Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four

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Kenneth Womack and Todd F. Davis, eds. Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. ? + 249 pp. $74.50 cloth; $24.95 paper.

This volume brings together an impressive collection of scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds in what sets out to be an evaluation and exploration of the work undertaken by four musicians (perhaps five, since George Martin's role is from time to time acknowledged) mostly over a brief eight-year period some forty years ago. It seems written for a North American audience ("Their Englishness no doubt played a central role in their initial charm" [2]) and, as with so much contemporary criticism, from a questionably authoritative position. As an exploration it is certainly successful; as an evaluation ("an aesthetic unity" [3]) less so. While it contains moments of brilliance, it utilizes a wide range of contemporary methodological positions and, in doing so, exhibits what I believe to be certain methodological flaws. I aim in what follows both to celebrate and to critique some of these moments.

Three of these essays are directly musicological and, to my surprise, I find them all effective. John Covach's "From 'Craft' to 'Art': Formal Structure in the Music of the Beatles" is the most straightforward. Covach makes the unproblematic assumption that the Beatles' songwriting techniques developed from what he calls a "craft" approach towards an "art" approach, until their last two years, when they balanced the two. He finds the distinction embodied in their approach to formal models: whereas the craft approach utilizes standardized models, the art approach adapts these and in so doing generates novel formal approaches, although the concepts of identifiable and repeatable sections (verse, chorus, etc.) remain applicable. This helps explain, on a structural level, why it is that the Beatles' "experimental" music appears to attract such a label. In "Painting Their Room in a Colorful Way: The Beatles' Exploration of Timbre," Walter Everett also takes a historical view, discussing such features as instrumentation (and how instruments are used), voice colorings, and electronic manipulation of sounds. He argues that with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles' timbrai developments, although always innovative, become truly remarkable. The essay is particularly impressive in its wealth of detail and its positively virtuosic concern with minutiae (exactly which guitar, and on exactly which fret the capo is placed, and to what effect. ..). That said-and this is not a weakness-it is theoretically and interpretively unchallenging. It confirms and helps pin down the importance of the Beatles' soundworld. Like Covach's essay, it wisely avoids assuming that, in the artistry it describes, the Beatles were somehow unique. The third directly musicological essay, Sheila Whiteley's "'Love, Love, Love': Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Selected Songs by the Beatles," reads the oeuvre almost as closely as Everett's, except that the focus of her attention, more conventionally, is that of lyrics and their delivery. Whiteley asserts, indeed, that the distinctiveness of the Beatles' early style lies in the vocals rather than in innovative timbrai approaches. In the wake of Everett's essay, such a declaration requires more comparative study, while Whiteley's writing too is occasionally under-theorized, such as where she equates submediant bridge beginnings with the quality of being "stuck" (64). There is an unmistakable critical tone in Whiteley's chapter: although clearly absorbed by the music, she finds in the songs a generally conservative, repressive stance, saved perhaps by the self-mockery apparent in the journey from "She Loves You" to "All You Need Is Love." A similarly critical tone energizes James M. Decker's '"Baby You're a Rich Man': The Beatles, Ideology, and the Cultural Moment," an analysis of the successes of the Anthology project, which Decker argues developed from a cynical, purely market-driven motive, one apparent from much earlier in the Beatles' career. …