Katy Perry vs. The Beatles

There is a kind of age prejudice in pop music that I’d like to explore.  When I was growing I thought Perry Como and Dean Martin were for over the hill folks, like my parents.  The Beatles and Bob Dylan defined my generation, even though older college kids looked down on us teens from their folk music purity.  And let’s not forget the smugness of classical music fans or jazz aficionados who sneer at three chord rock and roll from their hipster highs.

But I have to admit, we baby boomers are terrible music snobs.  Many of my generation stopped listening to music after 1975.  For people coming of age in the 1960s, The Beatles are the yardstick that all other pop music is measured.  To many of us the art of music has been in sharp decline since 1969’s Abbey Road.  But has the music declined, or just our youthful enthusiasm?

I’m now a generation older than my parents were when we all first watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan back in February of 1964.  The Beatles, The Byrds and Bob Dylan have become my Perry Como, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

When I tell friends my age that I’m listening to Katy Perry most of them do not have a clue to who she is, and if they do, they think of her as some kind of under-aged, under-dressed young woman who doesn’t really sing but flaunts her body to loud noise.  “Oh those girls don’t sing they sell sex.”  But what emotional response were all those screaming teenage girls buying when they heard:

Oh please say to me

You’ll let me be your man

And please say to me

You’ll let me hold your hand

Now, let me hold your hand

I want to hold your hand

Almost a half-century from when the Beatles sang to little girls, girl singers now dominate the pop charts, and sing songs like “Pearl,” that rebels against the tyranny of love and men,

Oh, she used to be a pearl, oh

Yeah, she used to rule the world, oh

Can’t believe she’s become a shell of herself

Cause she used to be a pearl

She was unstoppable

Moved fast as light, like an avalanche

But now she’s stuck deep in cement

Wishing that they’d never ever met

When we were young we were more than willing to accept the wisdom of Lennon and McCartney, who were no older than Katy Perry now.  Why, when we’re two or three times older than Paul and John in 1964, do we cling to their music and reject the artistic expression of today’s youth?  You’d think we’d be listening to something old and fuddy-duddy by now, like our version of Perry Como.  Do The Beatles sound square to the modern listener?

Do we all get stuck in our own teenage dreams?

Pop music has never been that deep and I don’t think Katy Perry’s album Teenage Dream is that different any of the Fab Four’s early LPs.  We are told Perry is involved with the writing of her songs, but that could be PR, but don’t the lyrics represent the young of 2010?  Her hit song “Teenage Dream” does not show the poetical sophistication of “Eleanor Rigby” but it’s sentiments are far more sophisticated than the early Lennon-McCartney love songs when they were her age.  Remember, in 1964, things were much more innocent than this video.

What does this say about this generation?  And what if you heard your answer back when you were a teen – don’t you sound like our parents?  My Mom and Dad hated The Beatles and thought they were vulgar, lacking in talent.  My father claimed they played noise.  But we thought The Beatles were cutting edge brilliant.  They expressed our desires and dreams – but don’t those dreams and desires seem so innocent and unsophisticated now?  Children under ten today love The Beatles.  Older kids want Jack White, whose anger is hard to fathom to us, but obvious to them.

Of course, I wonder if today’s high school and college kids are really more mature than we were?  The Beatles were living what we see in this Katy Perry video, we just didn’t see it.  And we were no angels either.

And if we graying baby boomers, now over the hill by our earlier philosophy of not trusting people over thirty, stop listening to twenty-something art, doesn’t that put us out of touch like we thought our parents were back then?

Or maybe pop music encapsulates every emerging generation, and the normal mature thing to do is to hate the music of young?

I listen to music like it’s a drug.  When all The Beatles albums were recently remastered I went out and bought most of them, but I only played them once.  Their potency as a musical stimulant has worn off.  But I’m playing the Katy Perry songs over and over again because they get me high with restless energy.  To me its new music that thrills.  As I’ve gotten older it’s gotten much harder to connect to the young, so I return to my old favorite albums, but it’s a nostalgic thrill, not a let’s go out and conquer the world defiant dance.

Just being current doesn’t make music powerful.  There is something else.  I think the powerful emotion I crave in music is the strong emotions of ambitious artists.  I think we loved The Beatles music because of the passion of John, Paul, George and Ringo to succeed.  And I think the reason Katy Perry is popular now is because of her passion to be on top of the world musically.  She expresses that desire in her song “Firework.”

Do you ever feel already buried deep

Six feet under scream

But no one seems to hear a thing

Do you know that there’s still a chance for you

Cause there’s a spark in you

You just gotta ignite the light

And let it shine

Just own the night

Like the Forth of July

Cause baby you’re a firework

Come on show ‘em what your worth

Make ‘em go “oh, oh, oh!”

As you shoot across the sky-y-y

In the song she is singing these sentiments to someone else, but she’s talking about herself.

JWH – 10/7/10

15 thoughts on “Katy Perry vs. The Beatles”

  1. I can’t listen to more then a second or two of Katy Perry’s stuff because she uses auto-tune. Good or bad, I want to hear a real voice!

    To me it’s never mattered how old or new an album is, when it has that special something it’s as you said, “like a drug.”

    Lately my two drugs of choice have been “the Killers” and Harry Chapin. How’s that for opposites?


    1. I have a couple CDs by The Killers, and I really like them, but I haven’t thought about Harry Chapin in decades. How did you discover him John?

      I don’t worry about auto-tune, we live in a cybernetic age. My grammar and spelling would be far worse than it is without my computer’s help. Also, most of the classic 60s bands never sounded like their records when you heard them live.

      1. The Harry Chapin Anthology was one of the cassettes I remember my father playing on nearly every one of our families long car trips.

        If you give bands the benefit of the doubt, their live shows don’t sound the same as the records because they want to give the fans a little something different. But there are definitely some singers that just can’t hit the high notes they manage in the studio in concert too.

        But also one of my favorite bands, Steely Dan, only gave live concerts during their first album, and that was with a different lead singer! But it doesn’t make their albums any less good.

  2. Let just must start off by saying, “What are you smoking, Jim?!?” Okay, now that I’ve the incredulousness out of the way, I’ll go ahead and comment more cogently.

    The only Katy Perry stuff I’m familiar with is the stuff played on the radio, like “California Girls”, “I Kissed a Girl”, and “Teenage Dream”. Emotionally sophisticated isn’t a term I would apply to any of these songs; if anything they are pretty shallow about matters of love and sexuality, no different than the early Beatles stuff. The message seems more about shock and “Oh! Let’s talk about stuff that makes your parents uncomfortable!” Do I think it’s garbage? No, though it’s no different than any other music geared towards the teenage crowd, and it knows how to push their buttons. Teenage music is all about rebelling against parental control, and what better way to do that than to talk about “going all the way” with your boyfriend or dabble in bisexuality? Lyrics aside, I agree that the music itself is energizing, and I will listen to it when it comes on the radio, but at the same time, as a parent, I’m troubled by the messages it sends to teenagers about sexuality as a consequence-free past time. Frankly I found it disturbing to hear these songs being played at my daughter’s middle school carnival earlier this year. Personally, I like Pink much better and find her music much more emotionally sophisticated on so many more levels.

    Having said all this, I think that with time, like most artists, Katy Perry will grow beyond what she’s doing right now and become more sophisticated. The content restraints on what can be put out there these days are much different than what was allowed back when the Beatles were starting out, and if you’ve read any biographies about the Fab Four, then you know that the squeaky-clean image of the Beatles was just that: a marketing image that they grew to dislike and rebelled against the older and more successful they became. I disagree that the Beatles are loved for their passion to succeed; I think it’s because of their passion for music as a form of art. Sure, they started off with a thirst to succeed, but they hit that pinnacle rather quickly in their careers and then you start to see them experimenting with different music forms and exploring music as an art form.

    A lot of the early Beatles was emotionally unsophisticated, but that’s a reflection of the cultural and moral times in which they lived, and their target audience, but then also majority of the songs on their albums back then were written by others. Once 100% of the material was their own work, we saw some really sophisticate stuff coming out, like “In my Life” and “Help” and of course “Eleanor Rigby”. We also see some mighty disturbing songs like “Little Girl” also, which I would say is far more sinister than “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” which is far more graphic with its violence. I don’t think at all that Beatles are listened to only by those under 10 now. My own personal experience was that I discovered the Beatles at about age 10 and it was the first music I found that really spoke to me (the early stuff) and got me excited. I didn’t like the later Beatles until later in my teen years, but even now I still love it all for various reasons. And as you know I’m not a baby-boomer, but rather a gen-Xer. Even my brother-in-law who just turned thirty and likes stuff like Linkin Park and Primus asked for the Beatles 1 album for Christmas when it came out a couple years ago.

    But we’re talking about today’s generation, right? We’ll, there’s my 11 year old and she’s a huge Beatles nut. I don’t sit around listening to the Beatles all the time, so it’s not as if she’d been listening to it since she was a baby (in fact she’s likely heard more Duran Duran in those years than anything else), but when Beatles Rock Band came out last year, I decided to drop the cash to buy the stuff to play it, and playing that game with me was her first true exposure to the Beatles. Now she can’t get enough of it; she’s got CD’s, teeshirts, computer wall papers, and thinks Ringo is the cutest guy on earth. And she’s stolen my “I Love Paul” magnet and won’t give it back. Her favorite song is “I am the Walrus”, and if she sees Beatles stuff when we’re out and about, she’s johnny on the spot to point it out. She wore her Rubber Soul shirt to school today, and she always wears it with pride, and from what I’ve heard, none of the other kids have every made snide comments about her liking old people music. In fact, many of her friends are fans as well, and there are just as many kids where Beatles T’s at her school as any other band.

    So no, I don’t think the Beatles are only the province of the under 10 crowd (and yes, my 6 year old loves the early Beatles stuff too and will sing along when it comes on the radio). What they did was neither innocent nor unsophisticated by today’s standards and that’s why it’s still resonating with newer generations. We still struggle with some of the same issues they wrote about in their music, and I think we will continue to do so with each generation because they are tough, human issues. Whether or not we’ll still be talking about Katy Perry as a music influence in thirty to forty years will depend highly on where she goes from here. Is she all about the shock or is there more to her than her current music suggests?

    1. I agree Traci, The Beatles really do stand out, don’t they. Since I don’t have kids I missed out on learning what kind of music they would have liked, but it’s been interesting watching my nephews and nieces grow up. Modern kids have not flocked like lemmings to any group like most of our generation did with The Beatles.

      I’m surprised when I meet little kids, 10-12 who love Green Day, and can talk about The Grateful Dead or The Doors, but I seldom meet kids who know about many old rock bands other than The Beatles. The Beatles have become the Benny Goodman of this generation, the most remember big band leader I remember from my parent’s generation. And I love listening to Benny Goodman, so I can understand how kids today can find a few old bands to like.

      What I can’t understand is why so many of my generation can’t find a few new bands to like. I know a lot of people my age who take pride in not listening to anything new after 1975, or 1980, which was 30-35 years ago.

      And if I did have kids I’d feel very uncomfortable with them listening to Katy Perry and all those other 20 something young women that are famous today. But I remember how I didn’t want my parents to censor my music, so Traci, can you let your kids have their music?

      1. I don’t think censoring does much good in teenage years, so no, I let her listen to what she wants to listen to. When she was younger I did sensor some stuff, but now my approach is to let her watch, read, or listen to what she wants to, but also listen, watch and read things myself so that we can have open dialog about themes and issues. She wanted to read Twilight, but we both agreed that I had to read the books first. I want her to feel that she can ask me tough and embarrassing questions and not fear I will get mad at her rather than her go to her friends who already telling her stupidly false things and trying to use peer pressure on her. I’m glad that so far she’s willing to come talk to me about these things, and I hope it continues. My mom’s methodology was to forbid me from reading books if she thought they were too violent or sexual. She banned me from reading Stephen King books until I was 14, and told me I wasn’t allowed to read Watership Down, but what did I do? I had friends check them out from the library for me and read them in secret. I wonder if Dana came to me and asked if she could read American Psycho, if I’d go ahead and let her, and really, I have to think that if she’s a sophisticated enough reader to make it through the dredge of the first hundred pages and still wants to read on, then why not? She’s been showing interest in reading The Shining, and to be honest I’m more concerned about her having nightmares about the paranormal aspects than I am about the violence and the sex; she gets worked up over shows like Ghost Hunters and A Haunting, so I think she’s not quite ready for King yet, but instead of telling her “No! You’re not old enough!”, I told her, “Well, I really don’t think you’re quite ready for it. If you get freaked out by those ghost shows, you’re going to have a tough time with that book, because it’s a lot like those shows.” That made her reconsider, but I imagine within the next year, she’ll decide to read it and I’ll respect that decision. That’s about the age I started reading King

  3. Also wanted to add that I think it’s telling that the Beatles have a successful video game, for who are the primary consumers of video games? Teenagers, of course, and quite honestly it would be difficult for a younger kid to play the Rock Band games because aside from the drums, the instruments are bit too big for them to use with any ease. Baby boomers are definitely not the target audience for that particular game.

  4. Jim, my parents used to tell me that all rock music sounded alike. I was just astonished at that. They couldn’t be serious! But now, I think that all rap music sounds alike. Heh, heh. I guess we DO turn into our parents, to some extent, anyway.

    Well, I’m not musically inclined, not at all. In college, I listened to classical music, sometimes, and found that I had to hear a symphony several times before I started to like it. And I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics of songs (which were usually dumb, and sometimes downright embarrassing, especially when I found myself singing along).

    We like what we like. I can’t say that I think preferences in music are important, not at all. It’s good to give children a diverse musical exposure, but other than that, I really don’t care.

    1. That’s what my father said all the time, that rock music songs sounded all alike. While listening to Katy Perry I thought the music from one track to the next sounded too much alike. In fact, while listening I was trying to figure out what to label to give her sound. Is it dance? Or house? It’s not rock. And it’s not pop like Barbra Streisand. It confuses me. And I also had a hard time figuring out what instruments were evening being played. I assume I’m so out of touch with modern music that I’m mostly ignorant. I liked the beat, her singing and her words. And I like all the songs well enough to let the album play through.

      I started playing Teenage Dream one night when I decided to sample all the hit albums on Rhapsody. I put about 50 albums in a play list and have been playing it for days. I’m learning a lot, but I have a hard time remember who is who, and what to call different styles. I can’t keep current, but I do try to find about one new album or group a month to like. I’ve avoided the young pop women because of age prejudice, but recently I’ve tried to open up.

      It’s interesting but the thirty-something people I know dislike current pop more than people my age. I think they see it as their generation bubble-gum music. A few young women I know prefer edgier alternate rock bands and jeer at Katy Perry for being clean cut.

  5. The sentiment in “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is timeless, I think that’s part of the appeal, and when slowed down it’s actually quite touching. And you know what? It takes a lot more vulnerability to ask to hold someone’s hand, then it does to say you want to… well you know. I also think it’s a bit unfair to compare the writing of two twenty something guys in 1963 or so to a young woman of today. And I also hesitate to call Katy Perry’s lyrics “sophisticated” and anytime some one uses words other than “love” “moon” “june” “spoon”, they are some how a better songwriter or in this case better in tune with what girl might feel, and worse yet Katy being more “empowering” (that’s almost as bad as Alanis being shoved down my throat for being “empowering” with “You Oughta Know” Please there is nothing “empowering” about that song, cathartic perhaps). I don’t believe “deep” or so called “sophisticated” lyrics somehow equal greater songwriting (there is bad poetry after all). (Also this notion that someone being “ironic” or “nasty” in a song- or saying they “kissed a girl”- also translates to being somehow more “evolved” and less “square”). Sometimes the words get in the way of the melody. To just focus on the Beatles early lyrics and then contrast them to supposedly “sophisticated” lyrics of Katy Perry is to miss a major part of The Beatles genius, their compositional skills. (I also suspect the Katy gets songwriting help from men interestingly enough). I don’t know who it was who said it, it could have been Leonard Bernstein or a musicologist but I remember them saying how intuitive Lennon and McCartney were in putting the right word with the right note, so sometimes what seems simplistic (and this held true for some of the writers of the American Songbook, which has often been contrasted in the rock era against Dylan, etc, as not “sophisticated” lyrically), is actually the writer knowing that more words would detract from the melody. If The Beatles were geniuses of anything, the main one was melody(their sense of harmony being second and then their word play). One of the reasons that “And I Love Her” and “Yesterday” are so wonderful is because they say just enough and let their melodies breathe. There is a reason we have Dylan and a reason The Beatles, the latter for their exquisite musicality. My kids (girls 17, 12 and 6) love The Beatles and aren’t crazy about Katy. My little one sums up The Beatles appeal best, “it’s sooo musical, Mom”.

    1. On the news they are talking about John Lennon turning 70 – I wonder if far future newscasts will mark Katy Perry, or any of the pop/rock stars of today turning 70. I agree completely Christine, that The Beatles were more sophisticated about their music. I was just observing that song topics appear to be about more sophisticated subjects today.

      Did you catch the first episode of Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook on PBS? See:


      Popular music is always evolving. One of the points I was trying to make, and I know my rushed out blogs aren’t always clear, is how well does one generation understand another generation’s innovation and evolution? The Beatles are standing the test of time – but what music from the 00’s will be studied and fondly remembered in 50 years. My parents couldn’t discern the creativity in The Beatles. I’m asking can we detect the innovation in current pop music? It all sounds like dance music to me, but what subtle innovations does contemporary music make that I’m not hearing?

  6. Just one or 2 seconds of Katy perry and I’ll be yelling in anger, literally



    and yes this comment is from a 19 year old that listens to nothing but old music (1910’s – 1990’s), the music that has soul and talent to it, something that modern music is missing!

    1. Wow, you really don’t like Katy Perry. Then I doubt you’ll like the two women I discovered after her that I also like, Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj. I love old music too, but I’m trying not to be biased against new music. BTW, 90% of everything is crap, according to Sturgeon’s Law.

      I’m not saying Katy Perry is as good as the Beatles, I’m saying she’s working the same field as they did, pop music, and she does a good job. She’s clever, funny, and topical. I’ve been playing the Beatles since 1964, so it’s nice to hear new stuff occasionally.

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