Young Readers and the Beatles, a guest post by author Mark Goldblatt
I frequently see pre-teens and teens wearing vintage music t-shirts and think, I wonder if they really know and like that band? Like, do you young teen really like ACDC or was that just a cool looking shirt you found at Target? Often times, of course, they really are fans; They were introduced to the music by their parents, most often. My kids 100% know who The Beatles and Foo Fighters are because I did my parental due diligence and introduced them. Or if you are them, made them suffer by forcing my music on them. Riley is 10/10 not a fan of Foo Fighters and I considered disowning her, but I love her too much. And in the Tik Tok era, they often know from online sources as things go viral. A couple of years ago Fleetwood Mac went viral thanks to this Tik Tok video, for example. Today, we have a guest post by author Mark Goldblatt talking about teens, The Beatles and his book, MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD.
My mom always liked to tell the story of the night the Beatles made their American TV debut. The year was 1964. The Goldblatts owned one television, a black and white Motorola built into a walnut cabinet roughly the size of an asteroid. My five-year-old sister Gail and I served as remote controls for my dad, who decided what we watched. If he wanted the sound louder, I had to drag my six-year-old butt to the unit and turn the volume knob. If he wanted to change channels, it was Gail’s turn.
The payoff came each Sunday night at 8:00 when we watched Ed Sullivan. It was the one show we all looked forward to—and Gail and I, theoretically, got to stay up an extra hour. We rarely made it. According to my mom, Gail would usually last until 8:20. By 8:45, we’d both be conked out on the carpet, ready to be toted to bed during the closing credits.
February 9th that year was different. My mom said you could feel it from the start of the show. There was a buzz in the studio audience that came through the cabinet speakers and seemed to take hold of Gail and me. We were suddenly up on our haunches—as skittish, she’d say, in her Louisiana twang, as “long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs.” She had just enough time to notice the difference before Sullivan introduced the Beatles, and the crowd broke into a torrent of screams…at which point, Gail and I rushed the TV. The two of us sat mesmerized, a foot from the screen, as Paul McCartney began singing, “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you….” We didn’t move the entire hour, not even during the commercials. Afterwards, when my mom tried to tuck us into our beds, we kept kicking the covers loose. She eventually settled us down. But after midnight, she was awakened by loud thuds. She ran into our room and found us jumping on our beds, literally bouncing off the walls, making noises that sounded vaguely like Beatles tunes.
It’s difficult to put into words what the Beatles meant to Baby Boomers. But Boomers are now Medicare recipients. Generations pass, and tastes change. It’s thus fair to ask what the Beatles have to say to kids born decades after those four uncannily musical Brits parted company in 1970. Are they no more than a historical artifact in an age dominated by hip hop, K-pop, and TikTok?
You can come at that question from a socio-historical perspective. The Beatles were not just the most popular, and critically acclaimed, musical act of the 1960s. They sparked something like a paradigm shift in our collective psyche. They set trends in hairstyles (the famed “pudding bowl haircuts”) and fashion; they refused to take the stage at a Jacksonville concert during their first US tour unless the promoter desegregated the audience; the evolution of their music forced critics to treat rock and roll not only as entertainment but as art; they helped introduce Eastern music, customs, and spirituality to Western audiences; they pretty much invented what’s now called “youth culture,” and they infused it with a sense of freedom, rebelliousness, and irony.
Oh, and they also wrote and sang really, really catchy songs.
But is that enough to sustain interest in them in perpetuity? Does the fact that the Beatles are a fixture in their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ mental landscape mean that every generation going forward will inherit that view? I wish there were a cut-and-dried answer. I hope the Beatles still have a degree of relevance since John Lennon is a major character in my new middle grade novel, Might As Well Be Dead. The plot involves a 13-year-old boy whose mother has suddenly deserted their family who is befriended by, or perhaps only hallucinates, Lennon’s ghost. It helps, of course, if you know that Lennon was also abandoned by his mom—and that several of his most haunting songs, including “Julia,” “Mother,” and, in a roundabout way, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” reflect that early, unrecoverable loss. If young readers come at the story cold, however, with only a dim notion that the Beatles were an old-timey musical group, is it worth their while to learn more? What elevates a Beatles ghost story over a run-of-the-mill ghost story? What’s the payoff for tweens in the 2020s?
The closest I can come to an answer is that they are stocking up on the givens of their culture. Here’s a way to think about it. You may be of the opinion that baseball is the dullest sport ever invented. But you need at least a casual familiarity with its history to make sense of the many tentacles of social, literary, and artistic references that emerge from it. If you don’t know, for example, that baseball was the dominant American spectator sport of the last century, and that it remained racially segregated into the late ‘40s, you won’t fully grasp why Jackie Robinson is mentioned in the company of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Likewise, you may never want to read a page of Shakespear, but if you don’t know that Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers—or, for that matter, the meaning of “star-crossed lovers”—what will you make of the Taylor Swift song, “Love Story”? Or the Bugs Bunny cartoon, “A Witch’s Tangled Hare”? Or the Steven Spielberg movie West Side Story? You can enjoy each of these things on a surface level, but layers of meaning will pass unnoticed.
Culture is ultimately a conversation. The more cultural capital you accumulate, the richer your experience of that conversation becomes. Like baseball and Shakespeare, the Beatles are part of the connective tissue that helps us organize the daily flow of incidentals, that deepens our appreciation of the whirl of ordinary experience. Why learn about such things? We get more jokes. We pick up on more asides. Patterns take shape in our minds, linking up, breaking off, doubling back on themselves. Those patterns, in turn, are sense-making structures. Wisdom hangs from them.
Young readers have an interest in joining that conversation.
MARK GOLDBLATT is the award-winning author of the middle grade novels Twerp and its sequel Finding the Worm (both from Random House), as well as a half dozen novels and nonfiction books for adults. He has been published in many popular and academic newspaper and magazines including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, USA Today, Time, National Review, Reason, Commentary, Quillette, New York Observer, Chronicle of Higher Education, Philosophy Now, and Sewanee Theological Review. He teaches developmental English and religious history at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. Find out more about him at markgoldblatt.com.
Filed under: Teen Fiction
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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