Thursday, December 31, 2015

Feel Free to Hate the Beatles

A while back the comment section went all red in tooth and claw about politics in the Music Salon. After all the dust had settled I resolved, not for the first time, to try and avoid political topics when possible. Alas, it is not always possible because we live in highly politicized times, times when people like Dr. Adam J. Rodriguez, PsyD, can accuse a friend who tries to persuade him to like the Beatles of "microaggression". The argument is rather interesting, not so much for its validity as for its assumptions:
All cultures contain within them many subcultures, with one cultural dimension often dominant. When one is a member of the dominant culture, that person enjoys particular power and privileges, including the freedom to not have to consider other perspectives. My friend has enjoyed the privilege of not having to consider that there are people in the world that don't have the same relationship to music, food, art, or culture that he does. He has the privilege of not being forced to consider perspectives that are not his own.
Here's what my friend did not consider: He grew up a white middle-class male in the 70s and 80s, to parents who grew up on the Beatles and were immensely influenced by them and other rock and roll bands. I grew up a Puerto Rican lower-class male in the 80s whose parents played guajira, salsa, and Motown/classic R&B/soul growing up. My ears had grown up hearing syncopation, multi-chordal harmonies, diverse percussion, horns, and groove-oriented rhythm sections. The Beatles CDs I listened to were classic rock, non-syncopated, guitar- and drum-dominated, and rhythmically and harmonically simpler. The type of music that he grew up listening to and loving was quite simply different from mine. It was neither better nor worse. Only different. My friend, caught in his ethnocentric blindness, could not grasp that somebody would have a different experience and values from him.
This is very much in tune with the times when individuals have no real agency, but are mere consequences of "cultural" influences. When everything is relative except the "truth" of white privilege. When everything is to be understood in terms of prejudicially-defined collectives.

Just a few striking errors in the second paragraph about the music: white middle-class people in the 70s and 80s (and 60s and 90s for that matter) were very familiar with Motown/classic R&B/soul, if less familiar with salsa (unless they sought it out). The vast majority of songs by the Beatles contain syncopation, multi-chordal harmonies (I think he means "multi-voice"), diverse percussion, horn and sure, groove-oriented rhythm sections. The Beatles are "classic" in the sense of being very good examples of 60s music, but not in the sense of "typical" rock which is implied here. Saying that their music is non-syncopated means either that you haven't listened to it or you don't know what those words mean. Yes, guitar and drum-oriented, but often with the addition of other instruments such as harmonica, flute, horn, electric piano, etc. But anyone who states that the Beatles' music is rhythmically and harmonically simpler than salsa or guajira (which Wikipedia describes as "a musical form which evokes a rural ambience in its texts, instrumentation and style") simply either has not listened to it or lacks listening skills.

This kind of article is so astonishingly wrong, but astonishingly pervasive these days, that I think it is worth making a fuss over. Dr. Rodriguez is like a man with a hammer who sees everything as a nail to be hit. His specialties are "issues of power dynamics and identity." Therefore, for him, everything is about these topics. For me, this is a mistaken approach based on mistaken assumptions, but leaving all that to one side, he accuses his friend, who seems to have gone to great lengths to introduce him to the Beatles, of making a personal attack on him:
My friend did not stop with curiosity to ask what about the Beatles did not appeal to me. Instead, because he could not consider a different perspective, he had to dismiss that other perspective as faulty. As a result, he made a reductive comment about my character.
As is perfectly obvious from the text, Dr. Rodriguez made no real attempt to assess the music of the Beatles:
A friend of mine is a really, really big Beatles fan. Quite some time ago I reflected to him that I was not familiar with their music. Sure, I could name some of their more popular songs, but when challenged, that list was limited to about seven songs. Astonished and determined to rectify my ignorance and indifference, he burned all of his Beatles CDs for me, in chronological order (yes, this is when music was not yet streaming), and insisted that I dedicate time to listen to them.
So I did. While they had never appealed to me, my friend was so impassioned that I thought it was worth a shot. I did not get very far. After the first two albums, I found it simply was not for me.
So, he decided that the Beatles were simply not for him. OK, but he decided this after the first two albums? These were Please Please Me and With the Beatles and while they were certainly strikingly original and intense in the context of the day, I think that anyone would agree that basing an aesthetic evaluation of the Beatles based on them would be like basing an aesthetic evaluation of Beethoven on his Op 2 piano sonatas. Nice yes, but hardly indicative of his Symphony No. 5.

What is blindingly obvious here is that Dr. Rodriguez' methodology is based on, yes, "issues of power dynamics and identity" which prevent him from anything like an objective assessment of any music. Everything is either going to be part of his sub-culture and hence valid just because of that or, not part of his sub-culture and therefore oppressive somehow, especially if part of the dominant culture.

And the horrific truth is that whole generations are being taught to think in this and no other way. I think if you set out to destroy civilization root and branch you could not do it more effectively.


So yes, feel free to hate the Beatles, but try to do so for musical reasons, not just because you have a collectivist ideology.

15 comments:

Christine Lacroix said...

Wow, I hadn't listened to that in ages. They were amazing, weren't they? Thanks for that!

Bryan Townsend said...

You are so very welcome, Christine!

And have a Happy New Year.

Christine Lacroix said...

Happy New Year to you too!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with this post so my comment is mostly unrelated. I have a strange relation to the Beatles I can't
quite explain. I consider them by far the most musically superior rock band in history (leaving aside the lyrics, which are no great shakes). To say I am intimately knowledgeable about their music is an understatement. I played lead guitar in rock bands in HS and college and covered most -- if not all -- of their songs. No rock artists I can think of have ever crafted better melodies, some of them worthy of Schubert. That's for the background.

But here's the thing. I haven't been able to listen to a whole Beatles album in years. I have tried but I get completely bored. I still recognize their musical talent, but it no longer works for me at all. I am not sure why. They don't even carry nostalgia power: songs of our youth that still move us because of the memories they evoke.

I have a nagging suspicion that my reaction is due to the simplicity and prettiness of their music. I know it so well it has no secret anymore. But I know the Chaconne even better (which I played on the guitar) and it still moves me to tears every time I hear it. The Beatles is a well that has run dry.
Yet I still recognize their superiority. Not sure how this works.

Ken Fasano said...

The problem with those who attempt to deconstruct "issues of power dynamics and identity" (I believe this is rooted in the philosophy of deconstruction - i.e. Foucault, Derrida, et al.) is that they themselves, too, are embedded in a power dynamic and identity, so their deconstruction can itself be deconstructed.

Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous, I too used to play Beatles songs in a band back when and later on the Bach Chaconne as well. But I suspect that my band played the Beatles much less well than yours did! And I didn't listen to their music for a couple of decades. Then, in the mid-90s, I rediscovered them by listening to all of the White Album while staying with a friend and have enjoyed them ever since.

But there is no doubt at all that their music does not have the depth of the Bach Chaconne. Little music does!

I begin to doubt the sincerity of progressive ideology: perhaps it is in itself simply a con to gain power. It certainly seems to function that way.

Marc Puckett said...

I've nothing to add really except that perhaps this will prompt me to listen again to the B.s-- or, for the first time, ahem. Just looked at the tracks listing for 'the White Album' and there are only three or four I could swear I've heard; doubtless the total is really higher but the fact that only those few names ring the bell suggests how unfamiliar I am with 'em. A friend persuaded me to listen to the corpus Dylannum a few years ago, and so this decade maybe it's the Beatles' turn (specially since they are apparently on Spotify now).

I no longer give the progressivist ideologues the benefit of the doubt, individually, I mean: I stopped a fellow last week after he began the doleful litany and told him I wasn't interested in hearing it; he told me I was closed-minded ('don't you think that's a bit closed-minded?') and obviously hadn't really thought about whatever at which point I held up my hand, palm toward him-- that was terribly hostile, I guess, I heard from someone else-- pft; I didn't ask his opinion in the first place. Wonder which of us derived more satisfaction from that conversation? it was as a matter of fact the most amusing exchange of the raft of unavoidable 'holiday' parties.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you might find a few interesting posts on the Beatles here at the Music Salon if you searched for them. But for the best introduction to the Beatles I suggest simply listening to Rubber Soul and Revolver. They were a kind of back-to-back project in which a great deal of their genius was developed. Later efforts, such as the White Album, tend to be a bit uneven.

Regarding your progressive interlocutor, I think you were very polite and restrained! You didn't tell him he was a flaming idiot, after all.

Christine Lacroix said...

Yikes! Bryan keep up with your efforts to stay away from politics. You realize that with every post you offend about fifty percent of your readers. Why go there? And see how it degenerates into gratuitous nastiness? Congratulating Marc for not calling his interlocutor a flaming idiot? He didn't slap him in the face either. Why not congratulate him on that?

Marc Puckett said...

I was very polite and restrained, Christine, so I don't see your point, really. I am supposed to endure whatever sort of ideological nonsense is directed at me? There is a story about Evelyn Waugh in the 30s, at a reception with Herr Goebbels or someone like him in London: which eminently reasonable fellow made some remark insulting either the Jews or the Church, one or the other; rather than engage him, which would have been socially unacceptable, i.e. impolite, just not done, he and his guest left rather than compromise themselves by remaining in that Nazi's company.

I'm not going to posit any direct connexion between those awful people in the 30s and 40s of the last century and the awful people currently poisoning social discourse but there is certainly an analogy. I refuse any longer to pretend that there isn't, and that one must politely nod in their direction whilst enduring their nonsense. I was quite pleased, yes, that he went off to whine to whoever does still pay attention.

But I do try to keep my own 'gratuitous nastiness' away from here: which is not to say that true 'gratuitous nastiness' hasn't rightly warranted slaps in the face and much more than that over the course of most of civilised life.

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, I will continue to try and avoid politics, at least gratuitous comment on it. Along with, of course, any mention of climate change. But I am rather surprised that we do not have more heated discussions about my very subversive views about aesthetics! That was, after all, one of the reasons I started the blog. I wanted to oppose, in an intelligent way, the confused notions of aesthetic relativism that are endemic in all talk about music. I think I have done that fairly successfully. But again, it is surprising that we don't engage on those questions more often.

Instead, the occasional intrusion of politics tends to cause a flare-up of debate. Yes, there is a lot of nastiness out there, but the two things I question are whether defending the aesthetic pursuit of musical quality against it is gratuitous and whether it is the Music Salon that starts these debates or whether we are mostly engaged in defensive actions. Remember the topic of this post: a quite outrageous example of the destruction of aesthetic judgment in favor of "issues of power dynamics and identity."

I am not trying to drive away fifty percent of my readers, but I am not interested in simple popularity either. If I were, I would be doing what Norman Lebrecht is over at Slipped Disc. Shudder...

Christine Lacroix said...

Marc you didn't understand my point because it wasn't directed at you. It was a reaction to Bryan's 'flaming idiot' comment. You just moved us a few more meters down the slippery slope with your allusion to Herr Goebbels. That must have been quite a conversation you were having if it reminded you of Herr Goebels. References to long dead Nazis do seem to be cropping up a lot in the media since the 2008 presidential elections. "They say" it's very good for people to get their nasties out in writing, builds up the immune system or something. But aren't there enough partisan political blogs for that? Do we really have to have it on this gorgeous music site?

Bryan Townsend said...

My "flaming idiot" comment was actually meant to be tongue in cheek, but that is the kind of thing that often goes astray, it seems.

Christine Lacroix said...

It's so much easier to misfire in writing than face to face where we have non-verbal clues to intended meaning!

Bryan Townsend said...

Even for a remarkably gifted writer such as myself!

/irony off/