Against “Sgt. Pepper”: The Beatles classic made pop seem male, nerdy and “important” — and that wasn’t a good thing

For those who find Rolling Stone-style hagiography tiresome, last Friday was a rough day. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the most celebrated record by the most celebrated band in the history of pop music, turned 50 years old. Men who love rock music got really competitive trying to outdo each other with their lofty prose exalting the greatness of this seminal album.

Calling it the best album ever, William Goldman of Billboard wrote, “‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ became a crossroads for the band — and the world.”

Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone called the album “a central touchstone for the 1960s” and “an exemplar for a generation that was forging new ideals.”

“Sgt. Pepper’s,” you see, is the album that marked the shift in rock music away from the grubby fingers of the teenybopper crowd and into the hushed halls of Great Art. It was the transition album that turned rock from a debased music for ponytailed fans twisting the night away to music for grown men whose tastes are far too refined to worry about whether a pop song has a beat you can dance to.

“Sgt. Pepper’s” was the point when rock stopped being the music of girls and started being the music of men.

“‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was the album that made it possible and intelligible for people to say that a rock ’n’ roll album had changed music,” writes Jack Hamilton for Slate, explaining why this album tends to rate above all others in the annals of pop music.

But during all this celebration, I’d like to take the time to pour one out for teenyboppers, who always get there first and all too rarely get the credit for it. In fact, the fate of the teenybopper is to watch her music get sneered at, right up until it gets taken away and turned into a respectable art form that it’s OK for grown men to like.

The Beatles, of course, are the most iconic example of this trajectory. When the quartet from Liverpool started releasing albums, their fans were mostly teenage girls who were frequently mocked for the hysterical outpouring of enthusiasm that clearly was an uncorking of repressed lust. Girls liked the Beatles because they wanted to fuck the Beatles (or so the theory went), and the whole thing was kind of embarrassing, even for the men at the center of the enterprise who were getting rich and famous off all that female desire.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Beatles’ shift toward a more respectable and artistic branding meant shedding their sex appeal. The “Sgt. Pepper” album cover features the Fab Four dressed in goofy-looking uniforms that couldn’t be better suited to repel the female gaze. Beyond the title track and “Lucy in the Sky with the Diamonds,” there’s very little on the record that makes a lady want to shake her hips on the dance floor.

“Sgt. Pepper” is a good pop record, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a record I resent, because it helped cement this notion that music for girls is silly and music for men is artistically significant. It’s a notion that is doubly appalling because history shows, time and time again, that girl-tastes are the ones that are ahead of the curve.

Look at disco, for instance. Disco is classic girl music — or, more accurately, music for girls and gay men. Those things, along with some barely concealed racial resentment, were among the biggest reasons that disco was so demonized and despised by so many straight white men of the 1970s. Men put up with disco for awhile, but then finally killed it off in the infamous blaze of “rockist” violence at Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979, cementing the idea for a couple of decades that liking disco was lame.

But disco is also the backbone of every prestigious musical form that was invented after it. Hip-hop is built on disco samples. All that electronic dance music (EDM) that white dudes love these days? Ripping off disco. EDM in its various forms can be kind of dumb and bro-ish or intricate and nerdy. But it’s largely seen as masculine, and therefore is far more respectable than when it was called disco, and its audience consisted of ladies or gay guys who enjoyed dressing up and having fun on the dance floor.

It’s a process that’s been cycled through at other times. Grunge was seen by many, including music critics, as a redemptive music in the 1990s because it bounced girly pop songs from the likes of Madonna, Duran Duran and Michael Jackson off the charts. New Jack Swing gave way to the masculine posturing and open misogyny of gangsta rap around the same time as well, which led to hip-hop’s dominance of the pop charts that continues to this day.

One of the reasons I’m such a fan of early American punk bands like the Ramones and Blondie is that they explicitly tried to recapture the girlishness of 1960s rock and pop before the self-importance of albums like “Sgt. Pepper’s” took over. Joey Ramone in particular worshipped the girl groups of the ’60s, like the Ronettes, who used to share billings with the Beatles. But even punk eventually succumbed to that same logic that manliness equals credibility and requires “hard” or “difficult” pop music, and drifted away from the early ’60s-style sunniness of the Ramones to the brutish sounds of hardcore.

The good news is that girl music won in the end. The same kind of music snobs who mocked girls for loving Duran Duran in the ’80s now put Rio on hip best-of-the-’80s lists, such as the one at Pitchfork. Disco isn’t a shameful taste anymore and the most girlish post-disco form of EDM, house music, is making a comeback. Phil Spector’s early ’60s girl-group music is as distinguished as the Beatles are now. The soundtracks to both “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, made up of pop classics by artists like Fleetwood Mac and the Jackson 5, are darlings not just of audiences but critics as well. Calling someone a “rockist,” i.e., someone who believes that manly rock music is inherently superior to bubblegum, is now an insult. Contemporary pop artists who might once have been shrugged off as disposable crap, like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, now get treated with respect by the music press.

So now, 50 years on, it’s easier to evaluate “Sgt. Pepper’s” on its own, free of decades of weight assigned it for supposedly saving rock music from its female fan base. And it’s … fine. It’s not the best Beatles album. (The similarly pretentious “Revolver” is much better.) It has some moments of true transcendence, especially with the closing track, “A Day in the Life.” Some of it, like “She’s Leaving Home,” is forgettable. It’s a B-plus record. It’s no “Dare” by Human League, that’s for sure.

But part of me will always begrudge the record its reputation, because it helped lead to a world where certain kinds of pop music were treated as inferior, for decades, just because its fan base was mostly people who looked like me.



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