Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What are The Beatles' politics?

It's something to consider in the wake of yesterday's historic presidential election. Let's set aside the near certainty that, in view of their backgrounds, general dispositions, noted proclivities, and collective profession, the Beatles were (and its living members remain) firmly on the Left. It's more rewarding, I think, to explore what their music, especially on the lyrical front, offers in the way of political content. Explicit political content, that is. Not just amorphous counter-cultural (or otherwise) sentiments that are easy to locate in their late-period work. No, I mean a blatant reference to, say, those damnable Tories or the wretched empire of yore.

Lyrically speaking, the vast majority of the Beatles' output through Rubber Soul dealt with the peaks and valleys of love. No mammoth surprise coming from a pop group. But as the sound and structure of their music increasingly changed, so did the direction of their lyricism. From tailored to colorfully varied, it went, sappy to often surreal. From the straightforward "Yesterday" (to take nothing away from its heartfelt poignancy) to the wild-eyed "Tomorrow Never Knows." By their latter stage, the Beatles hadn't at all lost their touch for waxing emotively- see Paul's "For No One," John's "Don't Let Me Down," or George's "Something," to cite several sterling examples- but that subject matter was no longer their driving focus.

Unambiguous politics, though, never assumed a central or even secondary place in the Beatles' songwriting. I'm guessing that, in the mid to late '60s, they cared too much about testing the limits of their pop craftsmanship to regularly engage in current-events sloganeering (after all, didn't they want to create timeless music?). And, despite John's often brash opinions and George's attachment to Eastern religions (both of which might have prompted more ethically- or morally-geared songs), the Beatles as a whole seemed too keen on the absurd, the fantastical, and grander notions like love for the banality of day-to-day politics. They certainly weren't detached. Maybe "All You Need Is Love" was John's response to, say, the Vietnam War. But the Beatles didn't name-drop (i.e. Viet Cong, Richard Nixon, etc.) or style their lyrics in a manner that consistently provided a specific window into their specific views on specific topics.

Their limited forays into politics, however, entail several classics and allow us to sketch a partial portrait of what their thoughts on various issues might have been. Two of the most obvious instances are George's "Taxman" and John's "Revolution" (or "Revolution 1"), both of which offer direct messages and also practice some name-dropping (quite memorably, in fact). The former, which expresses George's frustration at entering a higher tax bracket and, thus, having to shell out more to the government, calls out Harold Wilson and Edward Heath (targets that transcend party lines). Superb line: "Now my advice for those who die/ Declare the pennies on your eyes." The latter, in which John upbraids the sinister or, at least, ignorant segments of radical movements, famously includes the line "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow." Do the outlines of an ideology (or an accommodation of ideologies) start to emerge? Anti-overweening taxation and anti-violent revolution. Are the Beatles some sort of left libertarians? Temperamentally liberal but intellectually conservative?

Elements of class commentary are also evident, to varying degrees, in songs like George's "Piggies" and maybe even "Baby You're a Rich Man" ("You keep all your money in a big brown bag inside a zoo/ What a thing to do"). But the more you sift through the Beatles' discography, the vaguer your findings become. Maybe "Think for Yourself" is a call to distrust the government's word. Maybe not. Maybe tunes like "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" operate, on a certain level, as paeans to the nuclear family. Again, maybe (that is, probably) not. If not, all the better. Excessive politics can cheapen art decidedly. The Beatles seemed to fare just fine without the regular presence of such tomfoolery.

To conclude, let's go all in and nuke the fridge. The Beatles were free thought-supporting, anti-cigarette smoking (quite silly, I know), pro-family, guardians of the peace-backing, anti-bourgeoisie, Soviet-sympathizing left libertarians.

1 comment:

Samuel said...

The "left-libertarianism" that you describe is certainly characteristic of the New Left, which rejected the authoritarian socialism of the Stalinist era, and which certainly produced better art than its Old Left forebears. Why the hell is it anyway the leftists seem to make better art then their conservative counterparts? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't think of a rightwing musician after Wagner, country artists excluded, who has produced a work of lasting consequence.