Did the Beatles ruin popular music?

Elijah Wald’s provocative, meticulously researched new book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, turns the stock rock-and-roll narratives on their head.

Wald — a working musician who moonlights as a musicologist — argues that popular music lost much of its power when it left the dance floor behind, and traces dancing’s slow transition from social activity (the Turkey Trot) to solitary occupation (the headphone head-nod). For him, Sgt. Pepper’s was a turning point: Afterward, musicians began thinking of themselves as artists rather than as entertainers. When the Beatles became “purely a recording group,” he writes, “they pointed toward a future in which there need be no unifying styles . . . bands can play what they like . . . and we can choose what to listen to in the privacy of our clubs, our homes, or, finally, our heads. Whether that was liberating or limiting is a matter of opinion and perception, but the whole idea of popular music had changed.”

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