With 1, the recent chart-topping compilation of previous chart-topping singles, and the companion book The Beatles Anthology, the Beatles—or perhaps more accurately, George, Paul, Ringo, and Yoko—have effected a mighty latter-day British Invasion, recapturing the hearts and minds of American consumers with an intensity that hasn't been seen since the lads from Liverpool first sang off-key on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Since 1's release late last year, the Beatles are once again here, there, and everywhere for what feels like eight days a week in an octopus' garden in the sea: on or near the top of the Billboard album charts for months (and selling over 7 million copies of 1); on the cover of Rolling Stone for the bazillionth time ("It's like they never left," gushed the magazine); and in heavy rotation on VH-1 Classic (which has seen fit to play uninspired, patently lip-synched footage of the boys singing "Help!").
To paraphrase the Thing, the tragic, orange-skinned, rock-like member of a different and altogether more interesting '60s quartet, the Fantastic Four: Wotta revolting development this is! After watering their musical stock with abysmal solo album after abysmal solo album, weren't we finally done with these guys? Despite respectful nods—such as the dutiful placement of Sgt. Pepper's, that largely unlistened-to and virtually unlistenable record, at the very top of lists of "greatest rock albums"—Beatlemania had finally become as worn out as Lady Madonna's teats or Father McKenzie's socks. Now it's back. And given the general decline in religiosity since the '60s, this time the Beatles might really be bigger than Jesus.
What are the reasons to lament this turn of events? Among them: The big sales of 1 and Anthology make it likely that more jerry-rigged Beatles singles like the execrable "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" will be released (indeed, George Harrison is threatening to put out his first album in more than a decade); that a new round of books about the Beatles will be published, including ones like Ron Schaumburg's Growing Up With the Beatles (1976), in which the author relates his adolescence to Beatles' songs (e.g., "The Fool on the Hill" was playing in the background while his father told him the facts of life); and that the Rolling Stones will be releasing more and more special boxed sets of their old songs and, even worse, putting out new music in a desperate attempt to maintain the fiction that they are the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band.
But in the interest of brevity (and sanity), let's pause over only one reason to be dismayed by this 21st-century Beatlemania. The return of the Beatles serves a darker purpose than simply filling the sable-lined pockets of George, Paul, Ringo, and Yoko with a few more shekels (though it certainly does that): It allows leading-edge baby boomers to once again assert their supposed generational exceptionalism.
As MTV newsmummy Kurt Loder demonstrated in a recent Time encomium to the Beatles, leading-edge boomers cannot even for a minute criticize themselves without immediately launching into an aggrandizing self-defense. "Boomers can be tiresome when they natter on too long about the fun-swollen fabulousness of the 1960s," granted Loder. "I mean, I was there: 'Flower power'? Patchouli oil? Peter Max posters? Please. But even the mistiest of such geezers is likely to be right about the rock and soul music of that decade: Who could overstate its distinctive exuberance, its heady inventiveness, or the thrill of its sheer abundance? And who could overcelebrate those most emblematic of '60s pop phenomena, the Beatles? For the Beatles were then, and remain to this day, the world's most astonishing rock 'n' roll band.…It is hard—no, it is impossible—to imagine any of the gazillion or so carefully marketed little bands of today replicating a quarter of that feat."
Loder's passage suggests what's really at stake in this latest burst of Beatlemania: An attempt by aging boomers to colonize the youth of their children (and grandchildren!), to make all who come after them replicate the boomers' own sensibilities, tastes, and experiences in a way far more totalized and stifling than anything the '60s generation rebelled against.
While history has never been fair and often stacks the deck against youth, the younger generation has at least always been secure in the knowledge that their parents would eventually die off and leave them alone to get on with their lives. But in an age where average lifespans are likely to creep up to 90 over the next few decades, leading-edge boomers may be robbing the rest of us of even that comforting thought.
If they have their way, when we're 64—and they're 94, or 104, or whatever—we'll still be listening to the Beatles. And to the boomers talking about how the Beatles, and by extension themselves, really were the most astonishing group of all time.