The Beatles: How they started a revolution
It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before.–Bob Dylan
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Variety– considered the premiere entertainment magazine– recently picked the top 100 entertainment icons of the century. These are the men and women who have had the greatest impact on the world of entertainment in the last 100 years.
The list includes film actors, directors, screenwriters, musicians, television performers, animals, comedians, even cartoon characters. Named the top entertainers were the Beatles– over such icons as Elvis, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Dylan, Alfred Hitchcock, and Rogers and Hammerstein, among others.
According to the article, the Beatles sit at the top because they transformed pop music. However, their impact was much greater than that. In fact, John, Paul, George, and Ringo unknowingly set in motion forces that made an entire era what it was and, by extension, shaped us 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 postmodern 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– and 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 that series of well-worn, non-controversial vaudeville acts came the Beatles. With their mop-top haircuts and original music, they seemed like visitors from another planet. Obviously, a cultural revolution was at hand.
There are several important ways the Beatles altered western history. First, perhaps unintentionally, the Beatles helped feminize the culture. 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," according to professor Elaine Tyler May.
Moreover, as Steven Stark points out in his insightful book on the group, Meet The Beatles, 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. The baby boom began in 1946 and lasted until 1964, producing 78 million children. In the first years of American Beatlemania, these boomers were from 18 down to a couple of days old– a tremendous concentration of the population– over a third of the nation's total– in the teen and sub-teen bracket, a vast army of potential Beatle fans.
This fascination with music brought the '60s generation into a collective whole. "Perhaps the most important aspect of the Beatles' attraction during that influential era," writes Start, "was their collective synergy." In other words, the Beatles popularized the sanctity of "the group." That the whole was always greater than the sum of the parts gave them a dazzling appeal to millions who worshipped them.
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. Those who have seen elements of religious ecstasy in Beatlemania are not wrong.
Religion, it must not be forgotten, has its roots in spiritual bonding. And the Beatles had a powerful appeal to a generation in calling forth just that. It was so intoxicating that it created mass hysteria. In this way, the Beatles– especially with their elevation to a kind of sainthood– have become modern counterparts to the religious figures of the past.
As such, 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, 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 in history among artists. In 1967, the release of their Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album, as one critic noted, marked the closest Europe had been to unification since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Most thought North America could have been included as well.
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," says 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. As George Harrison said: "We were four relatively sane people in the middle of madness."
Constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning documentary series Grasping for the Wind.