I only care about *this much* about the Beatles. I apologize in advance if an annoyed tone creeps into this post, but for a long time rabid Beatles fans made it very difficult for me to appreciate their output at all. Now look: the Beatles were great and very talented and wonderfully innovative and all-around very important. I get all that. But I’ll also take a second to tell you that I’ve never fallen for them. No, I haven’t sat down with the entire catalogue, but I’ve spent time with a few of their albums, and while I might remark ‘This is pretty’ (“She’s Leaving Home”) or ‘Yeah, that one fucking rocked’ (“Helter Skelter”), at the end of the day I’ve never felt like, “Oh my god, I need to hear that one Beatles song right now, it’s the only thing that matters in the world.”
Why am I writing all this? Because look: the Beatles are great, and it’s fine to love them, or even call them your favorite band, although I will mention here that I haven’t had a favorite artist for over ten years; I sort of feel like the gesture is superficial and takes a narrow view. But a lot people aren’t satisfied just to call the Beatles their favorite; they have to call them ‘the best’, which makes it an objective, factual contention, one that I object to and that I feel truly limits music appreciation and imagination.
For starters, it seems ludicrous to me to name a superlative artist out of the entire legacy of global music history. Now many will respond with, “Of course we’re not saying that, we’re just saying the Beatles were the best rock band ever”, but two things. A) If you say someone or something is the best ever (and a lot of people do say it just like that), what that means is it’s the best ever, so if that’s not what you meant you shouldn’t have put it that way, and B) dodging that bullet requires you to partition music off into genres, which leads to a number of other problems. We don’t pick superlatives for any other genre: even (most) classical buffs won’t pick a definite favorite from Mozart, Beethoven or Bach; jazz enthusiasts won’t declare unequivocally that Trane was better than Bird. In light of this, it seems to me like picking a best rock band seems to imply that rock and roll is somehow more important than other genres. And while I’ll say that rock and roll is quite possibly my favorite music, it doesn’t mean whatsoever that it’s the best.
There’s more I want to say about the arguments from popularity and influence and the fallacies therein, but I can’t muster it right now. What I think you can fairly say about the Beatles’ importance is that they completely changed the game, forever. No small feat. But christ, so did a whole ton of other people over just the last century. Now you could make a lot of qualifying statements like, “Sure, Elvis did a ton to bring black music to mainstream audiences, and Chuck Berry revolutionized electric guitar playing, and Les Paul developed multitrack recording, but it was really the Beatles that brought all those developments together at just the right time to make the ultimate rock and roll experience that will never be topped, not ever,” but golly I hope you can see how silly that is. If we can acknowledge that the game has changed many times, why pretend that we can keep score?