The Curse of Beatlemania
December 27, 2001
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 hadnt 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
Harrisons 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 wasnt an old fogey, as witness his
excruciating recording of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.)
Its not that I hate the Beatles;
Ive 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 didnt quite understand at the
time. The main reason was that the enthusiasm was so synthetic. My generation
didnt 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
mans 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 wasnt 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 wouldnt even allow them to be heard, werent
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 wasnt the Beatles fault. Their fans neither
knew nor cared who was engineering the mass emotions that swamped the music.
Even as a kid, I didnt want to be part of that, the submergence of the self in
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
cant be good for the soul to be subject to so much calculating hype and
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 todays democratic
process (eerie phrase!). You have a choice of which mass to join,
thats all. Either way, youll make no difference to the outcome.
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 times.
We live in a world in which the passive and
malleable mass has become prior to the individual and the community. Beatlemania
didnt originate this condition, but in its own way it was an intimation.