As kids come of age, and get into music, there are all kinds of different paths they take to define their palette as music listeners. Some are influenced by their parents’ musical tastes, which provide the foundation for their nascent musical development. Others follow the lead a cool older sibling, who feed their musical appetites with cassette singles of whatever cool older siblings were listening to that week. Unfortunately, my parents only listened to NPR and my older brother had a pretty severe learning disability, so I was on my fucking own. And as such, I had a weird musical upbringing on my way to becoming a genuine music nerd.
I don’t know when or where it happened, but somehow it got into my head that cool kids didn’t listen to the music all the other kids listened to. I remember in second grade, when everyone my age was getting in MC Hammer and Kris Kross, I was getting into my Soul II Soul cassette, a band which I had learned about from their cover of The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss the Girl” on the Disney’s Simply Mad About the Mouse music video collection. “This shit is so underground,” I thought to myself. The impulse, thoughout my life, has led me to be incredibly insular and nerdy about music. I can’t honestly say if that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s the way it is.
This all a roundabout way of setting up the fact that I never went through a genuine Beatles phase as a kid or teen. I was certainly aware of them being considered the best or most important band in the world. There was a big TV documentary on them when we were in middle school that even led me to buy a couple of their albums, but I only listened to them once, like, “OK, these are the songs, I get it.” Even in middle school, I’d entered into a check-things-off-the-list-and-then-move-on mentality. The CDs were promptly sold to a girl who owned more Beatles t-shirts than she did Beatles albums and I was on to my next musical flight of fancy, post-Django gypsy guitar jazz. No joke.
And now, I’m here, a 29-year-old, chronic music fan who doesn’t have a favorite Beatle, or favorite Beatles song or favorite Beatles album. When the Beatles comes on the radio during a road trip and people sing along, unless it’s “Yellow Submarine,” (which I learned in music class as a kid), I’m mouthing along like I know the words, like Garth at the end of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in Wayne’s World. I have a far more deep connection to films where there are either Beatles references or theirs songs have been music cues more than I have a connection to the actual band.
This is one of those things that shouldn’t be that weird, but it kind of is. The Beatles were the biggest band in the history of bands. An old Professor I had, wrote a book about whether or not Shakespeare was considered “great” because he’s actually great, or if Shakespeare has just always been considered great, so that’s why we think he’s great now. He opens the book by comparing Shakespeare to the Beatles, saying that at this point, it could be argued they’re in a similar position in the critical discourse of western culture. Everyone says the Beatles are the greatest, but is that just a self-fulfilling prophecy, or has their music actually made more people feel more things and influenced more subsequent music that also moved generations? And is that even the criteria for saying something is great? I forget where the book lands, probably because I never finished it, but I’m of the mind to argue that yes, the outsize influence on culture and the amount of individuals who the works have made an impression on can be a strong basis for say a band (or playwrite) is great. And that’s good enough for me to feel bad for not having any personal experience to draw on when considering their works.
I had another Professor, who taught a surprisingly thorough class on the history of Pop Music, who said once you hit 25, your musical palette is set. You might find yourself listening to new bands or new genres, but you’re going to listen to them in reference to the music that first connected with you between the formative years of 12 to 25. His argument was based on the work of a neuroscientist, who based his argument on brain chemistry/scientific fact. But I think he’s wrong. A great album can be approached like a great film or a great book, and while it may have had more impact on you at a different age, you can still enjoy it, think critically about and experience the work at any age. Especially a work that has so much cultural importance attached to it. There should be no difference with music, especially if you’re still open to finding music that genuinely moves you.
So, I’ve been inspired to download a few Beatles albums and have put them on my iPhone, thinking I will spend the time to get to know the songs and think about whether they mean anything to me. However, every time I get part of the way through, it makes me want to put on something else almost immediately, often The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, another old band I’ve forced myself to get into. For some reason, I’ve decided I like the supposedly “underated” counter-narrative option to The Beatles better than the more popular/obvious choice. I’m still the nine year old trying to prove my worth by choosing the alternative to what everybody else like. So to answer the titular question of this piece:
No, I’m not too old to get into the Beatles. I’m just too much of an asshole.
Henry Goldman is the founder of yr an adult. He can already tell he is going to catch shit from his Mom about saying his parents only listened to NPR.