Friday, September 3, 2010

Was The Beatles' breakup all bad?

With much interest, I read this piece about the breakup of The Beatles and how history might have played out had they remained together or given it a second go. It quotes several academics on the subject, and two of them (quite reasonably, I would add) outline some of the more positive consequences related to the band's demise.

At McGill University, Will Straw is another teacher of popular music and culture, arenas of study that might not exist were it not for The Beatles’ storming of the barriers between the popular and the intellectual. Looking back, he thinks the timing of the breakup was perfect.

“It allows them to stand as the perfect example of this historical moment,” Straw observes, “which is when rock becomes both amazingly popular and changes everything around the world, but also becomes sort of arty and introspective and creative. They embodied that more than anybody else. So it’s sort of perfect that they broke up when they did.”

For Keir Keightley, an associate professor in the department of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, the question itself reveals the enormous nature of the band and its influence. He believes The Beatles might not be The Beatles—at least not as omnipresently so — if they hadn’t split 40 years ago.

“Had they not broken up,” Keightley says, “it’s possible the respect that’s given them might have been more eroded. Perhaps they would have been a target of punk music and things might have been slightly different because they would not have been deified as quickly or as massively in the ’70s and ’80s.”

It’s like this. To become The Beatles — the formidable cultural entity — they needed to stop being The Beatles — the flawed human aggregate of four guys succumbing to the pressures of fame, fatigue and paralyzing expectations. They are what they are because they quit when they did.

I more or less agree with these sentiments. I belong to the camp that doesn't tend to lament The Beatles' breakup or long for what might have been had they reunited. Perhaps this is attributable to my young age: I wasn't around to enjoy The Beatles in their heyday or even shortly after it. That visceral connection to them as a living, breathing, life-changing entity was never formed. When I look back on The Beatles in their twilight, I see a band which had made an incomparably productive and creative run in a very short span, a band which had nothing more to prove or accomplish, and a band which was collapsing, and often in a most ugly, scarring fashion. They had to break up, and did.

And they did before their music could take a dramatic turn for the worse. That's the paramount concern in my eyes. The fact that The Beatles didn't tarnish their legacy with inferior late-period work is all I need to feel okay about when their dissolution occurred. (Yes, Let It Be isn't top-notch, but what a tonic they produced with Abbey Road.) They didn't tempt the vengeance of the gods with hubris or folly. No, they called it quits, leaving us with a body of albums that is untouchably classic and also somewhat charming on account of its easily consumable size (you don't get lost in The Beatles' discography as you do in Elvis' or Bob Dylan's). I suppose what I'm saying is, when it comes to the breakup of the greatest band ever, focus on the positives. There's more to be content with than your emotions might let you think.

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