Sunday, September 25, 2011

Not Everyone Loves the Beatles

Heh. Just read a hilarious little piece in the Wall Street Journal of quotes from various people on the Beatles. Some were from early on, the first wave of Beatlemania in 1964, but some others are from just a few years ago. Here is a sample:
"Musically, they are a near disaster; guitars slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah!") are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments."
—Newsweek reviewer, Feb. 24, 1964
And here is a comment on the article:
This article is a fine demonstration of why you should never listen to critics. The only trustworthy judge of music is your own ears.
 A number of years ago the music critic Nicolas Slonimsky published a fascinating book titled The Lexicon of Musical Invective that was a collection of nasty things said about composers. Sample: "The music of a demented eunuch," writes one 19th-century critic of Wagner. No-one is immune: you would scarcely believe the incredible things people said about Beethoven during his lifetime.

However, neither the current article, nor the earlier book prove quite what the commentor thinks they do: that critics should never be listened to. Of course, as I complain sometimes, most music criticism today is really nothing of the kind. Instead it is just puff pieces to promote the latest fresh young thing, whether performer or composer. Or it is just the cranky ramblings of a curmudgeon--though I suspect that fewer and fewer of them even exist. By all means, feel free to ignore music critics. Unless they have something worth hearing. Some of them do. I have mentioned before the people that I think are real music critics and oddly enough, none of them have that actual job description. You should pay a great deal of attention to anything written about music by Richard Taruskin, Joseph Kerman or Charles Rosen. Taruskin is a musicologist who occasionally writes for the mainstream press, Kerman is a professor emeritus of musicology and writer and Rosen is a pianist and writer on music. I rather doubt whether they would have written anything so intemperate or ignorant as the things written about the Beatles in the article. Why not? I think that one mark of a good critic, or any good professional, is that you recognize the limits of your knowledge and understanding. I don't opine on Japanese calligraphy or break-dancing (or is it "dub-step" now?) because I know nothing about them. I do wander into pop music pretty frequently, but I think the fact that I grew up with the Beatles, played bass guitar, electric six-string and sang in a band when I was young and the fact that I have studied or listened closely to pop music for forty years does qualify me.

But most stuff written under the rubric "music criticism" is, as the commentor says, not worth reading. Other stuff is essential reading. Similarly with your ears: they may be trained ears or ignorant ears, in which case they may or may not be a good guide. Let's go back to that first quote. The Newsweek reviewer mentions a number of elements: "merciless beat" and "secondary rhythms" (that the beat "does away with"). Since he mentions "yeah, yeah, yeah", let's have a listen to "She Loves You" and see what he is talking about:

Hmm. Nothing 'merciless' about that beat and the song is stuffed full of "secondary rhythms". The leading theorist on the music of the Beatles, Walter Everett, regards this song as "the foremost example of the Beatles' ardent early works." He notes:
The surface of "She Loves You" is tension-filled. This is partly due to a strong rhythmic drive created by such devices as the strongly-accented beat-dividing syncopations in the strumming throughout and in the syncopated snare flams that follow the "yeah-yeah-yeah" motto within the chorus, the stop-time fourth beat rests near the end of the chorus, the unexpected repetitions of the final phrase of the last chorus ... and the suspension of the tempo at the song's structural, dramatically embellished V7. [score references omitted]
Oh yes, nothing but 'merciless beat' and no secondary rhythms whatsoever! I won't bother with the critic's sneer that the song has no melody or harmony, just to mention that Everett regards the song so highly that he spends six pages on it, much of it devoted to melody and harmony, in his two-volume monograph on the Beatles. The Newsweek critic simply knows nothing, including how to listen.

The only trustworthy guide to music is a trustworthy guide to music! Heh. That might be your own ears, if they happen to be highly trained and knowledgeable ones. Or they might be someone else's ears, likewise. Some music critics are excellent guides.

Let me close with one other quote from the article:
"The Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are godawful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music."
—William F. Buckley, author and commentator, 1964
This one rather saddens me because Buckley was such a stimulating and brilliant commentor on so many things. You have to love a guy who ran for mayor of New York with the campaign slogan "Don't immanentize the eschaton!" But here he is all wet, committing the fatal flaw of so many brilliant people of venturing opinions in areas in which they have no professional expertise.

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