The Beatles Yesterday and Today

Justin Moyer recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece, “Let Them Be,” that calls for an end to the Beatles being held up as the standard against which any and all new pop music artists and trends are measured.  He argues that as good as the Beatles were, their time has passed.  The Beatles knew when to let it be and their aging fans should now let others play the next bars.  But baby boomers will not go gentle into that good night, to paraphrase the poet from whom another voice of their (my) generation took his name.  And many of them responded to Moyer’s column, in online comments and letters to the editor, to defend their Beatles.  Moyer was not there, they say.  He could not possibly understand.  After all, he was not born until 1977.

Far from countering Moyer’s point, this proves it.  In condescending to post-boomers for not being there, boomers admit the band they cling to is intimately tied to a specific time period and only those who grew up in that era can truly understand their music.

This is nostalgia, pure and simple, which Luc Sante defines as:

This word can be generally defined as a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future, in concert with a yearning for order, constancy, safety, and community–qualities that were last enjoyed in childhood and are retroactively imagined as gracing the whole of the time before one’s birth.  (from his book Low Life)

Most of us feel things far more deeply in adolescence, including the soundtrack of that emotional time in our lives.  So is it later music that fades or our ability to feel new music as intensely as we did the old?

Although Ben Greenman is writing about the hip hop of his youth, don’t his insights expose echo boomers’ sentimentality towards the Beatles?  (I have substituted the Beatles for Greenman’s hip-hop references):

I was around, as a record buyer, as a fan, when [the Beatles] started.  It was all so new and so much of it shone.  But over the years, I have found myself less and less able to find that shine in new music.  People say it’s the fault of that new music, that it’s responding to different market factors, that there’s not the same common language and community, and maybe that’s true to some degree.  But it’s also my fault, and yours.  At this point I have a storehouse of records to go back to, and they sustain me.  If I need another hit of  [insert your favorite Beatles album here], all I need to do is get the CD out of the cabinet (or, more accurately and more disconcertingly, just search for the songs in my iTunes library).  So what is the value, even the marginal value, of new music?  (from Questlove‘s fascinating new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues)

I was there when the Beatles were still together.  I remember the anticipation of each new album, waiting to see where they would take rock music next.  But isn’t it long past time to let others set new standards and take pop music in new directions?  Isn’t there a time and a season for every new music under heaven?

The argument is often posed that there will never be another Beatles.  Not only will there be, there already has been.  Michael Jackson.  And Motown 25th Anniversary: Yesterday, Today, Forever (taped March 25, 1983, broadcast May 16 on NBC) was his Ed Sullivan show:

The next day everyone tried to moonwalk.  And the mourning of his passing was no less overwhelming than that of John Lennon’s almost three decades earlier.  Yes, there were differences.  Jackson’s artistic peaks came as a solo artist, not as a member of a group, and he was the King of Pop, not Rock, which reveals that rock is no longer the major paradigm for pop music.  Or albums the primary way of consuming pop music.  Pop has done to rock what rock once did to the pop that preceded it.

If the Beatles still rule, it is over an empire on which the sun has largely set.  And the motto stitched onto the empire’s tattered flag seems to be “music ain’t what it used to be.”  But that attitude speaks more to many boomers’ refusal to give any new music a fair hearing than it does the quality of the new music they refuse to hear.  No one is trying to stop boomers from listening to the music they love most — it is all readily available in multiple formats — and nowhere does Moyer dismiss the Beatles or their music.  Indeed, he ends by declaring Revolver “one of the best records of the 20th century.”  (Personally, I prefer Rubber Soul).  But different times, different generations require different music to define them and it’s about damn time boomers allow theirs might not be the last music that matters.

Isn’t it time to roll over the Beatles, and tell the boomers the news?

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