THE BLOG

It's the Beatles' World (We Just Live in It)

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John W. Whitehead Attorney, President of The Rutherford Institute, and author of 'Battlefield America'

"We were four relatively sane people in the middle of madness."--George Harrison

The Beatles -- with two members of the group deceased -- were, by the end of 2009, projected to make over $1.6 billion from the release of their 13 remastered albums, as well as the video game, Beatles Rock Band. As one commentator notes, "In one master stroke, the Beatles address falling sales of CDs as well as grab a new generation of Beatlemaniacs." Writing for Guitar Legend magazine, Alan di Perna explained, "The products are big sellers with people who were born long after the group's breakup or, for that matter, Lennon's death."

It's as if the Beatles never left us. But that's the point -- they haven't. In fact, they seem to be everywhere.

The Beatles were much more than a rock group that changed pop music. John, Paul, George and Ringo unknowingly set in motion forces that made an entire era what it was and, by extension, what it is today. The Beatles "presided over an epochal shift comparable in scale to that bridging Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages," writes professor Henry Sullivan, "or the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance." Indeed, they played a central role in catalyzing a transition from the Modern to the post-Modern Age.

Beatlemania hit the United States with full force in 1964. When the nation tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show, some 70 million Americans got their first glimpse of the Beatles--the streets emptied and crime stopped.

It was February 9, and four English lads were singing to an assassination-wearied country. That night, along with the Beatles, the guests on the popular Sullivan show included Georgia Brown singing a Broadway tune, several comedians, an Olympic athlete and an acrobatic act. Amid this series of staid, well-worn, non-controversial vaudeville acts came the Beatles. With their mop-top haircuts and original music, they seemed like visitors from another planet. And they were fun. Obviously, a cultural revolution was at hand.

The Beatles altered western history in several important ways. First, perhaps unintentionally, the Beatles helped feminize the culture. Elvis Presley may have been revolutionary, but there was no gender revolution until the Beatles came along. With the prominence they accorded women in their songs and lives and the way they spoke to millions of young teenage girls about new possibilities, the Beatles tapped into something much larger than themselves. It eventually led to the empowerment of young women.

The implications of the Beatles' relatively androgynous appearance had a far more profound effect on sexual and women's liberation than anyone could have guessed at the time. "The Beatles set the tone for feminism," observed professor Elaine Tyler May. Moreover, as Steven Stark points out in his book, Meet The Beatles (2005), the Beatles also "challenged the definition that existed during their time of what it meant to be a man." This ultimately allowed them to help change the way men feel and look. The Beatles, as Dr. Joyce Brothers recognized at the time, "display a few mannerisms which almost seem a shade on the feminine side, such as tossing of their long manes of hair. Very young 'women' are still a little frightened of the idea of sex. Therefore they feel safer worshipping idols who don't seem too masculine, or too much the 'he-man'." To this effeminacy should be added the early Beatles' preference for high falsetto leaps in their vocals.

Second, the Beatles converged with their era -- the sixties generation -- in an almost unprecedented way. At no other time in history, or since, has a generation been so connected. The vehicle was rock music. And the Beatles helped create an aural culture.

American demographics also played a major role in what was happening with the emerging generation. The baby boom began in 1946 and lasted until 1964, producing 78 million children. In the first years of American Beatlemania, these boomers ranged in age from 18 years to a couple of days old. This represented a tremendous concentration of the population--over a third of the nation's total -- in the teen and sub-teen bracket. This was a vast army of potential Beatle fans hooked on music.

This fascination with music brought the sixties generation into a collective whole. "Perhaps the most important aspect of the Beatles' attraction during that influential era was their collective synergy," writes Stark. In other words, the Beatles popularized the sanctity of "the group." With the Beatles, the whole, thus, was always greater than the sum of the parts. This gave them a dazzling appeal to millions who worshipped them, at a time when the bedrock group of American society -- the family -- was beginning to unravel.

Third, the religious allure of the Beatles was a vital factor in allowing the group to endure. John Lennon was onto something in 1966 when he compared the group's popularity with that of Jesus Christ. Multitudes flocked to them and even brought sick children to see if the Beatles could somehow heal them. Thus, those who have seen elements of religious ecstasy in Beatlemania are not wrong.

After all, religion has its roots in spiritual bonding, and the Beatles had a powerful appeal to a generation in calling forth a spiritual bonding. It was so intoxicating that it created mass hysteria. In this way, the Beatles -- especially with their elevation to a kind of mythological sainthood -- have become modern counterparts to the religious figures of the past.

The Beatles, as new spiritual leaders, came to embody the values of the counterculture in its challenge to "the Establishment." They celebrated an alternative worldview. It was a vision of a new possibility. And they sang and lived this vision for others.

Finally, the Beatles had a worldwide power over millions of people that was singular among artists in history. In 1967, with the release of their Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album, as one critic noted, it was the closest Europe had been to unification since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Most thought North America could have been included as well. And the Beatles became the embodiment of the Summer of Love with their live global BBC television broadcast of "All You Need Is Love" in June 1967. Approximately 400 million people across five continents tuned in.

This type of power was something new. Before, only popes, kings and perhaps a few intellectuals could hope to wield such influence in their lifetimes: "Only Hitler ever duplicated their power over crowds," said Sid Bernstein, the promoter who set up some of their first concerts in America.

The Beatles had the good fortune to emerge at a unique time when musicians could become forces for social change. It was a time when music was the most vital force in young people's lives -- something that will never happen again and something that was never intended by the Beatles themselves.

YOU MAY LIKE