Postmodernism in the 21st Century: 'How important were the Beatles for the way we live our life today'
By Cyrus Manasseh c. 2019, 2020
What can be said about the Beatles that hasn’t already been said? Is there in fact anything new or different to say anyway? Yet how shall we say? Perhaps we can begin this way. The ideas of 90s postmodernism are everywhere around us. Feminism, anti-hierarchy, no fixed views based on rationalism and reason, no morality, low popularity of the church, homogenisation of culture, no fixed genres or truth that can be substantiated by what can be held as evidence. Think of today – since the computer age transformed into today’s information age, after passing through the 90s and postmodernism – (which was already discussed as early as 1979 by Lyotard, we are now living in age in which hardly anyone knows what is going on. The division between good and bad is muddled and there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to agree on what is right or wrong anymore.
Could the Beatles have been so influential as to have completely influenced this state of affairs?
Granted, there are many more factors that led to the postmodernism we are now living in today which have led to the world changing so drastically from a period of High Modernism to one of postmodernism. But how many living in the High Modernism of the 60s when the origins of postmodernism would be ignited were not Beatles fans or were not influenced by a High Modernist culture that was not entirely influenced by the Beatles? Plato, an important philosopher had pointed out that, “Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”
― Plato, The Republic
But is this always true? Is Plato’s statement true and can it be applied to the incredible story of the Beatles? Did the Beatles really change the modes of music so much that it helped to change the fundamental laws of the State? First, yes. It is probably impossible to underestimate the Beatles’ influence on probably everything. They shaped countries and governments, mentalities, fashions, ideas, the culture industry. In fact, they did this not for part of their tenure as the most famous group but for the entire duration of their tenure. In short, the Beatles upturned what was seen as the establishment.
What the Beatles had changed was a life that had been founded on classical and Enlightenment ideas, established on discipline, fixed rationalist principles of logic based upon reason and rationalism which was bound up with the concept of hierarchy and the importance of the individualistic individual in society, which had been firmly established as the measure of all public discourse for understanding and building the world based upon different levels and categories of importance and quality. (Manasseh 2015, 2020, p. 4) In fact, although Rock n’ Roll had existed prior to the early 50s in the US with Elvis, Little Richard etc. not even Elvis had done what they had done.
Before the Beatles, nothing had, or could even shake the foundations of what had taken hundreds of years to establish. Before the Beatles, things were so rigid and formal. Black and white, sterile no pill, an un-free society. As Syamsi points out, “The popularity of this group brought a lot of things to the surface, besides the ‘role’ for women, people also realised - for the first time - the importance/the need for identity; and those from the economic domain found a new source for making a huge amount of money. Concerning the matter of identity, at the time of the emergence of this group Britain was in a ‘desperate’ need of gaining a new identity after experiencing a bitter consequence of the two World Wars.” (Syamsi 2002, pp.1285-9)
In fact, postmodernism had already been on its way before the Beatles. Much before the Beatles, philosophers like Kant in The Enlightenment - (a movement which dominated Europe from the seventeenth to nineteenth century) and followed a little later by Hegel against the modernist principles of fixed truths, fixed subjects and grand narratives began focusing on more individual and subjective interpretations. In the nineteenth century, nature and the idea of the artificial began to be seen as no longer distinguishable. Thinkers like Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietzsche. believed in varying ways that, “… society has become a realization of abstract thought, held together by an artificial and all-pervasive medium speaking for everyone and for no one. “ (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2015) Yet, while it had been on its way for a long time before the Beatles, the Beatles made everything postmodernism.
In relation to the Beatles bringing on of postmodernism in the 21st century the issue of identity politics so prevalent in our postmodern/altermodern age comes from what the Beatles had stimulated in the culture. In fact, without stretching things too much, it’s even quite possible to say that John Lennon as the leader and originator of the Beatles invented postmodernism for our culture today. A leader that was quite happy to listen to everyone in his group and let it be as democratic as possible all the time putting the idea of the group over the individualistic individual - this was Lennon. What was once politely called irreverence, in an age of High Modernism, as leader of the Beatles, his sarcasm against the conventional, coupled with the conceptual artists and thinkers that floated inside a cultural spirit and atmosphere of the High Modernism of the 60s filled up to the brim with Beatles music and mood perhaps more than anything else influenced the initiation of postmodernism for today after the computer age transformed itself into our information age in the 21st century.
Joining maximum commercial with the avant-garde they didn’t follow trends, instead, they created them. Remember what happened in the 90s? Following the culture, they strongly helped to bring on and engender, low art would become fused together to become high art to exist on the same level. In fact, we need to ask - how far away was the former art student Lennon and the Beatles from starting all of this in the 60s? The artists, - the conceptual ones in the 60s were immersed in what the Beatles were doing in the High Modernism of the 60s - so, why can we not say that the Beatles under Lennon’s leadership started everything - even postmodernism?
In fact, the unconventional Beatles of the 60s in the age of continuous and rigidly enforced convention brought things back to tribalism, which had for the most part faded out - their music was a tribal music. It was a music of the community or community group which had importances which would lead things to the postmodern. With their ‘all for oneness’ - the Beatles brought forward the tribal hedonism that we have today. As enemies of the establishment, with Lennon as leader, their all for one spirit, attitude and mentality would provide the exact example for all that existed at the time and everything in the world that continued and followed after them, representing and engendering the idea and spirit of a group against the world, instead of the individual. Writing in 2011 Lotis points out that, “ Although tribes no longer exist, in the western world, these notions are nowadays related to groups…These groups often have simple structures with few significant distinctions between their individuals. Tribalism describes the loyalties that individuals feel towards their group/tribe and the way these loyalties affect their behavior and their attitudes towards others. It also refers to the strong cultural identity that characterises oneself as a member of one group/tribe. These characteristics shape the tribal consciousness and loyalty to the tribal values and to the customs and beliefs of a tribal society. ” (Lotis 2011, 1)
It would be this promotion of group mentality over an individual one and through “identity formation and symbiosis” (Nuttall et al., 2011, 152), which would become one of the basic ideas and tenants of the postmodern. The media at the time latched on and assisted all the way whether for or against them. From this, the idea of the individualistic individual made strong in the Enlightenment would give way to the idea of the group being more important in relation to giving every individual a self-identity and self-image. In fact, against the discipline which had existed as part of the establishment tests showed that the more disciplined the household - the more likely there would be to be a ‘Beatlemaniac’ to emerge. (Rewind, Peter Gzowski 2011) After collecting the individualistic individuals of society and grouping them together, Beatlemania, - which meant mass group hysteria, catapulted everyone into wanting to belong to an identity group.
Critically important in helping the Beatles lead/push us forward into an age of the postmodern had been their recording producer George Martin - the maverick A & R man who was the most open allowing them to be as original, irreverent and transgressive as they felt they needed to be. For example, they didn’t want to release covers as singles unlike the practice of other groups, and would win over Martin, who’s maverick qualities fit perfectly with the Beatles’ own extreme rebelliousness and musical heterogeneity. Emerging “as a kind of fifth instrument for the Beatles” (Womack 2016) Martin indeed had been a very special man – even a little postmodern himself helping them greatly to bridge the gap between very commercial mainstream pop and elite classical music success. In fact, not only did he encourage and strongly facilitate the Beatles to successfully straddle the gap between mainstream and elite musical forms, which included avant-garde pop, but his expertise, willingness to experiment and discover new ways to think about cultural production helped them to include a mix of all the different genres on their albums making his and the link with postmodernism and its heterogeneity clearly evident. In the 50s he was the producer of the Goon Show - the most anarchic comedy show with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan - both extremely Dadaistic personas who was a conservative yet gently liked to break the rules and had met the Beatles who broke the rules and who needed to break the rules of the establishment.
By breaking all boundaries set in place by the establishment for those preferring one style over others, thanks to Martin, how many different genres of music did the Beatles successfully record leading to people and musicians of all social stratas following them? In fact, Classical conductors like Bernstein, composers like Copland and Jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra all heralded them. As such they were appreciated by every kind of musician and every kind of person breaking down absolutely all barriers, leading to making it easier for those that would follow them in society whether professionals or non-professionals to destroy the categories that had been defined, quantified, measured, qualified and programmed into Western society by Enlightenment ideas and philosophies.
Therefore, in this regard, there seems to be a direct correlation between the Beatles and the postmodernism of the 1990s. We must recognise that the postmodern world of the 90s would be the foundation of the world we are now living in today, and it seems that the Beatles tenure as the number one musical and cultural group of their time, one of High Modernism in the 60s, generated a sufficient amount including a consumer culture to change the entire world and in a postmodern sense and in relation to postmodernism, still continues to change it. This is because what they changed snowballed which changed the entire cultural context giving new meaning to everything which went on to continuously reshape all else continually, which still continues today. In fact, just so much of what they did and what they influenced created so much that was in the postmodernism of the 90s. Just look at Oasis for example.
At this point, perhaps one needs to ask if in fact we had needed the Beatles? Yet without them, what would have happened? The question now seems ludicrous. Could we imagine our world now if the Beatles had not happened? In fact, by being a part of the world they were living in, in the High Modernism of the 60s they completely created the world we now live in.