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Book Review: The Beatles And Philosophy (Popular Culture And Philosophy) Edited By Michael Baur & Steven Baur

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To quote one of the Beatles' songs, maybe I should have known better. As a writer myself, I sometimes get accused of taking my music a little too seriously, as well as having somewhat of a tendency to over-analyze what the Kinks' Ray Davies once reminded us is, after all, "only Jukebox Music."

But if you think that rock writers like myself have a tendency to sometimes overthink and intellectualize pop music, what do you suppose happens when you give a similar assignment to a group of philosophy professors? Well, what you get is a book pretty much like this one.

The Beatles And Philosophy is part of a series of books examining popular culture and philosophy from an academic perspective, which covers everyone from U2 and Bob Dylan to one book with the curious title of Bullshit And Philosophy (I may have to request that one). In this volume, 20 such academics are brought together to write a series of essays examining The Beatles' impact on popular culture as well as its links to the various schools of philosophical thought.

The writers offer their takes on the lyrics to songs from "Strawberry Fields Forever" to "Sexy Sadie," and essentially proceed to analyze, intellectualize, and, well, philosophize, how they link to disciplines such as idealistic monism, existentialism, and philosophical postmodernism, as espoused by philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx.

Which makes my brain hurt, too.

Personally, what I expected from this book going in was more of an examination of how the Beatles' music impacted the youth culture of the sixties, and by way of extension impacted the entire world. Yet, in chapter after chapter here the writers grab my interest at first by zeroing in on the finer points of the Beatles' massive musical and cultural impact, and then proceed to lose me altogether by drifting into the sort of weighty, academic discussion that, to be perfectly honest, just went way too far over my head.

At the very least — since the Beatles are the presumed subject (and selling point) here — I would have liked to see a more even split between the recording studio and the university lecture hall. As I noted above, I probably should have known better going in. If you think that us rock writers can be a little too analytical, these guys analyze circles around us here. Reading this book was enough to make me swear to never write anything about music again that goes beyond "it's got a good beat and I can dance to it."

Well, almost enough anyway.

In fairness to the guys taking on the task here, the essays themselves are very scholarly, if somewhat weighty. Which is fine for a student (or a professor) of philosophy, but maybe not so much so for the average Beatles fan.

As amateur pop philosophers themselves, the Beatles could best be described as dime store dabblers. From time to time over their careers, the Beatles experimented in everything from drugs to mysticism in a never-ending quest to expand their consciousness. It is equally true that, especially in their post-Rubber Soul work, these influences were often reflected in their music.

But with the exception of George Harrison, who maintained a lifelong interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, these were largely passing dalliances. John Lennon most notably embraced the ideals of Marxist socialism for a season, and later moved completely away from it. He also famously penned the song "Sexy Sadie" for the White Album as an expression of disillusionment with the Maharishi (something several of the authors here wisely acknowledge). The line "you made a fool of everyone" from that song pretty much sums up Lennon's feelings about the guru.

For the last part of the book, the authors have put together some very complete discographies of both the Beatles U.S. and U.K. album releases, as well as a very detailed list of all the non-original compositions the Beatles have covered over the years. That particular list is quite a bit longer than I would have guessed. There is also a very cool final chapter listing the various "Paul is dead" clues found on lyrics and album covers. For me, that was the most fun thing to read in the entire book.

The Beatles And Philosophy isn't going to be everyone's particular cup of tea. For me the essays here were so analytical and weighty I had a tough time maintaining interest whenever they veered away from the subject of the Beatles themselves. Which they did often.  This may of course only prove that I am nothing near the smarty-pants that I always fancied myself. Regardless, I wont be going anywhere near the Dylan volume of this series.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thats great Natalie — thank you so much.
    -Glen

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Congratulations! This article has been selected as an Editors’ Pick.

  • http://jonsobel.com Jon Sobel

    I agree with Gordon – I’m going to stay away from this book – but I really enjoyed your review! I read the Buffy the Vampire Slayer book in this series, and it varied – some of the articles were quite interesting, others pretty lame. But Buffy really did delve into philosophical issues quite a bit. Beatles lyrics, though – good as they are, that sounds like a stretch.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Jon, the book basically is what it is. As far as very dry academia goes, I’m sure this would probably be considered something very well done. It just isn’t for everybody, and “everybody” in this case would include myself, Gordon, and apparently you as well. Your average Beatle fan is going to find this to be pretty damned dull, and that is understating it, believe me.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment Jon.

    And thanks for the pick Gordon.

    -Glen