Sunday, August 2, 2009

Elijah Wald's "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll"

Elijah Wald has been a musician since age seven and a writer since the early 1980s. He has published more than a thousand articles, mostly about folk, roots and international music for various magazines and newspapers. He won a Grammy Award for his album notes to The Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Box.

Wald's books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, Josh White: Society Blues, Global Minstrels: Voices of World Music, Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, River of Song: Music Along the Mississippi, which accompanied the PBS series of the same name, and Narcocorrido, a survey of the modern Mexican ballads of drug smuggling and social issues.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, and reported the following:
As it turns out, the page 99 test hits my book at a perfect point. The previous page deals with the typical jazz critic rap that even the greatest, hottest bands were forced to play some sappy music to please the girls. So page 99 begins:

But something can be true and still be misleading. Male dance band fans studied their heroes with a devotion that seems to have been rare among their female friends (if they had any), and in their reminiscences about the era one constantly comes across variations of the phrase ‘Kids talked big band personalities like they talked baseball players.’ What that means is that a lot of kids knew every trumpeter and drummer by name, but the choice of simile points up the extent to which this knowledge was part of being in the boys’ club. Dance band records were like baseball cards, and their collectors had the same contempt for girls who couldn’t name the Casa Loma Orchestra’s rhythm section that they had for girls who couldn’t name the Dodgers’ infield…. But even such college-boy favorites as Casa Loma were kept alive not by the few fanatical admirers who crowded around the bandstand but by the hundreds of couples swirling in each other’s arms or necking in the corners. And when the swing era brought faster, hotter rhythms to the fore, it was still generally the women who pulled their boyfriends onto the dance floor…

That split between the day-to-day realities of the pop music world, in which female fans have virtually always been the main audience, and the way the music is covered by male critics and historians—many of whom spent their high school years huddled over their bedroom phonographs rather than going out on dates—forms one of the central arguments of my book.

When we get to the Beatles, it is a bit of an oversimplification to say that as long as they were a rock ‘n’ roll band their main audience was screaming teenage girls but when they got arty their audience became largely male and the girls defected to Motown. But, though I try to paint a more complex picture in the book, a lot of women who were teenagers in the mid-to-late 1960s recall that as pretty much what happened.

And by my teen years in the 1970s the split was complete, with the girls dancing to disco and the boys listening to Springsteen or punk rock--while (male, rock-loving) critics created complex arguments to explain how disco was betraying its African-American heritage and the white rockers were the true heirs to Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

Now I have to go check page 99 of my other books….
Read more about How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll at Elijah Wald's website.

--Marshal Zeringue