The Tastemakers

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Here’s a paragraph about John F. Lyons’ book Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago, and the Sixties, which didn’t make it into the post I wrote last month:

Another not-frequently-discussed aspect of Beatlemania explored by Lyons involves the different ways in which girls and boys responded to the Beatles. The short version is that the girls liked the look while the boys liked the sound, but there’s more to it than that. For girls, Beatles fandom was communal. Fan clubs and teen magazines devoted to the Beatles allowed girls to inhabit a space occupied by like-minded people. Lyons claims it helped ease the isolation some girls felt living in newly built suburbs. Boys, meanwhile, were divided by the Beatles’ look, especially in Chicago. In 1964 Chicago, the era of greasers in leather jackets wasn’t over yet. Beatle fashion—long hair, skinny-leg pants, and Cuban heels—was considered outrageous. Much of the criticism of it was homophobic.

I’m not the person to examine the gendered response to the Beatles in great depth, but I’d read it.

I have seen it argued that for much of the history of 20th century popular music, female listeners were the tastemakers. It was they who made stars of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and who responded on a visceral level to Bing Crosby’s romantic crooning. The throngs who greeted the Beatles when they arrived in America, and the fans who screamed their lungs out for the Beatles and other stars of the 1960s, were overwhelmingly female. The argument continues that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by making the Beatles into “serious” artists, made male critics into the more important tastemakers. What girls and women liked still mattered—ask any radio programmer over the last 50 years about the importance of attracting the female demographic—but for the next 30 years at least, the most influential American critics and rock writers were almost exclusively men. (Apart from Ellen Willis, I can’t think of another female music writer deemed worthy of space in prestigious national outlets at the time.) And far from the communal nature of female fandom, the male critics were communal only in the sense that they were published in those same prestigious outlets. They were almost universally upper-middle-class white guys hammering away on typewriters, solitary in their city apartments.

This has changed today, when some of the best music writers working are female and/or people of color. But even today, most radio programmers are men; most record executives are men. And nobody can imagine screaming throngs of young women going nuts over “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Plausibly Related, on the Subject of Women and Men: I found myself kind of disconnected from the recent death of Ronnie Spector, with other things to do and other things to think about during that week. I did find time to listen to a few things people posted on the Internets, including a 1977 version of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” recorded with the E Street Band. Of all the influences Bruce Springsteen and his mates could point to, the Phil Spector Wall of Sound and the urban pop of the girl groups might be the strongest. Even after all this time, “Born to Run” is still the greatest Phil Spector record not made by Phil Spector. It’s clear that the Wall of Sound frequently works for them.

But sometimes it does not.

Somewhere in my archives I have the album Introducing Darlene Love, her first proper solo album, released in 2015 and produced by Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt’s overstuffed production is oppressive; four songs in I found myself wishing he’d back off and just let the lady sing. And I felt the same way about “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”: you guys have taken these vastly talented singers and done the same thing to them that Spector did, burying them in showy productions that conform to your personal vision. Did you even ask Ronnie or Darlene what they wanted to do?  What about their point of view, their perception of their talent, their artistic aspirations? Did you even consider that there might be another way to showcase the talents they possess? Or did you just assume that what you wanted is what they wanted?

Perhaps it was what they wanted to do, and if so, that’s fine. But the primacy of what men want is strong, in rock and roll as elsewhere. And it’s been true at least since Sgt. Pepper.

3 thoughts on “The Tastemakers

  1. Jim Bahler

    Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia. First published in 18969, then in 1971. She included her opinions and was one of the first rock writers, male or female, to include basic discographies. I used her book extensively when I taught a brief accredited course in Rock Music at Milton College, Milton Wisconsin in January 1972 and again the following January. Her book stayed in print, to the best of my knowledge through Ed Naha’s 1968 revis

    1. Wesley

      I was going to add Roxon’s name as a top female rock critic of the time as well. Also regarding the contention that “the next 30 years at least, the most influential American critics and rock writers were almost exclusively men,” Gerri Hirshey had a byline for several articles in Rolling Stone during the 1980s, and Lisa Robinson was a contributor to New Musical Express, Creem and Hit Parader before eventually landing at the New York Post as a syndicated columnist writing on rock.

  2. Chris Herman

    I wasn’t around in 1964 so my opinion is based on second-hand impressions but during the early stages of the British Invasion, weren’t young males more likely to favor bands with an “edgier” sound like the Stones, Kinks, Animals, and Yardbirds over the Beatles?

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