The ‘60s are often glorified as a time of social, cultural, and political change. As the civil rights movement fought forward, the Vietnam War took a few steps backwards. Popular culture began to shift, and between the advertisement and entertainment industries a new breed was developing: the teenager.
The idea of a grace period in life between childhood and adulthood was not recognized pre-World War II. Suddenly there was an age where people did not identify with the helpless and dependent stages of childhood, nor with the pressures and responsibilities of adulthood. This middle ground of age and responsibility came into its own during the ‘50s when it was no longer cool to share the same interests, mores or values of the previous generation. Attention was put more towards socializing with peers, while leisure and entertainment became increasing priorities. Popular music unleashed rock ‘n’ roll to the public, which catered to this new way of thinking and feeling.
By the ‘60s both teenage culture and rock music were in their second coming. For teens there was a heightened sense of awareness of their position in life. For popular music sounds got increasingly louder, amplified, raw and electrifying; recording technology began to adapt, opening the doors for more audio possibilities, and lyrics started to loose their innocence. Suddenly rock music began to influence girls in strange and odd ways: females began to form mobs, grow hysterical over boys, disregard the law, physically abuse themselves by yanking on their hair, sobbing until exhaustion, and then some. The question was what were they so hysterical about? Was the progression of time and culture too much pressure to handle? Did the devil’s music, aka rock ‘n’ roll, infiltrate their innocent bodies, minds and emotions? Or was it a reaction to the sites and sounds of four charismatic lads from Liverpool?
The cause in question was none other than the Beatles. The official craze for the fab four hit England in 1963. On 13 October 1963, the Beatles were swarmed by a mob of girls after one of their concerts at the London Palladium. Days later a larger crowd ambushed the band at the Heathrow Airport. By that November mayhem broke out between teenaged girls and police officers over tickets to one of their concerts; the uproar lasted four hours, leaving nine hospitalized.
After causing a ruckus in the UK, the Beatles’ reputation, music and look spread to America with a vengeance. American youth began to find hope, salvation and acceptance from the Beatles’ work. Pressing social issues and debates were temporarily pushed aside and the Beatles became the country’s center focus: Beatlemania was officially born.
In January of 1964, a month before the band first stepped foot on American soil, Life reported, “A Beatle who ventures out unguarded into the streets runs the very real peril of being dismembered or crushed to death by his fans.” When the Beatles officially arrived in the United States, a mere two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy thousands of fans, specifically young females, enthusiastically greeted them by storming the Kennedy Airport in New York. By the time they made their first live, televised appearance in the U.S. on The Ed Sullivan Show, 73 million people tuned in.
Sure there had been fan frenzies for musicians and celebrities in the past, but nothing to the extent of Beatlemania. Elvis had caused a commotion a decade before, but his image and character remained censured; with the Beatles what people saw is what people got.
The band was presented as a cohesive unit, as opposed to a front man with his backing band. In the beginning the band made themselves heard by touring nonstop, appearing on various radio shows and making visits to the BBC. The Beatles wrote their own material and did not rely on paid professionals to express themselves. By writing the music themselves, the band was able to capture adolescent spirit from firsthand experience. They were also able to write and record material that would not serve the sole purpose of becoming a radio hit. Another draw to the band was in their volume. The band made it a mission to achieve as loud of sound as they possibly could, which shook people up and gained them further attention.
As for fashion and trends the Beatles set a new standard of androgyny being cool. The group’s look was not chiseled and over processed. They kept it real and simple by growing their hair out and wearing solid colors, making their look achievable, light and nonthreatening. The most daunting aspect of their style was the longer hair, which often earned them questioning and ridicule from adults who just didn’t understand. Their looks and attitudes were cocky, cool, and mocking towards authority.
At the time adults treated Beatlemania as an “epidemic”, an affliction, a passing trend. In actuality a community was being formed via the music. Everything about the band, their look, personalities, music and lyrics bridged a gap between the hip and unhip. The music formed a support system no matter what one’s background was, because if one was a fan of the group, he or she was cool.
The Beatles had songs for heartbreaks, troubles, loners, miscommunications, friendship and more. There were relatable and realistic themes in the lyrics containing a broader scope than their musical predecessors. The music spoke to the audience as if it were written for each individual on a personal level, which further bonded fans together as a community. At times, the music was playful, lively and full of high energy, while also being soft, soulful and reflective.
When examining the evidence, Beatlemania was the first mass outburst of the ‘60s to feature women. Sociologist and activist Barabara Ehrenreich was amongst the first to point out that Beatlemania had the force of a social movement. Ehrenreich’s research has shown that upon their debut the typical crazed fan was predominately female, white, from a middle-class background, and on average ten- to 14-years. The Beatles’ youthful charisma and glow was reflected not only in their presence but also in their music.
Some popular culture sociologists have speculated that Beatlemania was attributed to girls expressing their desires to follow and conform to the majority. The high energy of the music was believed to bring about a classic case of mass mindedness, where leaders lashed out in frantic expression, only to be followed by millions more. Another factor of Beatlemania has been attributed frustration with battles of racial disparities, riots, civil and social unrest and restless youth. Accounts have described the Beatles’ music coming into play at the perfect time. The music, scene and experience provided a distraction from the frustrations and confusions of current events. The Beatles presented an outlet for people to express their emotions by offering musical and stylistic satisfaction. Listeners were united through a common cause: the music spoke to them and for them.
An additional theory behind Beatlemania has been attributed to repressed sexuality. According to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, products of sexual repression include fits, convulsions, tics and neuroses. When the Beatles hit, females responded to their work with unpredicted emotional outbursts. At the time, sex was seen as taboo and full of consequences if performed out of wedlock. Due to the Beatles’ comfortable and sensitive aura, sex became approachable and enjoyable as opposed to horrifying and full of penalties. Pent up energy and hormones surfaced in the form of rebellion and global lust, and challenged the notion that women were to remain pure and domestic. The change in opinion and comfort levels furthered the gap between the old-fashioned, conservative ideology from the new progressive thinking. One fan, Elizabeth Hess, accounted her experiences with feminism, and how the Beatles changed public attitudes on sex:
“My own consciousness snapped into shape in 1964 at a Beatles concert. I still remember melting into a massive crowd of jumping, screaming girls, all thinking and feeling the same lascivious thoughts. It was my generation’s turn to let our libidos go public. I was 12, just beginning to understand that sex was power: my first feminist epiphany. As the ‘60s tore on, the crowd of girls, now women, was still moving together, marching against the war in Vietnam.”
—Elizabeth Hess, “The Women”, Village Voice (November 8, 1994), p.91
Girls previously scared of sex because of promises of tainted reputations, pregnancy, and doomed future relationships became in tune with their natural, misunderstood instincts. Imagining oneself with a member of the band was pure fantasy, a sexual act that could not taint one’s reputation, and made sex as a whole less daunting. The Beatles’ lyrics reassured females that it was OK to shake and flaunt her stuff and that love is not always perfect.
Now nearly 50 years later the Beatles still remain a staple in popular culture. While fans no longer abuse their bodies and taunt their minds with fantasized depictions of the band, interest and enthusiasm in the band’s culture and art is still present, just not to the same fanatic extent. Their art and philosophy has been preserved and adapted, filling in voids left by the sometimes bland state of contemporary culture. Not only have they become legends in their own right, but the tradition of the Beatles will forever be passed down, re-worked and sold in hopes of relating to succeeding generations. Their work reminds people that combining raw power and inventiveness can both challenge and expand life’s social structure, which is not a bad thing. With the adaptation of their art and philosophies in screenplays, performance art and digital media the Beatles have been preserved for all eternity, forever filling in voids left by contemporary blandness.
// Notes from the Road
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