Friday, September 25, 2009

Paul Shirley's stupid ESPN article

Last week on ESPN.com's The Life page , ex-NBA drifter and sometime writer/blogger Paul Shirley presented his case against The Beatles. Entitled "Dare I say The Beatles weren't so fab," the piece puts forth an argument that essentially goes as follows:

The Beatles were a very important and influential band. However, the fawning mythology that permeates their legacy has misled many fans about the quality of their music. They were good but well short of great. And if you weren't alive to witness their reign in the '60s, then you can't genuinely claim that they're your favorite band. To do so requires an intimate knowledge of their significance. And to possess that, you must have been around to absorb Beatlemania firsthand. So stick to Radiohead, young ones.

Now Shirley's argument isn't devoid of valid points or completely thoughtless. Nevertheless, it's bunk: It's sloppy, contradictory, and, worst of all, far from reasonable. Shirley is way too quick to deride the opinions of others as not only off-base but borderline dishonest; he frames certain issues as subjective matters but then recasts them as objective at his convenience (these first two criticisms are related); he relies on vague and contrived bits of argumentation; and his overall tone is arrogantly dismissive. In all honesty, it's something of an unpleasant read. Shirley comes off as an immature and petty dude; a curmudgeon's charm he does not emit. He never truly engages with the views he's lambasting or seriously considers why it is that his opinions belong to such an isolated minority. Rather, he's content to produce a bratty rant that often seems most concerned with highlighting its author's towering self-regard.

Let's dig in:

PS: But if you're my age, slightly older, or any younger, you have to pay attention to the whole article. This is what I want you to pay attention to: We were not around for The Beatles. Therefore, we cannot judge their impact on popular music. This impact is the crux of most arguments for their importance.

Me: Consider the bolded words. What they amount to is an arbitrary rule, and a sternly forbidding one, that Shirley is imposing on the matter at hand. They have the effect of shutting down debate before it can even begin. "... we cannot judge their impact on popular music." End of discussion. So all future historians of culture and pop music will not be able to meaningfully or reliably assess what The Beatles wrought simply because they were born too late. Right. To justify his claim, Shirley uses the asinine comparison of how he couldn't pretend to understand his parents in full because he wasn't around to witness their younger years. His parents have likely changed by a significant measure since their youth. But The Beatles' music has been preserved for posterity. We can listen to "Love Me Do" in much the same form that early Beatles fans heard it and use a wealth of music journalism, cultural history, and the like to make sound judgments about the song's "impact on popular music" (whatever that really means; it's rather ill-defined). Later, he even mentions that his mother was a Beatlemaniac and, at various times, spoke of how consequential the band was ("It was like nothing we'd ever seen"). There you go: a firsthand account that a non-participant of the '60s could incorporate into an educated analysis of the ramifications of The Beatles' art.

PS: If not for the mythology of The Beatles -- their explosive rise, their good looks, their hair, their Britishness, their experimentation with the East, their early breakup, the death of their misunderstood semi-genius -- they would not be held in such high musical esteem.

Me: To a certain extent, I agree that the mythology of The Beatles is excessive. But it exists for a reason. And no other pop group shares a comparable lore for a reason (many reasons, that is). Breaking the above passage into smaller pieces, it suggests that The Beatles "would not be held in such high musical esteem" if, in part, they hadn't experienced such an "explosive rise." Obviously. And how did that "explosive rise" come about? Couldn't their mammoth talent have played a role? Also, is Shirley really proposing that the death of John Lennon (which happened about 10 years after The Beatles broke up) contributed to a general overvaluing of the band's music? Wasn't Beatle adulation just a bit entrenched by then? John's death certainly added a tragic element to his legend. But I'm not sure how The Beatles' music factors in. Lastly, what's a "semi-genius?"

PS: As long as a person is not raised in a bubble, he is taught by society that The Beatles are, in essence, above reproach.

Me: It's problematic for Shirley to state this without ever attempting to comprehend how so many people could be so lacking in the critical facilities that, it would seem, he possesses and continually employs to resist long-prevailing Beatlephilia. Evidently, he's fine with dismissing most people as passive, gullible, or just wrong. What a conspiracy of poor taste he must battle.

PS: I don't mean my flippancy toward The Beatles to imply that I think that no music made before I was born is good. Or that I don't like anything that came out prior to 1990. I routinely listen to The Rolling Stones and to Creedence Clearwater Revival. But any affection I hold for bands that were in their prime before I was around is a wary affection. I feel almost as if I would be stealing if I went around claiming that CCR is my favorite band. Plenty of good musicians have matured in my lifetime; there's no reason to take CCR from my uncle.

....

To me, The Beatles were -- and remain -- a band that created catchy tunes that were heard in ubiquitous fashion throughout my life. But they will always be a band with which I cannot connect.

Me: In essence, he's using his own rigid guidelines about gauging one's true appreciation of a band to deny others the honesty and genuineness of their opinions. Because The Beatles "will always be a band with which I (Paul) cannot connect," then everyone else who wasn't alive for their run of greatness must suffer a similar fate. Later, Shirley even writes, "But unless you were locked in a time capsule like Brendan Fraser in "Blast From the Past," they cannot be your favorite band." How is this to be taken seriously?

PS: And I can understand why The Beatles have a special place in my mother's heart. I cannot, however, understand why anyone my age would donate the same important section of his musical soul. There's almost no way that someone from my generation can listen to the primitive hackings of "Eleanor Rigby" finish, and then listen to "November Rain" and say, "Yeah, 'Eleanor Rigby' is the better piece of music." That person can say, "I respect this 'Eleanor Rigby' song" or "I understand this song's importance in the flow chart of music" or "This is a timeless melody." But to say that "Eleanor Rigby" is "better" seems disingenuous. It reminds me of a fourth-grader who tells his music teacher that his favorite song is something by Beethoven.

Me: Here he's dueling with a straw man. And it's one that is very limited in scope and, therefore, even more empty. Who suggested that every Beatles song is better than every other song in pop music history? And if that's not the claim he's arguing against, why bring up the exceedingly arbitrary talk of how "Eleanor Rigby" pales in comparison to "November Rain?" Proving that the GNR classic is superior to the Beatles classic proves little else. Earlier, Shirley wrote, "Opinion is, of course, a matter of perception." Well it certainly doesn't appear that way when he decries a particular opinion with which he disagrees (i.e. that "Eleanor Rigby" is better than "November Rain") as "disingenuous." It's so far from a good-faith argument. And, by the way, I greatly enjoy both songs. But I don't think it's terribly amiss to find "November Rain" somewhat overcooked and melodramatic. It's grand and affecting, yes, but it can't contend with the exquisite subtlety of Paul's character sketches in "Eleanor Rigby."

PS: I understand that The Beatles are culturally significant and important in the historical progression of rock music.

Me: Is that so? How is it that Shirley can state, "We were not around for The Beatles. Therefore, we cannot judge their impact on popular music" while asserting the above? It seems he's making some sort of judgment about their "impact." If not, what's the distinction?

PS: But unless you were locked in a time capsule like Brendan Fraser in "Blast From the Past," they cannot be your favorite band. If you're younger than 50 and you do make such a claim, you're either (A) trying to impress someone with what you think will be received as good taste, or (B) woefully behind in your consumption of music. If it's A, I'm disappointed in you. If it's B, there's hope -- we only have to help you find the good stuff.

Me: Again, the arrogance is appalling. And such statements are so intellectually dishonest. He's instituting rules of taste by which all must abide. If you don't, you're either "disingenuous" or too sheltered.

PS: I'd much rather listen to Oasis than The Beatles. Oasis, or any band that came after The Beatles, learned from The Beatles, improving on their work by listening to, building on and perfecting the styles pioneered by The Beatles. The result: The arrangements used by Oasis are more complex, the sound is denser, the production is better. Claims that Oasis is nothing more than a Beatles tribute band do little to disprove my theory. There is no question that Oasis was influenced by The Beatles -- most rock bands are. That influence was likely heavier with Oasis, but even Oasis -- brash as the band is -- understands the power of what came before. After all, Oasis named an album "Standing On the Shoulders of Giants."

All of these improvements can be chalked up to chronological order. Just as Dean Koontz came after Bram Stoker, Oasis came after The Beatles. Each had the advantage of superior technology, in addition to the natural advantage of the chance to learn from their forebears. The chance to, well, stand on someone's shoulders.


Me: This is a bizarre series of thoughts. So progress marches ahead unobstructed. The music from every decade is unequivocally, undeniably, and inescapably an improvement on the previous decade's. How dense and blinkered must you be to not recognize the full implications of this line of thinking? It's utopian nonsense. What he's really saying is that contemporary art is superior to what came before simply because it's more accessible to his tastes.

And the kicker from Mr. Shirley: I'd like people to make up their own minds.

Me: He's actually saying the exact opposite when it comes to many people's love of the Beatles. He won't tolerate those younger folk who dare to call the Fabs their favorite band. He won't allow them any integrity or honesty of opinion. Thus, he's not letting them make up their own minds. He's deciding for them.

What a profoundly stupid and insulting heap of bullshit.

No comments: