Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Who's Paul McCartney?" Does it matter?

Social media response to the hype surrounding Kanye West's new collaboration with Paul McCartney has created one of those Internet era controversies that's generated a life and reach far beyond its merits as an argument of any real importance.

But let's talk about it anyway.

If you've been blissfully offline for a couple days, here's the gist: Paul plays organ on "Only One," a tribute by West to his late mother.

When the single came out, both the West and Macca camps hyped it to their own benefit.

Here was West, an influential musician of the day, collaborating with an influential musician for the ages, former Beatle Paul -- doesn't that speak to Kanye's impact and importance? Here's Paul, collaborating with one of today's biggest stars -- doesn't that make him current and cool?

It was all quite predictably calculated. One thing these two have in common, along with being talented musicians, is an ability to toot their own horns. Macca has a half-century's experience knowing what works, and doesn't, in getting the public's attention. And his hard work lately promoting his "Hope for the Future" single from the "Destiny" video game indicates he's desperately hungry to hit the charts and reach a younger audience.

Accordingly, the coconut telegram got thumping about Kanye and Paul, with listeners commenting both favorably and un, especially along generational lines: What's Kanye doing hanging out with that old fart? Why would Paul stoop to such levels?

But the sentiment that got the most attention was a Tweet asking: "who tf is paul mccartney???!??! this is why i love kanye for shining light on unknown artists."

Many Boomers and Beatles fans were offended on Paul's behalf. Meanwhile, many youngsters who know very well who the Beatles are joined in the "who's Paul?" chorus, if just to annoy their elders.

Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic has a good analysis along these lines, noting:
Kids [are] just implying that he's not as relevant as he once was—and perhaps suggesting that the ones who are really out of touch are their elders, who may not know who West is. If that was the joke, it seems to have worked pretty well. The painful part for Boomers and their ilk, presumably, isn't just that folks don't know who McCartney is, but that it’s at least somewhat feasible that some young people don't know who Paul McCartney is. And that’s not exactly a shame.
The piece notes that -- even if there's little doubt the Beatles' music and influence has entered their ears knowingly or not -- many kids today are into music that is more inspired by James Brown and Michael Jackson than by the Fab Four.

Especially for non-white kids, it's a simple fact that the Beatles don't carry the same cultural currency as soul and hip hop -- not for them, not for their parents.

So, along with the hype aspect and kids trolling their elders, that's another factor in all of this. As the Beatles recede further into history and our culture becomes more diverse and open to other influences, the band becomes a smaller part of a bigger picture. That's doesn't mean their importance or impact is diminished, however.

In fact, I'd argue that the Beatles helped make that picture bigger. They were part of a musical movement that popularized black music to a multi-ethnic audience. They also incorporated musical influences from beyond the West. They essentially incorporated "sampling" into pop music via the Mellotron. And they blurred generational boundary lines with songs such as "Your Mother Should Know" and "When I'm Sixty-Four" that played and teased nostalgically with popular music of their parents' youth.

As Berlatsky notes, there's an element of this touching on music of the past going on in West's new song, too. This suggests there may be some art going on here, too, not just hype:
The sugary pop sheen takes on depth when coupled to West's specific grief, hope and longing. It's hard not to read McCartney's presence on the track as a tribute to, and acknowledgement of West's mom—she may or may not have been a fan, but he's certainly from her era, and so the music is hers more than it is West's.
You may like or dislike the song. It may or may not stand up as well 40 years from now as "Let it Be" or "Yesterday" do today. Kids then may, or may not, know who the heck Kanye is.

But does it really matter in the short term? 

One thing I think the Beatles can still teach us today is not to be so sure of things, and don't let other people dictate your tastes.

Open your ears. Like what you like. It's ok if your parents hate it. It's ok if it doesn't sound like anything else. It's ok if it breaks the rules.

And, finally, history -- and Paul McCartney -- will take care of themselves.

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