The Beatles versus Science?

An article on http://www.abcnet.au titled The Beatles are overrated!? The evolutionary science of pop music (found here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sciencefriction/were-the-beatles-overrated-evolutionarily-speaking/9249868 ) is causing a great deal of controversy. It concerns the research of evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi and his first foray into a field of research usually mined by sociologists or musicologists. In the article, professor Leroi is quoted as saying, “I think that our estimation of the Beatles’ importance at that time, or how we think about them, has become vastly inflated.”
In his study he is trying to track the evolution of pop songs from 1960 to 2010 – an ambitious project, indeed. His contention seems to be that the Beatles, and other British Invasion bands, contributed to but did not significantly shape the progression of pop music. In my opinion, he proves his point, at least within the confines of his study. However, I am not in any way saying that I agree with his conclusion.

To understand where I’m coming from, it helps if you read the actual study (found here: http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/5/150081 ). If you have ever read a peer reviewed scientific paper you know that, usually, in the discussion section, you will find reference to the limitations of the study. Here are some excerpts from this study: “Our study is limited in several ways. First, it is limited by the features studied. Our measures must capture only a fraction of the phenotypic complexity of even the simplest song; other measures may give different results.” In simpler words, he is mainly measuring changes in timbre and chord patterns and this is a crude and incomplete proxy for innovation.

Another major limitation is the choice of the Billboard Hot 100 as the source of data for the study. This is admitted in the discussion section, “Given that the Hot 100 is certainly a biased subset of these songs, our conclusions cannot be extended to the population of all releases.” Billboard magazine was never intended to be a scientific, sociological or musicological resource – it was useful to record store and juke box owners. It let them know which singles were getting airplay on radio. This helped them (as well as radio programmers in secondary and tertiary markets) to know where to put their money. Keep in mind that during, at least, the 1960’s organized crime still had a big influence on the entertainment business – clubs, jukeboxes, some record companies, and yes, even radio. Although the payola scandals gained prominence in the 1950’s with Alan Freed they continued into the 1960’s. The Billboard Hot 100 was merely reflective of what singles were being played on major market radio stations (and thus, driving business in record stores). Therefore, the pop charts during this time were skewed by forces that had nothing to do with innovation.

Furthermore, the Billboard charts during the 1960’s into the early 1970’s were still largely segregated. African American music was mostly represented on the Rhythm and Blues, Blues, Gospel or Jazz charts. Many great artists and songs of these genres never made it to the “Hot 100”.

In defense of the Beatles, they would never have been played on the radio or reached the “Hot 100” unless they had mastered the art of making radio friendly music. So, it is not surprising that their early records built upon what had come before and thus, were evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Nevertheless, I don’t remember Ricky Nelson, or Randy and the Rainbows, or the Four Seasons, or other white acts in 1964 having a timbre similar to Little Richard or the Iseley Brothers like Lennon and McCartney had on their early hits.
A very amateur error made by the study is the assumption that because the Beatles first singles in the US were released in 1963 and major differences in pop music were not noted until 1964, this indicates that they were not responsible for the changes. 1964, not 1963, was the year that the Beatles first registered in the US, due to their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. They dominated the charts in that year with songs mostly recorded and originally released a year before.

Somehow, the author recognizes the difference in timbre that the Rolling Stones and Kinks had versus the Beatles and he views this as revolutionary. Yet, would they have been so revolutionary if they were compared to Bobby Bland’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do”, or Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle”, Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody”, or James Brown’s “Out of Sight” (all from 1964), or really any number of African American blues or R and B songs from the 1940’s onward?

As the study authors admit, “we did not attempt to obtain a representative sample of all the songs that were released in the USA in that period of time, but just those that were most commercially successful.” Next, this study totally ignores the fact that the Beatles were one of the first famous pop groups that resisted music industry pressure to produce hit singles for radio airplay, only to concentrate on using the album as an outlet for artistic expression. Another innovator, Jimi Hendrix famously gave up on trying to have success in the singles market after releasing Hey Joe. After all, 1969 saw Sugar, Sugar by The Archies reach number one on the “Hot 100”, and this was the same year that saw the release of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Santana’s first album, Crosby, Stills, Nash’s debut, The Who’s Tommy, Joe Cocker’s first US album, Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers, etc. There are other problems with the study such as, using descriptions from streaming service Last.fm and applying these current and subjective user terms to music from the 1960’s, and only using 30 second samples from songs.

Unlike some of the commenters on the ABC.au site, I don’t take issue with data science or its application to musical scholarship. I do believe that the results of this very narrow study have been overhyped. It may say something about the state of the music business during the time being measured. It cannot, however, evaluate the creativity of, artistic worth or the pleasure delivered by the Beatles, or any other artist. If it could it wouldn’t identify the awful gated drum sound of 1980’s pop as being significant. Unlike Armand Leroi and his colleagues, I believe that “philosophers, sociologists, journalists, bloggers and pop stars” still have a role to play in helping us to appreciate the rich history of music. Their “vivid musical lore and aesthetic judgements” will not be supplanted by “rigorous tests of clear hypotheses based on quantitative data and statistics.” Instead, data science will augment the kind of subjective analysis that only humans can provide.

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