Monday, March 24, 2008


"And beauty is a form of genius -- is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it."
-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

John Lennon is credited far more with conflating the Beatles' legacy with feminism, but maybe we need to consider the contribution of Paul. After all, the majority of Beatlemaniacs were Paul fans, his beauty bringing them out by the thousands, which, as I've argued, made them aware of their numbers/political power.

Paul is the Helen of Troy in the Beatles. His face launched a movement!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Paul McCartney

It's hard to write a Beatles & Feminism blog without a John Lennon slant, but there is much to say about Paul. The premise that Paul is "for girls" and John is "for boys" is not going to go unaddressed. Stay tuned.


This famous photo (the pose was John's idea) was taken the day he was murdered.

From John to all women

that film...

I don't know if I agree with the boycott of a certain film about a certain thick and ordinary assassin, even if I am repulsed by its distaste. The death of John Lennon has not retreated into the historical fog, whereby the gravity of the event is diminished over time. I guess because Lennon's music and person are so timeless, the fact of his death is piercingly tragic, and felt deeply by at least me to this day.

Will there ever be a time when we can la di da talk about his killer the way we do Lee Harvy Oswald? I don't know, but it certainly isn't yet. The pathetic coward who took Lennon away, should never in his lifetime enjoy the celebrity of his putrid act. I won't mention his name, nor will I promote the tasteless and (by most accounts) boring film depicting his crime.

It is fitting that the writer/director of this film is a nobody and its stars are the world's biggest douche-bags and wastes of oxygen. Don't boycott this film, it's not interesting enough to merit some organized mass-not seeing. Just don't go out of your way to see trite, simple-minded trash.

Here's a trailer for a far worthier subject:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

John Lennon and Gertrude Stein

Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.

I rarely believe anything, because at the time of believing I am not really there to believe.

I don't know if Lennon ever read Stein, but I'm sure he would've liked her.

Oh Yoko

From Pop Feminist's Woman of the Week:

Yoko Ono

An affirmation/celebration of femininity, feminine sexuality, feminism.
In her own words, and through her partnership with John.

"This society is driven by neurotic speed and force accelerated by greed, and frustration of not being able to live up to the image of men and woman we have created for ourselves; the image has nothing to do with the reality of people."

"The whole world is starting to realize that it was the most unwise thing for our society to have ignored women power, to run the society with male priorities. Desperation is finally opening the door to wisdom."
-Yoko Ono, 2007

And the word was Love.

John Lennon's
Bag One

Pop Feminist Archive:
Woman is the Nigger of the World

Primal Scream

What makes this less artistically viable than most hyper-masculine punk? Is the abandon of "the scream", a gendered expression? Is this women's art, that has been silenced and sneered at by the masculine culture industry? Has it taken the ardent approval of a Beatle to have this even heard? Yoko seems so avant-garde, bizarre, and singular.
But what about....

Is this sound only acceptable when individual feminine agency is disappeared in the masses? Is this sound only acceptable when it seems to denote adoration of the masculine subject? Are teen idols just an excuse for young women to express extreme emotions in a society that won't allow them to?
Yoko would not be so hated if she was but one of many screaming for John.

Pop matters
Peace is feminist

It's Real by John Lennon

Oh, but it is!

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.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Pop Art, Found Time and The Beatles

A Trout in the Milk posted a great piece on the Beatles myth: "inexhaustibly productive of meaning". Check it out.

Education in the UK

The history of John Lennon and The Beatles is a required subject in the UK's national curriculum!

Sunday, March 9, 2008


If anyone, ever has listened to Plastic Ono Band and read Lennon's famous Rolling Stone Magazine interview, then this is a requirement:

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Queering the Beatles #1

Though many don't know it, The Beatles have rich a queer history. There is certainly much to say on this issue, but I will limit this discussion for today being John Lennon and Brian Epstein's relationship.

Although it's hard to get at "the real" in beatles lore, as account after account after account has been given, yielding book after book after book of interpretation-- it's hard to take anything one reads as gospel. The only text we have of any validity is the words of the Beatles themselves. Thankfully Lennon has always been a reliable source for a wealth of candid retellings of his own history. Nothing is "off limits" for Lennon, but he has been oddly silent on one topic: this alleged affair with manager Brian Epstein.

This is the legend:
Brian Epstein, was an upper-middle class record store heir, who was haunted by insecurity and depression, presumably a result of his closeted homosexuality for which his wealthy family was ashamed. A lost soul, Epstein found himself at Liverpool's Cavern Club by chance one night, a seedy rock and roll joint featuring regular headliners, The Beatles. At first sight, Epstien fell for the smart-mouthed, "rough trade" leading boy, John Lennon. His fascination with John compelled him to take the boys on as their manager with no previous experience in the field, (though he demonstrated some showmanship know-how by immediately issuing them matching suit and tie wardrobes). Epstein, so lost before, had found inspiration in Lennon and his vision, putting all his resources into The Beatles.Throughout their career, Lennon held particular sway over Epstein, and knew from the start that for their manager, making The Beatles stars was his best way to win John Lennon's affections.

Just as the Beatles were about to "hit it big" in 1963, John agreed to go to Barcelona, Spain with Epstien for four days, alone. Pete Shotton, John Lennon's long time friend is quoted recalling Lennon confiding "I let him toss me off", and biographer Hunter Davis claims in an interview with Lennon the Beatle had admitted to having a full-blown affair to "see what it was like", and others still claim that the encounter was an ongoing transaction between the two. Lennon's last word on his relationship with Epstien in a 1980 Playboy interview claimed "it was never consummated, but we had a pretty intense relationship," contradicting previous admissions.

Given these conflicting accounts, we have to remain skeptical of the "sensational" as a homosexual relationship between (then married) masculine hero John Lennon and his manager would be. What we do know is that Lennon was moved by Epstein's struggle with his unaccepted queer identity and penned the great "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" from Epstein's point of view (the pronouns have been changed to denote a heterosexual lament for mass-consumption).

Here is a clip from the film The Hours and Times depicting those infamous four days in Spain:

Epstein would die of an accidental overdose in 1967 while the Beatles were on their famed Indian retreat. Lennon maintains that losing Epstein was the moment "The Beatles" ended.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Psychology and Music

Music "invades us, impels us, drags us, transpires us. It takes leave of the earth, as much in order to drop us into a black hole as to open us up to a cosmos. It makes us want to die"
-Buchanan and Swiboda, A Thousand Plateaus

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Monday, March 3, 2008

Astrid Kirchherr

A number of diverse and fascinating women have played important roles in the history of The Beatles. While I intend to profile each at length, I thought a good place to start would be with Astrid Kirchherr. If you don't know that name already, you're probably unaware that the original Beatles line up was John, Paul, George, Stuart and Pete. Poor Pete was just replaced with Ringo when the Beatles got signed due to his musical mediocrity, but Stu was the "good looking" bassist and John's best friend (Paul would go on to take Stu's place on all counts).

When the Beatles were young and savage in Hamburg, Astrid (a local photographer) and Stu fell in love, resulting in Stu's decision to stay in Germany with Astrid and become an artist. He died shortly thereafter of a brain anneurysm. The 1994 film "Backbeat" tells this story rather poorly with the notable exception of the fantastic actors playing John, Paul and George. Ian Hart's John Lennon is so perfect, he portrayed the Beatle in another (more interesting) picture, The Hours and the Times.

Though the tale is tragic (if mythic), Astrid's photographs remain and are still some of the most soulful and compelling the Beatles ever did. As a woman, her art would have otherwise faded into obscurity (as is the fate of most women artists, especially in the early 1960s), had it not been for her soon-to-be-legendary subjects.

John and Stuart

Astrid with Stu

One can easily see that her photography stands on its own, but it is thanks to her connection with the Beatles that her art lasts.

"The question "Why have there been no great women artists?" has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, "Influenced" by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by "social forces," but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast."
-Extract from Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, Westview Press, 1988 by Linda Nochlin, pp.147-158

Nochlin goes on to point out that the few women whose art survives the shuffle of history have done so because of their connection with a man whose art was considered "great".

Kirchherr's talent, while considerable, was discarded by male art critics and magazine editors who saw her not as an artist but a woman with access to the boys.

"Every magazine and newspaper wanted me to photograph The Beatles again. Or they wanted my old stuff, even if it was out of focus, whether they were nice or not. They wouldn't look at my other work. It was very hard for a girl photographer in the 60s to be accepted. In the end I gave up. I've hardly taken a photo since 1967."
-Astrid Kirchherr

Like many women artists of her time, Kirchherr was shut out of the artistic community and now puts her talents to use as the owner of a photography shop in Hamburg.

Though Kirchherr has become resigned to the hand she was dealt in her institutionalized exclusion from avenues of success, she serves feminist scholars today as a notable example of Nochlin's theory on women and the arts, and remains an important player in early Beatles lore.

Footnote: Kirchherr and her friend Klaus Voormaan are credited with giving the Beatles their iconic haircuts.

Love, Idolization and Revolution

We have lost the relative strength and security that the old moral codes guaranteed our loves either by forbidding them or determining their limits. Under the crossfire of gynecological surgery rooms and television screens, we have buried love within shame for the benefit of pleasure, desire, if not revolution, evolution, planning, management--hence for the benefit of Politics. Until we discover under the rubble of those ideological structures -- which are nevertheless ambitious, often exorbitant, sometimes altruistic--that they were extravagant or shy attempts intended to quench a thirst for love. To recognize this does not amount to a modest withdrawal, it is perhaps to confess to a grandiose pretension. Love is the time and space in which 'I' assumes the right to be extraordinary. Sovereign yet not individual. Divisible, lost, annihilated; but also, and through imaginary fusion with the loved one, equal to the infinite space of superhuman psychism. Paranoid? I am, in love, at the zenith of subjectivity.

- Julia Kristeva (1987, 5)

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."

Lewis, Lisa A.(Editor). Adoring Audience : Fan Culture and Popular Media.
Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1992. p 103.

Beatlemania, the beginnings of the Second Wave

The famous gathering of 300,000 Beatles fans in Adelaide, Australia.

"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."

-Siegfried Kracauer :Masse und Propaganda. Eine Untersuchung uber die fascistishe Propaganda" (1936)

Young women, at a highly developmental moment (puberty) both witnessed and took part in an international "mass power" that was gendered almost entirely feminine for the first time in the modern mass mediated society. Did the rush of the feminine mass spectacle play a part in the development of second wave feminism? It's hard to say for sure, but I will merely stress the fact that the women "of age" for Beatlemania were the age group who would later go on mobilize the feminist movement.

Shea Stadium

. . . witness the birth of eve -- she is rising she was sleeping she is
fading in a naked field sweating the precious blood of nodding
blooms . . . in the eye of the arena she bends in half in service -- the
anarchy that exudes from the pores of her guitar are the cries of the
people wailing in the rushes . . . a riot of ray/ dios . . .
-Patti Smith

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Death of Orpheus

The Death of Orpheus (1866)
Emile Lévy
oil on canvas
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

Ovid’s Metamorphosis
The Death of Orpheus

All moderation is entirely lost,
and a wild Fury overcomes the right.--
although their weapons would have lost all force,
subjected to the power of Orpheus' harp,
the clamorous discord of their boxwood pipes,
the blaring of their horns, their tambourines
and clapping hands and Bacchanalian yells,
with hideous discords drowned his voice and harp.--
at last the stones that heard his song no more
fell crimson with the Thracian poet's blood.

Levy depicts the moment of Orpheus’s death at the hands of screaming women whose shouts drown out the hypnotic power of his defending harp. Though feminine teen hysteria has situated itself in popular discourse as a thoroughly modern product made possible only by the corrupting forces of mass media, The Death of Orpheus in book 11 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis suggests that this is a more richly embedded cultural archetype.

Emile Levy envisions this moment every bit as chaotic and frenzied as the 1964 news footage of the Beatles’ arrival in JFK. The throbbing masses of shrieking girls precariously held back by city officials and only barely confined by the airport gates are a fearsome spectacle. The sight of the Beatles maddens the girls; they feel every bit as capable as Levy’s Bacchantes to tear the musicians to shreds.

The display of feminine ecstasies and savagery in Levy’s representation reifies in the language of images a persistent archetype for women. Despite a popular sense of "the unprecedented" in 1964, the girls of Beatlemania are, in fact, a crude mirror Levy’s elegantly realized scene. Is this the essential feminine? Or is the proliferation if this imagery itself confining feminine expression to the abandon of hysteria?

Dylan and Lennon: Feminist Conversations

The rather solid split between "early Beatles" and "later Beatles" is understood by more ore less all of us, even those with the scantest understanding of their artistic evolution. It's kind of a transition between more classic rock and roll with clever if non-intellectual lyrics, and the cosmic philosopher-king era of the drug fueled later years. I might suggest that it can also be seen as a slit between the body and the mind (rock and roll inciting a visceral physical reaction, and psychedelic rock a cerebral one) which is a very gendered binary, but more on this later.

Most Beatles historians and biographers see the relevant split taking place when John and Paul began to listen to Bob Dylan. Dylan paved the way for "message-rock", and Lennon in particular was taken with the new poetic potential of pop music.

Consider the song "It Ain't Me Babe" by Dylan

This 1964 track reflects a moment when the confining chains of gender are cast away by a man aware of the new pre-feminist era (presumably due to the development of "the pill" in 1960). Dylan no longer sees women as dependents, but his female counterpart is still fixated on now antiquated gender roles. This song is explicitly feminist.

Go 'way from my window,
Leave at your own chosen speed.

I'm not the one you want, babe,

I'm not the one you need.
You say you're lookin' for someone

Never weak but always strong,

To protect you an' defend you
Whether you are right or wrong,

Someone to open each and every door,

But it ain't me, babe,

No, no, no, it ain't me, babe,

It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe.

Go lightly from the ledge, babe,
Go lightly on the ground.
I'm not the one you want, babe, I will only let you down.
You say you're lookin' for someone
Who will promise never to part,

Someone to close his eyes for you,

Someone to close his heart,

Someone who will die for you an' more,
But it ain't me, babe,

No, no, no, it ain't me, babe,

It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe.

Go melt back into the night, babe,
Everything inside is made of stone.

There's nothing in here moving

An' anyway I'm not alone.

You say you're looking for someone

Who'll pick you up each time you fall,

To gather flowers constantly
An' to come each time you call,

A lover for your life an' nothing more,
But it ain't me, babe,

No, no, no, it ain't me, babe,

It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe.

Compare that to Lennon's Norwegian Wood from 1965's Rubber Soul. [note: I had to misspell the song and the band so that imeem wouldn't take the track down]

Widely considered to be the first "later Beatles" track, Norwegian Wood tells an inversion of Dylan's story. In this track, the man encounters an empowered pre-feminist (or feminist) woman who unhinges his masculinity with her agency. He reacts to this new sexual politic-- his sudden impotency-- by burning her house where he was made to feel unwelcome.

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me...
She showed me her room, isn't it good, norwegian wood?

She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,

So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.

I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.

I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath

And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown

So I lit a fire, isn't it good, norwegian wood.

It's interesting that a pivotal moment of Beatles artistic evolution is also a consideration of feminism, though not all together surprising considering the ultimate trajectory of Lennon's career.

Erasing Women

The recent article, Teen Spirit, from Slate Magazine is a great example of the re-writing of Beatles history for masculine consumption. Fred Kaplan re-imagines the Beatles' American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show as a homosocial male event.

Kaplan reflects on the tremendous cultural transition we experienced the night the Beatles played on TV, but notes that "Americans under, say, 40 have had to take the historic importance of [The Beatles debut] on faith." As someone under 40 myself, I have a hard time taking Fred Kaplan's depiction on faith, (or for that matter any cultural history unexamined by feminists), because there is an interest, conscious or unconscious, to tell history from one's own point of view. In rock history in particular, this point of view is overwhelmingly male.

It seems almost ludicrous to imagine the Beatles' debut as an un-gendered cultural event, when the footage is considered, but Kaplan manages to do just that.

With only a single gestured reference to Ed Sullivan's witnessing of the British "screaming girls", he-- with his clear and reasoned masculine intelligence through which this emotive feminine display is interpreted-- delivers the Beatles to America.

Given another imagining of this event, one can just as accurately say, "the girls' demand for The Beatles forced Ed Sullivan, along with most other media outlets, to bring the Beatles to America." In this telling, the women are the ones who "discovered" The Beatles, an account that certainly rings true to my ears.

Kaplan goes on to say that, "the day after that Sullivan show, every boy [my emphasis] came to school with his hair combed down as far as he could manage (which, in most cases, wasn't very far). Some went out and bought Beatle wigs. Or saved up to buy a guitar and then got together with friends to form a band."

Again, the girls are completely erased from this narrative, presumably because their wild, shrieking passion for The Beatles is less relevant than the boys far more productive and enterprising guitar-buying, band-forming reaction.

"The Beatles' rebelliousness was playful, not menacing...they were a palatable transition to the truly menacing figures to come—the Rolling Stones...later punk rock, and beyond."

I'm especially suspicious of the characterization of The Beatles as non-threatening. It seems to me that the aggressive suppression of women's history in connection to rock music reflects just how threatening Beatlemania really was. The Beatles were the eye of a feminine hurricane, large groups of women were traveling long distances to see them, women were exercising tremendous consumer power to purchase their music and merchandise, women all over the world GOT LOUD, organizing a host of sexual anxieties around Beatles symbolism. Women, the first large group of Beatles fans, determined the shape of a world-wide pop culture. In an era before second wave feminism, this wasn't just threatening-- it was terrifying.

It seems to me that The Rolling Stones, punk rock "and beyond" are much more conservative cultural ambassadors because they reify masculinity, becoming a "boys club" in contrast to the Beatles' egalitarian brand of rock and roll. Patriarchy being the most pervasive construction of power in virtually every society, The Beatles' gender-circus (as Beatlemania can be characterized) is a hell of a lot more interesting than it is ever given credit for.

Finally, I look to the lead of Kaplan's article: "It may be impossible for anyone who wasn't living at the time to grasp how much the country changed 40 years ago this Sunday. On Feb. 9, 1964, at 8 p.m. ET, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show."

The legend of the Beatles (at least in America) is often framed this way. The moment "we all" discovered the Beatles was on The Ed Sullivan show. This kind of narrative exemplifies the reason for my feminist intervention. Do these male rock journalists not see the contradiction here? How do they reconcile the fact that the girls who famously greeted the Beatles at JFK, seemed to have already been, uh, somewhat "in the know"? The girls in the audience at The Ed Sullivan Show seem to be rather familiar already with the fab four.

Behold the lonely, desolate arrival of the yet-to-be-discovered Beatles.

The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show was a discovery for whom exactly? Maybe for the industrious boys who saved up to buy guitars, formed glorious bands, and became writers for Slate Magazine, The Ed Sullivan Show was a revelation. But for the girls? They were way ahead-- a pesky little "fact" that doesn't seem to intervene with rock and roll journalists' circle-jerk in the least.

Judge for yourself. Can you spot the girls in this clip?! Look hard for it.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Woman is the Nigger of the World

From the archives of Pop Feminist:

Portland Coliseum

From the Penguin Classics: Read the Beatles
"Portland Coliseum"
by Allen Ginsberg

A brown piano in diamond
white spotlight
Leviathan auditorium
iron run wired
hanging organs, vox
black battery
A single whistling sound of ten thousand children's
larynxes asinging
pierce the ears
and following up the belly
bliss the moment arrived

Apparition, four brown English
jacket christhair boys
Goofed Ringo battling bright
white drums
Silent George hair patient
Soul horse
Short black-skulled Paul
with the guitar
Lennon the Captain, his mouth
a triangular smile,
all jump together to End
some tearful memory song
ancient-two years,
The million children
the thousand words
bounce in their seats, bash
each other's sides, press
legs together nervous
Scream again & claphand
become one Animal
in the New World Auditorium
--hands waving myriad
snakes of thought
screetch beyond hearing

while a line of police with
folded arms stands
Sentry to contain the red
sweatered ecstasy
that rises upward to the
wired roof.

-August 27, 1965