ONLY NOISE: On Loving the Beatles As a Black Woman

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Stephanie Phillips finds a way to relate to the Beatles – even though, as a black woman, their version of Britishness didn’t reflect her own experience.

Whether it was the power chord-driven emotional roar of Olympia’s Sleater-Kinney or the proto-riot grrrl wail of X-Ray Spex, as a young black girl who who spent all of her free time devouring new music, these musicians made my little teen self and all of my complex emotions feel seen. Yet, growing up in England in the ‘90s, there was one inescapable group that epitomized the way the country liked to see itself: The Beatles. As four white men who first made their name first reinterpreting the work of black artists, The Beatles were as British as the Empire itself – a glorious example of the British bulldog spirit and post-war triumph. In a country that, at the best of times, treats people like me with complete disregard (and at the worst has seen grown men making monkey noises at my ten-year-old self), how could I possibly feel connected to the four men they’d chosen as their ambassadors of Britishness? I wrote them off for as long as I could, deeming their work too misogynist, too irrelevant, or too old. So I was as stunned as anyone when The Beatles became one of my biggest influences as a musician and lover of music history.

The Beatles were so ubiquitous I can’t recall where I was when I first heard their music. Maybe I had to sing it as part of the alternative, contemporary songs portion of service at my church. It could have been background noise whirring from another TV special as I obliviously played with my brother as a kid. There’s always a chance the Fab Four blared out over tinny speakers at the local supermarket as I perused the perishables aisle with my mum. You were never introduced to The Beatles, they were just there, woven into the fabric of everyday life, an immovable presence in the British musical canon, one which no one would openly question.

Almost because of their popularity, they are also one of world’s most misunderstood bands. The source of the misinformation is usually middle-aged, know-it-all male fans – the kind who only drink real ale and, after a few pints, speak too loudly on the opinion that modern music is rubbish. These tiresome messengers of the drab bring the Four down to their level of mediocrity with their lacklustre covers of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and their insistence “Hey Jude” is the best Beatles song. It’s not, by a long stretch. This left me with the impression that the Beatles’ music only sounded sickly, sweet, and terribly dated.

The sad dad army wreaked havoc on the Beatles’ legacy and that’s even before you get into the steaming layers of toxic masculinity surrounding the band. Each member has had to answer to how they treated the women in their lives and we all know the stories of violence and macho aggression that are associated with John Lennon. How could I love a band who perhaps didn’t love women like me? I didn’t know how to get over these barriers. I decided I couldn’t and gave up, following my path into the exhilarating world of riot grrrl.

The author as a teen.

My early twenties were spent lying in my room listening to Giant Drag, Le Tigre and The Long Blondes, expanding my tastes by finding bands that were connected to them and repeating that same process. Looking back it was inevitable my aimless mission to devour all the music would eventually lead me to The Beatles; much like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it was obvious that many bands would be inspired by or connected to the Beatles’ in some way, especially with the music industry continually pushing them to the forefront. Given my disdain for the Beatles’ association with British culture, it seems apt it that American bands eventually drew me into the Beatles’ genius. The Pixies, Breeders, and Throwing Muses all covered songs from the White Album; some were b-sides lovingly recreated, others were carefully reinterpreted takes on the original.

The Pixies’ cover of “Wild Honey Pie,” for instance, took what was a short, frenzied, carnival-esque snippet of a song and transformed it into an art rock scream fest. The Pixies used the repetitive nature of the song to further amp up the passion at the beating heart of the track. It was a brilliant homage to the kooky original, which was one of a collection of songs that illustrated the Fab Four’s love of all things odd.

The Breeders recorded a slower, moodier take on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on their debut album Pod, while Throwing Muses released on haunting version of “Cry Baby Cry” on their 1991 single “Not Too Soon.” All in all the mysterious lyrics, complex time signatures and raw attitude spoke to me. I needed to know more, so I sought out the album.

The pressure to automatically revere a band instantly sucks all of the joy out of the listening process, like force-feeding yourself chocolate cake – it’s good, but you’d prefer a smaller slice on your own time. Taking The White Album in note by note, the world of The Beatles started to reveal itself to me. Far from being the unlistenable nonsense I always associated with them, the album was challenging, deep and experimental without showing off. I finally understood the melancholy outlook of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and its untamed classic rock guitar noodling. There were manically upbeat songs like “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey,” sparse proto-goth tunes like “Dear Prudence,” and garage blues punk on “Helter Skelter.” I listened to the album over and over again, taking in the incredible number of influences and genres that made this epic project. The album wasn’t coherent – the songs rarely followed any pop structure, and had unpredictable twists and turns. I was fixated with these sounds and finding out how they came to be. With each listen I heard so many of the bands I already loved in this one album. Turns out, I had been listening to the Beatles far longer than I’d realised, and I had to admit I’d been was wrong about them. They were a missing part of my music history puzzle.

If I was wrong about this album, I had to reason I might have been wrong about the rest of their music, so I kept listening and searching. There was a lot of ground to cover – decades worth of recordings, documentaries, films, rereleases and a lifetime’s worth of coverage. I devoured it all and came out the other end a Beatles devotee.

I had to admit that their cheeky, laddish attitude was addictive to watch, and a lot of the praise they were given is arguably true. I found as much beauty in their early recordings as I did their backstory. The reason their work resonates with so many is because their songs were simple and about universal themes of love and lust. The desperate appeal to an inattentive lover on “Please, Please Me” is sadly relatable. When I heard the crack in John’s voice on middle eighth of “This Boy” it hit me as hard as as any of the most eloquent poetry on heartbreak and loss. When The Beatles got it right they managed to create a world where anyone, no matter their background, could live vicariously through them. That’s when it clicked. The real winning element of the Beatles goes beyond their songs and exists in their story as a group.

And yet, I know so many black people who struggle to connect with the band, that feel disconnected from the white culture the band represent, and are far too aware that the Beatles built their reputation by imitating African American soul and R&B. I felt the same and it is true. The Beatles connection to whiteness and England is rarely discussed. It was a huge barrier that made liking the band seem insurmountable. The gatekeepers of rock and roll had told me that this was the greatest band in modern history, erasing the contributions of the genre’s black pioneers, and that was extremely off-putting. But the more I listened, I heard the influence of black musicians, like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Motown acts like The Marvelettes. The Beatles could interpret any music style to their own benefit, and were emotive and adaptable songwriters, but unlike Led Zeppelin or Eric Clapton, they did not try and pass off black innovation as their own. The Beatles covered their favourite songs, put their own spin on them so as not to rip them off completely, and pointed fans in the direction of artists they were inspired by. Their effort to do so still resonates today, considering many white musicians fail to meet these basic requirements.

As a black female creative who often struggles to buck up my confidence and go out into the world, listening to The Beatles gives me the strength to imagine what I could be. It reminds me what I could create if capitalism, white supremacy and misogyny weren’t rooting for me to fail. Because despite the numerous books and documentaries declaring so, John, George, Paul and Ringo were not geniuses. Their ten year soap opera of a story gave me permission to dream of what could happen if I had everything – the money to buy whatever I wanted, the time to write, the confidence provided by millions of adoring fans. Perhaps when teenage girls screamed themselves into delirious frenzy at the sight of the boys, they weren’t just caught up in teenage lust, but were hungry to be any part of something as alive and powerful as rock and roll.

In a world where black bodies are policed at every available moment and black joy is looked on with suspicion there is rarely an opportunity for black people to dream freely. It’s why I always tell my friends about the power of The Beatles, though my sales pitch often falls on deaf ears. Who would believe black people could find respite in the words of four white guys from Liverpool? Though it’s likely that was not their intention, their enduring music gives me space to fully realise myself. I can sit back and take in the best of Revolver or Rubber Soul while imagining who and what I could be as a musician, a music fan and a black woman.

NEWS ROUNDUP: Alternative Beef, Cancel Chris Brown, and MORE

Courtney Love & Kathleen Hanna have had ongoing beef since the mid ’90s.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Rekindling a decades old beef, Courtney Love had some choice words for Kathleen Hanna following the news that the latter’s riot grrl act Bikini Kill would play a handful of reunion shows in LA and NYC this spring. In the comment thread of a Bust Magazine Instagram post lamenting the shows’ record sell-out times, Love referred to Bikini Kill as “the biggest hoax in rock and roll,” later adding: “Two of the band total amateurs. Hanna is a good hype man but her persona is such a diy nonsense dilettante. A big idea they cannot convey, because they suck.” Hanna has not responded and Love has since deleted the comments, but her words reminded everyone that these two feminist icons haven’t seen eye to eye since Lollapalooza ’95, when a backstage altercation ended any hope of them uniting to crush the patriarchy. We have a sneaking suspicion that Love’s dislike of Hanna is rooted in jealousy over Hanna’s friendship with Love’s late husband Kurt Cobain (Hanna is credited with inspiring the title of Nirvana’s breakout single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). We’re taking Hanna’s side on this one; Love’s comments were petty and we’re impressed Hanna didn’t take the bait.

The saga between Grimes and Azaelia Banks deepens! Back in August, Banks visited Grimes at the home of Grimes’ then-boyfriend, tech mogul Elon Musk. The two musicians were supposed to collaborate on a single, but in a series of social media posts, Banks described being trapped in the home as Musk did damage control over a tweet where he claimed he planned to take Tesla private at $420 a share. Banks says that Musk was on acid at the time, and postulated that he and Grimes had invited her to Los Angeles for a potential threesome. But because the Securities Exchange Commission sued Musk over the tweet, texts between Grimes and Banks from that time period have been subpoenaed, and Banks posted some of the exchange on Instagram; the posts were deleted, but not before someone grabbed screenshots that Jezebel was all too happy to repost (and we are all too happy to recommend you go and read immediately). We can’t get down with either going for the low-hanging fruit of insulting one anothers’ appearances, but have to name Azealia Banks the winner of this spat. Maybe it’s all the practice she’s had talking shit to or about damn near everyone on the planet, but we have to give props to the biting specificity of referring to Grimes as a “brittleboned methhead” who smells “like a roll of nickles.”

And finally, Princess Nokia noted the similarities between her song “Mine” (from her 1992 mixtape) and recently released Ariana Grande single “7 rings.” “Ain’t that the lil song I made about brown women and their hair?” she asks in a video posted to Twitter (and since deleted), concluding “Hmmm… sounds about white.” Soulja Boy also chimed in, claiming Grande had ripped off portions of his 2010 hit “Pretty Boy Swag.” The opening bars of Grande’s single crib more obviously from The Sound of Music‘s “My Favorite Things;” though Julie Andrews has yet to jump on the outrage bandwagon, someone who must be a literal genius mashed up all four artists and it kinda slaps. While we’re no fan of Grande’s ongoing issues with cultural appropriation, we’re calling this beef a draw – there’s nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to hip-hop samples.

Chris Brown Accused of Rape in Paris

We’ll never forgive Chris Brown for using former girlfriend Rihanna as his personal punching bag – but we’re especially disgusted by the new lows he’s reached this week. A 24-year-old woman accused the singer and his entourage of taking turns raping her in his hotel suite at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, where Brown had been attending Fashion Week events. The French are notoriously skeptical of rape victims, so it’s no surprise that Brown and the two other men accused of assaulting the woman were released within a few days on their own recognizance; the investigation is still ongoing. Rather than lying low, Brown took to social media in an attempt to discredit his alleged victim, even going so far as to create some truly tasteless merch that plays on the unfounded trope that women lie about sexual assault.

For what it’s worth, this isn’t the first time that someone has accused his entourage of mistreating women in their periphery – there’s a pending legal case against Brown, in which a woman claims she was raped by one of Brown’s friends at one of the singer’s drug-fueled parties.

That New New

Spanish sensation Rosalía released what has to be our favorite video this week, with a clip for “DE AQUÍ NO SALES” from her stunning 2018 album El Mal Querer.

Jenny Lewis is back with Stevie Nicks-ish jam “Red Bull & Hennessey,” a drink we do not recommend. It’s the first single from On The Line, due March 22.

Broken Social Scene shared details on their forthcoming EP Let’s Try The After – Vol. 1, which will arrive next month, along with early single “All I Want.”

Sneaks, the difficult-to-define solo project of queer black feminist Eva Moolchan, returns with Highway Hypnosis, her third studio album.

Sascha Ring, who produces electronic music as Apparat, announced LP5, his first album in six years, with diaphanous lead single “Dawan.”

J. Cole is producing a comp featuring artists from his Dreamville imprint entitled Revenge Of The Dreams II; his track “Middle Child” is the project’s official first single.

Groove Denied, an electronic solo album by Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus that was reportedly rejected by his label, will be released via Matador in March. The first single is the delightfully weird “Viktor Borgia.”

Lady Lamb announced her next album Even in the Tremor will arrive April 5th on Ba Da Bing Records, and has shared its title track.

Teyana Taylor,  Lena Waithe, and Mykki Blanco vogue their way through a ballroom dance-off for the ages in Taylor’s new video for “WTP,” from last year’s Kanye West-produced K.T.S.E.

Capping off her EP trilogy in March with Blue Pine, Munya shared the first of its three songs, “It’s All About You;” all three EPs will be packaged together as a full-length LP released on the same day.

Seattle’s Dude York have released two new singles alongside two previously released singles as the aptly titled EP Happy In The Meantime via Bandcamp.

Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst have appeared on each other’s albums in the past, but now the pair have teamed up to release a surprise record as Better Oblivion Community Center.

Vampire Weekend are back with a pair of singles, titled “Harmony Hall” and “2021;” both will appear on their fourth album and first in nearly six years. Titled Father of the Bride, it’s supposedly got 18 tracks and future singles will be released in pairs as well.

Florence + The Machine released a jazzy stand-alone single and its b-side on the heels of last year’s rousing High As Hope LP.

End Notes

  • Ariel Palitz, NYC’s new Nightlife Mayor, sat down with Billboard to share what she’s learned in her first year on the job, and how she plans to support the city’s DIY music community.
  • A Michael Jackson musical is in the works.
  • The Oscar nominations are in and we’re totally rooting for Lady Gaga, who’s up for Best Actress for her role in A Star Is Born. The film is nominated for best Best Picture, alongside Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (despite some recent sexual abuse allegations against its director). Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper seem like favorites to win Best Song for “Shallow” but Kendrick Lamar and SZA could give them a run for their money with “All The Stars,” from Black Panther. David Rawlings and Gillian Welch (“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns), and Diane Warren and Jennifer Hudson (“I’ll Fight” from RBG) round out the Best Song nominations.
  • Spotify introduced a “mute” feature that allows users to essentially block particular artists from popping up on your playlists. It’s a nice compromise given their failed attempt to censor artists they’d deemed problematic, not to mention allowing folks to avoid that overplayed earworm-of-the-moment.
  • Pickathon 2019 lineups have been announced, with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and Khruangbin scheduled to headline.
  • It’s been a good week for cool band merch – check out this stuffed Ozzy Osbourne bat (with detachable head) and the new Morrissey Funko Pop.
  • We’re still not sure if it’s really the Pixies without Kim Deal, but the rest of the band are gearing up to release their seventh studio album (due in September), and a podcast about the band called “The Past Is Prologue” and hosted by Tony Fletcher will debut in June.
  • Some of hip-hop’s biggest stars, including Jay-Z and Meek Mill, have founded REFORM Alliance, aimed at much-needed criminal justice reform.
  • As the government shutdown stretches on, musicians from Kiss to Nile Rodgers are donating concert tickets, hot meals, and more to furloughed workers.