Phony Beatlemania Has Bitten the Dust

rae sremmurd become the “black beatles.”

Every year when I teach my US Popular Music History course at Northwestern, I give myself a challenge: to use whatever the current number one song on the Billboard Top 100 charts is to develop the introductory lecture. Last year it was Adele’s “Hello,” which led to various themes in the course: gender, technology, virtuosity, Tin Pan Alley songwriting, sentimentalism (and also of course to props for Lionel Richie). This year, the number one song for the second week of January is “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd, a very different kind of song for a very different historical moment after a year of much crisis and change in America and the world.

“Black Beatles” points toward issues of race, gender, region, class, and most of all the more subtle negotiations of cultural politics that travel on the secret frequencies and subtle vibration of pop, always there for tuning in if you wish to do so. Of course, at the same time, it’s just another pop song floating up the charts only to fall again into the dustbin—in this case, the song amounts to yet another sonic evocation of a drug-and-alcohol-fueled, fairly (though not entirely) misogynist visit to the nightclub, this one circa 2017. We’ve been here before. And yet we also are someplace new.

In this way, “Black Beatles” is a richly satisfying song to take on in a popular music history course. It bakes (in multiple senses) a consciousness of said history within its very title, lyrics, and sounds. There’s the reference to classic rock by way of the Beatles in the song’s very name, of course. Rae Sremmurd’s Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown and Aaquil “Slim Jxmmi” Brown, who are brothers, enjoy looking at life by “rockin’ John Lennon lenses.” There’s a nice little “real teaser” of a nod to “Day Tripper” in the lyrics and melody. The video makes even more Beatles references, with a gesture to the Abbey Road album cover, the famous Rooftop Farewell Concert, and other moments of Beatlemania. The video also sports featured rapper Gucci Mane in a Michael Jackson red leather jacket, as if to not only stake a claim to the Fab Four and sixties rock, but also to the King of Pop in the 1980s.

The use of the Beatles is, on the surface, not unlike the reference to classic rock in Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” from 2011. It’s a contemporary pop assertion of access to rock-god glamour, grandeur, celebrity, fame, musical genius, and power. All with a little dose of appreciation for psychedelic weirdness and the, ahem, herbal turn of the 60s counterculture. This psychedelic turn comes by way of Southern hip hop, in particular the town that the Browns now call home: Atlanta, and its “Dirty South” aesthetic. One thinks of OutKast’s 2003 “Hey Ya!,” also inspired by rock, as well as OutKast member André 3000‘s eventual appearance in the lead role of the recent Jimi Hendrix biopic, All Is By My Side.

The song is also perhaps an intriguing response to Kanye West’s lyric on his 2010 song “Gorgeous” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “what’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?” With its (Kanye-inspired?) eerie synth sounds and reedy, edgy, confessional, morning-after vocal chorus, “Black Beatles” plays up the doubts, maybe even the regrets, of the male hip-hop playa even as it celebrates and brags about that role. This protagonist might in fact be feeling low, like a roach, by his behavior, even as he also asserts the pleasures of his immoral behavior. Whereas Kanye rejects the comparison of a hip-hop superstar to the Beatles, Rae Sremmurd play with the pun of the rock band and insect so that “Black Beatles” becomes a much more complex song psychologically, in the spirit of West’s hip hop (which led the way toward a more introspective style and a renewed interest in rock sounds in the early 2000s, after all).*

Indeed, one aspect of “Black Beatles”‘s success perhaps comes from how it occupies a sonic realm at the fertile boundary between pop, rock, and hip hop, which is where one could argue much successful pop of the last twenty-odd years has resided: spooky new order (and New Order) pop-synth meets an interest in countercultural weirdness meets pop sampling (of various sorts) meets auteur-genius artist ideologies; pop song structure meets rock self-consciousness meets hip-hop guest appearance (in this case by Atlanta’s Gucci Mane) , singing meets rocking meets rapping. It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it.

The Beatles’ Abbey Road cover (1969) and a still from Rae Sremmurd’s video for “Black Beatles” (2016).

The Beatles famous 1969 rooftop concert and Rae Sremmurd’s video for “Black Beatles” (2016).

But there’s more. At the end of the Obama presidency, in the aftermath of #blacklivesmatter, and with the victory of reactionary populism embodied by the election of Donald Trump, for a pop song to emphasize blackness is no small thing, particularly for one that at least implicitly reminds us that the Beatles appropriated so much in their music from African American musical heroes. The classic rock genre, now so strongly coded as white music, is here, with “Black Beatles,” reclaimed as black. Appropriation strikes back. But it does so sideways. The song never tries to make its racial pop music history politics explicit, so far as I can tell. Instead it masks the return of the Beatles to blackness within a hip hop-pop party song that portrays a night at the club, with weirdos with green hair, young bulls living like old geezers, frat girls, mad haters, baby mamas, chapos, eurosteppers, and others floating through the sedated marijuana haze and alcohol binge-drinking buzz.

Merging pop and hip hop, the song led my class back to 2011’s “Moves Like Jagger,” which really should be titled “Moves Like Tina” since it erases the ways in which Mick Jagger borrowed his moves especially from Tina Turner (as well as James Brown and other African American performers, to be sure). So reminiscent of a similar turn back to classic rock from the 1960s, “Black Beatles” brings issues of race front and center. But gender is there too, if we want to glimpse and hear it. We might even notice Turner’s hidden presence lurking, by implication, within the song. Not just Black Beatles, but somewhere there she is the Black Jagger too. And this time, it’s a black woman whose pop music significance we can call back to prominence. So while it is ostensibly a male’s view on being so trippy-stoned cool that “bitch, me and Paul McCartney related,” “Black Beatles” can also, if we want it to, remind us of a black woman’s historical importance even within its hyper-masculinized misogyny!

Comparing Jagger and Turner dancing styles.
Such are the workings of pop music and culture, which in their associations, uncover more than just a woman’s body as “a work of art” in the club.

But, there’s even more. “Black Beatles” has become the soundtrack to the Mannequin Challenge, a viral fad of staging still-life tableau vivants by students, sports teams, and others (think Ice Bucket challenge, the Harlem Shake, and many other social media phenomena). Why is unclear, but here lies yet another appropriation of this song that is all about appropriation. Pop music and musical performers sometimes draw audiences to them, magnetize them with artfulness, virtuosity, controversy, or some other quality that attracts. Just as often, people pull music into their own social lives, making it a soundtrack, a signal, a mood for other activities. After all, Beatlemania, like so much of the pop music history before and after it, was in the end more about the mania of the fans than of the Beatles. Sometimes power is indeed in the eye (and ear) of the (very still) beholder. Pop music fandom is not always passive to the spectacle; just as often it can be active and dynamic.

Which, with the brothers in Rae Sremmurd, does offer a way of getting back to where they once belonged. While they now reside in Atlanta, the Browns were born from Tupelo, Mississippi. And you know who else was from there: Jumpin’ Gene Simmons, of course. And also that guy Elvis Presley. So in a sense this pop hit of 2017 goes back even deeper than the Liverpudlian rockers or Mick Jagger or even Tina Turner—it gets back to the original supposed king of rock and roll himself. For classic hip hip, this was not important. “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me,” as Chuck D.’s famously put it in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” This may still be the case. But something else is happening lately in hip hop as it collides with pop: a different kind of reckoning with, and remixing of, prior musical and cultural histories.

If you’ve come this far with “Black Beatles,” you’re truly in the sticky pop muck now. This song provides passage to what Robert Cantwell calls the “cultural ectoplasm” of society, where race, gender, class, region, self, community, and nation collide, dissolve, reconfigure, re-form (and maybe even reform). Songs creep up and down the charts. As they do, they burrow into consciousness on a backbeat, reminding us of pop music’s slyly catalytic powers. It digs in if you dig it and remakes the past if you’ll let it. It’s so superficial, but there’s also a surprisingly durable capacity there. It’s always bugging out. Black Beatles, indeed.

*My student Joe Madden directed my attention to the song’s reference to Kanye West’s lyric.

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