music that changed me: the Beatles

i used to be so good at entertaining myself – you have to be, as an only child, and if you’re a voracious reader and consumer of outdated media, like i was, a house full of old heirlooms, books and videotapes provided endless hours of entertainment. my favourite films were crowd-pleasers from the eighties, like Crocodile Dundee 2, and Condorman, both recorded from live television onto VHS tapes neatly labelled in my mother’s all-caps writing.

except she left Condorman to run over, or forgot to stop the recording, because at the end of the film, i feasted my eyes on adverts from the New Year of 1990, and a Bruce Forsyth-presented curation of the ‘greatest’ Royal Variety Show performances. there Bruce sat, on faded colour television, in his neat dickie bow and tux, in a squishy red velvet armchair, and began with Arthur Askey imitating a bumblebee. one of the last clips shown in black and white was a raucous rendition of She Loves You, featuring the four besuited and neatly bowlcut Beatles at their most palatable; and yet, the blissful, joyous harmonies were a shot of pure dopamine to my twelve-year-old ears.

i was already au fait with Nelly Furtado, Gorillaz and the Feeling, albeit with no perception of their cultural currency (or lack thereof, in certain hipster circles). the Beatles were new and thrilling to my ears in a way that was pure and beautiful, more so than any crisp, modern production could convince me. i tuned in to Radio Two every morning at half seven, just before heading to school, because Chris Evans had got into the habit of playing two Beatles songs to start the day. if i was unceremoniously dragged away and into the car before both songs were broadcast in full, i snuck off to the computer room at lunch to re-listen on the newly launched BBC iPlayer and make a note of what to search on youtube when i got home, so that i could rip the mp3 file in extremely shoddy quality and sync it to my ipod. this ritual was sacred, and i could have searched the entire discography in some other corner of the internet, but i liked microdosing the material in the two-per-day format.

one day our next door neighbour showed up at the door with every album on CD, and the trajectory of my obsession was swift and merciless. my pre-teen fixations on horses, cars and Alexander the Great became secondary to music. for christmas my aunt gifted me the ‘1’ compilation; i rifled through the liner notes and stared at the single art for Hey Jude. Paul was the most easily identifiable already, with his gentle, open face and wide eyes, with their arched, almost feminine brows. i was fascinated. for the first time in my young life, i knew what it was to have a crush.

Paul was an entirely safe crush to have, at that age. my peers were lusting after a shirtless Taylor Lautner in the Twilight movies, which i found disconcerting. nothing about a man’s bare pectorals was titillating to me in the slightest. i liked a pretty face, and a heart-rending voice, a talent and a personality that i wanted to be as close to as humanly possible. but fifty years and a multitude of other hopeless factors stood in my way, and as i listened to snippets of ‘funny moments’ on youtube, pored over interviews in grainy black and white, or picked up photo books in charity shops, i formed an imaginary Ideal Man. charming, gregarious, absolutely devoid of machismo or posturing, open-minded but also principled where it mattered, optimistic and practical. whether Paul was or is actually all of these things is of less significance. it was the freedom to theorise in this way that gave me a set of healthy standards.

i’ve recently started to question why i don’t obsess over women in the same way, feeling guilty that my fixations have always been bands of straight men that make my heart race with enthusiasm for their every word and action. but it’s not like women’s art and female artists don’t have an impact on me – i bawled like a baby at Caroline Polachek’s show, captivated and driven to emotions that other shows haven’t achieved. the answer, i think, is that women’s remarkability is no surprise to me. i’ve known how wonderful women are for a long time. when a man exhibits possibilities of being anywhere near as incredible (compounded by physical attraction), i’m beyond thrilled. at last, i think, i’ve found one! a rare Amazing Man! he ticks all the boxes!

i’ve presented Paul here as a first example. all the others that come after build on this concept, the Dream, the Ideal. i don’t want there to be a misconception that i put these men on a moral pedestal any longer, not now that i’m an adult; they were and are extremely fallible, and are capable of disappointing in much the same way. but for a brief, magical time, the idealisation itself helped me understand what i wanted, what i felt safe around, what i would and would not accept in a man. this series is entitled ‘music that changed me’, but it’s the musicians too. it’s not that the music itself didn’t play an enormous role – it’s that music does what words alone often fail to do.

men & women, boys & girls.

my parents sent me to a private, all girls school. a common assumption made about young people in these instituations is that they don’t know how to interact normally with one another, and i’ve spent a good deal of time arguing against that fact, trying to find proof. complicating these matters is the other assumption that it increases a likelihood of homosexuality, and whilst the assumption itself sounds preposterous, the fact of my own sexuality is less clear.

i can’t escape the fact that i have a history of forming strong, healthy friendships with other girls, and none with boys. i care deeply about the opinions of other women, will go to the ends of the earth for another girl. that unspoken loyalty is something that i don’t offer to the boys i know. at times i’ve joked that i’m probably quite callous with men, as though they don’t have feelings, or aren’t quite human in the same way as us girls. i don’t feel safe in opening up in quite the same way to them, or allowing myself to be emotionally vulnerable around them. holding them at arm’s length feels like a defence mechanism. they have disappointed me in the past.

i am currently in a situation where i wonder if i have gone too far on this occasion, if i have been thoughtless in my treatment of a man and will now be tortured by my conscience. and yet, whilst this anxiety rages on, i can’t help but be aware that historically men have treated women in much the same way. ‘they don’t see us as human’, ‘they don’t take our feelings seriously’, ‘they don’t see us as worthy of friendship’. these are all valid criticisms of the way men have treated women for centuries and, in all honesty, still do in alarming numbers. in asking whether this makes me as bad as them, or if it’s a fair retaliation based on the way we’re all socialised, i’m aware that the dissertation i am struggling through carries the exact same ethical question. perhaps this is why i’m struggling with the dissertation. i can’t work out the right answer in my own life, and feel terrible that i have to ask the question in the first place.

my religious upbringing, whilst a source of adolescent repression and frustration with its teachings, inescapably drilled into me the importance of knowing right from wrong, being kind, all the usual saintly stuff. and i like to think i follow these principles – i think of myself as a kind person, or at least someone whose kindness is less conditional than that of others. and underneath all the turmoil i’ve laid out above, i know that i shouldn’t take one person as a stand-in for a whole gender. and yet i feel that i need to acknowledge how my treatment of others has been shaped by my how i myself have been treated in the past.

some people would say that once you know you’ve done wrong by someone, the good, kind thing to do is to resolve it as soon as possible, to own up to your failings before the situation snowballs and you hurt the other person even more. but i’m a coward, and perhaps i’m a little too at ease with being that person, that terrible person who continues to fuck someone over because it’s more comfortable than doing the right thing – ultimately, because i’m a girl and they’re a boy.

i’m judging myself even as i write. i think this may be good subject material for my art, but i ask myself, do i really want to wallow in that? because you do have to wallow, have to swim in that feeling and let it wash over you completely in order to externalise it creatively. or shall i do what i always do, and push it down, and deal with the repercussions as and when they come up?

one thing i’ve never called myself is strong. perhaps, by default, that makes me weak, but i’ve never called myself that either. maybe it’s okay to not feel fantastic about yourself. maybe i’ve been feeling like a good person for too long, and it’ll knock me down a peg or two, if i remember that i can actually be a bad person sometimes. isn’t everyone?

healthy body, healthy dreams.

the skin on my hands is dry, and it snags unpleasantly as i rub my palms together. when i walk, i feel a twinge near the top of my thigh, the kind that used to make my mum walk unevenly and now makes me wince. i worry that i’m not looking after myself well enough. but don’t i stay clean and well clothed? don’t i give my body energy and sufficient sleep, albeit at unsuitable hours? yes, i should drink more water, i should eat more fruit, i should moisturise every dry spot, and every spot that isn’t yet dry but will soon become dry if i don’t moisturise it, and how soon into my twenties should i feel the effects of ageing, whilst my peers are getting up at six and doing their vinyasa flows, and how normal is it for this much hair to fall out when i wash it, the fist of tangles that i extract from the comb and deposit at the end of the tub in whorls, ready to be flushed and forgotten, and does it mean i am i shrivelling up on the inside like a prune, if i don’t hydrate?

this isn’t the stuff of songs, is it? it seems like it would be difficult to form a concise, poetic idea around these worries. and yet i’m sure people manage it. i might be able to, if i had to time to sit down and work on it.

a lot of people have said to me, or i’ve read in quotes, that if you really want to create music and you’re really ambitious about it, then you’ll make time. i feel bad that i’m waiting for the time and space, like i’m making excuses for myself. but past examples work in my favour – i only made music before when i had no pressures or obligations, aside from setting a bit of student work each morning. and i had the freedom to spend twelve hours perfecting a mix, staying up until 6am, out of an urge to perfect my output. now i just stay up til 6am because i can’t stop watching trixie and katya videos on youtube, and i tell myself i’m not the only one sabotaging themselves. doesn’t everyone do it just a little bit? don’t the people on tiktok (dread the thought) relate to that dilemma? sometimes it’s perversely pleasurable to revel in self-sabotage, the way smoking a cigarette consciously sabotages your health by a fraction of a degree, and leaving a deadline to 72 hours before sabotages your chance of doing quite as well as you could have with consistent long-term effort.

in truth, i only want to be ambitious about my music if i can be sure of feeling proud of it. i want that sublime eureka moment to strike (which isn’t too much to ask, as i know how easily it comes in times of rest). it reliably delivers the work that carries the sort of magic i’m looking for. there are maybe two songs that i’ve written that, when i listen to them again, i’m not quite sure how i did it. these are the songs i’m proudest of. i want to feel like, when i’m pushing the material forward, when i push myself forward as a candidate for success, that i am less of an imposter, that i belong at that table. it’s a metaphor i use quite a lot, having a seat at the table. but that’s what it will feel like. in my head i imagine the round dining tables of award ceremonies. i don’t need to win anything, i don’t need industry validation in quite the same way. and i might change my mind, feel guilty for pandering to a restrictive version of Success with a capital S – after all, what does that really look like? there are boxes you can tick – being played on certain radio stations, playing certain festivals, certain stages and venues. but great artists redefine what success looks like every decade.

maybe one day i just want to be able to play my guitar and pay my bills. that would be nice… yes, it would be very nice.