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
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 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 didn’t
originate this condition, but in its own way it was an intimation.
Copyright © 2012 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on December 27, 2001.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
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during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
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