Why Japan? Appropriation of Japanese Culture in Modern Music Videos

Anyone who claims that Kanye is not an influential artist in today’s culture industry must not understand the definition of the word influential. At least in the eyes of a college-aged consumer of popular media like myself, Kanye is quite the trendsetter. He has mastered the art of appealing to the people from the beginning of his career, introducing some relatively innovative achievements when the market asks for it and playing along with current trends when the industry is stable. “Stronger”, one of his most well known early career songs, is a great example of this.The successful video stays within the comfort zone of the still-popular trend of mimicking a stereotypical Japanese anime style of film. Yet, even as a trend setter, Kanye was not the first in popularizing Japanese themes in pop culture. Such appropriation was happening well before Kanye came along. In fact, tracing the roots of using Japanese themes in popular culture traces back well into the late 1800’s.

As Koichi Iwabuchi puts it, “Japanese cultural presence tends to be culturally odorless…” (Iwabuchi), the use of Japanese culture is more present than many people, including consumers, seem to recognize. As inconspicuous Japanese culture appears, however, and although Japan may seem a “faceless economic superpower with a disproportionate lack of cultural influence upon the world… [that] has money and technologies but cannot diffuse its culture…” in actuality it has “long been exporting cultural products overseas.”(Iwabuchi) Beginning as early as the early 1900’s, around the time of the Russo-Japanese war, with artists interest in Japanese painting styles, then the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, as America rebuilt its relationship with Japan, with writers and poets, and now at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, the incorporation of Japanese themes has been arriving to the United States in waves that appear to correspond with the U.S’s political relationship with Japan.

The emergence of Japan-inspired art in the final decade of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, however, does not connect with this idea of political ties to the cultural industry as well as other eras. It is difficult to identify one major political “stepping stone” that could have lead to the emergence of the interest of Japanese themes, suggesting that perhaps social movements are driving the waves. In fact, Koichi Iwabuchi addresses this idea, pushing aside the political correlation proposal and suggesting there is a cultural-social facet that makes Japanese cultural especially attractive to artists. He writes “While the spread of Japanese media culture into the United States and Europe has been a gradual and steady phenomenon since at least the 1980s, it has intensified in the new millennium, so much so that we have recently witnessed the rise of a “cool Japan”…” (Iwabuchi) But what is it that Americans suddenly find “cool” enough to appropriate?

Through appropriating Japanese culture, the American culture industry is repurposing traditional themes in a way that satisfies needs of the industry. In the current case, it appears the U.S. appropriates the culture of Japan in appreciation and in desire to explore its multiple “cool” characteristics, notably its advanced technology. Historically Japan has been at the forefront of many technological movements, and the U.S. culture industry plays that feature up in movies and music videos, often associating robotics and exclusive technology (like cars and computers) with Japanese characters, Japanese words and/or subtitles, or even cities within Japan itself. The appreciation of technology, however, doe not arrive alone into the culture industry in the United States.

Japan has also come to be known in American for its notable polar gender roles. To many people in the U.S., male samurais have developed into topics of interest, representing astonishingly tough manly qualities. Geishas, in a similar way, have become of interest as they hold a marked role in gender relations and have had the image of their subservient roles intensified by U.S media. Both roles emphasize honor and discipline in their own unique ways. Today’s infatuation with Japanese culture shows many signs of being based in technology, but also brings up the desire to explore these gender roles. As Roland Kelts of Japanamerica puts it, “There are always some americans interested in iconic totems of Japanese culture, like the bushido samurai tradition that emphasizes honor and discipline… it is the eccentricities, spastic canniness, and libertarian fearlessness of Japan’s creators of popular culture… that are attracting the attention of Americans.”(Kelts)
The infatuation, especially in today’s music video industry, however, has become more and more problematic in the things it focuses on when appropriating. Artists exaggerate features of Japanese culture making it seem much more childish through costume and prop choice. Paired with this we often see some other Japanese themes like sakura trees or kimonos, making the childish aspects seem like a natural not re-appropriated aspect of Japanese culture. Appropriating in such a way, as excellently put by Gayle Wald, using “Such infantilizing images of Japanese women rockers are, of course, [is] merely the benign complement to a more overtly and aggressively racist neocolonial portraiture of Asian femininity”(Wald)

Take Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl music video for example. The song, about not being the type of girl who responds positively to cat calls and such, is accompanied by a music video that starts with Gwen taking a picture of a group of exclusively Japanese friends and calling them “super kawaii.” She then breaks out into song and dance, with her Japanese posse always hovering in the background. The rebellious nature of Gwen Stefani, and showing her lead a group of asian women into rebellion, juxtaposes the traditional role of what appropriated Japanese themes are usually interpreted as. Yet, even through the “empowering” of her Japanese followers, there is a heightened sense that all other women who are not represented by Gwen’s crew are subservient. Gwen is contrasted to the background group in a way that makes her appear rowdy and takes orders from no one. The Japanese girls, on the other hand, are depicted similar to each other, trying to follow their leader, Gwen.

In more recent times, we see an even more intense use of Japanese culture to reaffirm the sub-ordinance of women. Katy perry, for example, in the 2013 AMA’s, wears geisha attire as she sings about an unconditional love, thus emphasizing the role of women as caring devoted figures in male life and emphasizing the idea of geisha subservience. Even the background dancers reaffirm this idea. Continuously throughout her performance, background dancers are running up to Katy Perry, dressed in their own kimonos, completing various tasks like brining her an umbrella, and fanning her, metaphorically screaming at the audience to look at their ability to obey.

The intensity of which Japanese culture is appropriated seems to only grow from there.There is no doubt Avril Lavigne carries a pop-punk rebel persona, and her songs are often about forgetting about any institutionalized systems and breaking the rules. Unclear if she does it to thumb her nose at appropriation, she still manages to fall into the group of artists that appropriates Japanese cultures in regards to gender roles with her video to “Hello Kitty”. Epitomizing appropriation of Japanese culture in the 21st century, Avril Lavigne bounces around in a cupcake skirt through candy stores and sushi bars. Lurking in the background of nearly every shot is a squad of identical looking Japanese girls that stay quite, and serve what seems to juxtapose Avril Lavigne. Performing for the pleasure of the viewer and stays quite and obedient as traditional geishas did, it appears they are modern day Americanized standard geishas.

An understandable argument raised when thinking about the appropriation of culture in such a way is how people are to express their appreciation for other cultures? In her performance of Unconditionally, Katy Perry includes other Japanese themes, such as waves reminiscent of the “Great Wave of Kanagawa” painting, and projections of Japanese style art in the background, showing interest in other aspects of the culture. As Perry said in one interview “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that’s it … can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane?” (Rolling Stone) It does not seem likely that these artists are appropriating Japanese culture specifically to point out the subservience of women.

Appreciating the culture, however, is a difficult task to accomplish via industry driven performance. Taking themes out of context and reapplying them to new scenarios is incredibly hard to accomplish without either making a spectacle of the foreign culture or using it to represent some other value. The Chicago Monitor, in a notably blunt post, spelled it out well what “appreciation” in pop culture has turned into, “When she [Katy Perry] abuses her societal privilege as a white woman and associates geishas with unconditional love, she reinforces the patriarchal and Orientalist idea that Asian women are passive, docile, and childlike in their servitude to men.”(Mohamed) This is not to say that appropriation is all together a terrible thing that only ultimately results in creating a false image of other culture’s value, but the fact of the matter is that it usually results in reinforcing ideas that are not meant to be represented. It is not that appropriating should be entirely avoided, but it is hard to get it right. Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, and Avril Lavigne have all expressed some interest in feminism, and yet through their appreciation they exotics Japanese culture and depict it and advocate antifeminist themes.

Adopting one theme from a new culture is ultimately tied to adopting multiple themes to make the initial incorporation of said theme more natural. We chose to include Japanese driven technology into popular culture because it is cool and historically we associate Japanese with advance technology. Naturally, we can’t adopt that single aspect of Japanese culture without expressing some other realm of Japanese culture. Through such appropriation the purpose of Japan culture in the U.S. turns into a way of reinforcing misogynistic ideology, and develop the image of Japan into a place where women are childlike and submissive. The individual aspects of culture, like gender and race, are more closely tied together than we realize. The fact of the matter is that adopting one theme from a new culture is ultimately tied to adopting multiple themes to make the adoption of said theme more natural.


Work Cited:
I would like to thank Williams College professor Anthony Sheppard for sharing his insight of the role Japan has played in the American music industry with me.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. “‘Marketing ‘Japan’: Japanese cultural presence under a global gaze” Japanese Studies 18.2 (1996): 257-258. Online.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. “‘Marketing ‘Japan’: Japanese cultural presence under a global gaze” Japanese Studies 18.2 (1996): 256. Online.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Uses of Media Culture, Usefulness of Media Culture Studies: Beyond Brand Nationalism into Public Dialogue”. Creativity and Academic Activism: Instituting Cultural Studies. Ed.
Meaghan Morris and Mette Hjort. Hong Kong University Press, 2012. 140. Web.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.s. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Wald, Gayle. “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth”. Signs 23.3 (1998): 585–610. Web.

“The Unbreakable Katy Perry: Inside Rolling Stone’s New Issue.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 30 July 2014. Web. 15 May 2016.

Mohamed, Hanan. “Appropriating Black, Asian, and Islamic Culture for Entertainment.” The Chicago Monitor. The Chicago Monitor, 6 July 2015. Web. 15 May 2016.

Utopia In Tears

In the eighth grade I was introduced to the most horrifying film I have ever seen. I am no expert critic of horror or drama film. As a person who considers herself a fan of both genres, however, and as someone who has seen innumerable films of both types, I can say with confidence that no film left me more disturbed than Kurdish Bahman Ghobadi’s 2004 movie “Turtles Can Fly.” Its plot could be best described as every parent’s nightmare, with hundreds of orphaned children living in an impoverished war territory. Picture the tragedy of a movie like “The Boy in Striped Pajamas”, but multiplied and compounded by dozens instances of children in distress. I am talking about a movie that’s effects on the viewer are hundred times more heartbreaking, and infinitely more traumatic. So traumatic, in fact, that 8th-grade-me, along with many of the friends I watched with, had to watch multiple episodes of Modern Family right after finishing “Turtles Can Fly” to prevent sudden teary outbreaks at any point later that day. Yet, in a movie that appears to be so dystopian, expressing the horrors experienced by the Kurdish children living in Iraq near the Turkish border, Ghobadi decided to include certain events that express themes inconsistent with the mood of the rest of the film. That is, throughout the film, it appears that there are glimpses of what might be considered by some, a utopia.
Symbols representing traditionally considered virtues or of positive utopian notions contrast with the scenes they lay in. “The red fish”, for example, representing a beacon of hope, is a spot of color in a world of grey and reminds us of the beauty still left in the world. In the film it seems a bit out of place as it appears after a scene about how three children drowned looking for said fish, and is followed by an unhappy young girl running off home from the river to deliver water to what is left of her family. Or for example, a scene where a boy’s leg being blown off by a land mine contrasts with the symbolism of an arm broken off a Saddam Hussein statue, representing the breaking away from the oppression of Hussein and the beginning of a revolution that potentially could lead to peace.


( Watch: 1:21:30- 1:23:05)

Making the argument that this film has an utopian aspect based off these few symbols is a bold position. The waves of positivity from these symbols, however, is reinforced by various random yet significant acts of kindness and perseverance scattered throughout the film. In the town where the movie was filmed, everyone is equally poor and living in the same fear that any day the town can be attacked and and life would end, yet everyone keeps relatively calm and works together to make the most of the situation. Surprisingly enough, even the children become equal to adults as they take on many adult jobs like mine defusing, bartering for satellites and guns in a nearby town’s marketplace, gas mask distribution, or for one of our protagonist, managing large bodies of people to complete such tasks.
In addition to this unity of young and old coming together to create a better environment, there is an overall embrace of the disabled members of the community, another surprising silver lining to the horrors displayed in the film. There are scenes where one’s disability is used as an insult, but for the most part these disabled people work and are treated as everyone else. In fact, the managing protagonist even goes out of his way to make amends with another protagonist, an armless protagonist, that he has had previous quarrels with. While the manager may not be a fan of the armless boy, he puts his personal issues aside and tries to keep his composure to maintain peace. The crippled protagonist also offer’s some examples of kindness, as he goes out of his way to make sure that his own sister does not do anything to harm of her child (that, I should mention, was a result of a rape by a member of band of guerrilla fighters that came to their town.) In addition, in between scenes of our managing protagonist screaming at children working, and quarrels (sometimes ending in a bloody nose) between the two male protagonists, the crippled boy offers help to the managing kid, just to benefit the greater good and safety of all people.
These two aspects, along with some reoccurring positive references to America, combine to point to a central beacon of utopian hope: American Intervention. Following a scene where our single female protagonist, the sister of our crippled protagonist, has a flashback to the night she was sexually assaulted, there is a scene of hundreds of people gathering on a hill to have American helicopters fly overhead and drop flyers with phrases like “It’s the end of injustice, misfortune, and hardship.” and “We will make this country a paradise.” This scene of America-provided inspiration to carry on fighting through the town’s harsh life is followed by the image of a group of kids going to a marketplace to try and buy machine guns with land mines (AMERICAN lands mines to be precise).

(Watch: 1:00:25-1:00:50)
These faint moments of lighthearted kindness, subtle compassion, and lingering hope can most obviously be justified as being placed to relieve the audience from the heavy stress of the movie. Yet, this idea backfires against itself. The “optimistic” moments in the movie juxtapose with how heavy and distressful the rest of the movie is. It can be argued, in fact, that these moments accomplish the exact opposite of what initial role one may think they have. In these scenes it appears that just as we, the audience, begin to become desensitized to the tragedy expressed, we are provided with a moment of hopeful light , just to be then thrusted back into the tragedy, once again needing to readjust to the heavy material.
Why would Ghobadi, or any director like Mark Herman of “The Boy In Striped Pajamas”, try to bring about this ridiculous emotional-rollercoaster inducing glimpses of optimism into a movie about such a somber subject? What we get is a heightened desire for a perfect world through these things, also known as a desire for “utopia.” Utopia is a term that has been defined differently by philosophers and writers alike. There are different ideas as to what a utopia should or does encompass, and as this movie’s protagonists and plot revolve around children, it is apparent the utopia here, whether to appeal to adults with kids, or to kids themselves, puts focus towards providing children with stability, peace, and the ability to enjoy childhood, without having to deal with mature problems.
Utopia does not end there, at least not for this movie. It would not seem right to say that a movie like “Turtles Can Fly” is flat out utopian. The idea of utopia is ingrained deeper into the movie than that. With its plot rooted in Kurdish,Turkish, and Iranian history, intwined with glimpses of relationships between The United States and various Middle Eastern groups, and as hopeless as the end seems, this films intentions are not any different from some more popular and more openly utopian films such as “Hotel Rwanda” or “Peter Pan”. What is special about Ghobadi’s work is that it is approaches utopia in a non-conventional way. “Turtles Can Fly”’s goal is not to provide us with a potential utopia, but to make the viewer realize how badly you want the sort of utopia it hints at. The juxtaposition between a perfect world, and the cruel realistic setting depicted in the movie provides a heightened desire for a utopia, especially for children. After accepting this notion that the movie serves to introduce utopia via juxtaposition, the context of the scenes mentioned above become more clear. In scenes like that of where the managing protagonist shows some compassion to the crippled protagonist, wedged between shots of abandonment of young children and attempts at suicide, it is apparent that the positioning of compassion between young children between scenes depicting neglect is a conscious and carefully executed decision to strengthen the effect of appeal of utopian themes.
Naturally, in any movie with a few optimistic scenes sprinkled across heavily saddening content to emphasize utopianism, the question of why the film is not just called dystopian will arise. That of course is a logical conclusion to come to. Thomas Halper and Douglas Muzzio provide a description for dystopian based media that seems to encompass what “Turtles Can Fly” is. They write, “Like utopias, dystopias critique contemporary society; but unlike utopias, dystopias offer not a hopeful vision of what ought to be but an angry or despairing picture of where we are said to be headed—or perhaps (though we may not know it) where we already are.”(Halper and Muzzio 381) It is easy to interpret the film as dystopian, especially based on Halper’s and Muzzio’s description. But to suggest that dystopia and utopia are mutually exclusive in every aspect does not float well with a film such as the one at hand. Yes, the film is not utopian in the way that it has a happy ending, or provides a glimpse in to an alternate reality better than what we have now, but it is utopian in the emotion it elicits from the viewer. In some ways, I may even suggest that the movie is so dystopian that it reinforces the lack of the desired aspects of utopianism. Seeing the dystopia of “Turtles Can Fly” gears toward extracting our desire to achieve utopia and bring it to the characters in the film. Films provide a means of escape from daily life. What better way to encourage escapism than to create a completely anti-utopian movie and show the potential or current horrors of our world. It makes the audience thirsty for social justice.
Why does it matter than the film has utopian motivations or not, or what even is the reason for adding utopia into a film at all? That can all be attributed what has become of pop-culture that is, to fulfill the natural tendency of pop-culture to push us towards an ideology. In the case of “Turtles Can Fly” the ideology is hinted through various symbols, like, as listed earlier, the red fish and the Saddam Hussein statue’s arm. Both these things, framed with highly anti-utopian scenes, suggest the theme of a hope for an improved future and the fall of oppression and instability. In fact with further analysis, these symbols, especially the arm of the Saddam Hussein’s statue, paired with the scenes of The United States as a savior during some of the darkest portions of the film, appear to suggest that an improved future and the fall of oppression may have something to do with America’s help. Not to suggest this is the only ideology implied in the film, as its plot and history is more complicated than can be addressed in a short time, but the film appears to be propaganda advocating pro-American ideologies. To accomplish such advocation effectively, a sense of utopia must be tied in with the ideology. Ideology virtually runs on utopia, as utopia is what can make an ideology attractive to people. As put by Fredric Jameson, “…the hypothesis is that the works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be so manipulated.”(Jameson 144)
Do you enjoy seeing children collect mines, practice shooting guns, have to wear gas masks in fear of being attacked? The movie is not even set in the United States, yet I, as a “viewer” of the film can attest to having my emotions personal affected by the events observed in the film. Why is there still a pain felt while watching the movie? It is because the movie is geared toward bringing out the little voice (some call it the conscious) in every rational and moral person’s head. Naturally people crave a perfect society, a utopia. What better way to express an ideology, be it an actually message or theme or even the just the desire for people to consume more film, than to bribe people with insights to utopia. The film is incredibly complicated, and to try to weed out every aspect of each ideology it suggests, and every glimmer of utopian themes it may include, would take hundreds of pages of analysis. But superficially, even a basic analysis such as the one above can reveal the power of utopian themes to support and strengthen the desire to adopt the ideologies intended on spreading throughout the movie.

(Watch: 1:13:45-1:16:45)

1. Halper, Thomas and Douglas Muzzio. “Hobbes in the City: Urban Dystopias in American Movies.” The Journal of American Culture 30 (2007): 379-390. PDF
2. Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”. Social Text 1 (1979): 130–148. Web.

The Beatles: Being Original by Embracing Conventionalism

Pop Quiz: Can you guess which of these three bands is The Beatles?    

Nothing gets me more pumped up than waking up after a solid eight hours of sleep, making a steamy cup of peppermint tea, and putting my Spotify “Beatles” playlist on shuffle to start the day. The Beatles are on the top of my list, but this really should not be surprising because a loving the Beatles is far from unusual. While I am convinced that I have a genuine admiration for their work, it seems like everyone else feels a similar sense of admiration, considering that in nearly every “100 Best Artist” or “Top Musicians of All Time” list there is bound to be a Beatle. Rolling Stone called them “one of the best things to happen in the twentieth century”(1), while MTV stated that they were the “most influential act of the rock era, and introduced more innovations into popular music than any other rock band of the 20th century.”(2) Even CNN, a news source that goes beyond just reporting entertainment related news, claimed that, early on, The Beatles were set on a  “history making path of pop-culture dominance.”(3) Classics like “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” grace the lives of nearly anyone knowledgable of pop-culture, while songs like “Octopuses Garden” and “Yellow Submarine” are childhood classics.  There is no denying the special place The Beatles claims in the hearts of millions of people around the world. For many of these people, The Beatles are truly sentimental, a musical reminder of bonding time with mom and dad, classic college kickbacks, or, to some older fans, the craziness of the ‘60s.

But, with the sense familiarity of nearly every Beatles song that comes with being a fan, is the is the inevitable need to ignore the indisputable reality of the Beatle’s music being far from unique when further observed. As a Beatles fan myself, it is easy to recognize the variety of music and the so called “innovation” that so many music critics accredit to the band, but this notion of individuality does not hold up. Innumerable people are quick to jump on to the “Beatles are the best” bandwagon, and fail to recognize the contradiction of the notion they often accept. This contradiction lies in the false idea, so commonly advocated by Beatles supporters, that the band broke the system of artists forced to fit into molds created by pop culture. In fact, this perception of them as “mold-breakers” can be seen as the exact opposite of the reason for their success. If one were to attribute their success and popularity for years beyond their break up to one thing, it would be the fact that they embraced the culture industry and learned to manipulate popular molds to their benefit. To build The Beatles up as “the best” off of the inaccurate perception of them being extraordinarily unique signifies a lack of knowledge of their music, the music of the era, and of their relationship with the culture created by the music industry. We must ask ourselves: were they really a band to have influenced pop-culture, or was pop-culture influencing them?(4) The answer is both. It is time to accept that the adorable bowl haircuts, the cool India-inspired garb, the aggressive guitar riffs and loving ballads were all trends that The Beatles adopted and then promoted, contributing to a cycle of sharing fads. The Beatles were an amazing band, and inspired many future artists, but their admirability lays in something beyond uniqueness. If people just opened their eyes and ears, and took away any pre-supposed biases towards the band, it would quickly become clear just how blinded we have become by admiration. But who can blame the fab four for contributing to the consumer industry’s tendency to homogenize musical themes. After all, with respect to popular musicians,  “everyone is doing it.”

Their early career marked the beginning of this cycle of pop music production. The Beatles, known in their formative years as the “Quarrymen”, started their performing career by playing covers of songs popular at the time, a selection of artists ranging from The Del-Vikings, to Big Mama Thorton, to Buddy Holly.(5) In fact, it was a Buddy Holly song, “That’ll be the day” that inspired The Quarrymen’s first recording. In addition to having covered the songs of Buddy Holly, the band was also inspired partially by Holly’s partner band, The Crickets, to name themselves “The Silver Beetles” (which was short lived as the Beat movement inspired the men to soon change their name to “The Beatles”.) Thus marks the first big movement of the band borrowing trends and themes from already popular influences.

As the band gained fame they made big changes to their group dynamic, starting with their appearance. Playing in the grungy pubs in their hometown of Liverpool and then later in larger clubs in Hamburg, the boys had initially adopted the 1960’s “Rocker” look, complete with greased up hair and leather jackets that had become so popular amongst many English youth in the 1960’s (left). In the wake of their movement toward up-and-coming fame, however, they decided to compromise between the “rocker” look and the more conservative “mod” look,  and molded themselves into a more clean cut boy band (think One Direction meets ‘60s businessman), while keeping a “Rocker” edge to their music (right).


While their look may have changed during their beginning stages of fame, their sound certainly did not. Although they began to write many of their own songs, something that is not seen so often today, their songs followed the style of what was popular at the time. Their song “Twist and Shout”, for example, instantly reminds me of Chubby Checker’s song “The Twist”(1960), as it shares a similar uplifting danceable beat as well as the message to dance “The Twist”. “I Will” has a similar serenading melody to “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison (1961).  A personal favorite of mine, “Please Mr. Postman” from the album With The Beatles (which became the number one album in the UK), did not just share themes with other songs, but was, in fact, a cover of a song original sung by The Marvelettes.

The Beatles continued this trend of evoking popular music themes of the time leading up to their debut on the Ed Sullivan show in America, staying within the stylistic range they had built their fame upon. That is one of the things that makes The Beatles so easy to listen to, if you are feeling like listening to something with a sound similar to “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, all you have to do is pick out a song from the very same album! Even right after the rise of “Beatlemania” they continued to play on the safe side and produce music with themes that were successful in their earlier pieces. But then, in 1964 the band released Beatles For Sale which introduced a new element to their music, a sort of classic blues-inspired “American” twist on their work, with Paul McCartney leading “wild and hoarse” vocals on a medley on another cover, this time of “Kansas City [Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller]/ Hey-Hey-Hey [Little Richard].”(6) In their next couple albums, they followed a similar suite of incorporating newer trends, slowly becoming a little more open to more influences from the lesser known parts of pop-culture.

A great example of this is Revolver, the album that many fans consider a major turning point in The Beatles career, marked the point at which their introduction of little elements turned into experimenting with new undiscovered styles and setting the trends themselves. So many fans, including myself, turn to Revolver as an example of how The Beatles “…were ground-breaking pioneers.”(7) “Elenor Rigby”, one of the hit songs of the album, introduced a new aspect to The Beatles sound, an abstract orchestral-style background and modern experimental sounds. While some bands had already started to tinker with this, such as a young and yet-to-be famous Pink Floyd with their lead singer Syd Barret, or the Yard Birds, The Beatles had the established status in the music world and were able to produce and popularize songs with such techniques. Their status provided them with the opportunity to take what some lesser-known bands had been doing for years, and create a new pop fad out of it. Thus marks the second step in the cycle of popular music production the culture industry promotes so well, giving influential artists the power to set the stage for new trends. While they never truly innovated by producing a completely new sound, The Beatles managed to use their power in the music world to incorporate musical themes they found attractive into their pieces, popularizing them, and as a result providing a basis of pop-culture from which many later bands would find their inspiration.

The Beatle’s evolution of personal style and appearance within their role as cultural figures, visible especially during and after their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was simply a naturally timed adaption to keep up with the music industry. They were merely adopting new fads and trends from other cultural areas at the time. Their experimentation with LSD, often an event that is credited context for their sudden change in music style, fell around the time that many other artists, The Doors’ Jim Morrison and even Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret, who had been using the drug well before The Beatles. However, as one of the most popular bands of the time, with a huge fan base, their psychedelic style and music as a result of their experimentation with drugs set trends in pop-culture that were soon adopted by others, just as The Beatles had done before their rise to power, by bands like David Gilmour fronted-Pink Floyd.

The Beatles also experimented widely with instruments not typically associated with “rock stars”, eventually incorporating these instruments into their art as well. As a sense of out-worldliness grew amongst the youth in the UK as well as the United States, so did this expression grow in The Beatles music. The sitar, an instrument that was traditionally played in India and favored largely by George Harrison, as well as what many call Indian inspired melodies,  became  reoccurring features in their songs, especially from the album Revolver and beyond. The Doors, at this time, began to emulate this, playing in a style similar to The Beatles India-inspired rock, as heard in the Door’s song “The End.” In addition, The Doors, in songs like “Riders of the Storm”, amongst other bands including The Kinks and The Animals, also adopted the bluesy rock style that The Beatles had once incorporated, with songs like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “For You Blue.” In addition to the bluesy sounds, other bands also adopted a polarity in their identity as artists, as they looked one way in appearance and played their music another way, as The Beatles had done years before. The Animals, as mentioned before, not only sounded like The Beatles, but they tried to look like them too, playing their rock and roll in preppy, carefully tailored gray and yellow suits. Even if The Beatles could be attributed with being the source of certain fads, they can not be called unique for the very reason seen with The Animals. These ideas that The Beatles popularized already existed, it was just their adoption of them that turned them into fads, and called many up and coming musicians to do the same. The more new things The Beatles popularized, the more other bands copied them, and the more homogeneity was visible in the music industry.

At this final point in their career, with fame heightened to its maximum, it is safe to say The Beatles went from artists shaped by the demands of consumers of pop culture to artists helping shape pop culture and what was demanded. While their innovations were not quite innovations in the sense that they were borrowed, The Beatles had their predominant fame help them turn unpopular occurrences into themes in music that became mass produced.

For a fan such as myself, I can not let these facts discourage me from being supportive of my favorite band. But their so called “uniqueness” is not a valid reason to call them the best. They were the best in the way that they gave the people what they wanted, in the way that they created art that moved the masses. The Beatles were talented for understanding the culture of the time, and later recognizing unrecognized techniques and styles to bring to the public eye. Contrary to being unique, they facilitated homogeneity in musical themes. This, as pessimistic as it sounds, is not meant to cast The Beatles in a dark light, but instead praise them as masters of the 20th century mass production of music and the “rock star” movement. The band learned to take different music scenes and cultural styles and adapt their sounds to fit in with their surroundings, creating what people of the time felt was the most pleasurable to listen to. The ability to create this pop music exchange better than anyone else left them as one of the most beloved bands of all time. In reality, these cute clean-cut boy band characters that children and adults alike loved, were really sneaky but lovable musicians (and opportunist) playing on the heart strings of the consumers of popular culture.

1)George-Warren, Holly, Patricia Romanowski Bashe, and Jon Pareles. The Beatles. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. New York: Fireside, 2001. N. pag. Web. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/the-beatles/biography>.

2)”About The Beatles.” MTV Artists. MTV, n.d. Web. <http://www.mtv.com/artists/the-beatles/>.

 3)Leopold, Todd. “5 Things to Know About Beatlemania.” CNN. Cable News Network, 25 Aug. 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/30/showbiz/beatles-ed-sullivan-beatlemania-5-things/>.

4)Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M., 1944. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer. Dialectics of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

5)“Artists Covered by The Quarrymen.” The Quarrymen Covered Songs and Artists. Samsung, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. <http://www.setlist.fm/stats/covers/the-quarrymen-3bd6883c.html>.

6)“Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey! | The Beatles Bible.” The Beatles Bible. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. <http://www.beatlesbible.com/songs/kansas-city-hey-hey-hey-hey/>.

7) Lee, Peter. “20 Reasons The Beatles Are the Greatest Band Ever.” Hooks & Harmony. N.p., 29 June 2008. Web. <http://www.hooksandharmony.com/20-reasons-beatles-greatest-ever/>.