Tomorrow Never Knows
A younger generation decides the fate of boomer cultural icons: fuck, marry, or kill?
Tomorrow is a group of editors and one designer who get drunk together a lot.Travis Ladue is a designer from Arizona who likes Basset hounds.
Every time the Tomorrow crew gathers for drinks at our favorite neighborhood bar, El Chavo, we have the same tequila-fueled arguments. Who’s more relevant, Prince or Joan Rivers? Will ranch dressing, engineered to survive outside the refrigerator, lead to America’s ruin? Which cultural entity is most racist: The Help, Wes Anderson, or Morrissey? But perhaps our greatest debate centers around the culture of the baby boomers, and whether their aging musical idols—the Beatles, the Stones, Bruce—are destined to reign on top-100 lists forever, and whether they deserve to keep the spot. The conversation generally begins when Cord complains about something Bob Dylan did eight years ago. It’s all downhill from there.
But our debate speaks to a tension that arises whenever generations wrestle for the pop culture baton. On one side, we have the nostalgia machines that venerate the old and seem to measure a cultural product’s worth by the thickness of the dust it’s accumulated. On the other, there are the cool-hunting marketers on a constant search for the next big thing, who value novelty over staying power. Maybe the real problem, as we discovered when we decided to recreate our bar fight in this magazine, is that the two sides are not so diametrically opposed.
Cord Jefferson: It shouldn’t be a controversial statement to say that you don’t like the Beatles. I don’t: I never developed the part of the brain responsible for the appreciation of Ringo Starr singing about octopuses, or even Lennon and McCartney telling us to let it be. I think two or three of their songs are very nice. But for the most part, I find the band’s oeuvre boring (“Across the Universe”) or downright grating (“Yellow Submarine”). And I’m entirely lost when someone tries to explain to me why I’m absolutely wrong about the band. “How can I be wrong about my musical preference?” I asked one Beatles supporter. “You just are,” she replied.
The blind veneration of every band alive during Woodstock, man, has become dogma: The best bands in the world have come and gone, and the rest are just runners-up. This cultural self-involvement excludes practically every other form of music but rock and roll—jazz is archaic, disco is cheesy, pop stars are useless because they don’t write their own music, rappers are awful because they don’t play traditional instruments. And the myopia is always fastidiously ranked: In 2010, Rolling Stone devoted an entire top-100 list to Beatles songs.
Even John Lennon himself called the Beatles a “myth” that sold out and “never improved as musicians” in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview. Led Zeppelin has been successfully sued numerous times for plagiarizing. The Stones, considered one of the most influential bands in history, was itself influenced by unacknowledged black blues musicians. And these artists don’t get better with age. Bob Dylan, who railed against capitalist greed and offshore manufacturing in his song “Union Sundown,” has since shilled ladies’ undergarments for Victoria’s Secret, a company accused of horrible labor practices in its overseas factories.
Tim Fernholz: You know the whole “great artists steal” bit? It’s not clear to me that the Dad Rock icons’ musical borrowings, both subtle and blatant, are such a penalty in an age where we defend remix culture and are starting to rethink the boundaries of intellectual property. Does Dylan’s late-in-life sellout move change the impact of his music? Depends on how seriously you took the lyrics in the first place—Dylan, to Ed Bradley in 2004: “I don’t know how I got to write those songs.” And, Cord, you’re about 47 years behind the folk purists who ditched him when he went electric at Newport.
Dylan Lathrop: Can we please stop referring to Dylan by his last name? I’m years away from a sellout move.
TF: Sorry, dude. But here’s what’s wrong with that girl shutting you down over your Beatles hate: One, all musical arguments are to be entertained in a bar-talk scenario, and two, the only musician everyone has to like is Stevie Wonder. There are no penalties for disliking the Beatles, although I think you’re falling prey to the old hating-the-star-for-their-fans trap. Anyone whose aesthetic-appreciation blinders lock in immediately post-youth is a bore. I think we hate in boomers what we hate in our generation; they were the originators of the kind of manufactured pop culture that still holds a special place in our hearts.
I’m not as bothered as you are by this Beatles worship—I like their work!—because there’s so much other good stuff out there. It’s not clear to me that Rolling Stone is still relevant, and new music seems to have successfully slipped out from beneath the iron boot of rock.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Bob Dylan may have sold out, but let’s be real, he was late to the game. Most rock musicians did it the millisecond they got famous; the counterculture went pop almost as soon as it arrived. The Rolling Stones, for instance, did a Rice Krispies commercial in 1963, way before the Summer of Love or the Monterey Pop Festival.
CJ: So boomers pioneered the culture of art in the service of self? Agreed. In a July New York Times op-ed, young boomer journalist and novelist Kurt Andersen argued solipsism is to be expected from his generation. “[W]hat the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.” Note that 1967 is the year Rolling Stone started publishing, and the year the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
With self-involvement the status quo for young Boomers, Andersen says it made perfect sense when, decades later, lapsed hippies became old saddies still hugely concerned with their own pleasure. “‘Do your own thing’ is not so different than ‘every man for himself,’” Andersen wrote. “If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie … or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators.”
NWA: Claiming that fiscal libertarianism and corporate greed took root from 1960s pleasure politics is insane. There was more income equality, more investment in higher education and social services, and higher tax rates for the rich than during almost any decade in our history. The austerity of the backlashtastic 1980s was the precedent for a cavernous wealth gap, not a trippy Beatles album or a then-underground zine called Rolling Stone.
Also: Why is being “hugely concerned with your own pleasure” a problem? This logic veers dangerously close to Newt Gingrich’s talking points circa 1998—some teenagers grooved to Janis Joplin at Woodstock, and now the president is getting blowjobs in the Oval Office! The “shamelessly selfish” legacy of the 1960s isn’t just the inflated egos of boomer-age white dudes, it’s your world: moms with fulfilling careers, openly gay power couples, hot wedding-ring-free sex, a black president. It’s a problem that nostalgic white guys often dominate the conversation about “good music,” but that’s not pleasure’s fault. And it’s not exclusive to boomers.
It's become dogma for people of all ages: The best bands have come and gone, and the rest are just runners-up.
CJ: The problem isn’t just that boomers pursued their own pleasure—it’s that new generations are still expected to get off on the same outdated material. In a 2011 BuzzFeed article, Dave Stopera, a college student (!), offers “12 Extremely Disappointing Facts About Pop Music.” Stopera whines about how Rihanna has more hit singles than Led Zeppelin, or how rapper Flo Rida’s song “Low” has sold as many copies as the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The juxtaposition is explanation enough—you should love the Beatles and loathe whatever doesn’t sound like them. That BuzzFeed article has now been tweeted 22,000 times and liked almost a million times on Facebook. God forbid you suggest that a glitzy pop star like Rihanna is more talented than, say, Elvis.
NWA: The Beatles were the Rihannas of the pre-Sgt. Pepper mid-‘60s. They were the poppiest of pop stars before they were musical “geniuses.”
Ann Friedman: Also, Beatles snobs and Elvis lovers are not one and the same. People love Elvis for his aesthetic and his moves. He’s a cultural touchstone, not a critical darling—and who’s to say Rihanna won’t have staying power?
CJ: Right, so let’s hope we won’t be claiming that our pop stars are the best. Let’s make sure a young kid picking up a guitar won’t do so with the nagging thought that no matter how good he gets, he’ll never be as good as the bands whose members died before he was born. If I ever have children, I will explain why John, Paul, George, and Ringo were so essential to so many. But I will also teach them a lyric of my own: Imagine there’s no Beatles, it’s easy if you try.
Zak Stone: I plan on teaching my children how to twerk to “Birthday Cake.”
Amanda Hess: It’s grim to ask young people to worship at the graves of dead boomers, but asking the boomers to let go of their cultural idols means playing loose with our own. I dare you to sit your kids down and tell them that Biggie Smalls is not, in fact, the illest. If bye-hatering Biggie sounds sacrilegious, maybe it should! Today’s 14-year-olds weren’t even alive when he died. Our new critical trend toward accelerated pop-idol turnover isn’t necessarily an improvement on the boomer impulse to hold on to the past. One of the reasons Rihanna’s hit-single count feels a little unsettling is that she amassed them so quickly—meteoric rises help keep pop music hyper-relevant, but there’s something to be said for the careerlong artistic evolution of bands like the Beatles. And old music can resonate with new generations in unexpected ways. The main reason I liked the Beatles growing up was because they were more alt than any of the contemporary boy bands offered to me at the time. Like, George Harrison? He was cute! And he wasn’t wearing JNCOs, or whatever.
NWA: Girl, *NSYNC never wore JNCOs. Also—eww, George Harrison?
TF: He had a huge sexual following, Nona!
NWA: Marry, fuck, kill: the Beatles?
AF: We should bye-hater Ringo, because he’d be too easy to just K.
Megan Greenwell: I have an easy solution to this: kill the Beatles, fuck Bruce, marry Bruce.
NWA: Bruce! I would fuck Bruce before any of the Beatles, for the same reason I never go for hipster dudes—I’m really not into that skinny English look.
AF: I love how the Beatles aren’t mainstream enough for you.