On the evening of February 9, 1964, 73 million Americans—about a third of the U.S. population at the time—tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show to see the Beatles’ North American television debut, and forty years later Beatlemania is still going strong. In 2000, the Beatles were third on the Forbes’ annual list of celebrity earners. Three years ago, Beatles 1, a compilation of the group’s 27 number one hits, sold 12 million copies worldwide in the first 12 weeks of its release. Paul McCartney’s “Driving USA” tour—in which the Beatles’ former bassist played 22 of that band’s songs—was the world’s most successful concert series of 2002, earning $103 million in gate receipts. The Beatles Anthology, released in April 2003, holds the record as the fastest-selling music DVD in the history of that medium. Let it Be Naked, a remix of their second-to last album, sold a million copies within four weeks of its release in November 2003. Beatle-related tourism now generates more than $100 million a year for Liverpool, where the boyhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney have been restored to their 1950s configurations and opened as museums under the care of Britain’s National Trust.
The astonishing public hysteria that greeted the Beatles when they arrived in America four decades ago presents a textbook illustration of how Generative Anthropology views popular culture. The teenaged girls who screamed, fainted, and (in Beatles historian Philip Norman’s incomparable phrase) “left their knickers [w]ringing wet” at the sight of John, Paul, George, and Ringo were indulging in “paradisiacal fantasies concerning [the] locus” (Originary Thinking 173) of their desires, four young men performing at the center of the biggest maelstrom of enthusiastic worship the world had ever seen. This makes a great deal of sense. But how might GA explain the Beatles’ ability to continue commanding pop culture’s locus of resentful desire through nearly a half century? Clearly, in comparison with other entertainment fads that came before and after them, the Beatles’ commercial success is of an altogether different order of magnitude. Can GA help us discover the secret of the Beatles’ ongoing appeal, which now stretches across three generations?
Of course it can; but GA’s answer to this question bears little resemblance to the raft of historic clichés—heard and seen in the ubiquitous printed and televised tributes like last night’s Grammy Awards—about the Beatles having eased American grief over JFK’s assassination or their having memorably captured and expressed the rebellious spirit of the 1960s. It’s beyond dispute that the precise historic circumstances surrounding their emergence played an indispensable role in creating the Beatles’ initial success; but such explanations can’t account for the group’s seemingly magic capacity to keep being rediscovered by each new generation. (Capitol Records reports that 42.5% of the purchasers of Beatles 1 were 30 and younger—that is, people born well after the group broke up.) But to explain this—the most remarkable aspect of the Beatles phenomenon—we need to broaden our view both of the Beatles’ aesthetic and cultural roots and of the crucial role they played in identifying the key aspects of what Winston Churchill called the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. In both their music and the highly public identities they quickly assumed in the American imagination, the Beatles embodied the British origins of a cultural mode that in 1964 was just about to take up the central role in American life: the “cowboy culture” of the southern and western rural regions of the U.S.
Everyone knows that as teenagers in the 1950s the boys who would become the Beatles were swept up in a folk music revival that was simultaneously occurring on both sides of the Atlantic; in America that revival would produce the other signal musical icon of the 1960s, Bob Dylan. GA helps us to see the recuperation and imitation of traditional folk cultural forms as the quintessentially romantic gestures they are. “Throughout the neoclassical period,” writes Prof. Gans, “the popular esthetic never ceased to be operative at the margin of the high culture, where transitional forms such as imitation folk ballads had flourished. But only in the romantic era does the popular begin to enter into rivalry with the high” (Originary Thinking, 175). Clearly, the intensity of such rivalries varies; and we might define a revival as an interval in the ongoing struggle between high and popular culture in which the choice between them carries especially far-reaching lifestyle implications. In choosing to model themselves musically on the raw energy and folk simplicity of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry instead of the ring-a-ding-ding urbanity and smoothness of Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, the Beatles took popular music in the direction it has followed to our day, in which rappers are regularly acknowledged in both the popular press and academia as “street poets.” But in doing so the Beatles also inaugurated a new cultural era, first in the United States, and then, arguably, in the rest of the world—an era in which the values of the northern British folk culture that produced Elvis and Chuck Berry has increasingly emerged as the dominant mode of contemporary selfhood.
The American rock and rhythm and blues artists that the Beatles heard and resonated to in the late 1950s stand at the end of nearly two and a half centuries of British-American cultural exchange. The simple ballads and hymns today enjoying a revival as “roots music”—largely as a result of their being prominently featured in the Coen brothers’ film Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?—derive from the rural folk hymns and tunes that came with the largest and latest of four major waves of British immigrants to North America. Between 1717 and 1775, some quarter of a million refugees—displaced by Britain’s changeover from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy—landed on our shores and settled in what was then the American back country: Appalachia and the land spreading west from the Georgia Piedmont to the banks of the Mississippi. Called borderers because they largely came from the counties that bordered the ancient and frequently warring kingdoms of England and Scotland, these hardy immigrants brought to the new land the characteristics that had for generations sustained them in eking out a meager living from the harsh northern British countryside: stubborn individualism, clannish loyalty, hard drinking (and fighting), and enthusiastic religious worship. In the new world the borderers’ old songs—played on stringed folk instruments like the guitar, banjo, and fiddle—encountered other folk traditions, eventually incorporating Afro-Caribbean rhythms and the melancholy tone of slaves’ work songs and field chants to evolve into blues, country, and rhythm and blues. Many distinct influences contributed to the creation of these forms; but the simple three-chord progressions and melodic modes that recur in blues, jazz, and country point toward their common ancestry in the British folk tradition. Thus when John, Paul, George, and Ringo found themselves captivated by Elvis Presley’s 1956 rendition of “Hound Dog”—a speeded-up version of an old Mississippi Delta blues tune—what they were hearing was at once exotic and familiar. Elvis was what northern British folk culture looked like after 225 years of transplantation in the backwoods, where its geographic isolation from the more rapidly evolving northeastern cultures allowed the borderers’ folkways to remain relatively pristine well into the twentieth century.
When the Beatles brought their distinctive brand of American rock and rhythm and blues to the United States in 1964, they presented to the nation a picture of the vitality of its hybridized British culture, and in so doing brought an end to nearly two centuries of cultural and intellectual dominance by the descendants of Massachusetts Puritans and Virginia Tidewater cavaliers. Ninety-nine years after its defeat at the hands of the Federals, the South rose again, through the unlikely agency of four “youngsters from Liverpool” (as Ed Sullivan introduced them) barely out of their teens. The slick-backed suavity of Bobby Darin and Dean Martin gave way to the shouts and shaggy hair—reminiscent of the country revival or camp-meeting—of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, whose lilting northern English drawls reminded Americans of the origin of their southern accent. Fifties conformity was replaced by a spirit of individualism and rebellion against governmental interference that in the old world had made the borderers nearly impossible for kings and parliaments to rule and in Appalachia had spawned ongoing “whiskey wars” between federal revenue agents and distillers of moonshine, who stubbornly insisted on their right to produce and distribute a cherished folk beverage. America’s Puritan and Quaker cultural inheritances—with their emphasis on politeness, emotional restraint, and public decorum—were finally overcome by the British borderers’ raw energy, plain speaking, and penchant for unbridled emotional display (as may be glimpsed today on the Jerry Springer show). After the Beatles, this became the dominant mode of contemporary selfhood. But like the Beatles’ music, this new paradigm was the product of the unique cultural relationship between Britain and the United States, in which a marginalized folk tradition, transplanted to the new continent, not only survived but flourished. It was this folk tradition—along with its associated values—that the Beatles discovered in American country, blues, and rhythm and blues music and eventually spread to the entire globe.
No musical act, before or since, has come close to matching the Beatles’ influence on all aspects of the entertainment business. Their Ed Sullivan audience still holds the record as the largest number of Americans to watch a single broadcast; the Beatles were the first rock group to play concerts in stadiums; they were the first pop musicians to take the poetic step of printing the words of their songs on their album covers. Since the Beatles, their pared-down instrumental line-up of guitars and drums has become the industry standard for pop music success. What’s less widely appreciated, though, is the role the Beatles played in bringing into being the present age, in which the borderers’ traditions of individualism and democratic populism have emerged as the dominant American mode of selfhood, and therefore the object of either the world’s aspirations or its abhorrence. Whether other nations largely love or hate America depends on the degree to which the borderers’ values of flinty individualism and skepticism of constituted authority can be said to have infiltrated and spread through that country’s culture. Misidentified by most left-leaning cultural commentators as merely “conservative,” these values are really the same unexpected combination of fiscal tight-fistedness and social libertarianism that have made the politics of figures like Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger so difficult to classify on the old left-right spectrum. As its name serendipitously suggests, borderer culture—the culture of the American south, an area the size of Western Europe and inhabited by some 80 million people—happily crosses the lines that would confine it to a singular, consistent identity. It resents obligations of affiliated interest and responsibility imposed by governments—particularly those that carry the whiff of socialism—but respects, even exalts, ties of kinship and shared regional identity. Borderer culture encompasses the segment of the American populace that is at once the most fiercely private and openly religious. It is sweet and sentimental about what it loves, and merciless to what it hates. And it embraces the very adjective that Donald Rumsfeld’s “old Europe” employs to heap scorn upon it: it’s cowboy culture.
Is cowboy culture really in the ascendant? One need look no farther than at the history of the American presidency: five of the eight who have held the office since 1964 were either native-born or transplanted southerners (and three, Johnson, Reagan, and Bush, have owned ranches). Political consultants identify the crucial block of voters in the next presidential election as “NASCAR dads”— southern men who loyally follow America’s biggest spectator sport: stock car racing, which traces its origins to impromptu speed contests between moonshiners and revenuers on the windy mountain roads of Appalachia. Cowboy culture is even making inroads in Britain. Tony Blair plays the electric guitar and speaks with the Thames Estuary lower-middle-class accent that is quickly replacing the plummy public school accent that had been considered indispensable for English politicians since the days of Edmund Burke. (Blair also favors Scottish political autonomy, over which the borderers fought the English since the dawn of recorded history.)
“The originary hypothesis,” writes Prof. Gans, “is in the first place a heuristic.” As such, GA is capable of producing—as readers of this column scarcely need to be reminded—remarkably supple and elegant interpretations of mass mimetic phenomena like Beatlemania. But in tying a fundamental category of the human to its “moment” of emergence in a hypothetical originary scene, originary analysis also fosters the habit of thinking punctually. It reminds us that things have origins, and that fleshing out a plausible model of those origins can go a long way toward helping us make sense of what we’re able to observe around us. Where did American cowboy culture come from, and how did it achieve the ascendancy it enjoys today? It came from northern Britain, and lay fallow under the very noses of the American establishment until it was spectacularly re-imported to our shores by four mop-topped lads from Liverpool, England’s major point of western embarkation. On a cold February night forty years ago today, these humble, under-educated, self-taught songsters started a revolution. They really were, as a campy memorial to them in their hometown asserts, four lads who shook the world.