The Beatles: Rock Band addiction, like all good addictions, has begun with anti-social behavior and healthy dose of cultural critique. Instead of going out with friends this past Saturday night, my husband Scott and I stayed home to crack open our latest purchase. I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was old enough to crawl toward the play button on a CD player (so, like, the age of 14), and Scott has been boning up on the oeuvre in preparation for the game. Five hours later and nearly a decade of pivotal rock albums later, a few observations emerged:
1) Ooh, it’s pretty! From the intro to the menus to the newly buffed and sparkling on-screen notes, Beatles: Rock Band is lovely. (This would be the appropriate place for song lyric references slipped in, wouldn’t it, like how the whole things shines like Lucy in the sky with diamonds, but my favorite tunes are the dark and strange ones, and nothing in this review quite screams “I am the walrus”).
2) Hey, Beatles songs! Yes, that’s obvious, but it really is a pleasant surprise every time I advance through the story mode to uncover more songs I actually know and like. Take that, 80% of all songs on all previous music games.
3) I am staring a bunch of men. Attractive men. For hours. And the people staring with me, they’re all women. Gender commentary hungry as I am, it’s of course this last observation I want to talk abut.
Music games have never been the most explicit of genres, but they’ve still given us — and by “us” I mean the same ol’ implicitly male player — our fair share of beautiful women to gaze upon. Rock Band 2 for the Xbox 360, for example, with its character creation options, allows you to make scantily dressed rock starlets along with rock stars. Thanks to a particularly creative friend, our copy even has a topless, rockin’ Ada Lovelace. True, for the most part, the eyes of a participant stay on the notes/words, not the on-screen bodies, but they’re there, and emphasizing their watched-ness are the crowds of fans cheering them on.
Beatles: Rock Band, by contrast, has no female avatars to strip down and hand a guitar. There’s Paul, John, George, and Ringo: dressed, slightly cartoonish, but handsome nonetheless. The audience, at least in the early gigs before concert venues melt into studio recording sessions, has transformed from a gyrating mass of coed music lovers to a swarm of screaming, swooning young girls — each with identical faces and dark, glossy eyes. We watch The Fab Four sing to us about love, and along with us peers a female gaze full of longing several thousand strong.
Where does this leave the presumed player? Does his male gaze become a female one as his viewing of these four attractive men gets elided with that of the all-girl audience? At the same time the game links him to the Beatles themselves as he — or she — plays the same notes as Paul or John. On the one hand we’re back at the old transvestitism debate. On the other, we have a new way of regarding Beatles: Rock Band, with its feminine aesthetic and cross-gender appeal: as a distinctly female game that challenges the male gaze at the same time it presents us with a stereotypical division between the musical talent of men and the historical fandom of women who can do little more than scream along.