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Judging How Important the Beatles are to Music History

Paul McCartney

When people talk about The Beatles, they often follow the iconic name with a maelstrom of superlatives. Iconic. Important. Irrepressible. Unbeatable. Undeniable. Whether or not you’re a fan of the English quartet, everyone who claims to be a music fan is legally obliged to have an opinion on them. I’m not a huge fan — granted, everyone has that one Beatles song that they love (“Back in the USSR,” since you asked) — but I’m always fascinated by how many die-hard fans of every generation are willing to defend them to the death.

To say that these four fellows from Liverpool makeup one of the most instantly-recognizable pantheons of pop culture since their inception in 1960 is an understatement of the highest order — defined by the RIAA as the all-time best-selling band in the USA, they’ve carved out their own niche in the world of entertainment in everything from praise to parody. But their unique place in our collective cultural consciousness begs the question: Just how important are The Beatles?

On one side of the argument, there’s a real passionate defense of The Beatles. Originating just as the musical world entered a rock-and-roll flavored flux, they switched between genres at breakneck speed in pursuit of the elusive number one hit;  from 50s rockabilly, to folk, to balladry, to guitar-driven pop, they represented a style that was almost impossible to pin down and was therefore almost impossible to dislike in it’s entirety; a style which has been endlessly picked up on by scores of pop artists since. That kind of run-down of genres has it’s ups and downsides. For some, it shows off their immense musical talent and ability to turn their hand to anything and make it work, while for others it displays a basic lack of cohesion when you look at their music as a whole.

They were also one of the main propagators of the music video, and of the idea that albums should be more than just a few singles strung together with numbers which should probably have stayed on the recording studio floor. Their social impact cannot be ignored, either; for a single band to so completely sweep up entire nations in their image was essentially unheard of at the time (especially considering The Beatles were a British band who managed to break America). And you only have to glance at the rabid fandoms that surround every teen poplet to see that this is a trend that never really died out — if anything, it’s grown stronger and a little more intimidating thanks to the way die-hard fans can now connect with the same across the world (but mostly across Twitter).

But there are some claims to the contrary. With The Beatles’ last album having been released almost thirty-four years ago, some argue that their music is no longer relevant to the development of the modern music scene. While the genres they involved were varied, they don’t account for the explosion of diverse music like EDM, rap, hip-hop, metal or electronica — in fact, their influence can essentially be boiled down to guitar-driven indie music. While that particular genre has a special place in British hearts, it accounts for a tiny slice of the global music scene — and even then, what we would classify as guitar-driven, lyrical pop now is pretty far removed from what The Beatles were doing when you compare the two. There’s also some argument over the nigh-on legendary status of The Beatles outweighing their actual musical importance — in the same way that One Direction have a vast, global fanbase and some huge hits but do not constitute a genuinely important part of musical history. They are such a magnificently dominant part of music — both British and international — that it would take a truly ignorant eye to sit down and listen to their music without having been influenced by any outside forces.

In short, whether The Beatle’s almost mythical status is deserved or not is constantly up for debate. For those who aren’t fans of their musical stylings, like me, they will constantly be the most relentless example of being forced to remember how “important” a band is in order to enjoy their music. For those who are, they will always represent the best kind of music — internationally adored, continually influential and the men behind some of the most enduring music ever created. George Harrison probably has the most relevant quote on the historical place of The Beatles I’ve yet heard: ““It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

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