Columnists, Featured, Jon Caldara, National

Caldara: Why The Beatles are our world-wide shared currency of culture

Every now and then it’s worth taking a detour away from the politics that divide us to the eternal truth that binds us — today’s music pretty much sucks.

Back in high school we had extended debates on the key existential question of our time — who’s better, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Oh, we made time for other burning life-or-death questions: Ginger or Mary Ann, Star Trek or Star Wars (Trek), Roger Moore or Sean Connery (the first is still the best)? But those issues were not about the core issue of multi-generational importance, rock music.

We arrogantly knew in our bones, in our very fiber that the battling bands of Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Who, etc. made the greatest music not just of our time, but of all time. “Our” music wouldn’t die.

Time has proven we were right. Take that bobby-soxers.

In case you’re not feeling old enough, let me remind you that The Beatles’ last, and in my opinion finest, studio album, Abbey Road, was released 50 years ago. A remixed boxset was released this year to commemorate the occasion and to keep squeezing the golden goose, and it has reached No. 1 in the U.K. charts and No. 3 in the U.S.

With all due respect to Taylor Swift, we can talk about her longevity in five decades.

I came of age after The Beatles broke up, and still their music was the most influential of my life. This makes me quite the norm. A half-century later kids still wear Beatles t-shirts, buy the music and play Guitar Hero to their classics.

Think of all the pop greats that came before — Al Jolson, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Hank Williams, even Elvis, none of them were still consistent chart-toppers 50 years after their demise.

Growing up in the 1970s, my peers were not buying ragtime hits from the 1920s. None of us were sporting Bing Crosby T-shirts. The music of the 1920s might as well have been Mozart for all we cared. But kids growing up in 2019 are stilling listening and buying half-century-old Beatles stuff.

As I get older, I relish The Beatles not just for their music, which I appreciate on deeper levels now, but something a little headier. I ponder that experiencing The Beatles might be the most connecting, common occurrence we earthlings have.

At the risk of sounding like that pompous cultural-studies grad student you survived at a relative’s dinner party, let me explain.

Today we have very few shared cultural experiences. And this is a spectacular thing. There was a time when we watched what the only three television networks provided for us, and at the times they decided to air it. And we listened to the music that a handful of record execs and radio programmers decided for us. We all shared that stuff. Say, “Beam me up Scotty,’ to anyone my age and they’ll know what you’re talking about. Not so for a 20-year-old.

Today we are our own programmers, deciding what to enjoy from near-unlimited sources, when we want it, how we want to watch or hear it. We are all watching and listening to wildly different entertainment, finding just the right niche for us. Entertainment of the past was off-the-shelf. Today’s entertainment is custom-tailored.

But there is a small sadness to this great democratization of art and music. We have lost those shared musical, artistic and entertainment experiences. The closest thing to a shared cultural experience might be the Super Bowl. Internationally maybe it’s the World Cup.

Whatever the world might have in common culturally today, it sure ain’t a song.

What fascinates me most about the Beatles in 2019 is that like or (weirdly) dislike their music, it could be the most shared, commonly experienced non-religious artistic delight in the world. There is likely not a city or town across the entire globe, including non-English speaking countries where these songs are not known to multiple, say it again, multiple generations.

Trust me. I’m not going down some All You Need Is Love spiritual trip here. I’m saying this old catalog of tunes somehow has evolved into the world-wide shared currency of culture. And that’s worth being amazed by.

Oh, and we were right in high school.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.


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