The following chapter is dedicated firstly to my dad, who taught me how and why music should be appreciated and the immense value a few words and a melody can hold. It is also dedicated to those who seek to pave their own paths.
Keywords: Culture, Narrative, Value, Identity, Music
As a child, I loved stories. I loved reading them, I loved hearing them, and I loved telling them. Sometimes, these stories were fictional, and sometimes they were realistic accounts of events during the day. Either way, looking back, stories have always been a vital aspect of communication in my life. I’m not the only one, though, who realizes the importance and power of storytelling. Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm encapsulates this phenomenon, naming narration as the foundation of human communication (Fisher). Narratives can be created through numerous mediums, including through music. The Beatles are a prime example of the power of narrative through music. Growing up, my dad loved to play the Beatles, especially the album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Each song offered a fresh, fascinating sound with engaging, poetic lyrics that grew more complex with each listen. But this album is more than just a top hit: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band helped promote a cultural revolution during the time of its release; furthermore, it revolutionized music, employing a unique narrative style to introduce its audience to pertinent ideologies and social movements. The album does this by first establishing a narrative style through visuals and language; given this setup, the listener is able to engage with the album and the ideas it discusses in a critical and analytical way that was relevant to cultural change of the time period.
The album’s cover art and song lyrics help to establish key narrative elements such as characters, audience, and environment. Fisher’s paradigm “focuses on how the intratextual reality of an account is shaped by its employment of characters and events” (Warnick 172). The cover of the album displays a large array of diverse individuals, including people who appear to come from different backgrounds, countries, or even time periods. The Beatles are front and center among this crowd, dressed in brightly colored outfits that almost come off as costume-ish. The first song, titled after the album, includes the line: “so may I introduce to you, the act you’ve known for all these years, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (sgt. Pepper [time]). These elements work together to “reconstitute the artist, the audience, and their LP-mediated encounter” (Hatch 81). The Beatles are no longer themselves, but instead take on the role of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Sgt. Pepper went a step further by bringing diverse characters, perspectives, and voices into a loosely unified framework across an entire album…[creating] impetus for the audience to fill in its many blanks” (Hatch 87). The audience is launched into a new environment with distinct characters, and in creating this new space, the album moves the “audience from relatively passive listening to intensely active meaning making” (Hatch 81). The audience is engaged with the music in a specific way, actively searching for and making conclusions about what they mean; listeners have the opportunity to interpret and shape the story to their personal taste and experiences.
Furthermore, Sgt. Pepper touches on several relevant social topics and movements of the era, inspiring unity to go forward with the cultural revolution of the era. As part of its narrative style, Sgt. Pepper creates common themes in various lyrics across songs, such as loneliness or isolation, or a “tension between living in a serious reality and escaping into an alternative reality” (Hatch 88). As a result, the album “primes its audience to view themselves and society with sympathetic irony, identifying with a movement to ‘make love not war’” (Hatch 88). As the narrative album goes on, it speaks to more themes of the era. It especially connects to the outcasts of society, or those who wished to go against societal norms and create something new for their generation and the future. Because the storytelling style of Sgt. Pepper is charismatic and approachable, it helped the album to take “the loneliness out of rebellion and [link] the activist and hedonist wings of the emerging counterculture as few things could” (Hatch 91). In a time where society was undergoing immense change and people were starting to feel disconnected from the societal norms in place, creations like this album were incredibly important to promote some sense of community or connection.
In addition to encouraging unity under these cultural ideals, Sgt. Pepper’s narrative style, as established by its lyrics and cover art, encourages analysis of these various ideals by the listener. It triggers the listener to think about important cultural topics and ideas such as optimism, culture, exploration, and isolation. “Sgt. Pepper went a step further by bringing diverse characters, perspectives, and voices into a loosely unified framework across an entire album…[creating] impetus for the audience to fill in its many blanks,” including their thoughts and opinions towards these cultural ideas (Hatch 87). The narrative paradigm “enables a clearer and more open examination of how and why values matter to people,” which applies directly to Sgt. Pepper, as it calls its audience to engage with the narrative in order to reflect and form these opinions (Turpin 78).
Some of the aspects of Sgt. Pepper that make it so valuable, such as its diverse character and subject range and its coverage of important cultural ideas of the era, are looked down upon by critics. Most music critics highly regarded the album as a work of musical genius, but Richard Goldstein, a journalist, characterized it as “an undistinguished collection of work…with no apparent thematic development” (Hatch 74). Instead of viewing Sgt. Pepper’s loose, diverse composition as a strength, he viewed it as a major weakness. Furthermore, since the album was so relevant specifically to the cultural movements of the time, critics such as Robert Christgau, a music journalist, “faulted it for being bound to a moment” and not being timeless (Hatch 91). The album strongly spoke to individuals who were interested in going against societal norms and who felt disconnected to society as it was during the time. The album supported a spirit of revolution and change, but such change seemed to some, like Christgau, as though it was only relatable to that specific era. However, even though the events of the current era are not identical to those of the time in which the album was released, ideas of change and rebellion continue to be relevant. As such, the album is a timeless inspiration for individuality and exploration.
Storytelling is incredibly powerful. It allows humans to find connection and understanding through created experiences and characters, which validate real experiences. Storytelling is present everywhere, and it can have very real and very important implications. It can exist in music, such as in Sgt. Pepper. That musical story, though, goes beyond just entertainment. In fact, it welcomed its audience to unify under important social movements of the counterculture era, such as individuality and exploration, and think deeply about cultural change. It called them to listen critically and make observations about culture and the world. I wondered at first how one, seemingly obscure, album could hold so much impact. After applying Fisher’s narrative paradigm to this work, I can understand not only how the album was successful, but also how relevant Fisher’s theory and narrative in general is to our daily lives and understanding of the world around us.
Clair, Robin P., et al. “Narrative Theory and Criticism: An Overview Toward Clusters and Empathy.” Review of Communication, vol. 14, no. 1, Taylor & Francis Ltd, Jan. 2014, pp. 1–18.
Fisher, Walter. “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument.” 1984.
Hanan, Josh. “The Continued Importance of Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm: An Analysis of Fisher’s Extant Work.” Conference Papers – National Communication Association, National Communication Association, Jan. 2008, p. 1.
Hatch, John B. “Channeling the Spirit(s) of the Age: Irony, Dialogism, and ‘Genius’ in Sgt. Pepper.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 107, no. 1, Feb. 2021, pp. 73–97.
Turpin, Paul. “Reconsidering the Narrative Paradigm: The Implications of Ethos.” Conference Proceedings – National Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference on Argumentation), National Communication Association, Jan. 1997, pp. 75–79.
Warnick, Barbara. “The Narrative Paradigm: Another Story.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 73, no. 2, Taylor & Francis Ltd, May 1987, p. 172.