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Twist & Shout For Change! The Beatles, Live Music, and Political Protest

Eight Days a Week a recently released documentary, directed by Ron Howard, sheds light on the early touring years of The Beatles as they played across America for the first time. The four mop-topped bandmates, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, were without a doubt the most recognizable and famous personalities in the world and possibly history — as John famously and controversially said in 1966, “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus.”  Beatlemania was at its peak.

Using never before seen footage of the group’s backstage more private moments, the documentary illuminates the more human and quaint side of these monumental figures. One of the key moments in the film is the discovery of an oft-forgotten episode in the group’s early touring years: the band’s headstrong refusal to play in front of segregated audiences in the United States. The documentary sheds light on and affirms the effectiveness of the use of performance in contemporary music as a tool to advance social change, a practice that has endured to this day. While the form and application of these performance-based protests have changed, evinced by the recent examples of the boycotts of North Carolina, its principal objective and efficacy remain the same.

The day was September 11, 1964, and the Beatles were scheduled to play the Gator Bowl stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. A few days beforehand, when they learned that the audience would be segregated, the band threatened to boycott the concert: “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money,” Lennon stated days before the show. The promoters quickly capitulated; they had too much to lose. Beatles concerts were the hottest, most sought-after events in the entire world and promoters weren’t willing to uphold their discriminatory policies at the risk of losing the revenue. In a city where institutionalized segregation was the norm, the arrival of the worldwide mop-top phenomena was able to shatter a deep-rooted racist practice in one performance, albeit for one evening.

Although it didn’t end segregation in Jacksonville, let alone the entire South, the powerful symbolism of this event should not be underestimated; a few twenty-year-olds from Liverpool were able to confront a deeply entrenched mentality through a musical set. This episode demonstrates the colossal dimensions of The Beatles’ impact: not only did they revolutionize contemporary culture and music, they set the precedent for artists being able to act, through their vocation and medium, for the causes they believe in. “At that time, no one that I knew of really took the initiative to address any kind of social issue,” Mark Lindsay, lead singer of also-popular 60’s band Paul Revere & The Raiders, stated in a recent interview regarding the Jacksonville show, providing further evidence of the extent to which the Beatles’ action was pioneering.

While perhaps not as groundbreaking as musical protests in the 1960’s, the more recent example of the boycotting of North Carolina demonstrates that music can still be an effective tool for instigating, or at least clamoring for, change. Earlier this year, North Carolina’s Governor, Pat McCrory signed the infamous “bathroom bill,” HB2, into law. The law denies individuals the right to use restrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex and also limits cities’ autonomy to establish their own antidiscriminatory ordinances. Largely decried as retrograde and highly prejudiced, the law caused dismay and outrage across the US; musicians were no exception, quickly joining these voices of indignation. Bruce Springsteen was one of the first high-profile artists to go a step further by cancelling a scheduled show set to take place in April earlier this year in Greensboro. On his site, Springsteen released a statement providing the following justification: “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. [The boycott] is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.” Quickly, several other artists scheduled to play in the state, including Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam, and Maroon 5, followed suit and cancelled their concerts. As a result, the issue of the boycotts’ efficacy leapt to the national forefront, along with that of HB2.

An examination of the effects of these cancellations reveal that these boycotts, although accused of being attention-seeking media spectacles, proved to be at least somewhat successful. By deciding to not show up, the artists put strong economic and media pressures on the state. The Greensboro Coliseum Complex, where Springsteen was booked to play, estimated a loss of $188,000 from just three artist cancellations. This was a major blow to the city, whose economy largely relies on the complex. Although harder to quantify, restaurants and smaller businesses around the arena also complained about major losses due to the artists not showing up; some restaurant managers estimate that the concerts double their revenue.

The City of Greensboro, feeling the impact of the boycotts, sent a letter in May to Governor McCrory asking him to reconsider his support of the law. As Zaid Flehain, the owner of a kebob shop two blocks down from the coliseum, said, “We should be making laws that bring business to North Carolina rather than creating barriers keeping people away from the state.” Moreover, the economic pressures weren’t the only consequence of the boycotts: the media attention played an equally large role. By refusing to play, these artists magnetized publicity to the issue and created a snowball effect; sports organizations such as the NCAA and NBA have pulled several large-scale events from the state, and companies such as PayPal have cancelled million dollar contracts.

This is bad news for Governor McCrory, who is up for re-election next month. According to a SurveyUSA/WRAL poll, 61 percent of North Carolinians believe HB2 hurt the state’s national image and its ability to attract investment. The Governor has largely campaigned on his ability to create new jobs, yet HB2, which he hastily signed and relentlessly defended, has had the opposite effect. The polls for the upcoming November election seem to indicate that North Carolinians hold him responsible.

Other artists have taken a different approach to the situation in North Carolina. Comedian Wanda Sykes, for example, decided not to cancel her show, claiming that her audience would largely be the people targeted by the law. For her, cancelling the show would mean “turning her back on them,” and by performing she would be giving them a voice. This is a valid argument, but only because other artists had already boycotted shows and brought attention to the issue. If none had done this before, her decision to simply keep the performance without making any type of statement would have done little to further the cause against the law. The boycotts seem to have been the most effective manner of magnetizing publicity and placing pressure on the promulgators of HB2.

Though the world has come a long way since Beatlemania, the power of music, which the four mop-tops epitomized, endures. We often forget that music is a platform of unprecedented power and influence; unlike politics, it touches and awakens people in an inexplicable manner. Unlike politicians, who have tangible power, musicians have a more abstract, impalpable influence on people. This power is given to them organically and purely by the listener, who does not require persuading and has no expectation of getting anything in return. A rhythm, a beat, or a lyric can move and connect multitudes; why, then, would musicians not use this power for change and the causes they believe in? The Beatles and the North Carolina boycotts show how this can be masterfully done; more often than not, however, musicians seem to forget this innate power they possess, exchanging it for superficiality and commercial success. The power we have as listeners is to choose what we listen to, and we should use this power consciously. We should shun the musicians who have traded substance for glitter and gold, and instead elevate the musicians who have something to say, those who move us and inexplicably awaken something inside us.  Those are the musicians who will in turn fight for the causes that make the world we live in a better place.


About the Author

Alan Garcia-Ramos '20 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.