Friday, June 01, 2007

Forty Years Ago Today

Digby's blogging buddy Tristero (who I gather is composer Richard Einhorn in real life) offers this fine observation in a Sergeant Pepper anniversary diary:
First of all, to you kiddies out there who want to know what all the brouhaha about The Beatles was all about, I strongly suggest you--hell, everyone should have it--grab the four Complete Ed Sullivan Shows with The Beatles. Now here's the thing: you have to watch one a night, all the way through, including Mitzi Gaynor sing what she calls "real music," and Frank Gorshin doing Kirk Douglas impressions. You will learn two things. First of all, that life in mainstream white America in 1964 was bereft of any positive cultural merit whatsoever. And secondly, this is the ideal society your average Republican politician has in mind for America, sans Beatles of course. It truly is hard to believe. You must see these shows in their entirety to understand how much this country has changed.
If I could have glimpsed myself in the year 2007 from the vantage point of 1967, I think I would have been faintly stunned to see how deeply the Beatles continue to influence my personality all these years later. And the impact was not just on me but on so many facets of our culture.

Some of the effects the Beatles had are obvious in retrospect, including, of course, their impact on popular music. Before the Beatles, pop songs were two minutes and fifty seconds long and had a rigidly prescribed form (AABABA) that virtually never varied. After the Beatles, songs of wildly varying length and form, with any conceivable instrumentation and electronic accompaniment or distortion, were all possible. These changes were probably coming, somehow, in some form--but without the Beatles they would have taken longer to arrive and might not have peremeated the music scene so broadly.

Without the Beatles and their electronic experiments in songs like "I Am the Walrus" and "Revolution 9," would there have been mash-ups? Without George Harrison's excursions into Indian music, how and when would the "world music" trend have emerged? Without the Beatles' movies and the promotional videos they created to launch singles after they started touring, would there have been MTV and VH1? Maybe, but maybe not.

However, as Tristero implies, the impact of the Beatles goes way beyond music. It's hard to describe how enormously the "feel" of western society--especially American society--has changed since the advent of the Beatles. They didn't produce the changes single-handedly, obviously. But they were there on the side of change in one instance after another, pushing a whole generation of people in a particular direction.

Before the Beatles, males wore their hair short. They wore clothes that were grey or blue or black. They were (or pretended to be) respectful of their elders and of churchmen and of people in authority, they were patriotic and obedient and tough in a masculine fashion. The few who defied these conventions were pushed way to the perimeters of society. They were "beatniks" (weird freaks not to be taken seriously) or "juvenile delinquents" (criminals) or "addicts" (also criminals) or "faggots" (sources of vague existential-sexual panic).

The Beatles demonstrated that you could flout the conventions in a playful, experimental way and live to tell the tale. They were public about their unconventionality. They had sex and took drugs and made outrageous statements and told inappropriate jokes and tried foreign religions and wore wild-looking clothes and made surrealistic movies and mocked politicians and wrote books of nonsense verse. And through it all they laughed as if life was not to be taken too seriously.

They largely invented the tone of hip, knowing irony that has become the dominant voice of pop culture in America--sometimes to emetic excess. But at the time, what a relief. What a relief to have them in the world--especially during the years when the Kennedys and King and Malcolm were murdered and Richard M. Nixon, the ultimate stiff, was president.

They loosened us up. Without the Beatles, could America have tolerated the insolent, gaily pugnacious Muhammad Ali even as well as it did? Without the Beatles, could there have been Monty Python or R. Crumb or National Lampoon or Tom Tomorrow? Could there have been Robin Williams or Steven Wright or Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show?

Yeah, the Beatles were musicians. But they were also a cultural force unmatched in my lifetime. And what is even more remarkable, their influence was almost entirely benign. (I know that those of the conservative side of the culture wars will disagree, but deep down I bet that even most of them don't really want to go back to that world of Mitzi Gaynor and Frank Gorshin in his crewcut.)

How many people in the history of the world have unleashed as much personal energy and generated as much sheer happiness as the Beatles? Damn few, I'd say.

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