Updated: March 9, 2014 6:11AM
Sunday evening will mark 50 years since Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles to an American audience. Those of us in college then watched little television, but on that evening nearly everyone crowded around the few black-and-white sets scattered around campus.
Our professors in their nearby homes had little interest in the Beatles, or any of “our” music for that matter. They mostly dreamed in Latin, we guessed, and couldn’t possibly parse lyrics like, “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.” We, however, stood in rapt attention as John, Paul, George and Ringo sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Our female acquaintances did not scream — we were, after all, Lutherans — and having grown up with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, to us those mop-headed but clean-cut Brits seemed tame in comparison. Their music got inside us, however. It was new in a way few could describe. We were hooked.
Still, on that night 50 years ago, we never imagined that 73 million others, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population at the time, had also tuned in to the Beatles, nor could we have predicted, for example, that half a century later, the most popular course at Indiana University would be Dr. Glenn Gass’s Z401: The Music of the Beatles. Our children and grandchildren still queue up to listen, and they, too, sometimes find themselves humming “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad ...”
Phenomena like Beatlemania help knit together human cultures. Without such shared experiences and common languages we remain isolated or fiercely tribal. Sometimes religions functions similarly, although they can also sorely divide us.
Tragedy brings us together, at least until we inevitably begin assigning blame. Some 93 percent of American households watched television coverage of John Kennedy’s funeral on one of the three networks broadcasting then. The same proportion of us fixed ourselves on the televised spectacle of 9-11 despite the hundred or so cable channels that could have offered an escape. More importantly, for the rest of our lives we will share the stories of where we were when the news reached us.
We observed another pop-culture birthday this week. Facebook turned 10 on Tuesday. I confess to citizenship in Facebook’s world, but I’ll leave it to others to analyze what sort of influence this kind of networking has on our patterns of connection. I can’t begin to calculate the long-term effects of sharing news links, recipes, photographs of pets and laments over snow-shoveling injuries all in the same mix, but I’ll hazard the guess that while we once had six degrees of separation between ourselves and anyone else on the planet, Facebook has reduced that number to two or three.
One could hardly discuss cultural glue this week without mentioning the 111 million viewers who watched Sunday’s Superbowl, or the fact that only Thanksgiving and July 4th surpass the Super Bowl for the number of people who leave home to celebrate the occasion.
Do we love football that much? Betting on the game? Half-time extravaganzas? Maybe, but the commercials have gradually stolen the show.
They tell us who we are. They define manhood (pickup trucks and fast cars), femininity (long, curly hair and few clothes) and fun (beer, beer, and beer).
In sum, you can be whoever you want to be, so long as you have the money. I have my doubts, which is why I won’t long remember the Super Bowl, the commercials, or much of what I see on Facebook. I will, however, keep humming Beatles songs, including one that paraphrases a really old piece of wisdom about human culture’s prospects, “All You Need Is Love.”