The Curse of Beatlemania
December 27, 2001

by Joe Sobran

     A few weeks ago I wrote some mild criticisms of the 
Beatles and the sky fell. Angry readers called me 
"ignorant," "vicious," and various other things 
displaying blindness to my finer qualities. I hadn't 
realized there was a militant Beatle Taliban, and I was 
an infidel. I was lucky to escape a fatwa.

     Some of the Beatles' fans did make civil and 
reasonable arguments; they defended George Harrison as a 
guitarist and reminded me that such musical luminaries as 
Leonard Bernstein and Frank Sinatra had praised them.

     But Bernstein was surely over the top when he called 
Lennon and McCartney the greatest composers of the 
twentieth century. What about -- sticking to pop music -- 
Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Richard 
Rodgers, and Frank Loesser? And when Sinatra called 
Harrison's "Something" one of the greatest songs of its 
era, I think it did more credit to his generosity than to 
his judgment. (Sinatra went to unfortunate lengths to 
prove he wasn't an old fogey, as witness his excruciating 
recording of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.")

     It's not that I hate the Beatles; I've always liked 
them well enough. I used to play their tapes on long 
drives with my kids, and we all enjoyed them.

     What I did hate from the beginning was Beatlemania. 
It made me uneasy for reasons I didn't quite understand 
at the time. The main reason was that the enthusiasm was 
so synthetic. My generation didn't discover the Beatles 
in the normal way; the Beatles were imposed on us by 
publicists and marketers.

     Once upon a time, fame was slowly acquired. A man's 
reputation spread gradually, and his good name was so 
hard-won that he might fight a duel over an insult or a 
libel. Abraham Lincoln nearly had to cross swords 
(literally) with a man he had ridiculed in a newspaper.

     Even in the world of pop music, a singer used to 
have to perform for years, making contact with small 
audiences from town to town, before he "hit the big 
time." He had to earn appreciation. It was hard work, but 
local fame necessarily preceded national fame.

     With the Beatles something new was happening. 
National fame (at least on this side of the Atlantic) was 
created instantly. It wasn't due to their music; it was 
due to their promoters. Millions of kids allowed 
themselves to be manipulated into an enthusiasm few of 
them would have arrived at on their own. Pop music was no 
longer really "pop" -- the result of interaction between 
music and listener.

     As soon as they got off the plane, the Beatles were 
mobbed. This was not a phenomenon of musical taste. Their 
screaming fans wouldn't even allow them to be heard, 
weren't interested in listening.

     It was weird. I felt a pang of sympathy for the 
boys, because they obviously wanted to perform; they 
wanted to be musicians, and their own fans were making it 
hard. Could they be enjoying that kind of attention, 
which ruled out any real connection with the audience?

     To me it all smacked of the "two-minute hate" in 
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR -- far more benign, but equally 
mindless. It wasn't the Beatles' fault. Their fans 
neither knew nor cared who was engineering the mass 
emotions that swamped the music. Even as a kid, I didn't 
want to be part of that, the submergence of the self in 
the mass.

     Since then, what we call "pop" culture has become 
uncomfortably close to totalitarian politics. Even our 
aesthetic tastes are increasingly formed by forces of 
which we know little. It can't be good for the soul to be 
subject to so much calculating hype and promotion.

     Democracy too has come to mean mass manipulation, 
with lots of focus groups, demographic studies, and 
advertising techniques replacing rational persuasion. The 
individual who prefers to make up his own mind knows he 
counts for nothing in today's "democratic process" (eerie 
phrase!). You have a choice of which mass to join, that's 
all. Either way, you'll make no difference to the 

     On the other hand, some people find it thrilling to 
be part of a stampeding herd, without asking what started 
the commotion. They should feel right at home in these 

     We live in a world in which the passive and 
malleable mass has become prior to the individual and the 
community. Beatlemania didn't originate this condition, 
but in its own way it was an intimation.


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