By Mike McMahan, LPC
It’s the eternal question of rock ‘n’ roll fandom. “Beatles or Stones?” A different version of this question was posed by Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction when she asked Vincent Vega if he was “an Elvis man or Beatles man,” even though Vincent’s answer literally could not have been more obvious.
Let me just make this disclosure up front: I am undoubtedly a Beatles man. While I recognize the Rolling Stones’ huge, huge influence on rock ‘n’ roll, I just don’t particularly enjoy them. But part of being a therapist is working with people who you may not like or may even have a strong negative reaction to. In grad school, one of my live supervision instructors gave us an exercise to find at least one strength in each client that we observed or interacted with. At times it could not have been easier. Other times, it was much more challenging. Sometimes people have characteristics or present themselves in ways that make them difficult to like or difficult to find positives in. It was a great challenge and I never forgot it. I am of the belief that this exercise can apply to life as well. We all know people who make things hard on everyone around them. However, if we are to endorse the idea that everyone has value and something to contribute (a principle I believe in), it does mean everyone.
With that…. On to the topic at hand. What, exactly, is a strength-based assessment? Frequently when a person is assessed for mental health services, the key questions in the assessment will focus on the problem. This occurs for two reasons. First is that they are there because there is a problem or situation in their life that needs addressing. How can you deal with a problem if you can’t express it or identify what it is, at least by the symptoms or incidents that are occurring? And, second, if the insurance company is going to pay for treatment, they want to know what the problem is.
What’s the problem here, you may be asking? “The doctor asks me what’s wrong, why shouldn’t my therapist?” My take (and that of many forward-thinking practitioners in the field) is that concentrating on the problems may re-enforce them in the client’s mind. The whole point of coming to therapy is to feel better about things, but also to learn to cope with life’s challenges in a way that is positive and healthy. I’d argue that people don’t benefit by discussing the symptoms and dwelling on the difficulties that may have led to these challenges. Now, I’m not suggesting that therapists act like ostriches and stick their heads in the ground. Of course there are things going on that clients want to change—that’s why they’re in therapy. I have yet to meet a client who says “my life is too perfect.” I’m sure they’re out there, though. I never fail to be amazed that the things that bring people to therapy!
As positive psychology grows in popularity and acceptance, we clinicians have had the opportunity to expand our assessment tools to include strengths that may be useful in helping the client cope with the presenting problem. Examples include: a hobby or creative endeavor that provides the person with fulfillment and contributes to self-esteem; a strong support system; a hopeful or optimistic outlook; and so forth.
So with all these explanations in mind, let’s take a look at a strength-based assessment of the question at hand: Beatles or Stones?
For the purposes of this demonstration, let’s assume that the presenting problem (in essence, why is the client here?) with both bands is “how do we continue to maintain this success?” Given the worldwide success both groups still enjoy, this isn’t actually a problem, of course; but this isn’t actually an assessment, either. So the question to ask will be how to continue as successful entertainers with long-term careers, piles of money and hordes of adoring fans. A “problem-driven assessment” (for lack of a better term) might focus on things like “the Beatles have been broken up for years” or “the Stones are a dinosaur nostalgia act.” While true about the Beatles and arguably true about the Stones, what’s helpful about these observations?
One approach to psychotherapy that can yield benefits is by identifying past strengths and figuring out how they may be overlooked when confronting current challenges. What were the strengths that helped them reach their incredible levels of success? Interestingly, when you get right down to it, these bands have some similar strengths, as well as the differences that make the question “Beatles or Stones?” such a telling query.
1. Strong songwriting: John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and, to a lesser extent, George Harrison) produced one of the strongest catalogs in the history of recorded music. Some songs were clearly written by one or the other, but others relied on collaboration. A perfect example of this approach is the hybrid songwriting of one of my favorite Beatles songs, “A Day In the Life.”
2. A desire to progress: Beginning with Revolver and Rubber Soul, the Beatles took artistic chances that could have alienated their core fan base who enjoyed the pleasant and inoffensive pop tunes that were their early hallmark. By openly embracing the spirit of the decade (including drug use and the growing peace movement) as well as bringing in a Dylan influence of deeper lyrics, the Beatles charted unknown territory. Beyond this, they utilized (for the times) cutting edge studio technology to create Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart's Club Band, an album so innovative there are entire books discussing the studio wizardry that led to the album’s birth. I could also make a strong case that this album is the blueprint for the entire prog rock genre. This philosophy that bands must evolve became the gold standard for many critically acclaimed bands in the ensuing decades including Pink Floyd, The Clash, Wilco, Radiohead, Opeth, Baroness and Guns ‘n’ Roses, just to name a few. Bob Dylan is the master of this, and he and the Beatles seemingly took cues from each other during the mid-to-late 60s.
3. A distinct visual look: the Beatles’ changing looks were a key part of what made them icons. From the suits in the early days to the psychedelic weirdness in the middle period to the Earth rocker look of the late era, any photo of the Beatles can immediately be dated by their attire.
4. A recognition of the value of merchandising (a.k.a. “merch”): the Beatles secured their place in pop culture history by recognizing the value of putting your name and image on everything from lunchboxes to keychains to buttons to t-shirts. This ubiquitous presence ensured that they would stay around, via nostalgia, for decades to come. As the music industry has struggled to find ways to make money, merch remains a cash cow for successful bands.
5. Knowing when to walk away: there is something to be said for going out on top. This approach dots the pop culture landscape and can secure a strong legacy and enduring adoration from the public. Most would agree that while The Band could have kept cranking out albums, they benefited from staging The Last Waltz, arguably the best farewell concert in history. The Beatles were also smart enough not to reunite (something reportedly considered in the 70s), although I suspect Lennon’s unfortunate passing likely had an impact here as time went by. Still, they could have made millions by having Julian or Sean Lennon fill in for a tour that could have sold out stadiums—but they didn’t. This “go out on top” philosophy applies to other mediums too. On TV, for example, both Lost and Seinfeld benefited from producing strong programs that didn’t get watered down by weak desperate later seasons. I suspect the Game of Thrones TV show is looking at this as well--something author George R.R. Martin would have been wise to consider. And, as far as books, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series could have continued indefinitely, but she has chosen (for reasons known only to her) to call it a day, at least for the time being.
1. Strong songwriting: the Stones have a catalog that is so loaded with chestnuts it is probably rivaled only by the Beatles in terms of sheer volume. Even when they present greatest hits-type shows they can’t squeeze them all in. The Stones also have a defiant quality to their music that somehow fits sing along type moments in huge crowd settings, such as sports events. Perhaps it’s a licensing thing, but “Start Me Up” plays better to an NFL crowd than “I Am the Walrus.”
2. Swagger: when they began their career, the Stones played up their apparent “danger,” in contrast to the Beatles, who may have defined the archetype of the boy band. Both were a calculated marketing ploy and the Stones represented, in my opinion, one of the earliest examples of counter-programming. I would argue that as the Stones have aged that this swagger became something of a liability, though many (or even most) would probably disagree. Something about a 70-something Mick Jagger strutting his stuff is a bit goofy to me, but anyone who has seen the Stones recently says they still deliver. I saw them on the Steel Wheels tour in ’89 and they seemed old then. And that was around the midpoint of their career!
3. Longevity: while I made the argument above that the Beatles went out on top, there is something to be said for sticking around as well. Millions of people have seen the Stones live and experienced the magic that can only occur when a band is right there in front of you, bringing the rock. There isn’t a lot of great looking or sounding video of the Beatles performing live, and they had pretty much retired from performing live by the time that they created the albums that I believe cemented their artistic legacy (Sgt Pepper’s onward). On top of that, watching a recording isn’t nearly as compelling as the real thing. The Stones have benefited from years of touring and playing out their legacy live on stage.
4. A recognition of the value of merchandising: same as the Beatles, discussed above. Mick Jagger’s lips are the most famous lips around.
5. A “stay the course” attitude: I believe this is the key difference between the Beatles and the Stones, their early presentation aside. You pretty much know what you’re getting with The Stones. They settled on a blues-based sound based around Keith Richards’s bluesy, alternate-tuning riffs and Mick Jagger’s kiss-off attitude. It worked, and they’ve largely stuck to it—unfortunate deviations into disco aside (I’m looking at you “Emotional Rescue”).This “don’t fix what ain’t broke” philosophy has later been utilized by AC/DC, KISS, Dinosaur Jr, Primus and Slayer, among others. The Grateful Dead, for example, experimented on some of their albums but kept the architecture of their live show the same for almost 20 of their 30 years.
So, what do we have here? If I was using therapy to address the question that I identified as the “presenting problem” (how to stay successful) I think I would concentrate on two things with each band. With both, I would agree that merch is where the real money lies. I’m amazed that there are people out there who don’t own all the Beatles or Stones they could possibly want, but the albums continue to sell—-partly due to remasters, I assume. Still this is a drop in the bucket compared to all the Beatles and Stones stuff that sells in department stores, mall shops and so forth. In addition, I’m sure a truckload of shirts and other souvenirs are sold every time the Stones play or McCartney performs a concert. On that note, the Stones can/should continue to “stay the course.” I’m pretty comfortable saying no one cares about any Stones songs written after the mid-80s or so--why change? On the other hand, one of the Beatles’ strengths is experimentation, so why not explore more of that? I haven’t seen the Cirque du Soleil Beatles’ production (Love), but I have heard the soundtrack, and it’s quite adventurous. The mixing technique that reveals doors between the tracks and joins them together was quite inventive and refreshing after all these years. And McCartney (let’s face it, the key surviving Beatle—sorry, Ringo) has experimented on his own, as well. Though they didn’t get a lot of press, his two collaborations with producer Youth (released as The Fireman) are well worth a listen.
But, that’s not really the premise of this article, which was the answer to the “Beatles or Stones” question. As far as the question of who’s better: sad to say not much that is quantifiable. It’s really just an opinion. I still like the Beatles more than the Stones; partly because I like their songs more, partly because I like the idea of progressing within a genre of music (rock) that is, at times, limiting. I have always suspected the question is really about whether you identify with the Beatles’ or Stones’ early image—the “nice lads” or the “bad boys.” This, to me, is why Vincent Vega’s answer was so obvious—of course he’s an Elvis man. But maybe it means something else, and I would love to hear folks sound off in the comments section.
As far as what knowledge of strength-based assessments means to you readers, it is an opportunity for you to use this methodology to reflect on past successes, why they happened and to take a look at your own strengths. It’s also something to consider when/if you seek out mental health services. You may want to ask yourself if your therapist is helping you identify your strengths or relying on endless recitations of the problems. Multiple approaches are effective and I am not meaning to malign anyone’s approach. But, in my opinion, a strength-based approach is likely to yield faster results and more positive outcomes in the long-term. And maybe have a little fun with that very interesting question: Beatles or Stones?
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture