On December 8 it will be the 33′d anniversary of the death of John Lennon. In this year of historic anniversaries (the Gettysburg Address’s and the Battle’s 150th; the 50th year since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy), Lennon’s will not loom so large, and that is as it should be. There are vaster things to think about.
But I wish to ruminate a bit on John Lennon here—not on his music nor even on the man himself, but, rather, on his place in history. Because while John Lennon never set out to do so and was always more than a bit uncomfortable with the idea, he did change the world. Or, to be more precise, the world changed, hurtling him and his fellow Beatles to the head of a raucous procession that they never intended to lead, but without whom the parade might never have begun.
For what the Beatles did was to begin the process through which our modern entertainment culture has been built. By “entertainment culture” I mean that state of affairs in which entertainment, once set aside for special holiday and leisure moments (what Henri Lefebvre called “Festival”), has become the dominant feature in our lives. In an entertainment culture, everything is expected to be entertaining, and entertainers are the focus of everything. It is in an entertainment culture that most people don’t watch the news, they watch infotainment, and the news strives, in order to survive, to be more entertaining. Indeed, it is in an entertainment culture that Miley Cyrus is news, and continues to be news.
The Beatles did not invent this. After all, in the Golden Era of Hollywood, the stars of the silver screen founded the era of the celebrity, and Babe Ruth was as popular as any current sports hero. Music has known its Bobby Soxers, and Elvis Presley is still the King. But the worldwide hysteria that greeted the Beatles in 1964—the Beatlemania that is the standard against which all popular cultural phenomena ever since have been measured—still marked a quantitative change. Whatever one thinks of the Beatles’ music (personally, I still find it magnificent, but that isn’t the point), its impact can hardly be overstated.
That impact has been two-fold. First, it demonstrated that the youth market (and the potential for that market) was greater than had ever before been appreciated. Elvis was one thing, and so was Sinatra, but their effect was nothing like this. And second, the realization of the potential of the youth market (especially in America) gave the young power that they had never had before. You could say that the Beatles were in the right place at the right time: just at the point when the largest generation of children in American history were beginning to grow up, coddled and restless and groping for their own place in the world. The Beatles, who only wanted to sell records, opened up a way.
One might say that the Beatles were the match that lit up the Baby Boom generation and launched America into the full tide of what is still a youth culture. But because the spark lay in entertainment, as opposed to other forces that have moved masses of people in years past, it could easily be commodified, and thus coopted. The “revolution” that came so readily to the lips of Baby Boomers in the 1960s could never become serious when it came wrapped in pleasure and was little more than a pose to sell records (the Rolling Stones were never really street fighting men).
And so, the paradoxical legacy of those Liverpudlian moptops who seemed to challenge the Establishment back in ’64 has been mostly a huge boon to capitalism, helping to launch a hedonistic consumer society grounded in entertainment. It all probably would have happened eventually without the Beatles, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were the ones at the center of it all, Pied Pipers to a future that is now.