A compilation of essays by academics and self-taught Beatles scholars, Kenneth Womack and Katie Kapurch’s brand new work, “New Critical Perspectives on The Beatles: Things We Said Today,” follows a similar approach to previous compilations such as “The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles,” and “Reading the Beatles.” However, several elements distinguish this work from its predecessors.
The first crucial point is that the contributing authors for New Critical Perspectives on the Beatles represent the most gender-diverse authorship yet seen in Beatles historiography. Approximately half of the essays were written, or co-written, by women; a level of gender diversity that, for all their genuine strengths, neither The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles or Reading the Beatles even came close to matching. Several of these essays offer a necessary but long overlooked feminine perspective or approach to analyzing the band’s story. (However, Beatles scholarship and historiography still notably is dominated by American and British authors).
Second, major aspects of New Critical Perspectives on the Beatles explore the role of and relationship between the Beatles and their fans: examining the issue of American race-relations through the prism of popular reaction to Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” or, in a separate essay, acknowledging and criticizing the media’s decades of marginalization and patronization of the band’s legions of female fans. All the essays fall squarely within the larger context of the Lewisohn narrative: there are no overtly pro-John or Paul biased works and/or selective use of evidence. Documentation and bibliographies are a given. While insightful and, (in my view), necessary, this is pre-dominantly a book by academics and for academics. Or, at the least, for an audience interested in examining the Beatles using primarily academic methodologies and approaches.
While various other essays in New Critical Perspectives apply lyrical and/or musical analysis to certain songs and/or albums, this review (and its successor, to be posted later) discusses primarily those essays that focus on sociological, historical, or gender approaches. This is not a reflection on the quality of those other essays, but rather my own effort to stay on familiar ground. As I’ve previously noted, my musical ability/individual knowledge of music theory is poor to non-existent (I can’t even play “Chopsticks” on a piano) and delving into musical and lyrical analysis is something that I simply feel inadequately prepared to do. (There’s a reason I only applied source analysis to Wilfrid Mellers’ contextual quotes, and not his musical analysis, in my own work, The Beatles and the Historians). So if any readers are particularly interested in an evaluation of the essays regarding Hoagy Carmichael’s influence on George Harrison’s songwriting, or the use of spatial counterpoint on the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, you will have to seek out a review by someone who feels more qualified than I do to evaluate the writing on such subjects.
That leads me to my next point: the various disciplines which are laying the groundwork for the emerging area of Beatles academia. As has already been noted ad nauseam, the initial waves of Beatles scholarship were produced by journalists or self-taught scholars. The past ten-fifteen years has seen a burgeoning interest in Beatles academia – indeed, one of the essays in New Critical Perspectives deals with teaching them as a college class, although I vociferously disagree with Read the Beatles, one of the classroom texts suggested by the author, for reasons I will clarify later – coming primarily from university Music or English departments. I anticipate that this predominantly English/Music approach will continue to command the lion’s share of Beatles academia for the foreseeable future. While the relevancy and connection of musicology or lyrical interpretation to Beatles music are self-evident, I hope that the field of Beatles studies will continue to expand into further areas: dedicated, impartial sociological views of their dynamics and the chaos of their concerts: psychological examinations of the band’s personalities and mental health issues: medical evaluations of the impact of their drug use.
There are a number of essays within New Critical Perspectives that deserve analysis and review, but this particular post focuses on only one: other essays will be discussed in a later review. Given our previous discussions, on this blog, concerning the issues of Paul McCartney’s statements and/or feelings regarding racial issues, and African-Americans in particular, this particular review focuses on one of the most provocative essays: Katie Kapurch and Jon Marc Smith’s “Blackbird Singing: Paul McCartney’s Romance of Racial Harmony and Post-Racial America.” Kapurch and Smith use McCartney’s promotion of the back story surrounding his White Album track, “Blackbird,” to examine the errors inherent in the premise that the United States has achieved a post-racial stature following its 2008 election of Barack Obama, or that such a post-racial status is possible.
Both authors argue that McCartney’s standard concert introduction for the “Blackbird” — which emphasizes the racial conflicts behind its inspiration and the general improvement in American race relations since it was originally written in 1968 — can be viewed as “wishful idealism,” promoting the myth of a post-racial America. This myth is an “oversimplification,” which, its authors argue, is particularly palatable to the general white American and baby-boomer population in that it “does not assign blame, which would acknowledge the historic, systemic, continuous oppression” of America’s African-American population.
While the essay uses other examples from McCartney’s career – including his collaborations with Michael Jackson (“Say Say Say”) and Stevie Wonder (“Ebony and Ivory”) — both authors emphasize that their primary criticism lies with the fans that prefer the fiction of an achieved post-racial America and less with McCartney himself. Simply put; unlike, say, Larry Kane, they don’t imply that McCartney is secretly prejudiced against African-Americans. Kapurch and Smith acknowledge that the musician is “attuned to injustice,” and that his promotion of “post-racial attitudes” fits his “perpetually optimistic public image.” Their reference to the belief in post-racial Horatio Alger theory of societal and economic advancement for racial minorities is particularly interesting, given that, in The Beatles and the Historians, I noted that McCartney, while quintessentially English, is the living embodiment of this most cherished American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideal.
The essay also notes the contrast between McCartney’s relatively casual introductions for “Blackbird” prior to 2002, and his later, significantly more formal introductions in more recent years. In addition to examining the racial context behind the song, the essay also insightfully notes that, by attaching “Blackbird” to the larger socio-political struggle by African-Americans for equal rights, the song is imbued with greater significance. “Controlling the interpretation while instigating a kind of canon formation of Beatles songs is a characteristic McCartney maneuver that signals his efforts to reaffirm his iconic status and to reframe his work as that of a high artiste.” Thus McCartney’s “Blackbird” stage patter serves two masters: it elevates the song’s historical significance, “advance(ing) critical appreciation for the song,” while also “appealing to U.S. audiences … who want to feel good about race relations in their generation.”
Because the primary focus is less on McCartney, and more on his audience’s preference for an idealized but currently non-existent post-racial America, the essay does not offer a comprehensive analysis of “Blackbird”‘s musical merits, or McCartney’s views on race, . For example, his famous 1966 quotes to Maureen Cleave regarding the segregation of African-Americans: “It’s a lousy country,” etc., are not mentioned. And while the essay also notes McCartney’s “perpetually optimistic public image,” it fails to take into account how McCartney’s widely acknowledged innate optimism and own Horatio Alger story may have influenced, or continued to influence, his belief in a post-racial ideal. While the sentiments displayed in his collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, and his somewhat idealized understanding of the current state American race-relations can be viewed as too optimistic, it’s also worth noting that these qualities also appear in his statements and songs regarding the Anglo/Irish relationship: a subject with a considerably greater direct connection to McCartney’s own experiences, background and ethnicity. Ultimately, the essay left me wanting more: whetting the appetite for an even greater, in-depth approach to the subject of the Beatles and race that, because of its limited pages, “Blackbird Singing” simply could not cover.
(The next post presumably will not occur until semester grading is done, but will include information on several highly provocative essays concerning the depiction and role of female fans. Any questions or comments are welcome!)