The John or Paul Project

My sincere thanks to all of you who responded to my Funky Easy 1-Question (Okay, 2) Sociologica


December 19, 2007

My sincere thanks to all of you who responded to my Funky Easy 1-Question (Okay, 2) Sociological Survey. You people are supportive and terrific, and when I become Lord Mayor of Pepperland, you’ll all find sinecure in my administration.

The idea came from a phone conversation with Crazy Larry, an actor friend currently between gigs. He has a lot of time on his hands, so he could afford to be wildly enthusiastic when I joked that someone should go around asking people, out of the blue and without context, “John or Paul?” The pollster would record answers and ask for elaboration when needed, edit everything down into concise little narratives, and publish them somewhere with short bios and pictures of those polled.

I say a lot of things, so when Larry insisted I divert all my time and energy to what he was now calling “The John or Paul Project,” I hung up on him for violating the “That’s a brilliant idea which I don’t have to take part in but you should go do right now” rule. But I couldn’t leave the idea alone, and you’ve helped me make it something more than mere thought experiment.

The question operates under certain premises, to include:

1. “John or Paul?” depends on cultural knowledge, but not as much as you’d think.

2. All answers are meaningful.

3. Some book publisher should indeed send me and a companion around the world to ask this question of people from all walks of life. We’ll have hilarious adventures and close scrapes, and I’ll adopt aLiverpudlian brindle dogas the Project mascot, and in the end we’ll return home a little older and a lot wiser, having made the world a better place for all humanity.

To elaborate on the first two points:

1. “John or Paul?” depends on cultural knowledge, but not as much as you’d think:

The question presupposes no expertise on anything. As many of you pointed out, it doesn’t even refer specifically to The Beatles. Mister Bee and Basemento both went straight to the apostles (and in the process, answered Lennon). Indeed, as Basemento said, “Maybe it’s not about likes or dislikes even at all… What species of monster made up such a thing?”

Obviously, the species of monster untrained in the methodologies of the social sciences. I put a picture of a guitar next to the posting, and a quote about The Beatles above it. My previous post was titled, unconnectedly, “Me & Paul McCartney.” (None of those will be present to influence answers on the big trip.)

But there is something deeper at work than those visual cues. The first two notes rung for many of us by the names John and Paul, in that order, can only be finished with the rest of the chord, George and Ringo (in that order). Granted, as Dan said in his comment, my readers are similar enough—highly intelligent, deeply in tune with the world, appreciative of fine wit—that you answered the question similarly. Even spoofing the question by deferring to other pop culture names of the same period (Herman and his Hermits, Gilligan’s lady friends) indicates understanding.

How many around the globe would understand the question? Crazy Larry suspects it’s an American in-joke and doubts whether even in the UK they’d be hip to that scene. I think it would be understood fairly widely, especially in the Anglophone world. If people recognized the two words as first names, you would get a response, the majority of which would fall under apostles or rockers, the two dominant categories of this cultural referent. (Then again, as a young American living in the Republic of Panama, I was shocked that none of the Panamanian girls we dated knew the term “okay?”, despite an 80-year American presence.) (Come to think of it, maybe they did understand, but it just wasn't okay.)

2) All answers are meaningful:

Popularity votes are meaningless (equivalent to the dark- or milk-chocolate comparisons Carolyn mentioned, or Jodee’s bourbon v. scotch), and it doesn’t matter to me that you like one musician the best, and I like the other, since you’re the one who has to live with being so very very wrong. Instead, the question is an opportunity to construct narratives, which do interest me.

I notice that many of the traditional modes of academic inquiry are represented in this tiny response sample, from economics (“John, for the…[b]ajillions of t-shirts, postcards in front of the Statue of Liberty….What does Paul have?”), to ethics (“John spoke out to the world against war, took a stand on things that matter”) to human sexuality (“[John’s] nose! Yowza”).

(Really? The nose? Yeah, actually, I can totally see that. And you know what they say about a man’s nose. What is it they say again?)

Surely the way an answer is framed has more to do in this case with its framer than with the historical figures in question. For instance, I’m no shrink, but Rory sounds to me as if he’s feeling defensive about his own relationship again: “I was tired of the Yoko Ono bashing about three seconds after it began way back when. An artist in her own right and a fitting companion in the arc of John Lennon’s career (not to mention his personal life).”

Rory, if your mom and dad keep hassling you about marrying a woman who rides on the rodeo circuit, just let it go. Live your life, man.

That’s why mere familiarity with Lennon/McCartney produces a great response (“I never remember which is which….I was about seventeen when I was first introduced to the Beatles, and that was not so long ago. I like the Beatles a lot…I plead ignorance. And maybe youth.”). So do our mistakes (“[T]here are just some songs where I’ve thought it was Paul but it was John, and vice versa”), and abstract ideas, such as loss (“it was a marriage made in heaven”). “John or Paul?” can be a trope for the tragic if you like.

To opt out of answering (“Why should we have to choose between Jones’ names?”) is merely to wrest control by telling a different story of one’s own choosing. And saints and popes and sons and dogs named John or Paul are fine, if that’s what you want to talk about. Even suspicion about the question itself becomes a narrative, not without its reasons. That conjunction in “John or Paul?” recognizes difference, establishes dramatic tension, and starts the story-making process.

And for those, like dear Leah, who demand to know what I make of my own question: Isn’t it obvious?


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