On Sunday, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on American television. The event may not garner an official tortilla chip or soft drink, but it will surely draw attention from at least four generations of Americans.
Twisting and shouting most intensely will be one sliver of the population, a group with an eye on their IRAs and
dismayed by that not-so-fresh face in the mirror. These folks were at just the right age, say 10 to 15 years old, to feel the impact of the band and its music, to be escorted though adolescence by a new and defining sound.
On behalf of those people, I would like to make three small requests of everyone else.
First, grant us our memories. That Sunday night in 1964 caught us all off-guard, in our stretchy stirrup pants, hair tortured by Toni home perms and our flat-footed Keds. The Beatles stirred our young hearts with simple songs like “I want to hold your hand” and “She loves you.” In the frenzied days that followed, my fantasies toggled between Paul McCartney as my boyfriend and Paul McCartney as my father. (I lay in bed at night waiting for him to come and adopt me.)
Boys brought out their tissue-box guitars, and girls gathered in basements to dance to singles played on little plastic record players that closed up like suitcases. We sensed a new distance from adults who didn’t share this exhilaration, especially from those who spoke harshly about long-haired thugs and wouldn’t have the music in their homes. We knew that something had changed, but at that point it was mostly that hair should hang down straight, not swirl upward or –heaven help us – wave or curl.
Just thinking about who we were then summons an amused and half-embarrassed smile, and that leads to my second request: Please don’t laugh at us. We didn’t laugh at your Michael Jackson phase, as you moon-walked through middle school and replayed your Thriller VHS tape until it stretched thin. Those of us with children not only suffered through NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys but shelled out big bucks for CDs and concert tickets. We didn’t laugh at those fans, either. Better to be passionate about something than not passionate at all.
And you Hannah Montana groupies: Well, you don’t have anything to laugh about these days, but I’m sure time will bring poor Miley to her senses.
My only hope is that everyone has a sweet memory of a band or a singer or a rapper, no matter how imitative or corporate-driven, that popped you out of your skin and showed you that there was a world out there to be seen and heard and felt.
Looking back at the pop-music marketplace, I’d say we Beatles fans were the lucky ones. Our boys stuck around, not as long as the Rolling Stones or the range of bands out there on the nostalgia circuit, but long enough to launch a generation into adulthood. With those early hits, the Beatles earned freedom and resources to experiment and add complexity to their music. With each album they shook us up a bit, with anger (“Run for your life” on Rubber Soul), irony (“Back in the USSR” on the white album), and bewilderment (“Eleanor Rigby,” released as a single). As the Vietnam War protests grew violent, they gave us pause with “Revolution” and turned our sights toward peace.
The Beatles got a lot of people thinking and caring in new ways. And so my third request is that we all demand more from our lyrical poets, our musical innovators, and from all of those performers who inspire us, speak for us and in many ways decide who we are as a culture.
Some say the music market, now so segmented, precludes another Beatles from gaining such a magnitude of influence. Yet magnitude may not be the answer. The Beatles expressed many creative impulses, and their combined work lifts them beyond the extremes of any single jag that they chose to explore.
Once we turn off the Ed Sullivan rerun on Sunday, maybe we can use our purchasing power to revive that sense of wonder and experimentation and risk-taking that the Beatles inspired 50 years ago and that surges up on those minor XM radio channels from time to time. I, for one, would kick off my comfortable shoes for one more chance to feel the world tilt in that direction again.
Rebecca Duncan is a professor of English at Meredith College in Raleigh.