Do the Beatles still matter in the age of Beyoncé?


Baby Boomers across America are giddy this week, as musical events and commemorative TV specials are planned in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles‘ legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Stars like Lenny Kravitz, John Mayer and Lauryn Hill will all take part in various tributes to the Fab Four this week in celebration.  The band’s Ed Sullivan appearance is majorly significant in pop music and pop culture history; it introduced the Beatles, who up to that point were strictly a phenomenon in northern and western Europe, to American audiences and the rest of the world. It also opened the door for tons of other British acts to find success in America–within months, bands like The Hollies, the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Kinks were all over the American charts. Add to that, the impact on other burgeoning rock bands who would see John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr performing on the show, and you have quite a landmark moment.

But, with all of the nostalgia and tributes, there is a factor that is being ignored as it pertains to the Beatles and their legacy:

There isn’t a whole lot of direct Beatles influence on what’s happening in 2014 in pop music.

To be sure, the Beatles’ influence over the rock era is obvious. From the mid-60s through the mid-90s, rock bands were a dominant force in popular music. Outside of rock bands, guitar-and-piano playing singer-songwriters that were clearly influenced by the Beatles’ later work also were a regular fixture on the pop charts. The Beatles’ innovations as album-makers changed the way the music industry promoted artists–going from singles-oriented to album-oriented seemingly overnight.

But when you look at today’s pop landscape, the absolute biggest acts in music don’t look like the Beatles. They don’t sound like them, either. You don’t see four-piece rock bands at the forefront of the music industry anymore; you see solo pop stars and rappers, for the most part. When was the last time a rock band commanded the world’s attention in a way that a U2 or a Rolling Stones have? Or even in the same way that a Kanye West or a Lady Gaga has? What songwriting tandem dominates pop music today? Do songwriters dominant anymore? And in the digital age, we’ve seen albums once again become a near-afterthought. Do contemporary music fans even listen to whole albums as albums anymore, or do they just cherrypick their favorite songs and drop them onto a playlist?

Pop stars that are emerging today are too young to have any firsthand memories at all of the Beatles or even of the post-Beatles. They don’t remember the band members’ solo hits or John Lennon’s murder. They don’t remember the legions of imitators that followed in their wake throughout the 1970s. They may not even remember the next-generation Beatle imitators that emerged in the 1990s (looking at you, Oasis.) Today’s pop stars grew up wanting to be Michael Jackson and Madonna. They idolized Boyz II Men and N*Sync. These are kids that grew up as rock music was becoming less and less of a voice for young people. A generation that idolizes Beyonce isn’t going to see how the Beatles connect to contemporary music. While their impact on recording remains evident (they deserve a lot of credit for introducing the idea of a recording studio as an instrument), one would find their musical and aesthetic influence most prominently in contemporary indie rock. That’s not exactly dominating pop culture anymore.

The Beatles are undoubtedly one of the most important acts in the history of pop music. Their influence on music and art and pop culture can’t be denied. But as the generation that grew up with them continues its march into old age, and as things like the Ed Sullivan Show drift further into the sepia-toned fringes of nostalgia, it would behoove us all as music fans to acknowledge that the times, they are a-changin.’ And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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