Et tu, Paul?
Listen Mr. Shirley, we like you here at NPI. We like sports. We like books. We like people who write good books about playing sports. You even tweeted at Tim. But if forced to choose between you and the Beatles, well, we’re gonna have to go with the Beatles.
Now, I have no problem with unconventional stances; in fact, I like them a lot. And I have no qualms with someone’s personal tastes. It’s also true that people who don’t like the Beatles are unfairly maligned (you guys should form a support group with people who don’t think The Godfather is that great and people who think Shakespeare is overrated).
Some of what you say is certainly true: “[T]he mythology that surrounds the Beatles has overwhelmed rational humans’ ability to judge the band by its music.” There is no denying that when you are brought up and essentially conditioned to think something is good, that is going to affect your judgment of that thing, whether your judgment is positive or negative.
But it’s one thing to say that a mythology as large as the one surrounding the Beatles makes judging them “objectively” difficult or impossible—a thesis I’ll accept—and another thing entirely to claim that “we were not around for The Beatles. Therefore, we cannot judge their impact on popular music.” This latter claim is patently untrue—as you seem to acknowledge later in the article, when you claim that you “understand that The Beatles are culturally significant and important in the historical progression of rock music.” You don’t have to be a contemporary of something to understand its impact. I wasn’t around for the Revolutionary War, but I get that it was a big deal.
Being influential and being good are, granted, two very different things. Just because Revolver and Sgt. Pepper changed the way albums were made doesn’t mean you necessarily have to like those albums. But lots of people do like The Beatles. Maybe you don’t like them, and maybe even a sizable portion of people who claim to like them are only doing it to seem like thy have the “right” musical taste, but the Beatles didn’t get to be the most popular band in the world by accident; some people, even some people born after the band broke up, sincerely like this music.
This brings me to the most troubling part of your argument: the implication that you can only really like music that comes out in your lifetime. As you put it, “[A]ny affection I hold for bands that were in their prime before I was around is a wary affection. I feel almost as if I would be stealing if I went around claiming that CCR is my favorite band. Plenty of good musicians have matured in my lifetime; there’s no reason to take CCR from my uncle.”
This seems both untrue and inconsistent with your claim that music and mythology are two different things. If, after all, you claim to want to judge The Beatles based solely on their music, then why is it “stealing” to listen to older bands and songs? I wasn’t around for grunge, but I still think Nirvana songs sound good. I wasn’t even a glimmer in my parents’ eyes in the 1970s, but that doesn’t make Led Zeppelin IV any less awesome.
The reason you overvalue contemporary works (and I don’t mean to imply that all new music sucks; there are plenty of great bands working now) is your idea that works of art get better over time. This is the most disturbing paragraph of your argument:
I’d much rather listen to Oasis than The Beatles. Oasis, or any band that came after The Beatles, learned from The Beatles, improving on their work by listening to, building on and perfecting the styles pioneered by The Beatles. The result: The arrangements used by Oasis are more complex, the sound is denser, the production is better. Claims that Oasis is nothing more than a Beatles tribute band do little to disprove my theory. There is no question that Oasis was influenced by The Beatles — most rock bands are. That influence was likely heavier with Oasis, but even Oasis — brash as the band is — understands the power of what came before. After all, Oasis named an album “Standing On the Shoulders of Giants.” All these improvements can be chalked up to chronological order.
Excuse me when I say…Fuck the heck?! Chronological order is the best way to evaluate music? “Hollaback Girl” came out after “Idioteque.” Does that make it better? Is “Party in the USA” 22 years better than “Welcome to the Jungle”? I’m not saying that certain technological advances may make production values better, or allow newer things to be done, but that doesn’t automatically make better music. Oasis may be able to do a lot of things The Beatles never could, but that doesn’t mean their music sounds better. I, for one, think it does not.
(This is to say nothing of the fact that, in picking a band whose oeuvre you wanted to compare with The Beatles, to illustrate once and for all that The Beatles have been topped….you chose Oasis. Not, like, Radiohead, or Jay-Z, or Wilco…Oasis. The guys who did “Wonderwall.” Ugh.)
Art is not like technology, or the Scientific Method; it does not move linearly. This, again, doesn’t mean that the old stuff can never be topped, but it certainly isn’t true that everything new is better than everything old. Shakespeare was a better writer than Dan Brown, despite the fact that Brown has technological advances and the influence of Shakespeare himself at his disposal. Sometimes new bands try to develop and expand on the work of great predecessors, and very often these attempts fall flat. “More complex” and “denser” do not always translate to better, particularly in music. If it did, the most popular band in the world would be Rush or something.
Are The Beatles the best band ever? I don’t know. They’re not my favorite, but I like them a lot. And the fact that so many people do, in a way that no band since has come even close to replicating, helps their case. It certainly indicates people can still like their music, even if they were born after the Nixon Administration, and that not everyone who claims The Beatles are their favorite band is lying or not thinking for themselves. People sometimes agree on greatness.
And they’re certainly better than fucking Oasis.