The Beatles: From Cute To Culture

The Beatles undoubtedly led one of the biggest cultural revolutions in contemporary US history. Arriving at a time in which America was suffering from a large emotional depression, they lifted millions of people’s spirits and changed the face of rock and roll. Their song lyrics empowered and excited young women across the nation, who were daring to change the status quo of their role as mothers, wives, and daughters. Their carefree nature inspired the baby boomer generation to seek thrills and to enjoy themselves in the present, rather than worry about the future like their parents had done. Most importantly, they brought a fresh, new look to music that helped Americans heal from the loss of John F. Kennedy, one that would inspire a widespread culture of boy bands and quiet teenage rebellion. But as Beatlemania became too big for even the Beatles to handle, the friendly, innocent image began to crack, and the Beatles would begin to question who they were really playing music for and who they were trying to please. By 1966, a transformation was beginning to manifest itself in small ways as the Fab Four sought to shed the uniform and branch out from their simpler, more formulaic songs.
When the Beatles first arrived in America in 1964, only three months had passed since the nation had lost its beloved president, John F. Kennedy. His death had left the people lost and confused, wondering what was going to happen now that Lyndon Johnson had taken over. “The sense of possibility, of optimism, of inevitable progress had been so buoying in the first three years of the 1960s that the youth of America took Kennedy’s death especially hard.”[1] But by the time that the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had made it to the number one slot on the charts, it had become clear that young Americans had found something that could help them cope with their confusion. “The fun-loving Beatles seemed a perfect antidote to the pessimism that had engulfed America after John F. Kennedy’s death a few months earlier.”[2] Dressed in matching suits and haircuts as prescribed by their manager, they seemed to embody “good clean fun,” something that the younger generation could enjoy and the older generation could at least tolerate.[3]
The songs that the Beatles brought with them in 1964 suited their clean and cute style and attracted teenage girls from all over. Not only was their appearance attractive yet approachable, their lyrics spoke directly to their female fans and opened themselves up in friendly way. They admitted that they felt the rush of happiness of holding a girl’s hand in “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, just like girls did for their beaus, promised that they would be true and faithful in “All My Loving” when it had always been the responsibility of the female to stick around, and begged their loved ones to return the love that they so totally give away in “Please Please Me.” “When they recorded their own versions of girl group songs like ‘Please Mr. Postman’ and ‘Chains,’ they showed that boys could find themselves in exactly the same spot as girls and feel just as trapped and helpless.”[4] The boys immediately gave girls the upper hand in this figurative romantic relationship by establishing that she could control them, that she was the object of desire and that her tiniest gesture of approval could make them go mad. The Beatles made male sexuality less threatening and more familiar, more similar to the throes of emotion and confusion that girls felt all the time.[5] And at a period in time where teenage girls were starting to break away from the social construct that their mothers belonged to, where they were beginning to venture into more progressive, sexually confident personalities that “push[ed] against the already crumbling boundaries of 1950s-style femininity,”[6] nothing could have validated this change more than four young boys with hearts of gold and words that made young women feel more in control of their sexuality and of their relationships.
The Fab Four’s unprecedented popularity, however, quickly began to take its toll. As the demand rose to high proportions, the band’s life was reduced to a tight schedule packed with tours, studio time, and filming for television programs. They proceeded to perform in larger and larger venues, where more fans could simply scream louder than they could play their music, “creating within the band a growing contempt for the ritual of performing.”[7] Their concert in Shea Stadium may very well have epitomized the hysterical, cult-like rituals that resulted from their performances, with fans escaping the arms of policemen as they ran onto the field to get closer to their beloved musicians and the screams of the girls so loud that they overcame even the PA system broadcasting the sound. Ringo later commented on that concert, saying, “I never felt people came to hear our show. I felt they came to see us. Because from the counting of the first number, the volume of screams would just drown everything out.”[8] The cutesy, uniform image began to crumble in small ways: in their video for the song “We Can Work It Out,” the band members switch between two different uniforms as John makes silly faces at the camera and tries to make his bandmates laugh, while in “Help!” they get rid of the band setup entirely by straddling a plank and playing guitar while Ringo holds an umbrella in the back. But ultimately, it was through Bob Dylan’s influence that they had decided to retreat from live performances and work on new music, music that would move away from love songs and danceable rhythms:

Up till then, rock and roll had been primarily
a music of revelry, a medium for lifting people up
and helping them dance their blues away. Under the
combined influences of marijuana and Bob Dylan’s
unkempt persona, the Beatles would turn it into some-
-thing else again: a music of introspective self-absorption,
a medium fit for communicating autobiographical
intimacies, political discontents, spiritual elation, inviting
an audience, not to dance, but to listen – quietly,
attentively, thoughtfully.[9]

Rubber Soul, which came out in 1965, would become the transition from a rock and roll that lifted people’s spirits to a rock and roll that made people sit down and listen carefully. Not only did the band experiment with all sorts of musical possibilities, such as backwards music in “Rain” and the sitar in “Norwegian Wood,” their lyrics left the formulaic, direct conversation between the band and the fans and became more experimental like the story of “Nowhere Man” or reaffirmative of male dominance like in “Run For Your Life.” “’Oh, I get it,’ McCartney recalls Dylan saying. ‘You don’t want to be cute anymore!’ And McCartney, in retrospect, has agreed: ‘That summed it up. That was sort of what it was. The cute period had ended.’”[10] By the time Revolver came out in 1966, boasting bizarre and unusual tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “She Said She Said,” the Beatles had transformed rock and roll from peppy to thoughtful, and it is this thoughtful nature that remains with rock and roll today.


Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass
Media. Random House Digital, Inc., 1995. 102-117. Print.

Miller, James. Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-
1977. Touchstone, 2000. 227-229. Print.

Szatmary, David P. Rockin’ In Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll.
7th Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2009. 112-114.

Wonfor, Geoff, dir. The Beatles Anthology. Dir. Bob Smeaton. 1995. Film.

[1] Susan J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (Random House Digital, Inc., 1995), 113.
[2] David P. Szatmary, Rockin’ In Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll, Seventh Edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 112, 114.
[3] Szatmary, 113-114.
[4] Douglas, 117.
[5] Douglas, 117.
[6] Douglas, 102.
[7] James Miller, Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 (Touchstone, 2000), 229.
[8] Geoff Wonfor, Bob Smeaton, Directors, The Beatles Anthology, 1995.
[9] Miller, 227-228.
[10] Miller, 231.

Mia Farinelli, Age 18, Grade 12, Horace Mann School, Silver Key

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