The ideology of the Beatles

by Sonny Bunch on October 9, 2012

The Beatles are now background music, unable to fulfil the most basic criteria of art – to provoke and stimulate.

The problem is that we’re simply too removed from the revolutions they fought and the British past they reacted against. They challenged a world of clear class and gender distinctions, lingering imperial memories, and patriarchal government. We’re a long way from that world today: we’ve retreated from messianic efforts at world revolution or liberation.

Today their ideology has more in common with the vague platitudes of a piss poor mobile phone adverts than anything more substantial.

—Neil Simpson, “The Beatles 50 years on: sink the yellow submarine

Wait, the Beatles had an “ideology”? Coulda fooled me. But even if they did carry around such baggage, scarcely anyone has ever listened to the Beatles to become politically or socially or spiritually enlightened. If their reputation continues to be high, it will be because of the music they made: its melodies, harmonies, arrangements, and lyrics.

—Alan Jacobs, “Meet the Beatles (Again)

The “utopian grounds for pessimism” are nothing but the “unbridled, utopian expectations” that irrupted into American political life and first caused a revulsion against the established order, a first-order pessimism, one might say, and then caused a yet deeper pessimism when the utopian hopes failed to deliver on their promises. A marvelously illustrative instance of the hopes—and the failures of hope—was the pronouncement by the New Left radicals Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman that society should be organized on the same spontaneous principles of order and goodwill as were the Beatles. That pronouncement came but a short while before the breakup of the Beatles and the increasing public evidence that love and goodwill had pretty much run out for the “Fab Four.”

—Catherine H. Zuckert and Michael Zuckert, discussing Martin Diamond’s “The Utopian Grounds for Pessimism and the Reasonable Grounds for Optimism” in their book The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy.

While I would agree with Prof. Jacobs that it doesn’t make sense to discuss the Beatles’ “ideology” in a coherent, political sense—e.g., communist, libertarian, etc.—I’m pretty okay with thinking of the Beatles’ ideology in the more colloquial “worldview” sense. I’d say it’s fair to argue that there is a worldview running through the Beatles’ catalogue and that it hews pretty closely to that described by Simpson. That being said, I’m happy to admit that I’m the furtherest thing in the world from a Beatles scholar and am open to being convinced that this argument is entirely wrong.

Regardless, Prof. Jacobs is most certainly right: The relevance of the Beatles will rise or fall based on their talent as musicians. All I’ll say is that I’m less convinced they will endure on these merits once the Boomers pass.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Will October 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Plenty of pop acts have produced interesting and influential music accompanied by totally banal lyrics. I’m not sure why that diminishes their musical significance. Did Presley’s often simplistic lyrics about girls and cars somehow lessen his impact on the landscape of popular music? What about Motown, whose entire lyrical oeuvre was basically dictated by a corporate marketing campaign?


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