As the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first US tour nears I find myself reflecting on how they affected society.
One area: the de-racialization of popular music. The Beatles accelerated the de-coupling of genre and race which began in rockabilly music, a key influence on the band
Another area: the de-sexualization of popular music, which had begun in rhythm and blues, another key influence on the Liverpool band.
The Beatles – in their appearance and in their music – shined a spotlight on the scaffolding of gender identification in sixties Anglo-American society. They revealed the received notion of gender id for what it was: a social construction, not an inherent characteristic of men and women.
Of course, anything constructed by society may be deconstructed.
The Fabs dared to challenge the conventions of masculinity and femininity of their time. The most obvious example, wearing long hair, considered a feminine trait then. But more significantly, their music contained an interplay of masculine and feminine traits.
The music explored previously unexplored ranges and intensities of emotions considered unseemly for men of that time. Anxiety, uncertainty, and loss of control.
Prominent in the Beatles’ early repertoire were covers of songs by women performers, such as “Please Mr. Postman.” These they reinterpreted and demonstrated that types of inner experience thought to be limited to women are actually human experiences, true for both sexes.
The main theme of the Beatles’ early songs – the emotional intensity of romantic infatuation – resonated with their adolescent and young-adult audiences. Of course, this theme is as old as the tradition of songwriting. What the Beatles did was to desexualize this theme. They got to the core humanity of infatuation, its aspects that transcend biological sex.
This isn’t to say that the Beatles’ music, at times, didn’t reinforce conventional gender stereotypes. Sometimes it was even sexist and misogynistic.
But, they managed to break out of this box and upturn received conventions of gender identification and difference. This liberated both sexes. And infused the new genre they created – rock music – with a spirit of healthy rebellion.
To listen to the Beatles version of “Please Mr. Postman” click here.
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013