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


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