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.”



party-309155__340This was a big week in rock history, of course, with the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. It was marked by some impressive reviews and tributes, including this one by my favorite film critic, Ty Burr. (I’ve written about Sgt. Pepper several times myself, but most notably here in the context of managing innovation.)

Because I like to discover (or invent) connections between disparate events, I was struck that this anniversary occurred in the same week as the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy, one of the most influential and popular of US Presidents (ranked #8 in a recent C-SPAN survey of presidential historians and biographers).

For Americans who were alive at the time, we remember The Beatles bursting on the scene immediately after the assassination of John Kennedy. In fact, on November 22, 1963, national news anchor Walter Cronkite had to shelve a segment he was about to do on a new pop music phenomenon that was creating hysteria (“Beatlemania”) in Britain. Instead he had to deal with a different kind of hysteria accompanying JFK’s sudden death in Dallas that afternoon.



David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, has passed on.

An artistic giant who was always willing to "turn and face the strange," Bowie knew how to bend the boundaries of rock with radical personal make-overs—becoming the androgynous space traveler, the "white soul" singer, the electronica adventurer, and much more.

But the core identity of this shift-shaping alien was, in my opinion (reflecting my own bias), Bowie the simple rock rebel (if simple could ever be applied to Bowie). Rock & roll doesn't get much better than this...