On Becoming a Beatles Listener

March 5, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the spring of 1964, I was getting a haircut in a barbershop in Tokyo. In the background a radio was playing American rock and pop. The sound was familiar even though I didn’t recognize any of the songs. I didn’t know any of the latest hits because I had spent the previous seven months in a small town up in the mountains. The family I was living with may have had a radio, but I cannot recall ever hearing it or what it played. The music I would hear on the variety shows on TV was all Japanese pop or sometimes Japanese versions of American hits. To this day, there are certain songs that were popular then — “Devil in Disguise” or “Bye-bye Birdie” — which in my mind’s ear I still hear in Japanese rather than English.

As I sat there, not really paying attention to the music, I realized that the song now playing was repeating the words “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So this is it, I thought. This must be the Beatles that I’ve been reading about.  The Japan Times, the English-language newspaper that came daily to the house, had run stories about them. It also showed the Billboard Top-20 each week, and I would see Beatles songs in several of the top slots. But in that barbershop that day, to me they sounded like the rest of the music that had been coming from the radio — conventional rock and roll.

I thought of that moment last month as I was reading David Brooks’s New York Times piece “What the Beatles Tell Us About Fame” (here).  “How did the Beatles make it?” Brooks asks, and he gets the answer right. Partly. He sees that it’s not just about the music. Whether that music gets heard — recorded, distributed, played on the radio — depends on lots of non-musicians.

But hearing is not the same as liking. So how do the people who heard this music decide that they liked it, and liked it a lot? Brooks has a simplistic model for this process. “If a highly confident member of your group thinks something is cool, you’ll be more likely to think it’s cool,” as though the Beatles happened because influencers (they weren’t called that in 1963) were at work promoting them. But is that how people form their judgments of music? Surely we don’t think “Cool people like this so I’ll like it too.”

To understand how so many people come to share the idea that something is really great, we need a model more along the lines of Howie Becker’s “On Becoming a Marijuana User.”  In that famous article, Becker identifies three necessary steps: learning the technique of smoking weed, learning to identify the effects, and learning to define those effects as pleasurable.

Of course, listening to rock and roll doesn’t require any special technique. But what about identifying the effects? As my barbershop experience illustrates, recognizing the Beatles is not automatic. Just as Becker’s marijuana users had to learn to perceive the effects of weed,* listeners had to learn to distinguish the Beatles sound from other music. That wasn’t the explicit goal of the people who listened to Beatles songs over and over, but it was an important side effect.

As for defining what we are hearing as great, the influence of others is not nearly so evident as it was among Becker’s pot smokers. In the diffusion of popularity, it doesn’t seem like anyone is learning or teaching. People around us are grooving to the Beatles, and so are we. Besides, millions of others have pushed these songs to the top of the charts, confirming our judgment that this stuff is the best. Popularity cascades upon itself. The more that the music becomes popular, the more of it you hear. The more familiar it becomes, the better it sounds. The process is less like instruction, more like contagion.

In November of 1963, my social geography — living in my small town in the Japan Alps — had quarantined me from the emotions that flooded Americans when Kennedy was assassinated. I did not feel what I would have felt if I had been in the US . (My 2013 post about that experience is here.)  Five months later in that barber shop, I was listening to the Beatles, but I had not yet become a Beatles listener.

* Becker was doing his research among musicians in Chicago in the late 1940s and early 50s. Marijuana back then had nothing like the potency of today’s cultivars. Yet even now, other more experienced users are important in showing the neophyte user how to ingest the drug and how to appreciate the effects. Maureen Dowd’s famous unaccompanied fling with edibles (here) is a negative case in point.

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