The Beatles: Keeping America Apart

In case you hadn’t notice, in the US at least they are in the middle of a spate of 50th-anniversary celebrations. Everything that was anything important in the 1960s, it seems, happened within that late 1963-early 1964 time-frame: the March on Washington, JFK’s assassination, the War on Poverty – and, yes, the advent of the Beatles on American shores, most notably on prime-time 1964 television, on the Ed Sullivan Show, for the first time fifty years ago just yesterday (♪ YESterday ♫ . . .), on 9 February 1964.

This is just the sort of meaty commemoration that today’s media likes to sink its teeth into, to attract clicks and boost flagging sales if nothing else, and you will have seen the articles in your favorite outlets, whether Internet or on paper. We’re also Beatles fans here at EuroSavant for sure, consider their body of work as a full part of the Western cultural canon along with Beethoven and all the rest, etc. But we also like to be contrarian, and a regular survey of the foreign-language on-line press often gives us much ammunition to be contrarian with.

“The coming of the Beatles had a negative effect on relations between white and black America,” it says there. You will have never heard of Xavier Baudet – I hadn’t either; it turns out he is a former minor Dutch singer/songwriter, is now a record producer, but also studied American history at the University of Leiden – but he makes some thought-provoking points.

The key to his essay is a comparison between the progress in the area of civil rights for American blacks in the Sixties versus the societal changes that the Beatles supposedly brought about. And Baudet does credit them with a huge impact: in his eyes, they unleashed the Counterculture. Sure, for the first few albums their songs dealt only with the usual personal themes of love, girlfriend/boyfriend and the like – but just look at that hair! They acknowledged an artistic debt to folk music, which at the time included the likes of Bob Dylan, but whose own lyrics more importantly were starting to express dissatisfaction with and resistance to the status quo. Moreover, as Baudet puts it, “In interviews the Beatles made no secret of their stances on segregation, Vietnam and drugs-use.”

That criticism of American segregation, in particular, might have been all very well, but it was likely not so appreciated by the black civil rights leaders of the time. That’s because blacks were trying to head in precisely the opposite direction, indeed to integration, meaning gaining full citizenship and participation as equals in the society as it was at the time. They wanted nothing to do with “Counter”; they wanted to be fully accepted within Culture! Baudet:

They [black youth] sought precisely to connect with the society against which their white contemporaries set themselves. For a white “drop-out” there was always a second chance. But contrary behavior could put a black youth in very big problems. Black artists avoided offensive behavior. In complete contrast to white popstars, they dressed and groomed themselves exemplarily and generally shut up about politics. Motown even had a special school for that.

If you think about it, that certainly rings true. Go ahead: Google for some images of the black groups of the Sixties – the Coasters, the Ink Spots, the Temptations: they’re invariably looking very natty in tuxes, suits-and-ties. And of course the Supremes: sheer female elegance!

But wait, there’s more! The Beatles did acknowledge their own musical indebtedness to black artists, to be sure, but that was always to the Blues tradition. The trouble was, according to Baudet, that that was precisely the image civil rights leaders were trying to escape! “Blues made them think of the sort of blacks that they didn’t want to be anymore,” in the alleged words of B.B. King – that is, down on the plantation, stoically accepting the hand fate had dealt them. But it seemed that that was the only black music that the Counterculture was ever interested in; Baudet maintains that it took until 1973 for a non-Blues black artist like Marvin Gaye to be acknowledged by Rolling Stone.

In sum:

Developments for white youth proceeded non-synchronously with those of their black contemporaries. . . . The Beatles began a series of trends in which blacks neither could nor were willing to participate. Despite themselves, they thereby disrupted the process of integration which through the anti-climax of the Civil Rights Movement and the murder of its leading philosopher [presumably Dr. Martin Luther King] had already gone off the rails.

I hate to rain on the Beatles’ parade – well, there are only two of them left, and although they recently made a joint appearance at the Grammy Awards, I don’t notice that they made very much of this 50th anniversary occasion themselves. But there it is: food for thought; “Kill your idols,” and all that.

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