Who is Paul McCartney, part II

I thought this was as humorous as the first round two years ago (sorry–no Dothraki love song info in today’s post). This blurb from the Boston Globe probably says it best–especially about how nostalgia culture has become a culture of its own:

The quick-and-dirty “look at these people on Twitter not knowing about this important figure” post has become something of a stock in trade for media outlets looking for ways to position themselves above particular generational frays; indeed, McCartney himself was the subject of similar roundups back in 2012. But this time, the news broke even more widely, with even network affiliates getting in on the action. Thanks to the figures involved — the lightning-rod West, the boomer-beloved McCartney — this combination of one-off Twitter jokes being misinterpreted by people looking for quick-hit boomer outrage being stoked is still social media gold five days into the new year. But the way this news popped up, and then stuck around, speaks volumes about how nostalgia culture has in many ways become culture itself.

 

As I said in the previous post:

Point is, what some of us may feel is “popular,” and therefore “relevant,” is usually informed by an idiosyncratic notion formed by what might have been “big” during some of our formative years as well as in a relatively restrictive context.  For example, how many people have heard of Lata Mangeshkar?  Go to India and probably some billions of people have listened to and loved some of her thousands of Bollywood playback songs over her 50 + year career.

The interesting thing about aging pop stars is the “close to classical” status they are starting to have.  Some of that was discussed in my Aging of the Orchestra Audience is “A Function of Demographic Evolution” post.  As Orchestras beef up their Pops Seasons with such fare as the Music of the Beatles concerts, we’re inexorably moving towards turning old pop music into classics much as has been done with classical music of the past when that used to be popular.

And it’s not just happening in orchestras.  One of the popular festivals down here is our Abbey Road on the River and a recent commenter on Greg Sandow’s most recent post talks about a Beatles Festival at Baldwin Wallace University.

What started as a small, student-driven performance for campus friends has quickly grown into a BW tradition. With a wink and a nod to the Conservatory’s long-running Bach Festival, the new “Beatles Festival” pays tribute to the music of the Fab Four, and students are running the show.

When Universities start canonizing music, you start to wonder how much relevance that music has anymore and the “Who is Paul McCartney?” twitter storm just accentuates the fact.

 

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Who is Paul McCartney, part II

  1. Nice post!

    Yes, among the probable tens of thousands of tweets (hundreds of thousands, millions?) that “covered” this music event, it was inevitable that a few of them would demonstrate ignorance of Sir Paul. I don’t think it really shows much.

    The Beatles and Rolling Stones produced a critical mass of good/popular music further bolstered by strong, memorable visual imagery (the distinctive look of the Fab Four, Mick Jagger’s, well, everything) and have been canonized as unbeatable pop culture brands. A few individuals like Elvis (even higher) and Jimi Hendrix (not quite so high) have done it too in the realm of music in the 60s. Everything else is second tier (the Who) or worse, and the value of even a second-tier artist is much lower than a first-tierer.

    My guess is that the human brain/mind doesn’t have that much bandwidth/storage capacity/etc. for such brands. How many people ever think about the Dave Clark Five, the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, etc.? Even if the music of the Dave Clark Five is worth 1/20 of that of the Beatles, people do not give them 1/20 of the thought they give to the Beatles. The Beatles get a lot, the Dave Clark Five gets virtually zero by the collective.

    Similarly, people give Shakespeare and Dickens a lot of thought and Jonson and Thackeray almost none, respectively, even though the latter pair has a few works that rival those of the former in quality.

    In short, when it comes to brand, “”For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” (Mt. 13:12)

    And those brands can last a long time. Shakespeare for example. (I am not saying that he doesn’t deserve to be ranked highly and remembered! But to the vast majority of people, he is not experienced directly either on the page or in the theater; instead, he exists *only* as a cultural brand.)

    There was a time when Noel Coward was a major pop cultural force, probably known to most people with any “culture.” There was a time when Bing Crosby was the No. 1 entertainer in the country, not just that old guy who sang White Christmas. Sinatra’s brand has lived on as something hip whereas Crosby’s has mostly languished (and most 20s music has been forgotten whereas a lot of the music of the 40s and 50s is now called “standards”).

    The Beatles’ brand may well have reached a turning point. It could become something we’re supposed to respect, something safe, something “classic” as you say, instead of something that people spontaneously enjoy. Time will tell.

    Like

    1. Matt, interestingly a friend of mine who reads my blog but usually comments via email, paraphrased that Matthew scripture as some things in my previous post reminded him of that (apparently it was coined by Robert Merton and dubbed the “Matthew Effect“).

      I recall some economic studies showing that the quality of top performers in a number of fields may differ by such a small amount as to be negligible but the pay disparity between the top and the second to top is far greater than the quality difference would warrant (I’ll have to find that study).

      I suspect that we’re seeing the process of canon formation right here. Sinatra is a great example vis-a-vis Bing Crosby. And I think it’s interesting that nearly all the artists we’re talking about here are white which says something about how a dominant group still wields some power over others, especially when appropriating the music of a marginalized group time and time again–going right back to the Matthew Effect. Michael Jackson is likely the only Superstar that can rank in those top brands.

      And these issues are some of the reasons I usually refer to “Pop Music” as “Anglo-American Pop” (or sometimes more generically “Euro-American Pop”) since this side of music in the States is just the other side of the same coin as European Art Music–both are musical genres/industries/communities favored by a dominant White population, and I think in seeing the rise of Hip-Hop, Latin Music, and Ethnic Orchestras, we can start seeing how the Entertainment forms of the growing population of non-Whites is finally coming into their own.

      It will be interesting to see if what we’re really seeing is simply the slow loss of socio-economic power and prestige of primarily White Euro-American forms of entertainment which is paralleling the loss of socio-economic (and numeric) power of the White Euro-American population. What will be telling is seeing if we can even have a superstar culture for these growing minority populations given what we talked about regarding waning of “Legacy Media” in the previous post!

      Like

  2. Jon,

    Thanks for the response! Some more thoughts:

    ||Matt, interestingly a friend of mine who reads my blog but usually comments via email, paraphrased that Matthew scripture as some things in my previous post reminded him of that (apparently it was coined by Robert Merton and dubbed the “Matthew Effect“).||

    Haha yes, good to know!

    ||I recall some economic studies showing that the quality of top performers in a number of fields may differ by such a small amount as to be negligible but the pay disparity between the top and the second to top is far greater than the quality difference would warrant (I’ll have to find that study).||

    Right. There is a tipping point where one of the two (or a few of the many) become a “brand,” gobbling up all of the limited mindshare for that category. The second tier is SOL.

    ||And I think it’s interesting that nearly all the artists we’re talking about here are white which says something about how a dominant group still wields some power over others, especially when appropriating the music of a marginalized group time and time again–going right back to the Matthew Effect. Michael Jackson is likely the only Superstar that can rank in those top brands.||

    Interesting point! Top pop music brands are so limited in number that it’s unclear if there is statistical significance to the race of those who have earned the distinction. Yet… I think the visual component can’t be ignored, and that component will tie into the culturally dominant template for beauty. How many first-tier female movie star brands are there (not including current stars, who may or may not last as icons)? Marilyn Monroe is the only inarguable first-tier one I can think of. Several, like Jean Harlow, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, etc., are debatable. All are white and adhere to a particular standard of beauty. Judy Garland, I think, is another inarguably first-tier pop culture icon, though she has earned it not by being a first-tier singer or movie star but by straddling both worlds, so to speak. I’m not sure if the Beatles would be first-tier if they hadn’t been pretty and visually distinctive. Michael Jackson, same thing.

    ||And these issues are some of the reasons I usually refer to “Pop Music” as “Anglo-American Pop” (or sometimes more generically “Euro-American Pop”) since this side of music in the States is just the other side of the same coin as European Art Music–both are musical genres/industries/communities favored by a dominant White population, and I think in seeing the rise of Hip-Hop, Latin Music, and Ethnic Orchestras, we can start seeing how the Entertainment forms of the growing population of non-Whites is finally coming into their own.||

    Another very important point! I feel this deeply as I lived in Japan for 8 years and was there for what I consider the Golden Age of J-Pop. According to Wikipedia, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” was the *only* Japanese song ever to reach the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 1 in 1963: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukiyaki_%28song%29). Really?! There have been tons of great Japanese pop songs, but none was deserving? Balderdash. It has obviously been a system rigged to keep out almost everything but Anglosphere tunes (with Sweden being an honorary member in the case of pop music, it seems). The paltry exceptions prove the rule.

    ||It will be interesting to see if what we’re really seeing is simply the slow loss of socio-economic power and prestige of primarily White Euro-American forms of entertainment which is paralleling the loss of socio-economic (and numeric) power of the White Euro-American population. What will be telling is seeing if we can even have a superstar culture for these growing minority populations given what we talked about regarding waning of “Legacy Media” in the previous post!||

    I agree, and I think it can’t happen. The interesting thing is that there are “fanspheres” that also have their own “brands,” but brands are less predominant since fans tend to want to know everything (blues nerds, classic country nerds, etc.–I’m both of those). So the question is what level of new activity can fanspheres support going forward, and what kind of lifestyle can the individual musicians have?

    Like

    1. Just a few quick comments.

      Judy Garland, I think, is another inarguably first-tier pop culture icon, though she has earned it not by being a first-tier singer or movie star but by straddling both worlds, so to speak.

      I’m recalling that Lady Gaga was recently in a film (was it that Tarantino film, I can’t remember offhand) and was just remembering some things I’d read about access w/r/t roles in Popular media. We mentioned Sinatra, who has also crossed that divide between music and film, and Garland/Sinatra/Gaga aren’t isolate examples. Seems like once you get into, or near, that top tier of stardom in one media form, it increases the likelihood of crossing over into another. Hell, even the Beatles and Elvis have starred in movies. Obviously in the case of Sinatra, that probably amplified his brand immeasurably, while it might have done little for, say, the Beatles, but the frequency with which things like this happen (at least in the US) probably overwhelmingly shows that stars in one media are overrepresented in other media. At least in the direction of pop music to film.

      Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” was the *only* Japanese song ever to reach the Billboard Hot 100. Really?! There have been tons of great Japanese pop songs, but none was deserving?

      Yes! This is related to the Slanted Canon effect as well as the Anglicization effect that I’ve had discussions with here in past posts (one of those was one of my American Voices posts) and on Facebook with folks–recall that Sinatra is one of the few (of the many Italian-American) crooners who didn’t heavily anglicize his name (Frank from Francis is mild). Dean Martin/Dino Paul Crocetti, Perry Como/Pierino Ronald Como, Connie Francis/Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, etc…ad nauseum. It was a time when Italians/Italian American were dominant, and yet still whitewashed, in popular music. Interestingly also during the only time (if I’m recall correctly) that a foreign language tune (Domenico Modugno’s Volare) was a Grammy Winner.

      Coincidentally, one of the first songs I learned how to sing as a kid was Sukiyaki–but the Thai version as that’s the one that was popular in Thailand at the time and that my Mother learned (and taught me).

      The interesting thing is that there are “fanspheres” that also have their own “brands,” but brands are less predominant since fans tend to want to know everything (blues nerds, classic country nerds, etc.–I’m both of those). So the question is what level of new activity can fanspheres support going forward, and what kind of lifestyle can the individual musicians have?

      Right! One of the things I’ve learned by being active performing in and with ethnic communities is how often they live a life with “two canons”–the ones from their country of origin, and the ones from the US. One of the reasons I mention Lata Mangeskar/Bollywood music is that she is undoubtedly a top tier pop icon in India, and could conceivably have a bigger “live” audience than many top Euro-American Pop stars. At one time, she was (erroneously) listed in the Guinness as having recorded 26,000 tunes. Her record is a more modest 2000+ tunes (still almost ten times the amount of songs most US/European Pop artists record).

      We just can’t imagine the canons of other cultures in any appreciable sense if only because the pop cultural environments are so different. And, going back to the Anglicization issue above, it’s even so different now than it was back in the day of Sinatra. One of my favorite tunes to sing/play in il Troubadore is “Milise Mou”–from 1960 and written by Manos Hadjidakis–the same songwriter from the more famous “Never on a Sunday” (“Ta Paidiá tou Peiraiá” from the film “Pote Tin Kyriaki”) to American audiences (recorded by Don Costa–another Italian-American-né Dominick P. Costa)–it won an Academy Award for best Original Song.

      Somehow we went from Volare winning Grammy Song of the Year, Never on a Sunday winning Academy Award for Best Original Song; and Italian Americans regularly Anglicizing their names while singing a number of tunes in Italian which became hits; popular artists from other countries which have songs in top international charts that even make into US culture (albeit in translation); to where we are now (wherever that is).

      Ok, so this probably wasn’t as short as I originally intended, but I’ll stop here! 😛

      Like

  3. More edifying insights, Jon!

    A few more responses:

    ||…but the frequency with which things like this happen (at least in the US) probably overwhelmingly shows that stars in one media are overrepresented in other media. At least in the direction of pop music to film.||

    Probably more of the Matthew Effect, no? Once you are a brand and can be sold, TBTB are going to try to sell you every which way but loose. Paul released a book of (reportedly awful) poetry a few years back (probably 15 years by now, lol, I’m not going to check!), and I’m sure he sold more of ’em than most “real” poets. When I was researching what to do with the nonfiction book that my friend and I wrote together, the reality was pretty grim: They pretty much want you to be famous (or have substantial speaking tours, etc.) already so that you’re sure to sell a paltry 5,000 copies (that’s a “successful” nonfiction book!). The book ends up being a piece of glorified marketing collateral for the human brand in question.

    But yes, Sinatra had “Pal Joey,” “Guys and Dolls,” “From Here to Eternity.” The funny thing is that he is not much celebrated as an actor *now* but I’m sure it did serve as you said to build his brand back in the day.

    ||It was a time when Italians/Italian American were dominant, and yet still whitewashed, in popular music. Interestingly also during the only time (if I’m recall correctly) that a foreign language tune (Domenico Modugno’s Volare) was a Grammy Winner.||

    And many different movie stars and singers from different ethnic groups were changing their names lest they seem “foreign.” Make it all safe, white bread for the masses! Interesting about “Volare” too.

    ||Coincidentally, one of the first songs I learned how to sing as a kid was Sukiyaki–but the Thai version as that’s the one that was popular in Thailand at the time and that my Mother learned (and taught me).||

    I had no idea that song was popular in Thailand. That is a cute story! Wait, I thought you were Persian?

    ||One of the things I’ve learned by being active performing in and with ethnic communities is how often they live a life with “two canons”–the ones from their country of origin, and the ones from the US.||

    Yep. Japan actually has two music charts for hits–one for domestic, one for foreign. I never really learned how it works in detail, but they definitely have their own “system” for *not* letting the pop cultural chips fall as they may. And of course you know about Canada’s law requiring a certain percentage of pop music played to be by Canadian artists.

    ||One of the reasons I mention Lata Mangeskar/Bollywood music…||

    Right. No matter how big these icons get in their respective countries, the filtration into US pop culture seems nonexistent. It’s a neat trick! In Japan, Hibari Misora was a similar type of star. She died while I lived there, and the media gave her passing absolutely massive coverage.

    ||Somehow we went from Volare winning Grammy Song of the Year, Never on a Sunday winning Academy Award for Best Original Song; and Italian Americans regularly Anglicizing their names while singing a number of tunes in Italian which became hits; popular artists from other countries which have songs in top international charts that even make into US culture (albeit in translation); to where we are now (wherever that is).||

    And yet, I don’t think there was any kind of conspiracy to keep out “foreign stuff.” Oh sure, there have been decisions made against promoting this and that, and there’s no doubt business execs sometimes/often make decisions that are not in the best interest of the world. But I call it a “neat trick” because these systems often just kind of organically come into being, for better or worse.

    Like

  4. Oh, one theory as to *why* things have changed in the direction you describe (which with I agree) is that TPTB (i.e., whoever has power in whatever degree, wherever) simply got better at their jobs. Here is Frank Zappa talking about the evolution of pop music starting in the 60s:

    Basically, he says that the records company execs in the 60s were ignorant of what would sell, admitted it, and they tried lots of different stuff, and some really good music got made. Then people who “knew what they were doing” (or thought they did) took over and tried to do a “better” job.

    I think we see this in movies in the 60s and 70s too: very competent directors, writers, actors, etc., doing a lot of different things with some great art being made. Then the blockbuster model comes into being and the business side catches up in terms of “competence,” so to speak (or finds a model that finally works vis-a-vis television, etc. etc. A new competence to replace the one that had ceased to work…)

    Often a trend comes down to someone finding a model that pays the bills but doesn’t necessarily result in the greatest art being made. It’s a mundane observation, but I mean it as a counter to conspiratorial thinking. You know, when people say that pop culture today is terrible or this great thing is dying out or this terrible thing is becoming more prominent because some sort of organized cabal is making it so.

    An example is reality TV. Those shows are just cheaper to make, a few were made that sold well enough, and then the snowball effect and inevitable fatigue.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s