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All you need is the Beatles? Maybe not.

August 25, 2009 |  6:30 am

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Saying you don’t like the Beatles is like making a face when someone carries a birthday cake into the room. Such aggressive contrarianism can make a stir at a party, but ultimately, it’s just hard to believe. So,  let me just assure you, though I am about to tell you why I have my worries about the imminent release of the Beatles: Rock Band, I respect and adore the Fab Four. I’m a pop lover who spent my formative years immersed in rock music, and I grew up in the 1970s. There wasn’t much choice but to be a late-adopting Beatlemaniac.

Paul McCartney was my first massive crush, cultivated through hours of listening at the houses of friends who had hipper parents than mine (and staring into those big brown eyes as pictured in the framable insert photo from the White Album). The throngs I heard squealing on the “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl” album, released when I was 13, taught me how to be a teenybopper. “Yellow Submarine” turned me on to psychedelia, and "Revolution" did the same for social protest. As a grade-schooler, I didn't get John Lennon's sarcasm. But I did like to argue with my dad, which seemed related, and changing the world sounded cool.

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.

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Elijah Wald's book "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music" confronts how this happened, and it tells a different story: that of dance crazes and radio hits, teen idols and crooning heartthrobs and the Twist. The sassy title the prolific Wald adopted for his far-reaching account finally pays off at the book's conclusion, when he explains how the band's retirement from the stage and subsequent focus on studio experimentation contributed toward the privatization, and atomization, of pop.

"When the Beatles appeared on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' it was the last time a live performance changed the course of American music, and when they became purely a recording group, they pointed the way toward a future in which there need be no unifying styles, as bands can play what they like in the privacy of the studio, and we can chose which to listen to in the privacy of our clubs, our homes, or, finally, our heads." Wald reserves judgment about "whether that was liberating or limiting," but he does point out that some splits -- including the one between rock and pop -- were directly related to the Beatles' journey.

That's why his argument came to mind when I started thinking about the imminent impact of the Beatles: Rock Band, timed to coincide with the release of the band's great catalog in remastered form. It seems inevitable that the game will have a major impact on younger generations who, until now, learned about pop in ways other than through the Beatles myth. By returning that story to the center of pop history, this latest Beatles push could undo some of the progress made during the poptimist era, toward a wider, more flexible idea of what (fill in loaded word here: great, important, serious) popular music can be.

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.

Will gamers absorb this narrative? It's unclear -- in articles like this long one from the New York Times Magazine, the designers who created the game stress that the songs were chosen mainly because they were fun to play. But the story mode and imagery does send a message. When earlier songs are featured, the avatars are cute bobble-heads. They grow less cartoonish when the music represents the band's studio-only period; a lock of hair wafts across John's face, and George casts his eyes downward introspectively. If I were a kid learning about the Beatles this way, I think I'd have an experience similar to the one I had perusing the Red and Blue collections: I'd consider the band's later material to be the real payoff.

Beyond the story mode, I wonder about the effect of the mere ubiquity of the Beatles: Rock Band. We're now a couple of generations past the band's total dominance. Today's teens, born in the '90s, barely care about that Beatles revisionist Kurt Cobain, much less the actual Fab Four. But under the tutelage of their parents, who now have a powerful new tool to trot out during family hour, they might be convinced that classic rock is the foundation of all things pop.

Though they obviously celebrate guitar-oriented rock, right down to their names, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games have contributed to a more expansive retelling of pop history. A look at the RBDLC database, a comprehensive review site for the game's downloadable content, shows no favoritism among gamers for the biggest names in rock's canon. "Quality" choices like the Band and Pearl Jam stand alongside more dubious favorites like REO Speedwagon; metal acts do well, unsurprisingly, but so do the relatively obscure Stone Roses.

Like karaoke, music-based gaming puts the focus on what used to be called the audience: the ordinary person responding to the music, either by singing or by "playing" via her console. It's an activity similar to dancing, a response to another person's artistic expression that is creative in its own right. Though the story mode and songs selected might elevate the band's later work above its earlier stuff, the act of playing the Beatles: Rock Band actually could more closely resemble the experience of hearing or seeing the Beatles at the beginning of their revolution, when their body-moving songs caused a physical reaction that startled the world. 

In the New York Times piece, McCartney suggested that he'd welcome such a response, saying that a game that helps fans feel as if they "possess or own the song, that they've been in it" is a natural extension of the intimate feeling the band's original recordings inspired.

So, maybe I'm wrong to worry, even a little bit, that the Beatles: Rock Band will somehow stop the happy march of poptimism toward a broader definition of great music. One person who isn't concerned is Wald. He is a friend, so I contacted him to ask what he thought the impact of the game might be. After reminding me that he is, indeed, a big Beatles fan, he said that as a guitarist himself, he's skeptical about kids playing music games instead of actual instruments, but he figures that, if they're going to do so, the Beatles are as good a conduit as any other.

He later sent me an e-mail elaborating on his thoughts. Noting that the game's immediate audience will likely be the same baby boomers who'll buy the remastered albums -- folks who still value music as a physical product, and who'll give the game to their kids and grandkids during the holidays -- Wald wrote:

"It's important to remember that this is pretty much the only music distribution system around these days that is safe from free on-line trading, which is why bands and record companies are so hot for it. But the jury is still very much out on how broad its effects will be, or what those effects will be, or even whether such games have much of a future or are just a passing fad. If there's one thing I've learned from studying the history and historiography of pop music, it's that people have constantly been predicting the future, and usually getting it wrong. And I see no reason to think they'll be more reliable this time around, especially since so many of the predictors are personally or financially invested in the technology."

Maybe, then, my doubts about the Beatles: Rock Band simply point to my own lingering belief in the power of the foursome that convinced me of pop music's power to define a life: my own. In the end, it's just another game. It will be up to the players to determine what it means.

-- Ann Powers

Related: Who cares about 'My Generation' anymore?

Photos: MTV Games / Harmonix

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