Saturday, January 16, 2016

Adam Gopnik spirals off point in an article titled "Why we Remember the Beatles and Forgot So Much Else", which seems to forget to make its stated point

This was a strange article in that it had a title that signaled a point that was never really made.  That can happen if you write a piece and an editor assigns a title to your piece that doesn't have any bearing on what you wrote, or maybe a title that reflected upon correspondence between author and editor that didn't make it into a published draft.  These things can happen.

But to call the piece something that asks why we remember the Beatles and forgot so much else should have made more of an evident effort to answer the question, if the question was inherent to the piece.

When we talk about the influence of Beethoven, or the mythology of what Beethoven's music is said to mean to those into his work, we can talk about Beethoven's formal innovation of received forms and idioms on the one hand, and on the other the social or political significance imputed to our reception history of his work on the other.  Taruskin and countless others have discussed the mythology of Beethoven but Taruskin has been succinct in discussing how Beethoven's reception history and mythology have two components, the artistic innovation component and the social significance component.  Others have written about how the patronage class that backed Beethoven had something to gain in the process and that might be for some other time. 

The short and sweeping thing to be said about Beethoven was he introduced innovations in musical art that were considered revolutionary and what his music was taken to mean was to represent, in some sense, the highest and most widely loved ideals about social and political liberty as it was conceived at the time.

They may have covered a song called "Roll Over Beethoven" but the Beatles are in the 20th century a counterpart or successor to Beethoven.  You see fans talking about and writing about the Beatles and the personal and social significance of their work as defining an era in a way that's not dissimilar form the ways that admirers of Beethoven in the 19th century described the impact of his work. 

But the Beatles were in many respects basically just a better than average boy band that transcended the limitations and expectations of their idiom.  They were also the product of a massive corporate empire that marshalled a variety of skill sets and creative interests.  The Beatles are the distillation of corporate rock but a distillation of what it could become when everything within the pop music industry of an age synergistically worked toward shared ideals.  We're able to impute to this boy band that trafficked in formulaic pop songs a great deal of our ideals.  And why not, it's the case, isn' tit?

What the Beatles managed to do more cogently than other bands from around he same time was embody a variety of popular styles from a variety of regions.  Earlier in the week I wrote about how if Stravinsky was the chameleon who dominated the first half of the 20th century then David Bowie could be considered the chameleon of the second half of the 20th century.  But there have been plenty of chameleons and in several ways the Beatles, a band, and a band with a spectacular corporate backing and aid, did the chameleon thing earliest and most successfully in pop musical terms.  The Beatles could be taken as a symbolically being a kind of melting pot or amalgamation in music that many contemporary Westerners still aspire to. 

Now we could say that was emblematic of cultural appropriation and colonialist cultural privilege and all that but that's not how people into the music tend to bracket the Fab Four.  It's usually more the working class background and not the waning imperialist context in which those guys were born.  We feel more comfortable about the ideals of an empire if they can be imputed to all of humanity than if we look at them as the ideals of a specific empire, especially when we live in a global media network that can reveal to us with relatively little effort how we live in a world in which there are other empires besides the ones we live in and how they don't share the same ideals we do.

The Beatles are symbolically useful to us as we discuss ourselves in a way comparable to the way Beethoven's music was symbolically useful to those who discussed Beethoven's music in their time. If anything the romantic idealism associated with affection for Beethoven's music was simply transferred to the Beatles without necessarily changing all that much.  The patronage systems changed and we went from enlightened autocrats to corporate sponsorship.  We'd certainly prefer to tell ourselves that our patronage system is friendlier to the arts and can speak with some confidence of a more egalitarian impulse but patronage cycles can show that a spirit of adventure can coalesce into a spirit of conservation and inertia.  When we stop to consider that the commercial music industry is nearing a centennial and that recorded music was seen by Sousa as a threat to the vitality of local musical cultures more than a century ago it may be that what was a vital and bracing musical thing half ac entury ago can become through veneration and journalistic/critical circulation the hoary status quo in just a generation or so. For my grandparents' generation the Beatles were as often as not, maybe more often than not, annoying in a way that my parents' generation or mine found New Kids on the Block insipid and irritating. 

It seems that most of the time when I read people writing about the Beatles it's about the four guys and the significance of their musical activities.  Fair enough, they wrote some fun songs, but what about the corporate behemoth that helped them become what they became?  When people complain about corporate pop and how bland and lame it sound or how it all just sounds like the metronomic ringing of a cash register the shortfall in this kind of jeremiad isn't just that it tends to make people sound old-fashioned (which it can often be and isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself), it's that invites a question, the question of whether or not we have sacralized the pop culture that inspired us in our innocent youth as being purer and better than the corporate pop that may be inspiring new younger generations. 

Besides, when people who are in their 20s now find inspiration in a band like the Beatles the longevity and broadness of the appeal of such a band may be instructive and inspiring.  There are people who have mourned the passing of David Bowie who weren't even born yet when he began his musical career. 

While jazz musicians and fans of classical music will certainly continue to lament the decline of the popularity of these idioms the popularity of The Beatles or of David Bowie may be a chance for us to remember the potentially obvious point that people, when they hear music, often like to hear the human voice.  If the 19th century was an era in which instrumental music in Western culture was regarded as a supremely transcendental art aspiring to personalized ideals of beauty and truth the 20th century may have restored or revived a different ideal, that people like to hear songs.  It's not such a big surprise that a band like th Beatles excelled at writing songs and excelled at writing songs across the surface details of timbre and formalities of expected styles.  To bring back a Meyer term, the Beatles managed to be formalists.  Whatever stylistics shifts and pivots they did their voices remained steady and their control of the song as an idiom for personal yet mass appeal was, half a century later, fairly easily agreed upon. Or so it would seem.  We remember the Beatles, obviously, because we want to.  It's a nostalgia like others but in an era where nostalgia can lead to franchise extension we might do well to stop and consider that nostalgia and the desire to buy more time for a franchise will depend on having some idea what it was or is we've been buying. 

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