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 RottenTomatoes.com) 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?