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?
You’re absolutely right that there is no objective standard regarding the quality of music, nor of any other art form, as the value of art is entirely subjective. And since the past century has seen such a colossal output of talent, aided and proliferated by the development of recorded media, there has been an exponential increase in the different varieties of music. Under such circumstances, people cling to certain signifiers to distinguish their own tastes, a trait which is in no way unique to fans of rock music. Ironically, the Beatles’ universal popularity should undermine their cultural cache, but the exact opposite seems to have happened. Besides their having existed at the perfect time, the reason they are so widely renowned is because they encapsulated precisely what was great about 20th century music, in the process become the standard-bearers for pop culture itself. As Celia Farber once wrote in Spin, “The Beatles were the prism through which everything that came before crystalized, and everything that came after measured itself.” To one who has had to suffer a lifetime of brickbats over his ambivalence toward the Beatles, I can only imagine how pretentious that sounds, but I happen to think it’s true. Blues, rock, classical, folk, avant-garde, hip-hop, electronic: Everything is reflected in their output, composed and performed with the highest level of skill. (No jazz, though, for whatever reason. Duke and Miles are safe.)
Of course, musical taste isn’t a battle, and personal preferences shouldn’t be used to beat down those who disagree. Differing opinions should be viewed as an opportunity to learn instead of an obstacle to overcome. You’re spot on in saying that musicians are often ruined by their fans; without sounding too elitist, I’d hate to be lumped in with some Abercrombie-decked frat brother with a DMB sticker on his car. At that point, differences in taste expose a wider sociological gap, one which obnoxious fans can only serve to exacerbate. People too frequently forget that their tastes extend no further than themselves, and those who buck the party line that the Beatles were the greatest thing ever serve as an excellent reminder.