#MeToo has deflated lots of men.
But not Paul McCartney.
Today, “Macca” is singing about the sexiness of consent while other powerful media moguls are facing the firing squad for assaulting and harassing women who worked for them. The controversy surrounding Supreme Court Justice candidate Brett Kavanaugh (accused of assaulting a woman when both parties were teens) proves that “youthful misconduct” is up for grabs, too. To overturn Kavanaugh’s recent turn of phrase, what happens in boyhood does not necessarily stay there, any more.
#MeToo is requiring us to reevaluate all of the rules of engagement, including the romantic trifles that used to seem innocent. Courtship generally involves some kind of pursuit based on reading signs of interest and permission—but what should this look like in 2018? Indeed, how do you flirt in the age of #MeToo?
Enter Sir Paul, whose new record, Egypt Station, dropped in the US the same week Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings began. In 2018, the former Beatle has arrived to offer a roadmap for navigating what should be better understood by now but still isn’t. (Admittedly, this is like getting advice from your friend’s rich grandfather who has a stash of blue pills in his drawer. But why look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when he’s the Cute One?)
“Come On to Me”, one of the singles from the new album, has been making the rounds of night shows and pop-up concerts; it’s also on the set list of McCartney’s just-launched, in-progress Freshen Up tour. If you’ve seen any of these performances, your first impression might be that McCartney wrote this song in order to do his favorite hand gesture, finger pointing. (His only rival for that gesticulation is former Beach-Boy, Mike Love.) McCartney’s fingering is, in fact, a clue to what the song is all about: a template for how to behave when you see her standing there.
McCartney’s opening verse recalls word choice related to looking in that 1963 song, but he isn’t led across the room with the booming heart (or whatever else is throbbing) of a 20-something. He thinks she has given him a telling look—but he could be wrong, so he has to ask, “Did you come on to me?” before adding “Will I come on to you?”
After a chorus of such questions, the 2018 McCartney considers another time and place they can talk. He waits for the coat check to avoid inserting himself earlier. His lack of interference is unlike a previous Macca, who interrupted a meter maid (who then had to pay for the date he requested) in 1967. In spite of his own urgent feelings, the “Come On to Me” speaker considers social judgement and the need for discretion, pondered with a series of “do-do-do”s repeated after the chorus.
At first, the chorus seems simple enough with the more frequent variation of the question, “If you come on to me, will I come on to you?” But the repetitive lines work like a mantra, modeling the kind of conscious meditation one needs in order to consider whether pursuing a sexual or romantic encounter is correct.
The pairing of complementary actions is a classic feature of McCartney songwriting, perhaps most closely resembling “the love you take is equal to the love you make” in “The End”. The new song, however, lacks the transactional quality of giving and receiving. Although “The End” is often perceived as a grand revelation about love, it’s actually somewhat bleak. Giving little love means taking little love, but think about the wronged party in that scenario: “The End” is a guarantee that affection will be withheld if a partner’s efforts are deemed insufficient. Not exactly a recipe for success. The line is basically a theory of the Beatles’ demise, punctuating the last album they recorded, Abbey Road (1969).
“Come On to Me” resists the “x, then y” logic with the early and more frequent use of “will”. The future tense and interrogative place all of the agency with her, the song’s “you”/ That outcome is achieved in other turns of phrases throughout the song: he questions the point of resisting “your temptation”, implying once again that she’s the one who chooses, not him.
McCartney’s speaker stays in the hesitating, passive state until the latter part of the song, when the last two choruses replace “will” with the more decisive “then” in most —but not all—of those repeating lines. McCartney renders his pursuit tentative and contingent on her choice, which means that she can change her mind at any time—even once they are alone together.
The overall message of “Come On to Me”? Consent is sexy.
Gone are the manipulative threats, like “You say ‘Stop’ and I say ‘Go, go, go'”, in “Hello Goodbye” (Magical Mystery Tour, 1967) an entire song predicated on performing a matching opposite action with persistence.
In “Come On to Me”, McCartney’s passive reciprocity is his 2018 solution for how to flirt (and hook up) as an aging man—even or especially one with Beatle cache. The song is a response to a time in which the old ways of doing business are over. Women are telling their stories, ousting abusers and claiming their own positions of authority. So the old ways of doing heterosexual romance have to adapt, too.
Time’s up. But that doesn’t mean McCartney is impotent. His impotence would be useless—and that’s not what #MeToo is about.
In the final part of the song, prior to the chorus’s return, he goes into the deeper part of his vocal register, which has always signified Macca’s sexy, burning desire, as in “Oh! Darling”. He repeats “Yes I will”, his own expression of consent to pursuit. Later, his repeated “yeah, yeah, yeah” is a toned-down version of the yells that conclude the sweaty, hot performance of “1985” on David Litchfield’s film, One-Hand Clapping (1974).
Just as he optimistically approaches the puzzle of flirtation, McCartney is not bemoaning the loss of youth and vigor on Egypt Station. In the song that follows “Come On to Me,” he ages gracefully: “Happy With You” delights in ordinary pleasures without the bitterness that we often see of old men. (McCartney, after all, has always loved his birds, and here they are to signal hope once again.)
McCartney’s function as a cultural touchstone in conversations about age, gender, and sexuality is nothing new. When he arrived in the US the first time, McCartney and the other mop-topped Beatles, were visions of freedom, liberation from the boring conventionality of ’50s gender boxes. As the Beatles’ looks and music revealed, boys could act more like girls, girls could act more like boys, and life could be a lot more fun in 1964.
But those Baby Boomers who would go onto participate in or at least witness the sexual revolution, did not solve the morass of gender and sex-related problems we are still facing today. And McCartney himself wasn’t always the perfect feminist in Beatles’ songs, either. In “For No One” (Revolver, 1966), the speaker bitterly observes his partner’s process of preparing to go out, implying that her career stands in the way of attention he deserves. In “Getting Better” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) his speaker glibly confesses to being a physical and emotional abuser; the rhyme of “I know it’s mean” and “but I’m changing my scene” strikes a trite note in the promise to change. “Lady Madonna” (Hey Jude, 1970) and “Let It Be” (Abbey Road) are transitional songs, in awe of women’s strength, but still predictable renderings of feminine power as a maternal force.
It’s not until he partners musically with first wife Linda (after the break-up of the Beatles) that McCartney’s songs begin to express solidarity with women. It’s an understatement to say that this couple’s oeuvre celebrates reciprocated sexual pleasure. They also wrote feminist-leaning third-person story-songs (critiquing bad men in “Another Day” and “Beware My Love”), which is the tradition that “Come On to Me” falls into.
But what of the audiences who didn’t follow McCartney into Wings and other solo work, but still think of themselves as Beatles fans? To many of them, McCartney is and always will be a Beatle first, so in spite of his vegetarian ethos, he remains a favorite among Baby Boomers on both sides of the aisle.
On other Egypt Station songs, McCartney lectures climate-change deniers, calling out their “captain” (i.e., Trump), and then reprises President Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes We Can”. But McCartney’s liberal stances, especially about the environment, have never seemed to diminish his appeal, evidenced by the masses who attend his US concerts. Maybe because he seldom plays the overtly political songs in concert. McCartney seeks to please.
But read through the lens of #MeToo, “Come On to Me” might be his most political statement yet.
“Come On to Me” has been at the fore of Egypt Station‘s marketing blitz, which pushed the new album into number one on Billboard 200. Maybe Boomers (and subsequent generations) will “listen to what the man said” and hear the freedom to change as they once did.
And even though McCartney’s song’s timing suits the #MeToo age, the mark of a great pop song is its availability. “Come On to Me” is a hit because it addresses the questions human beings have long asked in our search for partnerships. That’s what McCartney is so good at melodizing: the yearning for closeness, the loneliness of solitude, the salvation of connection.
But this time, he reminds us that goodbye actually means goodbye. You have to wait until she means hello she’ll let you know.