Sociologist explains how the Beatles really did change the world

In a new book, a female sociologist argues that the Beatles “actually did change everything…It’s not just hyperbole.”

In addition to the fan voice being missing from 50 years of Beatles scholarship, Leonard said, the female voice is absent. Most of the books about The Beatles are written by men.“As a lifelong female fan and sociologist, I knew I had a fresh perspective that would be an important contribution to the conversation.”

The intense six-year Beatles immersion created a fan-performer relationship that had never existed before, she said: “Demographics, technology, marketing, the political moment and of course quality of the music, all converged to make it a historically unique event.”

From the very beginning, fans had a sense that The Beatles were talking to them directly…

Young people, she said, had the sense all along that The Beatles “were on their side, encouraging and empowering them. Looking at it in this way, fans’ strong emotional attachment, 50 years later, makes perfect sense.”

Add these generational changes (could the Beatles emerged in the same way without the Baby Boomers?) to a band that came right at the peak of mass media (by the end of the 1960s, more narratives and media outlets were emerging), was able to do everything themselves as a cohesive group (write, sing, and play) compared to single performers (like Elvis) or made bands (like the Monkees), had a personality that was both somewhat traditional (see the clear contrast The Rolling Stones made with them) as well as cheeky and somewhat rebellious, pushed the boundaries of pop music as well as recording techniques, and sold a ridiculous number of albums. Is all of this on the scale of the Cold War or landing on the moon or the ongoing struggles in the Middle East? Probably not but it helped develop and ingrain the importance of popular culture for American society…

It is interesting that most of the major Beatles books have been written by men. Come to think of it, rock music still is dominated by men whether it comes to performers, behind the scenes operators (producers, record label executives, etc.), and journalists.

Quick Review: Tune In: The Beatles, All These Years, Vol 1

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn has released the first in a Beatles trilogy titled Tune In. While plenty of books and authors have covered the Beatles (and I’ve read quite a few treatment), this book does a number of things well as it covers the band’s career through the end of 1962:

1. Lewisohn does a nice job discussing the more mundane aspects of their early life such as the home life of each band member. They came from a range of working to middle-class families with several from the Liverpool suburbs. Additionally, until 1962, several Beatles had to have regular jobs because the music business wasn’t yet working out. If I remember correctly, both Ringo and George worked as apprentices in certain trades while Paul worked in various delivery and clerk jobs. It is hard to imagine the Beatles in these roles but they had to balance a normal life path (as some of their family members reminded them) versus trying to succeed in music.

2. Like others, Lewisohn highlights the importance of the band’s early stints in Hamburg. However, he clearly drives home the point that this is where the true Beatles emerged. Not only did the band have a lot of time to play and hone their craft, they also took advantage of this: they knew they had to become serious about their music in order to get ahead. In other words, they went to Hamburg as just another band from Liverpool and came back and blew everyone away with their music, image (black leather), and confidence.

3. There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the larger music scene in England – which was fairly nonexistent regarding rock and roll. The Beatles were quite good at tracking down American music and they were heavily influenced by black artists like Little Richard, white artists who played black music like Elvis, and musicians who emphasized the band like Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The Beatles liked a broad range of music, which helped give them plenty of music for their long sessions on stage in Hamburg but also set them apart from other Liverpool bands who stuck to more tried and true songs. When the Beatles were in position to record auditions, the music labels weren’t really looking for full bands like them that sang in harmony, emphasized the group rather than the lead singer, and wrote some of their own songs. It is interesting that they ended up with a fruitful working relationship with George Martin at Parlophone as Martin had an eclectic career himself producing a wide range of albums and having difficulty getting a #1.

4. From the beginning, the Beatles wanted to be rich and famous. Perhaps it was simply the brashness of youth. Perhaps they wanted to escape humdrum Liverpool. It is not necessarily clear that the natural talent was there early on to back these ideas up: the Lennon-McCartney classics didn’t really start flowing until 1962 (plus bands didn’t a whole lot of this themselves at this point), John was creative but not always pleasant or focused, they weren’t the greatest musicians early on (especially with Paul learning the bass – though he became good quickly), couldn’t settle on a good drummer until Ringo was asked to join, and some of their early shows/auditions were marked by nervousness. But, it eventually came together in a product that was quite different from other music options and that propelled them ahead of other bands that were once their peers.

This book is full of details in its 800+ pages such that even as it covers similar ground as other biographies, it helps show how the mundane became extraordinary by the end of 1962. I’m looking forward to the next two books which should help reveal how the band that led to Beatlemania entered their most creative period of songwriting, transforming the music and recording industry, and maturing.

American preferences for returning to a past decade shaped by when they grew up, their politics

The Economist reports on a recent poll that asked Americans which decade to which they would wish to return:

In our latest weekly Economist/YouGov poll, we asked Americans which decade of the 20th century they would most like to go back to. Most popular was the 1950s. The decade of economic boom following the second world war is regarded as a time of consumerism, conservatism and cold-war caution. It was an age of stay-at-home wives, novel household appliances and new suburbs—yet was also most popular among women. The haze of Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s rolled up in second place. Republicans in particular preferred the morally uncomplicated 1950s under President Eisenhower and the 1980s of Reagan; Democrats tended to opt for Bill Clinton’s 1990s. In general, people yearned for their youth. Over 50% of those over 65 wanted to revisit the 1950s and 1960s, while 45- to 64-year-olds pined for the 1980s. The youngest were torn between the jazz age of the 1920s and the 1990s, their own salad days.

On one hand, this might be somewhat meaningless: stereotypes of entire decades are much too simplistic and even The Economist falls into that trap in their descriptions. On the other hand, perhaps knowing what decade people would prefer to return to helps give us some indication of what people are trying to accomplish now. If your preferred era is the 1950s, you might pursue different social norms and policies compared to something who most fondly recalls the 1960s. Indeed, conservatives and liberals might both want to push such a narrative: Republicans to return to the prosperous and calm 1950s (maybe also their vision of the 1980s) while Democrats would prefer the more liberating and exciting 1960s (and perhaps also the 1990s).

Argos hints at the negative foreign actions of the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s

I recently saw the movie Argo (95% fresh reviews at which was quite well done for a movie for which you know the outcome. One part of the movie that intrigued me was an early timeline scene where the relations between the United States and Iran were described. The events of 1979 shouldn’t have been a complete surprise; the CIA had helped install the Shah through a coup in 1953 and the US supported the regime even through its abuses. This is the back story through which the events of the movie take place. (See the story of Iran-United States relations.)

However, the actions of the United States in Iran were not an isolated incident. Indeed, following its rise to superpower status after World War II, the United States was involved in a number of countries. Some of these actions are more well-known. A war in Korea which ended in a stalemate and reaching the brink of war with China. A war in Vietnam which became unpopular and the US didn’t reach the result for which it entered the war. The Bay of Pigs where the US hoped to depose Fidel Castro. But, there were plenty of actions that were not as well-known. Here are a few places to find out more about these actions:

1. The Church Committee was a Congressional committee that operated in 1975 and uncovered and reported on US foreign actions. The committee produced a number of reports that included information like this:

Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and President John F. Kennedy’s plan to use the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.

2. Former CIA operative Philip Agee wrote a 1975 book titled Inside the Company: CIA Diary where he detailed what he knew about CIA actions to influence politics in Latin America. For his actions, Agee’s passport was revoked and he became a persona non grata in some countries friendly with the US. In 2007, Agee described why he came forward with what he knew:

“It was a time in the 70s when the worst imaginable horrors were going on in Latin America,” he says. “Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador – they were military dictatorships with death squads, all with the backing of the CIA and the US government. That was what motivated me to name all the names and work with journalists who were interested in knowing just who the CIA were in their countries.”

Watching Argo in light of this information may just change the interpretation of the final scenes. At first glance, these scenes can be viewed as yet another American success story: American ingenuity and hard work again fights off the forces of darkness. But, with the more complete back story, the final scene might appear more bittersweet.

Perhaps the 1950s, and not the 1960s, were the really strange decade

It common to hear that the 1960s marked a shift in American and global culture and social life. Yet, the more I learn about the 1950s, it seems like this is the decade that was really unusual.

I was thinking about this again recently while reading Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History. Coontz describes how Victorian views of marriage started unraveling at the turn of the 20th century and changes accelerated in the 1920s. Women were more free to work, be aggressors in seeking out intimate relationships, and conservatives worried that divorce rates and levels of premarital sex were rising. But after World War II, traditionalism made a comeback: millions of women who had worked in jobs that helped the war effort returned home as housewives, the country had an unprecedented baby boom, and many Americans sought out single-family homes in the suburbs in order to fully realize their familial potential. This bubble burst in the 1960s but this highlights the short course of the 1950s world; Coontz suggests this idyllic world lasted for only about 15 years.

Of course, there were a host of other factors that made the 1950s unique in the United States. The US was the only major country that hadn’t been ravaged by war. America became a military, economic, and cultural powerhouse as other countries struggled to rebuild. There was enough prosperity across the board to help keep some of the very real inequalities (particularly in terms of race) off the radar screen for many Americans. There was a clear enemy, Communism, and no controversial wars to get bogged down in. America moved to becoming a suburban nation as many become occupied with buying and maintaining single-family homes and stocking them with new appliances. There was a real mass media (just check out the TV ratings and shares for that decade) and an uptick in church attendance.

This is still a relevant issue today. After the Republican National Convention last week, President Obama suggested the Republicans want to go back to the 1950s. If the 1950s were indeed a very unique period that would be difficult to replicate and we know the decade did indeed have real issues, then this may indeed be a problem in 2012 when the world looks very different. Perhaps we could even argue that Republicans want a world that carries on the 1950s and Democrats would prefer one that carries on the legacy of the 1960s.

Making sure the graph of mean age of marriage covers a broad enough period of history

Two days ago, I noted a new report that said that fewer adult Americans, 51%,  are married than ever before. One of the markers of this trend is the rising mean age for a first marriage. But, a sociologist points out that it is important to have a broad enough context for the mean age of marriage:

But Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reminds us that using 1960 as a reference point can be misleading.

In 1960, the median age of first marriage was near a record low, having bottomed in about 1956. If you check out the trends going back to 1890, however, you get a much different picture…

“[T]he 1950s,” Professor Cohen writes, “doesn’t represent the ‘traditional’ family.”

The graph is pretty clear: the 1950s represent a clear dip in the mean age of marriage between 1890 and today. Suggesting there is a sharp rise since the 1960s in the mean age is not incorrect but it masks the bigger context.

This leads me to an interesting idea: while the 1960s are often considered an unusual decade and perhaps one whose reverberations are still being felt (consequences of foreign wars, sexual revolution, rise of youth culture, Baby Boomers, challenges to political authority, etc.), perhaps it is the 1950s that is the real unusual decade in the United States. The swift movement of people to the suburbs, a large crop of war veterans going back to school and starting families, an expanding economy, and relative peace (with the US as a clear superpower) represents an unusual period. Perhaps then the 1960s were simply the beginning of the unraveling of that “golden decade.”

The sociology of Star Trek

Occasionally, I run across more unusual sociology courses. Here is a summer class that examines Star Trek:

In order to understand more about why the Star Trek cannon has continued to be popular and respected since its creation in the 1960s, I took a class this summer at Portland State University entitled “The Sociology of Star Trek.”  I learned about how the Trekkian visions of the future offered a lens through which to examine the culture of its time and about the vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbarry, who highlighted enlightenment ideals and ‘exploration without conquest.’  Additionally I learned about the obsession and culture surrounding the show.

One of our assignments was to review an event that occurs annually in Portland: Trek in the Park. At this event, a full-length original episode is performed by the Atomic Arts theater company. For one month a year, Portlanders gather to show their Trek Pride.

Big sociological themes that you could play with in such a course:

1. The social change of the 1960s and how this was reflected in popular culture.

2. American fascination with:

a. Technology and progress. Even in space, we can’t escape some basic problems.

b. Utopias or idealized communities. This could be tied to a number of utopian communities that were actually built or perhaps even the suburbs, the space where Americans seek the elusive American Dream.

3. The subcultures that form and are maintained based on objects in the popular culture.

4. Cultural narratives as displayed in television (all the versions of Star Trek) plus movies.

See a draft of the syllabus here and comments from the Internet public about what the class could include here. Apparently, you can cover all sorts of topics through the lens of Star Trek…

Are sociologists more likely than the general population to be Star Trek fans? And is the competition to Star Trek, the Star Wars franchise, too low-brow for sociologists?

Quick Review: American Grace

I recently wrote about a small section of American Grace but I have had a chance to complete the full book. Here are my thoughts about this broad-ranging book about religion in America:

1. On one hand, I like the broad overview. There is a lot of data and analysis here about American religion. If someone had to pick up one book about the topic, this wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. I also liked some of the historical insights, including the idea that what we see now in American religion is a fallout of action in the 1960s and two counteractions that followed.

2. On the other hand, I’m not sure this book provides much new information. There is a lot of research contained in this book but much of it is already out there. The authors try to produce new insights from their own survey but I this is an issue in itself: after reading the full book, it was somewhat unclear why the authors undertook two waves of the Faith Matters Survey. The questions led to some new insights (like feelings toward the construction of a large religious building nearby) but much of it seemed duplicated and the short period between the waves didn’t help.

3. There is a lot of talk about data analysis and interpretation in this book. While it is aimed for a more general audience, the authors are careful in their explanations. For example, they are careful to explain what exactly a correlation means, it indicates a relationship between variables but causation is unclear, over and over again. Elsewhere, the authors explain exactly why they asked the questions they did and discuss the quality of this data. Some of these little descriptions would be useful in basic statistics or research classes. On the whole, they do a nice job in explaining how they interpret the data though I wonder how this might play with a general public that might just want the takeaway points. Perhaps this is why one reviewer thought this text was so readable!

4. Perhaps as a counterpoint to the discussions of data, the book includes a number of vignettes regarding religious congregations. These could be quite lengthy and I’m not sure that they added much to the book. They don’t pack the same punch as the representative characters of a book like Habits of the Heart and sometimes seem like filler.

5. The book ends with the conclusion that Americans can be both religiously diverse and devoted because of the many relationships between people of different faiths and denominations. On the whole, the authors suggest most people are in the middle regarding religion, not too confident in the idea that their religion is the only way but unwilling to say that having no religion is the way to go. I would like to have read more about how this plays out within religious congregations: how do religious leaders then talk doctrine or has everyone simply shifted to a more accomodating approach? Additionally, why doesn’t this lead down the path of secularization? From a societal perspective, religious pluralism may be desirable but is it also desirable for smaller groups?

On the whole, this book is a good place to start if one is looking for an overview of American religion. But, if one is looking for more detailed research and discussion regarding a particular topic, one would be better served going to those conducting research within these specific areas.

Sociologist argues sexual revolution may have begun in the 1940s

A recent study published in American Sociological Review suggests that the sexual revolution, typically attributed to the 1960s, may have begun earlier:

“When we refer to the sexual revolution, we typically refer to something that happened suddenly in the 1960s, that took place mainly in the U.S. or Western countries, and that lifted restrictions on all kinds of sexual interactions,” says [David] Frank. “None of these is entirely true.”

In a study published in the December issue of American Sociological Review, Frank and co-authors found that as early as the mid-1940s societal views of the role of sex began changing from a predominantly procreative activity to one focused on individual satisfaction and self-expression. Among the sexual revolution’s most widespread and enduring effects, they found, was the significant change in how sex crimes are classified and regulated around the world.

Using global data collected from 194 nation-states on sex crime laws from 1945 to 2005, they analyzed the effects of reconceptualization on sex crime regulation. They found that as societal models shifted to an individualistic focus, laws regulating sodomy and adultery – acts generally defined as consensual transactions among adults – became more relaxed. Laws regulating rape and child sexual abuse – crimes committed without individual consent – expanded in scope.

If Frank is right (and he is working with some interesting data), then it might change perceptions of the 1950s. This decade is often considered to be a sort of “golden era,” the time of Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, and housewives taking care of the kids and home while the father in a coat and hat traveled to work. And the events of the 1960s seem to fit with this as there was a reaction against this pleasant but restrictive earlier decade.

But Frank suggests that the seeds of the 1960s were sown earlier. This would mean that the 1950s were not as homogeneous as they are commonly portrayed – the legal foundation was already laid for the more contentious 1960s. And it would be interesting to trace out this cultural process as the changes in these laws translated into changed attitudes and behaviors among the general public.

Quick Review: That Thing You Do

I’ve always liked this 1996 film that follows a one-hit band from Erie, Pennsylvania to the top of the record charts and then back down again as they fall apart. A few thoughts on re-watching the extended cut of the movie:

1. The movie has an innocence about it: small-town kids make it big. The characters have a wide-eyed wonder for much of the movie until they become disillusioned. Perhaps this is still the American dream for many bands: hope to get discovered by a local agent and then hit the big-time with all its benefits (fame, money, women, TV).

2. Though he is the last member to join, the drummer, Guy Patterson, is the main character who speeds up the tempo of the band’s hit song when it is still in its embryonic stages and tries to hold the band together as the pieces fall apart. Guy is likable. The extended cut includes move of Guy’s initial back story before he joined the band.

2a. The lead singer, Jimmy, on the other hand, is the brooding genius who can’t handle the demands of the road and just wants to record his next hit record.

2b. Faye, Jimmy’s girlfriend, is played by Liv Tyler and is a lovely girl caught in the band’s crossfire. (This is the only movie where I liked Liv Tyler’s acting.)

3. I like the music. Though it was written in the 1990s, it does sound like music from the 1960s. The title track, “That Thing You Do!”, is catchy and usually stays in my head for a few days after hearing it. Some of the other songs on the soundtrack are also good.

(According to Wikipedia, the title track was good enough in 1996 to merit airplay: “Written and composed for the film by Adam Schlesinger, bassist for Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, and released on the film’s soundtrack, the song became a genuine hit for The Wonders in 1996 (the song peaked at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100, #22 on the Adult Contemporary charts, #18 on the Adult Top 40, and #24 on the Top 40 Mainstream charts).”)

4. I don’t think the extended cut scenes add much. While it adds more nuance to some characters, particularly Guy, the in-theater version was snappier.

5. There are a lot of allusions/homages to the mid 1960s music scene. The Beatles are referred to often and a scene where the Wonders bike/run/skip on a map of the United States is very similar scene from A Hard Day’s Night.

6. I’ve been trying to think about the main point of the film. It could be viewed as sort of a slice-of-life retrospective about the heady days of rock in the mid 1960s but there are a couple of themes that run throughout the story that suggest there is something deeper:

a. The power of relationships over music and fame. While the band hits it big, it’s not the band that endures – it is the relationship between Guy and Faye.

b. The permanence/creativity of jazz compared to rock music. Guy is more interested in jazz when he initially joins the group to help them survive the injury of their original drummer. By the end of the film, he is still more interested in jazz. Compared to the fickle nature of rock (from nobodies to stars to nobodies all within a year), jazz is portrayed as having staying power.

c. The cycle of one-hit wonders that makes the music world go around. Toward the end of the film, their manager (played by Tom Hanks), suggests that this tale is a common one. The music machine takes innocent kids with hit songs, uses them for what they are worth, and then doesn’t care too much if they disappear. As long as there is another chart-topper in the works, that is all that matters.

After another re-watching, my liking of the film is confirmed: the catchy music plus the joy of seeing a small-town band hit it big plus the reality of what often happens when fame comes between people makes for an enjoyable two hour concoction.