|The Beatles Started a Cultural
by John W. Whitehead
It seemed to me a definite line was
being drawn. This was something that never happened before.—Bob
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Variety, considered the premiere
entertainment magazine, recently picked the top 100 entertainment icons of
the century. These are the men and women who have had the greatest impact on
the world of entertainment in the last 100 years.
On the list are film actors, directors, screenwriters, musicians, television
performers, animals, comedians, even cartoon characters. Named the top
entertainers were the Beatles—over such icons as Elvis, Humphrey Bogart, Bob
Dylan, Alfred Hitchcock and Rogers and Hammerstein, among others. According
to the article, the Beatles sit at the top because they transformed pop
However, their impact was much greater than that. In fact, John, Paul,
George and Ringo unknowingly set in motion forces that made an entire era
what it was and, by extension, what it is today. The Beatles “presided over
an epochal shift comparable in scale to that bridging Classical Antiquity
and the Middle Ages,” writes professor Henry Sullivan, “or the transition
from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.” Indeed, they played a central role
in catalyzing a transition from the Modern to the post-Modern Age.
Beatlemania hit the United States with full force in 1964. When the nation
tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show, some 70 million Americans got their first
glimpse of the Beatles—the streets emptied and crime stopped.
It was February 9, and four English lads were singing to an
assassination-wearied country. That night, along with the Beatles, the
guests on the popular Sullivan show included Georgia Brown singing a
Broadway tune, several comedians, an Olympic athlete and an acrobatic act.
Amid this series of well-worn, non-controversial vaudeville acts came the
Beatles. With their mop-top haircuts and original music, they seemed like
visitors from another planet. Obviously, a cultural revolution was at hand.
There are several important ways the Beatles altered western history. First,
perhaps unintentionally, the Beatles helped feminize the culture. Presley
may have been revolutionary, but there was no gender revolution until the
Beatles came along. With the prominence they accorded women in their songs
and lives and the way they spoke to millions of young teenage girls about
new possibilities, the Beatles tapped into something much larger than
themselves. It eventually led to the empowerment of young women.
The implications of the Beatles’ relatively androgynous appearance had a far
more profound effect on sexual and women’s liberation than anyone could have
guessed at the time. “The Beatles set the tone for feminism,” according to
professor Elaine Tyler May.
Moreover, as Steven Stark points out in his insightful book on the group,
Meet The Beatles, the Beatles also “challenged the definition that
existed during their time of what it meant to be a man.” This ultimately
allowed them to help change the way men feel and look. The Beatles, as Dr.
Joyce Brothers recognized at the time, “display a few mannerisms which
almost seem a shade on the feminine side, such as tossing of their long
manes of hair. Very young ‘women’ are still a little frightened of the idea
of sex. Therefore they feel safer worshipping idols who don’t seem too
masculine, or too much the ‘he-man’.” To this effeminacy should be added the
early Beatles’ preference for high falsetto leaps in their vocals.
Second, the Beatles converged with their era—the sixties generation—in an
almost unprecedented way. At no other time in history, or since, has a
generation been so connected. The vehicle was rock music. And the Beatles
helped create an aural culture.
American demographics also played a major role in what was happening with
the emerging generation. The baby boom began in 1946 and lasted until 1964,
producing 78 million children. In the first years of American Beatlemania,
these boomers were aged from 18 on down to a couple of days old. This
represented a tremendous concentration of the population—over a third of the
nation’s total—in the teen and sub-teen bracket. This was a vast army of
potential Beatle fans hooked on music.
This fascination with music brought the sixties generation into a collective
whole. “Perhaps the most important aspect of the Beatles’ attraction,”
writes Stark, “during that influential era was their collective synergy.” In
other words, the Beatles popularized the sanctity of “the group.” With the
Beatles, the whole, thus, was always greater than the sum of the parts. This
gave them a dazzling appeal to millions who worshipped them.
Third, the religious allure of the Beatles was a vital factor in allowing
the group to endure. John Lennon was onto something in 1966 when he compared
the group’s popularity with that of Jesus Christ. Multitudes flocked to them
and even brought sick children to see if the Beatles could somehow heal
them. Thus, those who have seen elements of religious ecstasy in Beatlemania
are not wrong.
Religion, it must not be forgotten, has its roots in spiritual bonding. And
the Beatles had a powerful appeal to a generation in calling forth a
spiritual bonding. It was so intoxicating that it created mass hysteria. In
this way, the Beatles—especially with their elevation to a kind of
sainthood—have become modern counterparts to the religious figures of the
As such, the Beatles, as new spiritual leaders, came to embody the values of
the counterculture in its challenge to “the Establishment.” They celebrated
an alternative worldview. It was a vision of a new possibility. And they
sang and lived this vision for others.
Finally, the Beatles had a worldwide power over millions of people that was
singular in history among artists. In 1967, with the release of their
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album, as one critic noted, it was
the closest Europe had been to unification since the Congress of Vienna in
1815. Most thought North America could have been included as well. And the
Beatles became the embodiment of the Summer of Love with their live global
BBC television broadcast of “All You Need Is Love” in June 1967.
Approximately 400 million people across five continents tuned in.
This type of power was something new. Before, only popes, kings and perhaps
a few intellectuals could hope to wield such influence in their lifetimes:
“Only Hitler ever duplicated their power over crowds,” said Sid Bernstein,
the promoter who set up some of their first concerts in America.
The Beatles had the good fortune to emerge at a unique time when musicians
could become forces for social change. It was a time when music was the most
vital force in young people’s lives—something that will never happen again
and something that was never intended by the Beatles themselves. As George
Harrison said: “We were four relatively sane people in the middle of
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and
president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at
Information about the Institute is available at
Copyright © by John W. Whitehead and The
Rutherford Institute, 2005. Ottawa Beatles publication, November 2, 2005.
Used with permission with our sincere thanks!