JFK, The Beatles, and the substance of style

Beatles Silhouttes

Two semicentennials this season provide us a teachable moment about style.

November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, America’s rock star President who, with his glamorous wife Jacqueline, brought a welcome sense of style and aesthetics to public life. December 26 marks the 50th anniversary of the US release of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles, who caused a revolution in youth style and fashion with their longish hair and English suits.

Both JFK and The Beatles had much going for them, of course, outside of style and fashion. Kennedy brought us back from the brink of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and later passed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. (He also laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act, committed the US to manned space exploration, and helped launch the Peace Corps.) The Beatles resurrected rock & roll at its finest and emerged as the most innovative and disruptive force in the history of pop music and pop culture.

But let’s not diminish style. Virginia Postrel, in her wonderful classic of social criticism, The Substance of Style, makes the point that aesthetics has intrinsic value because “human beings know the world, and each other, through our senses.”

Postrel tells the story of Afghan men and women who—immediately after the fall of their Taliban tyrants—made personal grooming and fashion a top priority. Men began shaving their beards. Women began painting their nails. Burkas even started appearing in new colors! A Michigan hairdresser who went to Kabul on a relief mission as an assistant to medical professionals ended up cutting hair full-time. In a country not easily reached by Western advertising, the need to “look good,” the desire for personal beauty, and the attraction to sensory pleasures was preeminent. How else to explain that some women risked their lives painting their faces during the Taliban occupation?

Aesthetics—the "look and feel" of people, places, and things—is not value cut off from the rest of life, Postrel reminds us throughout her book. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life. They are part of it.”

Business understands this. Products with the same features are distinguished by their look and feel, their design. This is the basis for what everyone now calls the "customer experience." As Postrel points out, "Aesthetics is not a luxury, but a universal human desire.”

Rock & roll understands this. "The look"—for many if not most artists—is paramount. A former executive of Capitol Records once told me that they signed The Beatles mainly because of their hair—and the female hysteria it generated! (Of course their music was part of their aesthetic appeal too.)

The full title of Postrel’s book is The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (Harper Perennial, 2004). Find it here.

For a post on an earlier Beatles’ anniversary, check here.

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  1. some say no kennedy assassination, no beatles - that the nation was desperate for something hopeful and the lads came along at the right moment. a nice story but i never bought it.

    1. I don't buy it either. There may not have been quite as much hysteria over the Beatles, but they certainly would have co-existed well with Kennedy's dashing good-looks, positive energy, and impressive hair (and Kennedy's "funny" accent!). And they really were a welcome contrast to Lyndon Johnson's tired old stodgy look and manner, heightening the war between young people and "the establishment".

      The Beatles impressed different people in different ways... everybody has their own story. I think they filled a huge void in the Rock & Roll landscape at the time, after years of enduring some of the lamest acts ever to get a record on American radio in the early 60s following the near-demise of the genre in 1959.

      "I Want to Hold Your Hand" literally JUMPED out of the radio, next to anything else you heard on Top-40 stations in 1963-64. There was no contest, and there was no looking back.

      1. "after years of enduring some of the lamest acts ever to get a record on American radio in the early 60s following the near-demise of the genre in 1959." Well, said, Ed! Couldn't agree more.

        In case you didn't read my post on the pre-Beatles milquetoast pop it's here. One exception was the soul/R&B that was emerging. The "girl groups" like the Marvelettes ("Please Mr. Postman") and Ronnettes ("Be My Baby") were doing quality stuff. And we can't forget about Ray Charles ("Hit the Road, Jack") and Little Stevie Wonder ("Fingertips"). But they were an oasis in a vast teenage wasteland prior to the Fabs.

        Yeah, I had the same experience as you listening to "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It exploded out of my transistor radio in my bedroom one morning—and I was hooked for life. I think I heard it on WMEX in Boston.

  2. Some say. But the kids who went wild for the Fabs were not the ones most affected by the JFK tragedy. Also, the Beatles' "story" had to compete with the assassination story, beginning the DAY of the assassination when a feature on The Beatles on Walter Cronkite's evening news was bumped by the events of the day. Then we watched Oswald get shot on LIVE television by Jack Ruby. An amazing couple of days, especially for a TV/radio addict like myself. Meanwhile, by mid-December "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was getting play in DC and a few other places. On Dec 18 The Beatles were featured in a Huntley-Brinkley TV news report. Eight days later the single was in the stores. Not the ideal time for a new musical act to try to grab the nation's attention—but they pulled it off. I still can't believe so much happened between 11/22 and 12/26/63.

  3. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life. They are part of it.”

    This is a very good point. Things which we find beautiful have more impact on us than things we find ugly, whether it's a rock band or a business tool.

  4. Some ugly things—and some ugly events—can be pretty traumatizing, but if we're talking about art or music you're probably right. I've been spit on by punk or grunge bands that certainly qualified as ugly (looking and sounding), but it didn't have the impact on me that seeing The Who perform Tommy did. Or seeing Ani DeFranco or The Dixie Chicks or Jonatha Brooke in the last decade. Or seeing The Roots or Of Monsters and Men or Lake Street Dive or Walk Off The Earth in the last few months.

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