Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Black and White Masculinities

The Beatles with Cassius Clay, 12th Street Gym, Miami, Florida (1964)

Henry Benson

Beatlemania’s explosion was a product of its time in more ways than one. Elvis was perhaps the closest idol to incite hysteria on a scale hinting at something like Beatlemania, which would take place less than a decade after “That’s All Right” was first played on Memphis radio. Why, given his potential, didn’t “Elvis-mania” equal Beatlemania? Why has no teen “mania” ever done so? In Elvis’ case it must be noted that upon his debut, “Elvis was visibly lower class and symbolically black (as the bearer of black music to white youth)”1.

Indeed, only a few years prior, rock ‘n’ roll, then categorized as race, was understood to be quintessentially black music. With the Civil Rights Movement in full swing by the early ‘60s, racial tensions were no doubt rife in the years proceeding, and the American racist legacy that feared an encounter between black male sexuality and white daughters, was alive and well. The moral panic surrounding Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll and sexuality cannot be extracted from racist underpinnings—nor should a fear of adolescent sexuality be considered without special attention to the implication of daughters.

Yet, rock ‘n’ roll, ordained the official music of the boomer generation, could not be erased or suppressed. The solution? Import it. The British Invasion (to call it "invasion" is so masculinist given the fact that girls' consumer demand was what brought the Beatles here) made it possible to symbolically remove black roots from the music made by these boys who weren’t just white, they were British. In the American unconscious, they had nothing to do with blackness, and therefore rock ‘n’ roll could be re-imagined as white music, and mom and dad finally let their daughters, itching to participate from the beginning, go to the concerts, join the fan clubs, and parade their enthusiasm for rock ‘n’ roll’s extraordinary revolutionary sound waves through the Beatles.

We can finally therefore reject The New York Times’ David Dempsey’s explanation that the Beatles were “witch doctors who put their spell on hundreds of shuffling stamping natives”, and perhaps see Beatlemania as a breaking of the dam previously kept in place by parental policing of racial and sexual boundaries, with traceable historical roots.

The Beatles’ "unthreatening", white sexuality was constantly underscored in imagery, in this case, they are starkly contrasted to the ultimate virile black male, Cassius Clay, by submissively lying down before him, cowering as he beats his chest gorilla-like.

The popularity of this particular composition reflects not just an interest in reinforcing the raced identities of both parties in the interest of racist cultural subtexts, (the civilized white male vs. the animalistic, savage black male); it also exemplifies the symbolic expropriation of black music that takes place in the 1960s.

1)Ehrenreich, Barbara, Hess, Elizabeth Jacobs, Gloria, Lewis, “Beatlemania: Girls Just Want to Have Fun” Adoring Audience : Fan Culture and Popular Media, Lisa A.(Editor). Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1992. P. 85

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