Slate get it wrong on Beatlemania

Meet The Beatles!
Meet The Beatles! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m as contrarian as the next contrarian (or am I?), but this article in Slate which purports to be debunking the myth that Beatlemania in the USA was related to the Kennedy assassination deserves debunking itself.

Beatle literature contains a long tradition of linking the band’s American breakthrough to the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Lester Bangs, in a famous essay on the British Invasion from The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, wrote that “[i]t was no accident that the Beatles had their overwhelmingly successful Ed Sullivan Show debut shortly after JFK was shot,” a choice of words that might as well put John and Paul in the book depository.

(Read more: Kennedy’s assassination, the Beatles, and Phil Spector: Nov. 22, 1963, was a bad day for history and a great day for music.)

For a start, re that last sentence: eh? What? How does the choice of words do that? It doesn’t. Furthermore, the article doesn’t really do what its sub-headline claims, and it merely counter-argues the point without providing evidence. The other thing it does is set up a straw man argument to refute, but misses the central point.

The straw man argument goes like this: on the day Kennedy was assassinated, the release of With the Beatles, their second LP, was a shot in the arm for a moribund American music scene, and it galvanised American youth, who duly went hysterical. The article points out that this can’t be right, because there was plenty of good American music (especially pop and soul by black artists) and that America therefore didn’t really need the Beatles. It also connects the release of the Phil Spector Christmas album on the same day – for some reason, as if that proves a point, though I don’t know what the point is.

Here’s the thing. It’s a straw man argument because nobody is suggesting that Beatlemania had anything to do with how crap American music was. It’s also a straw man argument because With the Beatles wasn’t even released in the USA on that date. Capitol released Meet the Beatles! in January 1964, to coincide with the Beatles’ arrival a couple of weeks later.

So what is the argument, the one that Slate doesn’t even attempt to address?

It goes like this. Imagine you’re a teenager in November 1963. The President is assassinated, everyone is sad. In some parts of the country, of course, people aren’t sad at all. Some people cheered, but maybe they kept that to themselves and had to put on a show of, you know, being sad.

So this goes on through December. The country is in shock, the funeral, etc. All the adults are laying it on with a trowel, the sadness, and by January of 1964, you’ve had enough. C’mon! And finally, like a deus ex machina, the Beatles arrive from the skies of London, and you have the excuse you need to break free, to express an emotion other than sad, and to let rip.

That’s why Beatlemania is associated with the Kennedy assassination. Not because of some non-coincidence of release dates, but because American teenagers needed an excuse to let rip the screams they’d been holding inside for a couple of months. It’s a nice theory, it’s nothing more than that. George Harrison said it best when he said, “They were looking for an excuse.” The Beatles were in the right place at the right time, and it just so happened that they had the depth of talent and creativity to live up to the hype.

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