I have close relatives who listen attentively to One Direction, the popular boy band from the UK, and after observing the phenomenon I can confirm: One Direction are the new Beatles.
Before the protests pour in, I hasten to say I don’t believe 1D (I know the lingo) will have anything like the long-term success and influence of the Fab Four. Yet it’s precisely such a dismissal that links the two groups. Where One Direction and the Beatles resemble each other is in the contemporary mainstream responses to their music, which was, and is, pretty skeptical. One Direction will probably not end up like the Beatles, but they’ve started from the same position.
Today John, Paul, George and Ringo are routinely cited as only a little less significant to Western civilization than Mahatma Gandhi, Julius Caesar, and Moses, but throughout the 1960s, and certainly during the Beatlemania years, many outsiders found their songs forgettable and their mass appeal dismaying. “All I want to know is, why?” asked veteran British saxophonist Tubby Hayes of the Beatles’ popularity, after three of them had blithely dropped in at jazzer Ronnie Scott’s nightclub. The New York Herald-Tribune wrote them off as “75 percent publicity, 20 percent haircut, and 5 percent lilting lament.” “These bums are what all the fuss is about?” wondered boxer Sonny Liston after the foursome posed with his upcoming opponent, a young prospect named Cassisus Clay. Though film critic Andrew Sarris liked A Hard Day’s Night, he qualified, “[t]hey may not be worth a paragraph in six months.” In 1964’s Goldfinger, no less suave a figure than Sean Connery’s James Bond told his latest conquest, “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Pérignon ’53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!” That same year, Paul Johnson described the Beatles as a “mass-produced mental opiate” in his infamous article “The Menace of Beatlism,” published the New Statesman:
Nowadays, if you confess that you don’t know the difference between Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Waller (and what is more don’t care) you are liable to be accused of being a fascist…Both TV channels [!] now run weekly programmes in which popular records are played to teenagers and judged. While the music is performed, the cameras linger savagely over the faces of the audience…How pathetic and listless they seemed: young girls, hardly more than sixteen, dressed as adults and already lined up as fodder for exploitation…At sixteen, I and my friends heard our first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I can remember the excitement even today. We would not have wasted thirty seconds of our precious time on The Beatles and their ilk…
Even sympathetic critics have suggested a counterfactual scenario of 1962 and 1963, in which no Profumo scandal in Britain and no JFK assassination in the US necessitated a feel-good media antidote, and so an obscure beat combo on the Parlophone label faded away after two or three lackluster single releases. Beatle biographers speculate that, in this case, only Paul McCartney would have maintained a career in the music industry, perhaps as a teacher – George Harrison might have become a bus driver like his father, Ringo Starr an odd-jobber around the Liverpool docks, and the angry and violence-prone John Lennon might even have drifted into a life of petty thuggery. In other words, the Beatles were in the right place at the right time, and made the most of it, but for all their talent and originality, they could easily have missed out on becoming the unassailable legends they are today. Paul Johnson, Sonny Liston, and James Bond weren’t necessarily tone-deaf squares – they just got left on the wrong side of an historical fluke.
Hindsight is 20/20, and hind-hearing is likewise extremely acute. Today the Beatles sound “authentic” and One Direction “manufactured,” but in the early 1960s show business was scarcely less reliant on hype and opportunism than its digitized equivalent of 2013. To my ears, 1D are no more than five Justin Biebers or an expanded clan of Jonas Brothers; had I been around in 1963 I may have similarly found the Beatles indistinguishable from a thousand other disposable rock ‘n’ roll “sensations,” other than their gimmicky mop-tops and irritating yeah-yeah-yeahs. The people who begrudged the Beatles their fame and their hit records were only expressing a disgust with the entire pop machine that was common to their generation, and which has been handed down, decade after decade, to adults of our own time. One Direction, then, are most like the Beatles not because they are so special but because they are so average.
I re-emphasize: the Beatles are the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever, and One Direction are an inconsequential fad. The Beatles’ musical legacy is secure, and 1D’s is already dubious. The Beatles have stood the test of time, as we measure it in pop culture; 1D probably won’t. Yet we do well to remind ourselves how fickle fate can be when making or breaking young entertainers, today or fifty years ago, and how easy it is to pick winners long after the races are run. The last word goes to John Lennon, leader of One Direction in their 1963 incarnation: “We were just a band who made it very, very big, that’s all.”