The Beatles and Counter-Culture

The “Counter-Culture” movement that began in the 1960’s is frequently referred to as an important social moment in 20th century American history. But while there is a kind of “history textbook approved” version of the story of counter-culture, the reality of the movement, if it can even be thought of as one movement, is of course more complicated. The Civil Rights movement, Beatniks, Hippies, Communists, Free-lovers, Rock and Rollers, Junkies, Draft-Dodgers, Eastern Spiritualists, Folkies, Mods, Punks, all of these different social and political groups could at one point have been thought of as Counter-culture. If there is anything that I took from the presentations it is that the “counter-culture” is to some degree a myth, not in that these events didn’t occur or these groups didn’t exist, but rather that there was not really any sort of unified cultural agenda or movement so much as an explosion of diverse groups and ideas and practices all occurring simultaneously but each with different goals and beliefs.

The question of how the Beatles impacted the “Counter-Culture” is something worth perhaps reconsidering. For example, the Beatles probably didn’t have as great an impact in the Black Panther Movement, but for Eastern Spiritualists they were gigantic. I would rephrase the question something like this “How did the Beatles socio-cultural influence extend beyond their music?” If that is the question then there are so many ways they impacted the lives of people at the time that it deserves multiple books. One thing that I find interesting about the Beatles is that they were in a unique position of being both creators of new ideas and subcultures as well as being vehicles that took preexisting subcultures and brought them to light. For example, the Beatles were how many white Americans first found out about Black music, through the Beatles’ covers and homages to that music. At the same time, without the Beatles experience in India, or with LSD, it is unlikely that there would have been an increased interest in transcendental meditation at the time.

We also have to remember that the Beatles were really immature and young throughout this whole process, and existed as a band for a relatively short period of time. Many of the cultural influences and ideas that they brought to the world came not from an intentional desire to change the culture, but from the basic desires and interests of a group of young men at this time. Paul’s involvement with the Art scene in London, Lennon’s drug use, Harrison’s spiritualism, all of these sound like things that frankly a lot of young men and women experiment with during their youths, and while the Beatles of course played a part in creating that very perception, it still existed before them. In many ways, the Beatles were just kind of doing what kids do, albeit with a great deal more influence than most kids would have. And i think that that is what brings me to my main point. If there is one discernible way that the Beatles influences extended beyond their music into a broader sociocultural sense it was through their unbelievable mass appeal. While “counter-culture” was made of a huge collection of young people who in actuality were all doing different things, one unifying factor amongst them was that nearly everyone liked the Beatles’ music. In a lot of ways you can follow the Beatles story as it relates to counterculture simply by following the Beatles popularity as musicians. Think about it, when the Beatles were young they exploded onto the scene, unifying millions of young people across the world in their love for one specific band. The Beatles started to grow up throughout this process, so did the kids who got hooked during Beatlemania. As each one of the Beatles started exploring different aspects of their own lives, coming to further understanding of their own identities, so did the fans. The kids from Beatlemania started doing different things, getting involved with different people or ideas. But the one thing that remained constant was that they all still loved the music, and even as those kids interests and ideas diversified, they still remained connected to some degree through their shared adoration of the band. Ironically, the Beatles biggest contribution to culture, the area where they influenced the world the most outside of their music, was the unity between a variety of people all doing wildly different stuff but still sharing adoration for the Beatles.

That’s why I think its pretty much impossible to compare the 60’s with today. The trends and ideas and beliefs and cultures that started in the 60’s continued to evolve and change and were very much influential on the trends of today. We still have druggies, spiritualists, black panthers, communists, artists, etc. All of the groups that made up the counterculture and all of their ideas still exist, even if they have been modified or marginalized or absorbed into mainstream culture. The seeds are all still there. But the difference is that the common thread that ties all of that together. In our generation, the internet era, everyone can recognize difference, and in many ways that’s a really positive thing. People can define themselves in more ways now, and it is harder to force people into a specific identity category to some degree because these things are more in flux than they really ever have been. People are more conscious of what they believe in and why they believe in it. But one thing that has been lost and that I think will only become harder to find as time goes on is cultural unity. There is no band, or movie, or piece of art, or idea that can unite such a vast number of people. Anything and everything can be criticized, analyzed, and ultimately picked apart, and anyone can offer alternative narratives. Again, this might not be a bad thing. But at the same time, it is the ultimate reason why this generation shouldn’t view themselves as being the spiritual successors to the 60’s counterculture, or really any other sociocultural movement. Because without that same factor that could unite so many, even over something as simple as liking the same band, we face an entirely new and interesting challenge going forward. The question then is will this generation ever have a “Beatles”? And if so what will that look like?

 

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