “a new cultural movement”: music which not only cannot be heard but does not need to be heard."

posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:51 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


If someone wants to make the case that a teenager's shrieking along with the shrieking herd at an early Beatles show was an intellectually enriching experience for the majority of teenagers who did so

The point was that these apparent non-intellectuals were able to recognise and respond to the most original and challenging parts of the music itself.

Their lyrics (at least of that era) do not occasion sophisticated interpretation


Quite a few of the Beatles' early lyrics are often strikingly original. A good example would be 'There's a Place' which is Lennon's first exploration of inner consciousness. Or Please Please Me, a refrain in his punning style which also happened to be a reference to oral sex, something you didn't hear mentioned on the radio much in 1963.
posted by colie at 8:04 AM on September 4, 2014


Why does it matter whether the cultural valuation of Shakespeare's work changed? That fact is meaningless (besides for historical/anthropological context) to a teenager reading his work in the modern era. The important thing is that, by engaging with Shakespeare's work, a modern young person can (quoting myself from my first post) "develop their interpretive abilities by testing them against a difficult text, develop their vocabulary and potentially other language skills, and contribute to the growing base of their cultural literacy." Teenage fans of the Beatles in 1964 did not have anything like that experience in their engagement with the Beatles' music. Do you disagree?

Yes, I do.

It matters because the cultural valuation of The Beatles' work has also changed. It matters because the doyens of culture at the time didn't think Shakespeare was high art. Hence the comparison.

And yes, young people listening to The Beatles in 1964 were, in fact, developing their cultural literacy, and a bunch of other facilities. The whole world was changing, and the raw energy of pop music and its power on developing youth cultures was a reflection of some of those changes. The ones who weren't developing their cultural literacy were those with their heads stuck in the ground.
posted by iotic at 8:28 AM on September 4, 2014


At the time of Shakespeare there were doubtless a bunch of toffee-nosed prigs going around saying how degenerate the people going to watch his plays were. It's only a couple of hundred years later, when his work became the domain and property of the snobbish elite, that it turned into an "intellectually enriching experience".

Actually, the toffee-nosed prigs came around a bit later. The Puritan Long Parliament closed all the theatres in 1642.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:31 AM on September 4, 2014


Actually, the toffee-nosed prigs came around a bit later.

Well, there was Greene's "Shake-scene" (if you accept it refers to Shakespeare, and was written by Greene). Jonson also got some somewhat priggish digs in (when he wasn't praising Shakespeare from the rooftops in the First Folio). I was thinking more of classical-minded snobbishness rather than outright anti-cultural barbarism, but both existed in Shakespeare's day. Archbishop Whitgift banned both Nashe and Marlowe's works from being printed, for instance.
posted by iotic at 8:44 AM on September 4, 2014


I would not claim that all pop music is intellectually valueless for all teenagers. A minority of teenagers are able to listen to and discuss pop music in a sophisticated way that develops their critical faculties; a minority of those teenagers who listen to older pop music have an interest in history encouraged by doing so; and some pop music has political content that could either provide fodder for enriching discussion with other fans or, more productively, encourage fans to seek out books on the topics treated by the lyrics. Teenage Beatlemania in 1964 included none of these things (except perhaps the first for, I would suspect, an extremely small minority of their teenage fans).

But your argument seems to rest on the idea that what someone who was, say, 15 in 1964, had their intellectual development somehow permanently and horribly wounded by being a Beatles fan for a year or two - even, as you concede, they probably engaged with other cultural stuff simultaneously. Even the most rabid fans were unlikely to do nothing but listen to the Beatles every waking moment; I was a pretty rabid fan (20 years later) and while I listened to an astonishing amount of Beatles music while I was awake, I also engaged in many other pursuits, and listened to (and performed) a lot of other kinds of music. It is a mistake to somehow assume that the majority of fans in 1964 were so radically different that they were not doing the same.

The kids are alright.
posted by rtha at 8:51 AM on September 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Pop groups are also very important for children/young teens in terms of their fantasy development and how they cope with the onset of changing emotions. For example, the classic boy band set up enables them to love one member most, to have one they 'hate' and draw fangs on, to imagine being with them or being them, and to generally use the band's existence to build a bridge between the interior world of childhood, memory and the family across into the 'real' world of adults and things. It's a classic form of 'play'.

Another part of the puzzle of why the Beatles were so rapturously received was that they spoke to these desires directly. Their early lyrics are often about the pursuit of home/eden/unity/a moment frozen in time. By the later years they are obsessed with trying to get back to the psychedelic world of childhood.
posted by colie at 9:02 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Mais où sont les swots d'antan?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:05 AM on September 4, 2014


My "16 year old don't understand Shakespeare" line was too obtuse. My point was that bragging about one's achievement's as a teenager (or setting them up as somehow superior to somebody else's) is patently silly. Ignoring for the moment the class bias inherent in the "Beethoven, Shakespeare and writing poems" thing, we change so much as humans between 16 and 18 - much more 16 and 32 - that referring to one's youthful predilections as somehow indicative of a superior upbringing is farcical.

Great, dude-writing-in-1964, you listened to some classical music when you were a kid. Should that impress me into thinking you have any expertise in the area you're discussing? Because it sounds like to me the only thing it did for you was to make you a colossal dick.

As for his other points, well, if you hate rock music you're going to hate even the best rock music. If you think kids are idiots because they're less cultured at 16 then you'd like them to be, you're likely to be unaware that when you were 16, the adults are shaking their heads about your ignorance and bad taste too (even if you were reading Shakespeare).

The brightest kids where I teach are all into Anaconda by Nicki Minaj right now. That doesn't make then stupid or uncultured. It just means they like to shake their asses sometimes. As long as they don't shake them at me or force me to listen to that tune too often, I support this.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:11 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


When I was 16 I first assayed Joyce's "Ulysses" (with the aid of Stuart Gilbert's
gloss) particularly because of the almost endless reference to Lennon's writings being
"Joycean". So ... there, I guess.

(I feel free to brag about this because this mild spurt of prodigy did not lead to
a life any less idiotic than the next guy's, a fact for which I blame neither the Beatles
nor Joyce.)
posted by Chitownfats at 10:11 AM on September 4, 2014


Cucurbit, I'm afraid I may be lacking your level of insight and might need a little hand-holding here to understand your argument.

For one thing, can you please define this "sophistication" that you refer to? And then please explain (in simple terms, of course), why it matters.

Thanks so much!
posted by univac at 10:30 AM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


The author's right, of course, startlingly so, because it seems so easy for him to have made a glaringly obvious "fuddy-duddy" misstep that revealed some sort of lack of awareness. But no, he knew exactly what was going on.

The thing about recorded music is that it apparently makes every fan of it a priest. But if you've never gotten into you can see right through it.

I was one of those teens who never got into it (I didn't replace an interest in it with child prodigy stuff; I just watched a lot of TV and played a bunch of video games), so it's clear to me that the output the record industry is just a product like anything else.

If you've never bought into the manufactured taste for novelty the record industry pushes, waxing poetic about whatever specific song by whatever specific band sounds like bloviating on the genius of Cool Ranch Doritos or Chicken Selects or the Hyundai Sonata. As much thought, money, and research went into creating those products as it did Bohemian Rhapsody. And guess what, the guy called it, because in the AV Club era, essays on all three of those are perfectly credible.
posted by deathmaven at 11:37 AM on September 4, 2014


And of course, anyone would be better off if they skip a giant chunk of the consumer treadmill during their formative years.
posted by deathmaven at 11:40 AM on September 4, 2014


“And yet I do observe that audiences which used to be deeply affected by the inspiring sternness of the music of Livius and Naevius, now leap up and twist their necks and turn their eyes in time with our modern tunes” ~ Cicero c. 50 BCE (De Legibus II.39)
posted by Lanark at 12:21 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think this Mr. Show sketch summarizes this situation better than words.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:42 PM on September 4, 2014


The thing about recorded music is that it apparently makes every fan of it a priest.

You have a point - but the Beatles were firstly live performers who built their fanbase at a time when recorded pop music was quite difficult and expensive to come by compared to today (or even to hear on the radio in the UK - we had no radio stations playing pop music). In 1961 young people needed an outlet for their energy that wasn't being provided for by the TV and video games that you say helped you get through those years.

the genius of Cool Ranch Doritos or Chicken Selects or the Hyundai Sonata. As much thought, money, and research went into creating those products as it did Bohemian Rhapsody.


I agree that after Sgt Pepper the Beatles went into decline and were (at the most damning verdict) producing 'rock music', a bit like producing a Hyundai.
posted by colie at 1:33 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, in the early days, The Beatles weren't pioneering recording artists. They were a live band known for putting on a crazy live show in which teenage girls would swoon en mass whenever they sang "Wooh!" in falsetto. Their later, more significant recorded output is really important, and very "sophisticated" for any number of different values of that term. However, it's true that they were basically just a manufactured boy band at the outset. So for that matter were the Sex Pistols. But The Beatles were really the first enormously popular boy band, and had a huge impact on everything that followed (arguably, with mixed results), so they're still culturally significant no matter how you look at it, like them or hate them. I think I might be persuadable that the early Beatles made a poor substitute for Shakespeare(!?). But I don't think they were ever meant to be a substitute for anything in the first place, so much as a new diversion for young people who obviously really needed an excuse to cut loose a little.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:55 PM on September 4, 2014


They were a live band known for putting on a crazy live show in which teenage girls would swoon en mass whenever they sang "Wooh!" in falsetto.

Plenty of great singers had used falsetto to hype up a swooning crowd before the Beatles but you only have to listen to I Saw Her Standing There, or She Loves You, or I Want to Hold Your Hand to realise that those pitch leaps were not just an embellishment but a key structural part of their songs, and one which means people still really get excited to hear them 50 years later.

The falsetto in 'Standing there' is heard on the hitherto barely known flat-6 chord as the climax of the refrain and it's outrageously memorable and makes the whole song ('I'll never dance with another/WOOOO').

The falsetto in 'She Loves You' is sung above a D7 chord with Paul singing D and John B below - a 6th - totally unexpected and somehow sublime every time you hear it ('and you know you should be glad/OOOOHH')

The falsetto in 'Hand' is a structural octave shift. They sing in unison down to the low Fsharp at 'I think you'll underSTAND' and then up to 'I want to hold your HAND'.
posted by colie at 2:31 PM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yeah, no love lost between me and the record companies, and I agree wholeheartedly that it's great to get off the consumer treadmill. But those are also not coherent reasons to dismiss popular music as an irredeemably debased, corrupted art form. I think it's telling that this type of analysis also avoids any serious criticism of or engagement with the music itself, relying instead on guilt by association.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:46 PM on September 4, 2014


The important thing is that, by engaging with Shakespeare's work, a modern young person can (quoting myself from my first post) "develop their interpretive abilities by testing them against a difficult text, develop their vocabulary and potentially other language skills, and contribute to the growing base of their cultural literacy."

I also have to say that to read Shakespeare in this way sounds pretty joyless and dull - it's Shakespeare not as a poet or a playwright but instead as some kind of GRE prep exercise.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:04 PM on September 4, 2014


I think it's telling that this type of analysis also avoids any serious criticism of or engagement with the music itself, relying instead on guilt by association.

Engaging it and dismissing it are nearly mutually exclusive. If you're dismissing car culture as a whole, it's pointless to get into a argument with a car enthusiast about horsepower and handling and design aesthetic. If you're against junk food it's pointless to talk to a snack reviewer about the crunch and flavor profile (of the powdered flavoring) of Bugles. How deep can you get if your point is just that they're designed to get you to buy new one in five years; buy another box; buy the next album as you quickly get tired of the last one?
posted by deathmaven at 6:14 PM on September 4, 2014


IIRC, Paul Johnson was one of those leftists who shifted sharply to the right later in life, becoming an arch-conservative.

True. He started off as editor of the New Statesman before seeing the light and journals like the Spectator
posted by IndigoJones at 6:21 PM on September 4, 2014


This seems a lot like if I were to dismiss Schutz because as an atheist I resented being moved by music that has religious themes, or because as a democrat I resented that his music was sponsored by wealthy, unelected noblemen.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:22 PM on September 4, 2014


To respond to something else upthread: The author argues, and I agree with him, that for a child to pass their time listening to pop music and attending pop music concerts is less valuable than for a child to pass their time with intellecually enriching experiences. That seems to me obvious enough.

There are some unstated assumptions underpinning this, though, such as 1. we have an accurate measure of how intellectually enriching a particular experience will be, 2. anything that is more intellectually enriching along this axis is superior to anything that is less so, and 3. no other quality other than intellectual enrichment is relevant to adolescent development into a complete person. I'm in academia and value education very strongly and I doubt I would agree with any of these assumptions across the board, especially not the third one.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:31 PM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


How deep can you get if your point is just that they're designed to get you to buy new one in five years; buy another box; buy the next album as you quickly get tired of the last one?

But in this case the music wasn't disposable and wasn't disposed of, perhaps because at least in that era the marketing wasn't driving the content so much as trying to focus on and magnify something that was already resonating with people. And the Beatles are far from the only example. That a person who buys Sgt. Pepper must then be leaving Revolver to languish in a drawer is a false premise. There is exploitation of the taste for novelty by commercial entities that cycle through old trends and lean on media hype to sell to those without the experience to know what they're buying, but genuine novelty is valued in every art form. Why did we need nine Beethoven symphonies anyway? And the Beatles phenomenon so clearly got away from anything a record company could have predicted at the time. You could try to argue against any part of this case (that pop music in the 1960s was worth taking seriously) but if you're not going to engage with it why should anyone bother to engage with you?
posted by atoxyl at 3:20 AM on September 5, 2014


So just a few months later, this happened: Beatles v Shakespeare
posted by maggiemaggie at 4:38 AM on September 5, 2014


Reading that Mann article that colie linked, all I can think is, is that really what popular music criticism used to be like? Critics actually discussed the *music*? Weird.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 5:45 AM on September 5, 2014


I'm pretty sure Mann hardly ever wrote about pop music, before or after the Beatles article.
posted by colie at 6:18 AM on September 5, 2014


Plenty of great singers had used falsetto to hype up a swooning crowd before the Beatles but you only have to listen to I Saw Her Standing There, or She Loves You, or I Want to Hold Your Hand to realise that those pitch leaps were not just an embellishment but a key structural part of their songs

Agreed. I was just being flip.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:04 AM on September 5, 2014


So just a few months later, this happened: Beatles v Shakespeare

I'm not sure either side won, there.
posted by iotic at 9:14 AM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


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