With All Duet Respect: On Snobbery, Kanye & McCartney

Turns out plenty of Kanye fans don't know who Paul McCartney is. So what? It's not the ignorance of youth that bothers Ned Raggett, it's the faux outrage and the smug lols that greet it

Kanye West is one of the biggest pop stars the world has ever seen. He’s been cloned and ripped off and referred to, he’s had run-ins with authority, been questioned and mocked. He has recorded epochal singles, and albums that sparked entire musical movements if not careers. Kanye is an actual figure of note well beyond just the world of music, to the point where his romances and ultimate marriage to a scion of a well-known American family is part of modern conversation. On New Year’s Day, he appeared on ‘Only One’, a single talking about family joys and love. There was also some old English dude called Paul McCartney on there, and a lot of people went, “Who’s that other guy, guess he’s about to become famous!” 

These initial reactions felt like snark, or Twitter reflexivity, or more, as much as it could be a real thing – nothing conspiratorial, just a ‘Eh, it’s a mix of things, and who cares?’ A nontroversy, as NPR writer Ann Powers put it. There were plenty of other things to think about, musically and otherwise.

It was only when further reactions started appearing on news sites and social media basically all going, to one degree or another, “What’s with this, how dare anyone not know the co-lead singer of ‘Say Say Say’?!?" ("Losing hope in humanity by the minute. RT if you know who Paul McCartney is #TheBeatles" wailed @AliMaadelat) that I started getting annoyed.

There are many reasons why I might have found these patronising tweets irritating. Am I getting annoyed at a ‘kids today’ group I’ve just handily constructed in my brain? Am I imagining a variant of the reaction I noticed decades ago directed at me and about music I had just discovered? Am I getting annoyed at friends sharing these follow-up reactions for a social media laugh? Am I conflating too much in my head?  

Yet, I still think it: the whole ‘Kanye fans don’t know who Paul McCartney is lol’ thing, whatever its sources and seriousness, is just such a piece of pernicious BS. I left The Beatles behind pretty early on, moving from general knowledge (thanks to a TV showing of Yellow Submarine when I was eight or so) to active interest (1987 to 1990, thanks initial CD releases etc) to getting bored and burnt out and moving on, for a variety of reasons. I’ve never really looked back – I haven’t consciously dug out and listened to a Beatles album of any sort since the mid-1990s. It’s an itch that I no longer feel a need to scratch.

Distance helps, though – a few years back I heard ‘In My Life’ one morning at my usual Saturday breakfast spot and really enjoyed encountering it in that random context. It was all familiar enough but felt fresh in that moment, rather than as endless revisiting. I think this, rather than cultural stripmining, is a fine way to approach a lot of music, art, literature – things I learn about, internalise, then don’t revisit because I don’t need to consciously and continuously. Why not allow for a happy accident instead?

This is arguably a specifically generational take, one shaped by the Beatles hangover that was still pounding in the 1980s. I can recognise how this was shaped, how ‘Twist And Shout’ could become a hit again in 1986 in the wake of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In 2015, the assumed knowledge still holding sway that ‘Well of COURSE we’re all supposed to know about the Beatles’ is just hands-in-air frustrating. So much is down to specific context and a failure to recognise that your own experience is not a universal one, whether generationally, geographically, and more besides.

A slew of great comments on Twitter resonated for me – Tyler Andere, speaking back in summer on a separate and similar moment, said: "yo for real i am tired of white folks shaming me for not being super stoked on the beatles or whatever…my mom is from jamaica and my dad is from kenya so i was getting down on like bob marley + miriam makeba when i was a kid." Eric Harvey: "Asking kids to be familiar with the name Paul McCartney in 2015 is like asking kids in 1964 if Mamie Smith was their favorite singer… Despite their continuing ubiquity for most of us I think we vastly overestimate knowledge of the Beatles for younger generations… I asked 28 freshman/sophomore students about the "White Album" last semester and only 2 of them had heard of it." Jody Rosen: "And BTW: boomer rock fans’ knowledge of Jolson, Armstrong, Bing, Billie, Sinatra, ragtime/jazz/pre-rock pop is, by and large, woeful." Yet the comment I liked the best came from Chris Middleman: "I grew up in an anti-Beatles household that was strongly pro-ELO. I appreciate ground broken, yet am not interested in shovels."

A mea culpa: I’ve certainly sometimes groused about things that people ‘should’ know, but what I hope – I hope, I emphasise again, because I can’t expect perfection in myself, much less anyone else – what I try to do now is keep it to the context of someone expressing interest or curiosity about something I assumed they would know already, and to limit myself to what is very clearly mock outrage. Beyond that? People will learn as they do. And continue to learn: Lord knows there’s plenty I know nothing about, and more I’d argue I know too much about. Being surprised that people don’t know certain things, not thinking about why you might know certain things when others don’t – that I don’t get. It might not be the end of the world, no. But instead of just going ahead and laughing, it might not hurt to ask why one laughs to start with.

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