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July 31, 2005
David Warsh, Proprietor


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The Great Can-Opener

One of these days, some empirically-minded political economist is going to assert that the great turn towards markets that occurred around the world during the 1970s and 1980s can best be understood as a relative price phenomenon, a matter of taxes and prices — the cost of collective provision of certain goods having become too expensive relative to the benefits to be obtained from self-reliance.

In the meantime, though, I certainly enjoy a good cultural explanation, one rooted in more or less autonomous changes in preferences. What accounts for the increasing taste for personal liberty around the world in the 1960s and 1970s?  The latest phase of globalization didn’t all stem from a series of arguments by Milton Friedman.

Clearly rock and roll had something to do with it.

Ten years ago, Timothy W. Ryback published Rock around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, a wonderful book that was almost scholarly in its inclusiveness and attention to detail. For those who are interested in the Cold War and how it ended, the story is absolutely fascinating.  Among the landmarks it describes:

Willis Conover’s jazz broadcasts over the Voice of America, beginning in 1954; the ramifications of Elvis Presley’s assignment to West Germany; the “lipsi,” the modified waltz step promoted by East German leader Walter Ulbricht as an antidote to the “twist” which swept Eastern Europe in the early 1960s;  the 1967 Rolling Stones concert in downtown Warsaw, after which 3,000 fans nearly destroyed the inside of the Palace of Culture; the huge underground success of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s; the 1973 issue by Melodia of “How Beautiful Is This World,” the first Soviet rock album;   the expatriation of rock star Wolf Biermann after the East German rock star gave a concert in Cologne; the opening of the Leningrad Rock Club as a performance venue for local bands in 1981; the spread of punk rock throughout the Warsaw Pact countries in the 1980s.

Never mind inflation, long feared as the subtle means by which the industrial democracies of the West would be debauched.   By the time that Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife welcomed Yoko Ono to an international peace conference in 1987, it has become clear that the more pervasive solvent has been Western music. “John [Lennon] should have been here,” mourned the Soviet leader.

Recently I have been reading Steven D. Stark’s book Meet the Beatles:  A Cultural History of the Band that Shook Youth, Gender, and the World. Stark is an especially shrewd analyst of American culture — his earlier book Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events that Made us What We Are Today is applied and accessible Marshall McLuhan.

But moving his family to a little town in northern England for two years while he steeped himself in the lore of Merseyside and Liverpool seemed a little, well, whimsical. Did the Boomers really need to be reminded once again of their early enchantment with the Fab Four? Did the current generation really need a “reception” history?  I now think that Stark dived down deep and came back with something even more interesting than Ryback..

What the Beatles were all about, Stark writes, was not drugs or transcendental meditation but feminism. From a distance of forty years, he affirms the insight of Robin Richman, who covered the Beatles for Life magazine: “They were the great can-opener of culture in the twentieth century. There was a wave of exuberance among girls they triggered that broke down the last restraints of the Victorian era.”

Female fans had gone wild before for male stars, notes Stark  — Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Valentino, even Franz Liszt.  But with the Beatles there was something different.  It wasn’t just the sly joking about the mutability of gender in the beginning — the girlish haircuts, the carefully-cut collarless suits, the falsetto “oohs” (“Well, you can’t do the end  of course… it’s too much like the Andrews Sisters,” objected their producer to an early hit, “She Loves You.”) It was the content of the songs themselves.

“With the prominence they accorded to women in their songs and lives and the way they spoke to millions of teenage girls about new possibilities, the Beatles tapped into something much larger than themselves,” ventures Stark.  That, in turn, permitted the Beatles themselves to challenge the various prevailing definition of what it meant to be a man.   And so in 330 quotation-laden pages, he traces the lives of “the lads” in terms of their relationships — mothers, absent fathers, surrogate families, girl friends, wives, from their beginnings to their various poignant ends or, in the case of Paul McCartney, triumphant second and third acts.

In the end, it was enough to persuade — enough to remind me, too, that when history looks back on the last thirds of the twentieth century, the global transformation to market economics may not be the most striking feature after all. Instead, the trend to gender equality may turn out to be the most striking feature of the times.  It is easy enough to miss because we are so close to it.

Confronted by long-term trends like these, I return out of habit to the best history of the the working out of egalitarian ideals that I have ever read, R.R. Palmer’s The Age of Democratic Revolution. The first of its two volumes was completed nearly fifty years ago. There had been plenty of books to that point on the American revolution, the French revolution, the beginnings of parliamentary reform in England, the stirrings of Irish home rule. But though the “universal agitation” for democracy had been clear enough to contemporaries in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Palmer noted, there had been little enough attempt since then to see the phenomenon whole and at a distance.

And so he did.  Palmer’s book lived up to its subtitle:  carefully delimited, it purports to be nothing more than “A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800.”  Never far from the author’s mind, however, were the resonances of various great proclamations of independence and the rights of man around the world, not just the Dutch, Swiss and Italian transformations that ensued, but those that spread gradually to Germany and Eastern Europe, to the Balkans, to Russia and to South America. (The music that has come to represent the force of the transformation in the modern mind is, of course, that of Beethoven.)

At the end of his book, Palmer quoted the greatest of contemporary observer on “the gradual trend toward equality of conditions” that seemed to be the cardinal fact of the age. Wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, “It is universal, it is enduring, it constantly eludes human powers of control; all events and all men contribute to its development,”

“Would it be wise to think that a social movement of such remote origin can be suspended by the efforts of one generation? Can it be supposed that democracy, after destroying feudalism and overwhelming kings, will yield before the powers of money and business?”

Then, as now, the answer is:  Probably not.  Democratic ideals are alive and well and exemplified, among other places, in the music of the Beatles.

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