Thanks to Amanda Marcotte, I almost felt guilty last night watching Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, the documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ classic album. Writing in Salon, Marcotte was buzzkill to those who are celebrating the anniversary, describing the album as “the point when rock stopped being the music of girls and started being the music of men.”
The Beatles’ initial fame was driven by rabidly enthusiastic teenage girls, she correctly reminds us, but the band’s following broadened in its later years, with Sgt. Pepper being a milestone in that process. (The hysterical outpourings for the band by young female fans in the early years, Marcotte explains indelicately but perhaps accurately, was “an uncorking of repressed lust. Girls liked the Beatles because they wanted to f**k the Beatles.”)
But the evolution to a broader audience, Marcotte tells us, was more than just a maturation process for the musicians, for in her view it more accurately reflected the theft of popular music by one demographic from another. “The fate of the teenybopper,” she writes, “is to watch her music get sneered at, right up until it gets taken away and turned into a respectable art form that it’s OK for grown men to like.”
So it would seem that “Sgt. Pepper” is a milestone for all the wrong reasons. As Marcotte explains, “It was the transition album that turned rock from a debased music for ponytailed fans twisting the night away to music for grown men whose tastes are far too refined to worry about whether a pop song has a beat you can dance to.”
Only it really wasn’t.
Having been born in the early sixties, I would have been too young to remember Beatlemania except that I had older sisters who were among the “ponytail fans” that Marcotte mentions. Some of my earliest memories are of my sisters’ Fab Four bobbleheads and records, and I recall vividly the enthusiasm that the band generated and the air of sadness that loomed when word came that they were breaking up. What I don’t recall, and what I’ve never heard anyone refer to previously, is any watershed moment that could be interpreted as an abandonment or betrayal of the Beatles’ young female fans.
Marcotte claims that girls “always get there first and all too rarely get credit for it.” But this is an overstatement at best. Rock and roll was popular among American youth of both sexes well before the Beatles—Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Bill Haley, Fats Domino, and of course Elvis, were all big stars before the Beatles—so the claim that somehow girls owned pop music, only to have it stolen by men, falls flat.
Of course, no one would deny that the rest of society—and not just adult men—often dismisses popular music aimed directly at teenyboppers. That’s why there is no Justin Bieber on my IPhone. But is this really evidence of any kind of malevolence or sexism? All it really suggests is that teenage girls, not surprisingly, are sometimes attracted to art and artists that others aren’t.
There is only one demographic that has a right to complain about rock music thievery, and that is African Americans. Rock and roll was built on a foundation of blues music, which arose directly from the black experience and black musicians. This explains why the Rolling Stones, when first touring the United States in 1964, insisted on visiting Chess Records in Chicago, where so many of their blues idols were based. African American artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard laid the musical groundwork for white acts that would later get rich from the sale of records to baby boomers.
Marcotte’s point, however, is that girls often inhabit certain musical spaces before everyone else. This is undoubtedly true to some degree, but it hardly seems to be a point to lament. Certainly, she’s not suggesting that grown men in the early sixties should have cherished “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Love Me Do” the way teenage girls did. Can’t we accept that there were legitimate reasons that mainly young girls found the early Beatles appealing: their personalities, their music, and even, since Marcotte brings it up, their sexuality? There’s nothing mysterious about it, and there's no need to overanalyze it with sexual politics. As Dan Ackroyd famously said, "Sometime a banana is just a banana."
And if that’s the case, what’s wrong with the fact that the Beatles’ music subsequently evolved? Both they and their audience were growing up, and social and political events were calling for attention. It's simply undeniable that the Beatles’ later music is indeed more sophisticated than their early work. The arrangements, the scope, the complexity, and of course the lyrical themes—by 1967 they were well past "P.S. I Love You."
The Beatles' later years brought "Come Together," "Blackbird," "Revolution," "Strawberry Fields," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Let it Be," and numerous other classics. “I’d love to turn you on,” the resonating voice of John Lennon calls out amid the existential observations of "A Day in a Life," a line that offers multiple interpretations but makes clear that by 1967 the Beatles wanted more than to hold your hand.
In fact, depth and sophistication were starting to show up in the Beatles’ music well before “Sgt. Pepper.” Lennon called "In My Life" from “Rubber Soul” in 1965 the first serious work he ever wrote. With "Tomorrow Never Knows" from “Revolver” in 1966, he provided a glimpse of the psychedelic creativity that was to come on Pepper and thereafter. Paul McCartney, meanwhile, is said to have written "Paperback Writer" in 1966 in response to an aunt who asked whether he could write about anything besides love. He would put that concern to rest for good on “Sgt. Pepper.”
And to be sure, as the Beatles grew they took their girl fans with them. The later Beatles were hardly a boys club. Girls who had swooned to "All My Loving" a few years earlier were now listening to their teen idols question social norms and challenge authority. If parents in 1964 thought “I Saw Her Standing There” was a bit too forward for their innocent daughters (“Well she was just 17. You know what I mean…”) imagine how they felt about "I Am the Walrus" (“Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl you let your knickers down…”) The world was changing, and the Beatles and their girl fans, many of them now women, were at the forefront.
What Marcotte’s piece reveals is an unfortunate trend in modern cyber journalism: the market-driven need to find and validate division and conflict where there need not be any. Author Noam Chomsky, in a recent interview in The Nation, commented that a key strategy of entrenched power interests is “undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support.” This phenomenon is nowhere more visible than in modern social media and cyber journalism, where conflict is constantly nurtured, and it's ironic that we see it even in the context of discussing "Sgt. Pepper," the album that helped launch the late-sixties Beatles' vibe of peace, love, and coming together.
Publishers and writers nowadays have discovered that loyal audiences expect the constant repackaging of grievances, and the reward of more page views awaits those who deliver. Thus, our feeds see a regular flow of headlines that refer to "epic smackdowns" or references to someone on our side "schooling," "crushing," or "destroying" an adversary from across the aisle. This results in a media landscape that, while profitable for the corporations behind them (and some the writers and personalities), does little to inform the public and much to reinforce disunity. This phenomenon is apparent throughout modern journalism, left and right, and certainly not unique to the Salon article in question.
In a small gesture of diplomacy, Marcotte concedes that despite her complaints “Sgt. Pepper” is “a good pop record.” But if she gives “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution” a chance she may conclude that such faint praise is insufficient. Host Howard Goodall, with impressive knowledge of music, details how the album is packed with innovation that changed popular music forever. Music fans should always be skeptical of commercial hype and corporate-driven “anniversary” products aimed at exploiting nostalgic sentiments—convincing you to buy an album you already own because it now includes a few new outtakes and interviews—but Goodall’s program is free, and it’s worth a watch.
If I were a serious music critic, I could debate Marcotte’s assertion that “Revolver” was “much better” than “Sgt. Pepper,” and her bold suggestion that Human League’s “Dare” may have surpassed both. When I see such claims, however, I’m reminded of one of my favorite journalism instructors, the legendary Boston newspaperman Doug Crocket, who chuckled when he talked about writing reviews and criticism. Unless you’re really an expert on the art form you’ve been asked to write about, he advised, don’t act like one—don't say it was good or bad, just say whether you liked it.
With Crocket’s advice in hand, we can reinterpret Marcotte’s musical commentary. She likes “Sgt. Pepper” but sees it (inaccurately, I would argue) as somehow representing a slap in the face to the young female demographic. She likes “Revolver” more, and apparently “Dare” even more. I won’t debate her on any of these points—who am I to say she’s wrong?—but I will confess that I wear a wry smile as I consider her choices. “Sgt. Pepper” isn’t my favorite Beatles album either, but “Revolver” isn't what I would put in front of it.