Who are the Beatles? Are they demisexual? Are they on Snapchat? Are they problematic? What does Pitchfork think? These are the rather absurd kinds of questions media types (and Spotify itself) have put in the mouths of young millennials as the Fab Four’s substantial back catalog arrives on music streaming services around the world, just in time for Christmas.
Baby boomers and other Beatles fans are still recovering their breath from being trolled by the youth on Twitter last year, when youngsters made “Who is Paul McCartney?” trend after Sir Paul (he who used to be “the cute one”) accompanied Kanye West and Rihanna on the single “FourFiveSeconds” last year. Most of the tweets were a joke, of course, but the trolling and outrage lived on symbiotically. Irony hasn’t stopped the Beatles from becoming a sort of metaphorical rope in the tugs of war between rockists and poptimists, boomers and millennials, and other largely manufactured cultural teams.
A lot of this is highly exaggerated. After all, I am an older millennial who, along with absolutely all of my middle school friends (and many younger friends too) discovered our parents’ Beatles albums like they were a hoard of treasured gold. We knew the Beatles first as the originators of kid-friendly songs like “Yellow Submarine” and campfire classics such as “Here Comes the Sun” and “Yesterday,” and when we realized they were a cool band with a deep catalog, our young minds were blown.
So the only generational conflict we had with our families at that point was along the lines of, “We’ve been listening to the Beatles for four hours straight, and now we really need to find some other band we can agree on for the rest of this road trip.” Indeed, anyone who has attended a Paul McCartney concert on one of his recent tours knows that his fans range in age from 80s to eight, with every generation in between represented, often in the same families. And vigils for John Lennon in Central Park always draw sad, drunk teens alongside sad, drunk older folks.
But the idea of this immovable conflict persists, exacerbated by social media. Twitter highlights fainting fits from Beatles fans who can’t pick their jaws up off the floor at the idea that anyone wouldn’t treasure the lads from Liverpool or dub them the Best Band of All Time and the beginning and endpoint of all good music. Similarly, the platform elevates the jibes of their antagonists, who believe that declaring themselves impervious to the power of that “Hey Jude” outro somehow makes them cool. Nah, they say, while the rest of us say na-na-na.
Still, teenagers across the decades have more in common than perhaps either generation would like to admit. This morning, as I played the White Album on Spotify for the very first time, I began to picture a baby boomer teen, Barbara Jean, trying to explain her Beatles obsession to her 2015 teen counterpart, Madyson Ashleigh. Here is the conversation I imagined:
Barbara Jean, 1965: I hear you want to learn about the… (pauses)… Beatles! (Lets out a long, high-pitched scream)
Madyson Ashleigh, 2015: I do! Judging by your reaction, it sounds like they were the One Direction of their time, which is helping me situate them. So… do you have a favorite playlist that I could use to get started?
Barbara Jean, 1965: What do you mean? Is a playlist like an EP or an LP?
Madyson Ashleigh: I worry, because my friend Sage says the Beatles are avatars of The Cis-Hetero-White-Patriarchal-Oppressor.
Barbara Jean: Well, my father says the Beatles are goddamn trash and I need to turn off that infernal noise or I’m going to end up being a good-for-nothing streetwalker. Then I hear the whiskey bottle open and he slams the basement door, and that’s when I turn the phonograph up even louder!
Madyson Ashleigh: That’s not very sex-positive of your father. But I’m not surprised, because #dads are so ridiculous; mine tried to get me to listen to an entire box set of Wilco outtakes last weekend while we were juicing with our Vitamix and hand-curing bacon. He’s so rockist.
Barbara Jean (giggles wildly): Oh my gosh, did you just say “sex”? I have to confess, it’s a word that comes to mind quite often whenever I hear the Beatles talk in those accents. But my mother told me that if I ever use it again she will wash my mouth out with a bar of soap and make me take my poster of George Harrison down off the wall.
Madyson Ashleigh: So everyone your age has a favorite Beatle, right? Who’s yours: John, Paul, George or Ringo?
Barbara Jean screams four times until the tears run down her face, pauses, wipes face, continues screaming through Madyson’s Ashleigh’s next statement.
Madyson Ashleigh: Personally, my favorite Beatle is Yoko, even though people gave her flak for breaking up the band.
Barbara Jean: Yo-who? Wait, what did you say about breaking up the band? The Beatles will never break up, will they? They’re all best friends who live together, just like in A Hard Day’s Night, right?
Madyson: Umm — so what were you saying about your favorite member of the group again?
Barbara Jena: Actually, I have given this matter quite a bit of thought. I think I’m most attracted to John but I’d want to talk to George, go to a party with Ringo, and live with Paul.
Madyson Ashleigh: Ooh, that reminds me of this game we play in 2015 called F/M/K. It stands for, um, “Make love with, marry, or kill.”
Barbara Jean: That sounds like such rebellious fun! Will you teach me how to play it?
And off they go into the sunset. It’s too bad more of us can’t commune directly with teens from other generations, bypassing the judgment that comes with age difference. But the beauty of streaming music — which also has its pitfalls — is that it allows anyone to access what actually matters in these debates: the music. With 224 Beatles songs now easily available for anyone with an Internet connection to hear on demand, the bonding and arguing over their legacy can comfortably continue for generations to come.