Thursday, March 20, 2008

Girls With Kaleidoscope Eyes

Picture the “official” John Lennon image. Do you have it? Are you visualizing it in your mind? What do you see? Let me guess: an unflinching stare behind round glasses, a close-cropped central composition, headshot: the “Imagine” logo. I envision you congratulating me on my dead-on accuracy. Thank you! Now, let’s try to brainstorm some analogous figures: Elvis? Good suggestion. How about John F. Kennedy? Martin Luther King, good, good, and…let’s say Gandhi, and what the hell, Jesus. What are their official images?

Elvis, RIP, has criminally been branded as fat-Las-Vegas-peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich-sleeping-pills Elvis, so maybe, we envision him on stage in a rhinestone white jumper. John F. Kennedy, I’d say, is sitting at an angle, head and shoulders, looking just past the frame and upwards. Martin Luther King is giving a speech at probably more of a profile angle, Gandhi is sitting and bony, and Jesus is, well, being crucified. I think we might also agree that these images are religious /political logos because they somehow represent the essence of this person’s perceived contribution or legacy.

Picture John Lennon again.
Why is this his logo? It all starts with a chord: F over G.

One of the more unmistakable sub-second moments in rock history, A Hard Day’s Night opens with this strident chord, and the unbridled jubilance begins. Richard Lester’s 1964 Beatles movie is a wonderful film adaptation of the insanity the universe succumbed to in ’64: Beatlemania. In this opening scene we see The Beatles doing, well, what we always seem see The Beatles doing. No, not singing-- running away.

Dashing down alleys, sprinting across fields, racing through streets, John, Paul, George and Ringo in all their zeal and youthful splendor are perpetually in fleet from the mobs of screaming girls whose mysterious intent feels dangerous, even savage.

Though the boys laugh it off, and even thrill in the chase, they keep running. The spectacle of the hungry feminine masses is not just a threat to The Beatles, it’s a threat to well, everything in a world that presupposes the non-existence of teenagers, and more importantly teenage girls.

Let’s take it further. Not only was “The Beatles Event” dominated by women in the early 60s, “The Beatles Event” is the most significant movement in the history of pop culture .

At the time of the Beatles’ unprecedented success in 1964, the question on everyone’s lips was “when will this madness stop?” but weirdly, it never did. The Beatles’ ascension has continued rising up to some cosmic place leaving us all down here to mull over their legend trembling in their wake. Like some weird pop-Native American tradition we tell the tale of “Why Yoko Broke Up the Band”, the same way the Chief explains “Why The Snake Crawls on His Belly”. Like all legends, Beatles mythology helps us tell our own story. It helps us see ourselves more clearly and make sense of the world in which we live. Rock and roll, after all, provides the soundtrack to American history. But we must be careful. The endless telling, imagining and writing of their history has obscured some graspable truth already, and the many discourses constructing their fable come, mostly, from the pens of men who dominate rock history and criticism. Perhaps unconsciously, women’s history nevertheless is yet again being insidiously written out. When this history becomes social mythology, it matters. A lot.

But back to A Hard Day’s Night. Lester’s choice to open with a chase sequence is an evocation of the even more awesome spectacle of real life Beatles fans. Images of Beatlemania are, in a word, powerful. Out of context, the crying, shrieking, yearning masses look like refugees trapped in the landscape of an apocalyptic nightmare. A mass movement on this scale, (made for the first time possible with the co-existence of the radio, the television, and personal records which widely distributed the transformative power of music) is seen by most American cultural critics as the first formative image of social revolution in the 1960s. While it seems that pop-intellectuals are clamoring to fling themselves at their leather-booted feet, listless and awed before The Beatles’ ceaseless influence, (sometimes crediting them with the anti-war movement, the youth movement, even planting seeds leading to the fall of communist Russia, and more) conspicuously absent is mention of the feminist movement from this Rock-Gods circle-jerk.

It seems that whenever the youth movement in particular is written about, The Beatles are said to have crystallized the category of “the teenager”, to have represented the teenage domination of culture, the teenage buying power, the teenage sound, the teenage attitude, the teenage aesthetic, the teenage-blah-blah-blah, “the teenager” in these contexts is seldom gendered and, frankly, as girls are the “second sex”, the “first” is always assumed, effectively annihilating an actually conspicuous, even dominant role women played in Beatles history, and by extension the youth movement.

When Beatlemania imagery is dominated by girls, it is only evoked “nowadays”, just as back in the ‘60s, when a good laugh is in order. Aren’t these girls sooooo silly? I have to find a stronger synonym in the thesaurus for “silly” that’s even more condescending, for surely they’re that. Dippy? Featherbrained? Frivolous? How about all of the above? Oh, what a damn mess it was before “we all” realized the true significance of the Fab Four (hey, guys! That’s one better than The Trinity!)

But maybe the only people who are silly in this scenario are the music critics and Nazis of the elite cultural institution [read: old men] who first regarded The Beatles as trivial and their female fans merely hormonal hysterics. Over time, of course, the Beatles fermented in the cultural imagination as “true artists”, but the girls still are trapped in their initial mold. A reconsideration of The Beatles never extended itself to their first fans, the canaries in the pop-culture mineshaft who were on to The Beatles before anyone else, and stayed devoted throughout. Yet, they were then, are still, and will forever be witless hysterics, discarded as idiot-adolescents who fail to understand not only the music beyond the cutesy Beatles-look, but their own hearts and minds. The women who played an essential role in the making of this treasured narrative, are being disappeared, or at best, made clowns in their own history.

Oh, yeah, I’m going there. “The Beatles Event”, starting most dramatically with, but not limited to Beatlemania may have been essential precursor to the American feminist movement. Trumpets. Horns. Confetti. But—we pause—how can any discussion take place about “feminism” and “rock and roll” and “America” without a consideration of race? After all, I’ve been sprinkling this essay with mention of “women”, and “girls”, but I think you and I both know the images are of decidedly white women and white girls. Where is race in this? Our recent readings have stimulated some new ideas, but as I haven’t had time to research more and lord knows I can’t eloquently incorporate my many thoughts into the existing paper at the moment, let me utilize the wonders of the footnote:

Obviously, if you have the most basic understanding of rock and roll music (or the history of America for that matter) you know that it came out of the black communities and was originally called “race music”, whose ranks included the great Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Elvis, of course, is credited with popularizing rock and roll for white people, and it is here that I recall an interview with Jerry Lee Lewis I saw recently where he said something to the effect of, “God wanted the world to have rock and roll. That’s why he made Elvis so good looking” which strikes me as an interesting thing to say. The unnamed intermediary, Lewis implies, is that white women would be the consumers of rock and roll, rendering it a mass movement. Certainly the hysteria we see with Beatlemania was stirring somewhat with Elvis, but the very important distinction to make here is that Elvis was bad. He was a moral outrage in the United States. To go out publicly and shriek over Elvis and his music was not proper behavior for a “good white girl”. Elvis was too symbolically black. He was intertwined inextricably from the black roots of rock music, and that he was also sexual made the racist American fear of sexual black men encountering young white women an undercurrent of his public perception (this, of course, was a problem of all early rockers). Therefore white women, who wanted to have a prayer of “respectability”, were especially kept separate from the early rock movement.

The Beatles, well schooled in “race music”—some of their biggest hits being covers of black artists (most notably The Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout), were not racially stigmatized the same way. They weren’t just white: they were British! They were super-duper white. As Englishmen, they escaped the race history of America undergirding rock and roll music, delivering it from a decontextualized standpoint (or at least, they were perceived in such a way). At a moment in American history where race tensions were especially high with the Civil Rights Movement, the Beatles made it possible for white people and especially white girls to indulge in the ecstasies of rock and roll without contending with racial implications. Could this be why “The British Invasion” was made possible? Perhaps the sheer explosion of Beatlemania from white women may have been more subdued if they hadn’t been so repressed earlier in rock history…maybe.

Racial tensions would also have likely made black women’s performance of Beatlemania (should they have felt inclined toward it) unwelcome, a legacy that would sadly impact the second wave movement. Another point to note, the “gap” between the glory days of early rock (which abruptly ended when Chuck Berry went to jail, Elvis was drafted, Jerry Lee married his 13 year old cousin and Little Richard turned to God), and the British Invasion saw the rise of the black girl groups. The Shirelles, the Ronnettes the Marvelettes, Tina and Ike, this was the great rock moment for black women, which is sadly overlooked in the narrative of American rock and roll. Once the “British Invasion” happened (ugh, the usage of the word “invasion” is so masculinist), black American music, while still rock and roll was renamed and re-categorized as “R&B” and “soul”, white artists claiming the title .

All this complicates my existing essay, but I think core ideas still stand.

But back to A Hard Day’s Night. While you were reading I fast forwarded to the scene where John, Paul, George and Ringo encounter Paul’s ratscallion grandfather, the “child” of the film, who the Beatles must keep an eye on to be sure he doesn’t cause any trouble (ha! We all know how that turns out!). This, in the Beatles’ carnivalesque world , is merely business as usual. Somehow in their wit, their antics and their playful conduct, they made transgression allowed. “The Carnival” is where the absurd is normalized, where inversion becomes possible: the king is “uncrowned”, the person who comes in last wins the race, men dress as women, women as men, and everything is turned upside-down. The Carnival lives on in the everyday in humor, which “builds its own world versus the official world, its own church versus the official church, its own state versus the official state” (Bakhtin, 88).

That’s what Beatlemania was: an international Carnival! We look back to the film at Paul’s grandfather, now locked in a cage, the boys scolding him for wrongdoing, we think on The Beatles performing at the British Variety Performance before the Royal Family in 1963, where John Lennon asks, “will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewelry." The Beatles are bigger than Jesus, he states. Paul is dead! We cry.

“I declare that the Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.”
-Timothy Leary

This Carnival invited girls to freak out, to get loud, to become unruly—everything they were not supposed to be. The Beatles were at the center of a Faucauldian panopticon, policed by the penetrating gaze of young girls, feasting their eyes on the album covers, magazines, cartoons, movies, newsreels, and endless photographs that governed these boys for the starved girls to consume. They were thrilled by the new power. They came out in droves to perform Beatlemania for the cameras, to get hauled away by the police, fighting tooth and nail to have the chance to rip a Beatle to shreds. They were a shrieking, hellish mass and it felt fantastic.

“The masses are forced to see themselves everywhere: this, they are always aware of themselves, often in the aesthetically seductive form of an ornament or an effective image…All the mythical powers which the masses are capable of developing are exploited for the purpose of underscoring the significance of the masses as a mass. To many it then appears as though they were elevated in the masses above themselves."
-Seigfried Kracaur, The Mass Ornament

Beatles history commentators (mostly men) always lament the loss of the “Beatles concert”, shaking their heads at what a shame it was that the girls’ piercing shrieks drowned out the live music. But don’t they see? Drowning the Beatles out was the whole point. The records were at home to listen to the music (The Beatles always did consider themselves to be a recording band anyway), the event, the Carnival was the real Beatles experience. The girls went to a concert not to see The Beatles, but so they could be seen. They went to a concert not to hear The Beatles but so that The Beatles would hear them.

“I reckon we could send out four waxwork dummies of ourselves and that would satisfy the crowds. Beatles concerts are nothing to do with the music any more. They’re just bloody tribal rites”
-John Lennon (1966), Anthology 329

The Beatles were an excuse to participate in the Carnival and it was the Carnival itself that was both the spectacle and the obsession. The Beatles were not just photographed, they were photographed being photographed. They were looked at being looked at. We were obsessed with our obsession with The Beatles. Young women were drunk with the power of the gaze—of the ability to look. In this power inversion, The Beatles are castrated and submit to the gaze as grinning prisoners, ever on the run from “the law” of their fans. A Hard Day’s Night, while joyous and fun, can be seen as a story of an odd oppression, the boys unable to escape grip of the girls’ demand for them and the capitalist agents bent on giving the group over to the camera’s many eyes.

The Can’t Buy Me Love chase-scene towards the end of the film parallels the opening sequence as the only other chase in the film. The major difference, of course, is that the girls are replaced by police officers making the two groups symbolically analogous. [Insert arbitrary Foucault quote here].

Something to consider: the average age of the Beatlemaniac was between 11 and 15. These girls would be of, or just post college age for the height of the second wave feminist movement. Did, oh, I don’t know, an imagining of “the possible” occur somewhere down the road in their development? The Beatles, emasculated under the penetrating gaze, symbolically gave up the phallus making it possible for women not just to assume the masculine role of voyeurs, but to identify with the castrated Beatles who, while in reality subject to policing eyes, performed what looked an awful lot like freedom.

Anonymous woman on childhood Beatlemania:
“It didn't feel sexual, as I would now define that. It felt more about wanting freedom. I didn't want to grow up and be a wife and it seemed to me that the Beatles had the kind of freedom I wanted: No rules, they could spend two days lying in bed; they ran around on motorbikes, ate from room service. . . . I didn't want to sleep with Paul McCartney, I was too young. But I wanted to be like them, something larger than life."

Just like all the social revolutions in the dusty corridors of history, equality for women, epistemological, social, political and sexual is always somehow set-aside for “another time”. The cities could be burned down in revolution, the rebels preaching a utopian radical unicorn-rainbow vision, but the unimaginable foundation of patriarchy, the first power division of them all, will ever remain in tact. The Beatles catalyzed all kinds of revolution, the feminist one not least of all, but in historical retrospect, the aggressive campaign taking place to distance The Beatles from feminism, and trivialize women’s role in the Carnival is unmistakable. This campaign requires:

1. Downplaying the “early Beatles” period.
2. Explaining-away/diminishing girls’ interest in the Beatles.
3. Giving back the forfeited phallus.

You see, in the masculine doctrine of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” the women were there to provide “the sex”, they were not supposed to benefactors in this boys club. The cognitive dissonance caused by women’s participation in and empowerment by The Beatles movement required the above rationalizations, so that a retrospective reshaping could uniform this experience to fit a more comfortable mold. I am not necessarily suggesting that an anti-woman conspiracy is taking place; that it is merely unconscious is good enough for this argument.

Point 1: The strict division between “Early Beatles” and “Later Beatles” is like a division between the body and the mind (a gendered duality to begin with). Early Beatles were rock and rollers. They played Chuck Berry songs. They had clever but simple lyrics and their music made us dance. Rock and roll, after all, appeals to the physical, reelin’ and rockin’, a whole lotta shakin’, twisting and shouting bodies. Later Beatles were finally recognized by “the intellectual”, the valorized, masculine, thoughtful listener, whose Beatles were not mop tops but epic Sgt. Pepper-philosopher-astronaut-kings. My generation, anyway, are the inheritors of an oral Beatles tradition passed down through the years which has produced firm believers in the superiority of Later Beatles, the early period going all but unexamined by most, which was also the period most dominated (therefore stigmatized) by women.

Point 2: Analogizing Beatlemania with the Backstreet Boys or New Kids on the Block, first of all isn’t valid, but secondly undermines the desire for historical reconsideration, or at least further investigation of Beatlemania. It has become a quaint image, even campy, where we explain away the one moment in girls’ lives where they objectify the boys (seriously, look at any teen idol images and then reconsider gaze theory) as merely a fleeting moment where they are encountering sexuality but need an androgynous, “unthreatening” boy to fixate on. However, The Beatles fixation wasn’t the same as taping a David Cassidy poster to your wall and drawing little hearts in your notebook around his name, it was political. It was performed publicly all over the world by girls who assembled not just at concert venues, but where they were not invited: hotels, airport terminals, along city streets… This was a radical, political demonstration, though modern discourse wouldn’t have you know it.

Point 3: John Lennon.
His poster is on my wall, it’s of the image you and I had agreed upon earlier, it says “Imagine” in the corner and he’s looking right at me. I can feel that phallic Lennon gaze. Oops. Have I given myself away? Well, I suppose you knew this was coming. John Lennon, the perceived leader of The Beatles: the ultimate “looked at” in a band of eunuchs, the feminized trapped in their own Carnival, has been dead for nearly thirty years and is the greatest myth-maker of them all. The men who write the Lennon Legend, proliferate this image. One of the most looked at men of all time, John Lennon returns the gaze, and reclaims the phallus in a photograph epitomizing a masculine co-opt of history.

Lennon’s unflinching stare behind round glasses, a close-cropped central composition, headshot, Imagine, is a mask that disguises a more subversive truth.

I think to another scene in A Hard Day’s Night: Lennon is walking through a corridor, when a woman (MILLE) stops him.



Oh, wait a minute, don't tell me you're ...

No, not me.

Oh you are, I know you are.

No, I'm not.

You are.

I'm not, no.

Well, you look like him.

Oh do I? You're the first one who ever said that.

Oh you do, look.

JOHN looks at himself in the mirror.

JOHN examines himself in the mirror carefully.

(and later)

(examines John’s face through her glasses)
You don't look like him at all.

(walking away, thinking)
She looks more like him than I do.

Myth requires alienation. It must shake the mundane realities of its subject to create the archetype for our stories. Both Mille and John can’t recognize John anymore. “She looks more like him than I do,” he thinks, “him” being the image of Beatle-John—a canvas for Mille’s projected meanings, so maybe she is more “John Lennon” than he. And we, the authors of the “Beatles Myth”, are more them than they. Finally, this article is my plea that we not forget that the original storytellers were those teenage banshees, wildly chasing a wonderful fantasy through the train station.

In the final scene of A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles escape in an awaiting helicopter. As the aircraft takes off, a shower of photographs rains down to the earth. The Beatles give over their image to the eager grasps of young women now possessing the empowered gaze, and dreaming upwards as The Beatles ascend. Imagine that.

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