Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ann Powers on "Rock Band"

Earlier in the week, LA Times music critic Ann Powers voiced her tentative misgivings about The Beatles: Rock Band and how it might affect the musical tastes of a younger generation. In essence, she fears that the game will encourage a "rockist" bias against The Beatles' more immediate and straightforward early-period work (i.e. their poppier material) and in favor of their more challenging and experimental pursuits on Rubber Soul through Abbey Road (or so I presume, anyway).

Powers writes:
The Beatles also taught me that pop could be a serious thing. Following the group's evolution across the tracks of the Red and Blue collections, I got an inkling of what artistic evolution sounded like. Little did I know that the story of the Beatles' transformation from a fun bunch of lads imitating Little Richard and Ronnie Spector to a serious quartet influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Andy Warhol would become the foundation for a whole system of defining popular music's worth, which would become known as "rockism," and which favored the more "artistic" kind of rock on the second collection. Or that, decades later, a new gang of artists and thinkers, sometimes called "poptimists," would battle that legacy -- arguing for mop-top red over granny-glasses blue.

Poptimists (myself included) don't hate the Beatles -- how could anyone who loves a great radio-friendly dance hit reject "Drive My Car," or "Helter Skelter," for that matter? But that narrative, of a band's music becoming more meaningful as it becomes less obviously catchy and commercial, has done a lot of damage. It has caused some taste makers to favor album-oriented rock, which favors earphones and contemplation, over equally sophisticated but more socially friendly musical forms like disco and funk. It's also led to an emphasis on the mostly white, mostly male artists of the classic rock era over the often black and female stars of pop before and after that counter-cultural moment.

She continues:
The game's recently revealed story mode reinforces the classic Beatles myth: that the band started out as a bunch of cute bobble-heads and became smarter and somehow more human as their music evolved. (The trailer now available for viewing gives you a glimpse into the story.) Re-creating settings that help tell the group's history, from the Cavern Club of their rough-boy beginnings to dreamscapes that evoke the mind expansion of their studio-only period, the Beatles: Rock Band honors all of the band's music, but reinforces the idea that the later, more "mind-blowing" stuff somehow mattered more.

In response, I'd start by echoing a point which Powers herself makes: It's quite uncertain if the finer implications of this "narrative" will register with gamers. I can't imagine it will for many. These just aren't the kind of thoughts that a video game readily prompts. Furthermore, I think Powers is wrong when she seemingly suggests that if you perceive some form of this narrative in the game, then you're likely to be convinced of all that it entails. Can't you value how The Beatles evolved musically without looking down on their earlier, more accessible work? Not everyone falls (or needs to fall) into the "rockist" or "poptimist" camp. It's probable that, of those who have their first prolonged contact with The Beatles through this game, the majority will find songs to like and dislike from both periods and not see them as being in tension with one another. The potential for exposing a younger generation to a broad swath of the Fabs' art is reason enough to celebrate The Beatles: Rock Band.

No comments: