The Beatles are history.
Some of the band members are alive and you can still buy their music, but the Beatles are history in the sense of being more dated than datable.
I am too young for Beatle mania, but too old to have missed hearing how great they (allegedly) were. Dimly I recall Christians being concerned about them (sex! drugs! hair!) or defending them (relate to the kids! redeem culture! Jesus had long hair!). Nobody my age could miss secular media taking them very, very seriously. My government school assigned their songs for choir (“Hey Jude”) and referenced them often.
Now college students have either never heard of the Beatles (more common than some grandparents imagine), know them through children’s music (Yellow submarines!), or are huge throwback fans. I would compare their following in college to that of Bing Crosby.. a certain sort of music snob loves them, because nobody else much listens to them. People worried about a date picking up their iPod and doing social analysis will always include a few of their later songs.
I decided to spend time listening to all the Beatles I could stand for a few weeks and seeing what could be made of them.
Early Beatles music is fun. The group has a set of decent voices innocent of any auto-tuning and occasionally innocent of the key. There is harmony, more rare now than common, and simple instrumentation.
There are seeds of experimentation, but the music is of its period, from its period, and a great way to know the period. I cannot imagine it enduring as “timeless.”
Sadly, the same thing seems true of the vaunted “later” music.
Some seems as if it was designed to shock with coy sex and drug references, but now feels innocent in comparison to today’s direct culture. It is innocent of references to today’s vices of the moment (so man/woman) to the point of seeming more like Crosby than current.
Props for being the first to do things must be given, but those end up being like the props fans (such as I am) give Star Trek: the Original Series. When you have to explain to the kids how groundbreaking it all was, then it wasn’t really all that groundbreaking.
Some of it is simply not possible to be charitable about . . . the Soviet stuff ignores millions of dead people . . . or takes itself way too seriously (we. matter.).
Still, I liked listening, will listen again, and think the best Beatles music is interesting pop. “Hey Jude!” was a lousy choral piece, but worked for me when they sang it.
All this reminded me of three interrelated ideas.
First, times change and “cool” changes most of all. My teacher was right when he wrote: “that which is up to date is forever dated.” We can enjoy this years “Twilight” film, but should not take it too seriously.
It portends something, but that something will change. Bad will go on being bad and good will endure. We did not all take drugs, do not all light up, and drug advocacy seems simply sad now. It is easy to see what it did to yesterday’s stars. In the same way today’s sexual “revolution” will seem like pitiable depravity tomorrow.
We certainly should never be afraid of pop culture. It does its harm, but the evil dissipates and grows stale. In the end, the good in it endures. The peppy cry that “I want to hold your hand” seems positively Christian compared to some of what is on You-Tube.
People took the Beatles too seriously. We shouldn’t take the pop stars of our age too seriously. Lady Gaga . . . will come and go. (If you are my age, you know the pop culture reference at the end of that line, but if under forty, you are in not in the right culture club).
Second, pop culture matters, but not for long. We must study what millions consume, but realize that soon millions will no longer consume it. Too much time on it is a waste of time.
Third, enduring things are worth more attention than pop culture. If you spent a good bit of time listening to Bach in 1967, you need not be ashamed today, next year, or in one hundred years. Bach mattered in 1967, but he also matters today. This is not just because he is “better” than the Beatles, though of course he is.
Bach’s genius was so great that he influences people in every generation since he lived. Though his music (like all “classical music”) does not sell much, it speaks to some people in every generation.
This is partly because of his genius, but also because in hooking into Christianity, he found immortal themes. Bing Crosby did this (by chance?) when he paired up with Christmas.
The Beatles aren’t what they once were, but then they never were. As far as period icons go, I would rather lose access to their songs than my “Prisoner” episodes, but in a certain mood am glad I have learned to enjoy them.
Still my life, I hope, mostly will hook into the Christian story: the story of Jesus.
This Christmas I will hear the crooners, but living Beatles-free is easy. Jesus turned out to be bigger after all.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.
Publication date: October 24, 2011