We could thank Ringo Starr for the gender-neutral restroom. Not that the growing public consciousness of gender fluidity is the culmination of a master plan by the ever-lackadaisical Beatles drummer. Ringo and his fellow mop tops surely had no scheme grander than that of becoming famous for their fabness when they upended the prevailing conventions of sexual identity in the heyday of Beatlemania. But upend them, they did.
In doing so, the Beatles were blithely carrying on one of the most durable but under-appreciated traditions in popular music: the stretching of young minds with defiantly titillating new ideas that sometimes lead, over time, to social change. It is a tradition that dates as far back as the time of the fox trot and has continued to the contemporary era of Nicki Minaj.
It is 50 years ago now since the Beatles marked the end of the hysterical early phase of their career by giving up the live performances that serve as the subject of the new documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years, directed by Ron Howard and viewable on Hulu after a token run in movie theaters. Among the many moments in the film that make vivid the thrilling weirdness of the Beatles in their day is a scene at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964. Paul McCartney announces that the next song in the concert will be a hit by the Shirelles called “Boys,” sung by Ringo.
As everyone knew in 1964, the Shirelles were a “girl group” that specialized in songs of adolescent infatuation with young males—boys as bundles of joy whose kiss on the lips provides a thrill to the fingertips. The idea of a male singing the song was outrageously strange, but fit in the Beatle’s package of mixed-up sexual messages. The band was invariably described in the press as “feminine” or “girlish”; Elvis Presley, after seeing the Beatles on television, said he thought they “looked like a bunch of faggots.” From their shocking hairdo of bangs to their falsetto singing, with two sets of lips inches apart at a shared microphone, the Beatles embodied a gleeful androgyny that established a new set of possibilities for pop stars and their public.
The fact that the Beatles were transgressors is hard to conceive now is a testament to its legacy, with decades of pop, rock, and hip-hop stars, from Mick Jagger and David Bowie to Lady Gaga and Jessie J going further and further to subvert and redefine the standards of pop sexuality. Song by song, concert by concert, video by video, they have defied all the codes of sexual normalcy and helped normalize the values of sexual defiance.
As it always has, popular music still works today as a for-profit laboratory of social and aesthetic experimentation, a place where young people can take up and try out notions that challenge the ideas dear to their parents. Just as the fox trot helped break down barriers of Victorian propriety, putting strangers in each other’s arms, and just as early rock ’n’ roll advanced an exultant image of integration during the rise of the civil-rights movement, contemporary pop has been playing a part in the much-talked-about transformation of social and sexual habits of young—and ever-younger—people.