Perfect Sound Forever writer Tony Sclafani is someone I've enjoyed working with -- he's done a number of good stories for my zine. I'm also glad to see him making a name for himself at MSNBC as a writer there. What he didn't anticipate was that writing pop think pieces can be a hazardous business. Not enough people do that nowadays and it's easy to see why -- when you're dealing with a mainstream subject, most of the audience ain't interested in theories and independent, unpopular thought. I happen to love this type of writing though I don't envy the people who do it, especially for big publications.
As Tony found out, you get lots of slings and arrows for this type of writing. He was surprised about this at first and I tried to reassure him that it's nature of the beast.
One case in point is his recent Madonna article. Here, he compares her cultural impact to that of the Beatles and finds that nowadays, Madge comes up as the winner. Mind you, he goes out of his way to say that her music isn't necessarily better than the Fabs but that didn't change anything in the mind of many readers. Look at the comment section for the piece and you'll find a lot of scathing responses there. That's to be expected. The readers prove their point (Beatles > Madonna) by quoting sales figures (which would ultimately mean that the Eagles beat both of them), musicianship (which ain't always a guarantee of great music and which would qualify Keith Emerson or Richie Blackmore for Rock Hall of Fame slots that haven't been available otherwise) and such. In other words, they don't address the issues that Sclafani brings up and instead take offense that their heroes are being attacked. That's not the purpose of the article though Sclafani clearly meant to tease the readers by bringing up the Beatles comparison- how much reaction would the article have gotten if he just said "Madonna's had a lot of cultural impact"? (A: a lot less reaction)
One thing I do disagree about in the article is the cultural impact of the Fabs. Musically, it's true that their legacy hasn't DIRECTLY influenced a lot of music you hear today outside of power pop but the same could be said about another cultural icon named Elvis. The fact is that the Beatles did and still do have a lot of non-musical impact in culture today. They virtually invented the concert of stadium tours starting with Shea in '65. Also, Harrison's love of Indian music helped usher in many musicians' and fans' interest in 'world music.' Sgt Pepper was a milestone as it introduced not only the concept of the album as art (both on the cover and in the grooves) but also that it could still be a best-selling item. Though Sam Cooke and others had done it before, the boys also popularized the idea of artist-run labels (Apple) -- even beyond that, they branched out into other venues like a boutique and an electronics company (though both flopped). Their decision in '66 to end touring also made it viable for groups to be 'studio bands.' Even before they officially broke up in 1970, they had already began to popularize the idea of the 'solo album' (and did some interesting, strange things with it too). Even their interviews betrayed their art-school mentality instead of the aw-shucks persona adapted by the King. Their fascination with tapes and electronic music also helped usher in not only the idea of art-rock (which is a mixed blessing admittedly) and helped to push modern classical music more into the mainstream consciousness (even at the time of his death, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a giant of 20th century music, was still best known for his visage on the cover of Pepper).
And so on. You could spend all day listing the innovations that the Beatles brought about and which still are important today (and please do so, I wanna hear more myself!).
You can argue back and forth about whether the appended list above beats out what Madonna did or not but the end result is still the same. Both artists had a major impact on the pop world and continue to do so today.
As for Madge, I'm going to see her on her upcoming tour. I saw her on her last tour for what was supposed to be her worst record and she still put on a great show. I have no doubt that she'll do it again this time- she's a living legend and still a great entertainer. Nevertheless, there's no denying that she's not the cultural icon she once was, though she can still grab tabloid headlines (and though signing with Live Nation was a big move too). In a May cover story for Vanity Fair, she said that she thought that New York had lost its pizazz- "... it doesn't feel alive, cracking with that synergy between the art world and music world and fashion world that was happening in the 80s." "In a response, New York said 'right back at you!'" said Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update.
Oh and recent historical data has shown that Jesus was well over six-feet tall- he could have been a great point guard on a basketball team. So technically, he's bigger than the Beatles or Madonna.