Latest posts by Michael Gerber (see all)
- From Faith Current: “The Sacred Ordinary: St. Peter’s Church Hall” - May 1, 2023
- A brief (?) hiatus - April 22, 2023
- Something Happened - March 6, 2023
Immediately after running across this delightful bit of Photoshoppery, I knew I had to post the following “Shakespeare’s Sister” question: Would the Beatles happen today, if four women came together in a band that great? How would it happen? What would it look like?
We know it wouldn’t have happened in 1957. But I wonder if we’ve made enough progress by 2019. Set aside if you like details like the lamentable state of the music business today, or how their time in the Reeperbahn would’ve worked. What say you?
Seems inevitable that the most natural transition is Paul’s – I find myself strangely attracted to female Macca.
Anyway, I say this: Janelle Monae. I saw her in Dublin a few days ago and it’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing a 2010s Woodstock (and practically on the festival’s 50th anniversary too!). I’ve always bemoaned the fact that no matter how good contemporary music gets, for most of my lifetime it’s been consumed as mere entertainment and thus denied the status of true art. Unlike a lot of music nerds I believe that music is something that springs from and speaks for a community, not just what happens when talented instrumentalists play for the amusement of well-educated fans.
I’ve spent most of my life listening to ’60s and ’70s classics and not just preferring them musically but yearning for the culture they sprang from – a movement of people coming together and using the most harmonious and beautiful of artforms to symbolise a harmonious, beautiful society, even actualising it in those brief moments when the audience became one with the era’s top songwriters and performers.
I’ve slowly been getting more into synth-pop and hip hop sounds over the past couple of years, partly thanks to the hip cats that make up Starostin’s Facebook group. A few months ago a Starostinite recommended Monae’s breakout album of last year, Dirty Computer, and when I checked it out I was amazed at what I heard: an album saturated in just about every trope of modern pop that I LIKED. I realised more fully than ever that there are no bad musical forms, just musical forms used badly again and again and again.
The hip cats said Monae’s early stuff was even better so I had a listen, and it was. ArchAndroid is the best album of the 2010s, a concept piece fusing pop, R’n’B, hip hop, balladry, musical theatre and funk with an audacity that would make Prince proud (he was a mentor to Janelle before he died). Electric Lady isn’t as good but it’s still full of the kind of ambitious music for the mind and body that I thought went out with Stevie Wonder.
But the secret ingredient in the show I saw was politics. Dirty Computer is less musically ambitious than its predecessors but it’s much more in your face with Janelle’s identity political interests, and the crowd was heavily made up of the queer, black and female “dirty computers” that a lot of the songs are explicitly written for. Combined with Janelle’s star quality (impeccable singing, flawless dancing, looks, sexuality, charisma, you name it), the incredible performances from her all-female band and backing dancers, and yes, the extremely potent weed my friend treated me to, the politically charged atmosphere made me feel for the first time in my life that I was part of something more than a good concert. This was an Event.
The new Beatles? Too niche for that, with a heavily left-wing fanbase and no real “Ed Sullivan” moment to date. But she’s only three albums in, she’s already branched into movies just like the Fabs before her (Moonlight among them), and she’s young. No telling how far she could go.
I don’t know, but I’m thinking probably, if everything was the same musically, then yes they would be big, but maybe not on the global, all encompassing scale that their male counterparts achieved. Sorry for the run on sentence. I just don’t think all women rock bands have the same social and cultural impact that male rock bands have. I wouldn’t be able to explain why I think that’s the case without writing a long dissertation on the evolution of modern culture and the fact that while it has evolved in the last 50 years, it hasn’t quite evolved quickly enough, at least not in rock music. Aside from that, I have to say, going on the photo you posted, if Paul, George and Ringo had been women, they would have been extremely attractive!
@Linda, from my point of view rock’s dead anyway and practically all the most vital music of the 2010s has been performed by women. At least outside of hip hop, which remains a man’s game notwithstanding the occasional Cardi B.
I think the biggest obstacle faced by a hypothetical all-female Beatles in 2019 is one we’ve discussed before on this blog: the splintering of popular musical culture into many smaller cultures. No question that’s been a change for the better in a lot of ways, but it also means that no group or artist is going to have the same culture-saturating impact, in 2019, that Elvis or the Beatles had in earlier decades.
David Von Drehle made a related point this weekend in the Washington Post, discussing the end of Mad magazine and linking it to the demise of a stable monoculture to poke fun at:
“To be subversive, however, requires a dominant culture to subvert. Mad was the smart-aleck spawn of the age of mass media, when everyone watched the same networks, flocked to the same movies and saluted the same flag. Without established authorities, it had no reason for being. Like the kid in the back of the classroom tossing spitballs and making fart sounds, a journal of subversive humor is funny only if there’s someone up front attempting to maintain order.”
Full piece by Von Drehle here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mad-magazines-demise-is-part-of-the-ending-of-a-world/2019/07/05/5b3b49ec-9f49-11e9-b27f-ed2942f73d70_story.html?utm_term=.8a70ac6c89a4
I think this is right. Monoculture, which I’ve talked about before on this blog, seems to be a necessary precondition for genius stuff like MAD (which I’m trying to save) or The Beatles to happen. It’s almost like there has to be a certain amount of tinder.
This is a rather sad idea, that we have to exchange ease for genius, but despite the straining of the publicity business, we’re just not getting a proportional increase in Great Art, however you want to define it. (Cue people quibbling over the definition of “Great Art”…on a blog about a musical group that ended in 1970.)
Twenty years on, I think it’s pretty clear that everybody having a platform has not produced more genius-level work, and at the same time it’s made it nearly impossible for musicians to make a living. Who it enriches is platform owners like Zuckerberg, so we’ll never stop hearing the idea that giving everybody access to a mass audience is a wonderful thing. It’s appealing enough for a thousand Apple commercials; we feel that should be the case, both intuitively and with democratic hopes; but it hasn’t been borne out by reality. The artistic careers are in tatters–but there are plenty of mini-Zuckerbergs! It’s almost as if one needs the possibility of a grand slam to attract real talent. Anyway, in my opinion, we won’t have truly vibrant artistic culture again until we get a guaranteed basic income. Access has turned making art into making lottery tickets, with a smaller and smaller prize.
‘Andrew Yang: Saviour of the Arts.’ Would make a good 2020 slogan I think.
I love the idea of UBI too, but I think it would kill the desperation and poverty that we were talking about in the humour thread, thereby making great art less likely than ever to arise. Maybe we need a balance where pursuing music isn’t a 100% “sensible” choice (as it would be under UBI) but isn’t utterly off limits either (as it is today)? ’60s Britain’s combination of class struggle and repression with new optimism and freedoms seems to have created the perfect conditions for the century’s best bands. Not to mention a ton of art schools. Creative English working class kid + art school = genius is the closest thing I’ve discovered to an airtight formula in the arts.
The “desperation” I refer to is psychic, not financial. Much stronger than merely being skint.
The idea that artists must starve, or that they create their best work under physical privation, is foolishness. It is used by bankers to salve their guilty consciences, and appease their younger selves. 🙂
I agree with Justin about Janelle Monae. I first saw her on TV when she performed for the Obamas and she knocked me out!
There’s lots of talent out there, and lots of young women are forming rock bands nowadays (without getting much attention), but the real creative juice (to quote Mr. Gerber) seems to have moved on to Hip Hop. Tierra Whack (23 years old) is a songwriting powerhouse. Lots of young women, inspired by Lauryn Hill, are creating amazing poetry and music.
I remember when The Go Go’s first emerged. One of the major magazines (might have been Time or Newsweek) called them “the new Beatles” because they signaled a return to power-pop, melody and a spirit of fun that Time/Newsweek felt was lacking in rock music. I also remember when the Spice Girls appeared, and critics also made Beatle comparisons, comparing their movie to A Hard Day’s Night.
Nataly Dawn and Lauren O’Connell are a team that make great indy music. They’re not getting the same amount of attention they would have gotten if they’d appeared twenty years earlier. As Nancy above says, there’s too many cultures and sub-cultures sharing the spotlight.
Cool recs @Sam, thanks! Agree, hip hop is where the party’s at. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about modern music without developing a feel for it, which is why I’ve been trying to do just that.
Currently, The Regrettes sort of remind me of the Beatles. They write songs, tour extensively, guitar-based rock, funny videos. But they’ve gone through several personnel changes, something the Beatles only did once.
I don’t have a lot to add other than not being surprised Paul makes a great looking woman, she’d definitely be a girl-crush. Followed closely by George(who I think resembles, possibly, Chrissie Hynde, or is that just me?)
I think I agree that it would be difficult for an all female rock band to be a “new Beatles” but I think it would be difficult for any rock band to be a new Beatles for the reasons stated by others – there is too much fragmentation, it’s hard to get that sort of impact when everyone’s attention is so splintered.
I think, all male-all female-mixed, in terms of talent it might, just might, be possible but in terms of actual influence and impact, I don’t know if something like the Beatles is ever possible anymore.
All this talk about new bands not repeating the success of earlier generations reminds me of two people: Bobby Van and Ken Berry.
These are guys who grew up idolizing Fred Astaire. And they thought they’d grow up to become Fred Astaire. But big movie musicals featuring dancers were dying out just as they entered the business. So Bobby Van is known today mostly for hosting game shows. And Ken Berry? Mama’s Family and F Troop.
Last week I was channel surfing and found myself watching the 1970s Wonder Woman show. Bobby Van was the guest star, playing a WWII saboteur. He looked embarrassed doing the role, but it was a paycheck.
The collapse of the movie studio system and the disappearance of big-budget musicals (leaving talents like Ken Berry and Bobby Van stranded like beached whales) reminds me of the major record labels. In the 1960s and ’70s there were dozens of them, eager to sign every new group with long hair and three guitars. Nowadays they’ve been swallowed and re-swallowed by “parent companies” so there’s no daddy Parlophone with a kindly George Martin to encourage a new Beatles. You’re on your own, kids!
@Sam, imagine if Berry and Van had come along a little later and been told ‘There have never been more opportunities for people like you – just put some videos online and make your own work!’ This argument forgets that (a) everyone’s doing the same, meaning there’s more competition than ever before, (b) the ‘costs money to make money’ rule still applies on the Internet, and now it’s your own money, (c) artistic genius and marketing genius are two very different skills and are probably mutually exclusive in the vast majority of cases (people keep trying to raise marketing to the status of an artform, but it just isn’t one), and (d) even if you’re good at marketing time spent promoting is time spent away from creating. I believe most artists need labels for these reasons. But the labels have to be willing to take risks, which they’re currently not.
I’ll do you one better, @Justin: Imagine if the 20-year-old Lennon had been in charge of marketing his group? They’d have ended up as the house band for Tom of Finland.
Hi all. Dreadfully unfortunate about “ Johnette” . I don’t think that was the greatest photo to use as a base.
Georgina is the best looking girl for me.
But speaking to a female Beatles, yesterday or ever, just wouldn’t happen.
Women aren’t taken seriously in anything. Even cooking, you’ve then you’ve got all of these famous male celebrity chefs for example. I’m no activist feminist, but males get the glory and women do the actual work.
Women, especially back in that day were treated pretty badly. Including by our favourite Fab Four. Women were seen as the baby makers and meal providers . It was just a natural thing for them. Esp as working class Northern English males of the 40/s 50/s.
Paul was quite feminist for the times, and and John had a big turn around, but I wouldn’t classify George or Ringo as being particularly enlightened regarding these issues.
Anyway, no possible female Beatles, now or then. Not because of youth culture and internet culture splitting up. Just would never have been.
I agree there are better pictures of John they could have used for a base than the pale, gaunt, hair parted down the middle, granny glasses wearing WA version of him. But I find it interesting that everyone says, as if by default, that Paul makes the best woman. To me, George is the clear winner here. Pauline looks like every stuck-up girl I knew in high school.
Sorry, off topic. But I have just ordered Devins Magic Circles and Michaels Life after Death for Beginners.
So excited. Got two weeks off coming up and these are my reading dreams.
Oh Marlo, you will LOVE Devin’s book. You might like mine, though the process of writing it was so painful I simply cannot judge its quality. Whoever it gets silly, that was a part of the story I didn’t feel comfortable telling. I really keep it in print for Dullblog readers. If you read it while holding it up to my posts and comments here, you’ll understand.
In any case, write me to tell me what you thought.
Charles Dickens on Twitter:
“My father, against his parents wishes, became a cobbler. I was meant to follow in his footsteps, but as rejecting the expectations of a parent was the developing tradition, I instead chose to make hats. As a young haberdash I starved.
I forgot to mention Sleater-Kinney. They’ve got a new album out: The Center Won’t Hold
It wouldn’t have happened in 1957. But even if it happened today, they would be forced to give birth to hundreds of babies.