It happens every five years since I can remember. It’s time to remember The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to reflect “as a culture” on its significance, and learn again that it is the best and most important album ever. Now it is forty years. Thanks to Jody Rosen at Slate.com for changing that a bit with a nice write up. I have a few thoughts…
I’ve written something a good bit longer at Cypher & Syllable on the significance of the fact that we remember Sgt. Pepper’s this year, but not the thirtieth anniversary of the release of The Clash’s self-titled first album. That post is mostly about The Clash and how they offer a more politically radical sound and message, and so is brief on Sgt. Pepper’s and The Beatles in general. Here are some thoughts on forty years ago, and after.
I want to start thinking about the meaning of Sgt. Pepper’s from a recent television thing – American Idol’s “celebration” of the album, strange in no small part because the original was recorded in part as The Beatles’ farewell to touring. Sgt. Pepper’s is not an album that lends itself to performance, to a public airing. It is an album for listening. So, on the face of it, this was a strange thing for American Idol to do (though it is hardly risky or radical or provocative to say that American Idol cares not about “getting it” and only about gathering as many viewers as possible). Sgt. Pepper’s is so disconnected from the American Idol vibe, from song selection to staging.
For me, the signature moment of the American Idol “celebration” was when Taylor Hicks sang “he blew his mind out in a car” and held his finger to his head like a gun. (I’ll leave alone how Kelly Clarkson made Lennon and McCartney sound like mediocre singers…she does that to most people…she was the only high-point in that grotesque medley.) At the point where Hicks did that gesture, the song is about a veteran killing himself. Something actually really relevant today. But there was little, if anything, culturally shocking about that moment. No one really seemed outraged. No one seemed to think that was fucked up and cruel. The editors didn’t see fit to cut away.
Why not? Simply because the album has become a pop icon. Perhaps it always has been. That is, it has long been part of the spectacle, part of the play of images we find comforting, familiar, entertaining, and even just fun. Sing along with a song about a despaired veteran killing himself alone in a car – and don’t be troubled by it? Nothing exceptional about that. It’s pop music. You can almost see the slides of John, Ringo, George, Paul, Yoko, etc. flash by to the words. A play of images, then, and not rooted in material reality. A rooting in material reality would have sent our imagination to the kind of despair a real man has after returning from Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, and so the kind of things that would makes nauseous at the very thought, outraged at the performance of the gesture. None of that, though. This was reminiscence. It feels good, or should.
Now, it is unfair to put this at the feet of Lennon and McCartney. Or is it? This opens up the question of the politics of Sgt. Pepper’s and of The Beatles’ music in general. What exactly were their politics? How did those politics transmit across cultural shifts and changes?
Vietnam was central to most political music of the 1960s. Obviously. That war has passed. Other than the war in Vietnam, the politics of The Beatles were largely cultural: hair, sex, dope. I think that sort of attachment – to how one acts in private or displays one’s body – has very little long-term purchase. In fact, I’d offer this: the cultural politics of The Beatles (and so much of “the sixties”) are little more than a new twist on a very American liberalism. We’re all free – in this case, free to smoke some weed, have long hair, have sex without traditional boundaries of marriage or even love. I get that. In fact, that’s now become as much the frat boy ethic as anything counter-cultural (who is more polyamorous than a frat guy?). That doesn’t mean that said motifs can’t become politically subversive, but rather only that said motifs need a lot of supplemental apparatus to be radical.
The Beatles created an alternative aesthetic, not an alternative or radical politics. In this way, yes, they were the voice of their generation. While sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll freaked out a lot of my parents’ parents, the alternative aesthetic was completely compatible with the fundamental ideological structure of the U.S.: un(der)-bridled individualism. In this sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that The Beatles soundtrack is, with only a few minor burps, completely compatible with Nike (remember the “debate” over the use of “Revolution”?) or with a retire-in-riches advertisement. There is no real challenge to the dominant ideology. There is only a shifting of the aesthetic features of ideology, in this case from Leave it to Beaver images of self-making to Woodstock, then Wall Street-with-granola. I’m thinking of this retirement commercial, where a woman is being flown in a glider in celebration of retiring “in freedom,” which means the freedom to do just whatever you want, without responsibilities to anyone else. That’s not radical. That’s just 1950s U.S. with a different haircut. Alas.
It’s all in the sounds of the albums, actually. Whatever the progressive character of the album in musical terms, The Beatles could never shake being a pop act. They shouldn’t have, honestly. Sgt. Pepper’s is a great album because it sounds so nice. I actually quite like the album. But that nice sound you hear? It’s as much the sound of a familiar ideology as it is great musical composition.
So, when Taylor Hicks mimicked blowing your mind out in a car and it was all just so free of the devastating despair of the veteran, I wasn’t surprised. That’s what happens when you evacuate any radical ideological challenge from your political aesthetic. You get the play of images where one can identify, smile, reminisce, and move on to other things like planning to retire rich, drinking, I hope, expensive free-trade coffee. You know, revel in your translation of an old world, a translation that never quite leaves the grammatical rules or alphabet. It just re-orders things. For the better, mind you, but let’s not act like this transitioned us into another, radically new world.
This is where I wonder about what it would mean to remember The Clash’s debut album. Thirty years ago. What sort of world did their album point to? Where does that music take us? Alas, that is another post altogether…