50 years of Beatles: Meet the Gleeks!

ALTOONA, Pa. — For the two-part season premiere of the popular Fox television show “Glee,” the series’ producers have chosen to showcase the time-tested music of the Beatles. As with “American Idol” and “The Voice” before them, the creators of “Glee” know a thing or two about turning the ratings knob for their vast teen and pre-teen viewing audience. That’s right: when it comes to tugging at the heartstrings of Generation Y, the Fab Four are contemporary television’s go-to band.

But why do the Beatles still matter? And what could the music of four pre-Baby Boomers have to say to Millennial culture? The answer, as always, lies in the music. Even in the age of iTunes, Spotify and YouTube, the echo of the Beatles’ achievement continues to resound beyond the grave. With an embarrassment of artistic riches that includes "Rubber Soul," "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band," "The White Album" and "Abbey Road," the Beatles fashioned an enduring legacy based upon our intrinsically human needs for hopefulness and reconciliation.

“I’m really glad that most of the songs dealt with love, peace, and understanding,” Paul McCartney later recalled. “There’s hardly any one of them that says: ‘Go on, kids, tell them all to sod off. Leave your parents.’ It’s all very ‘All You Need Is Love’ or John’s ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ There was a good spirit behind it all, which I’m very proud of.”

But trying to understand the essence of the Beatles’ greatness? — well, that’s another matter altogether. They loom so large in our collective global consciousness that we have become impotent in our efforts to comprehend, much less explain in words, the measure of their majesty. Leave it to Kurt Vonnegut — a 20th-century master in his own right — to capture the essence of their virtuosity. “The function of the artist is to make people like life better than they have before,” Vonnegut observed. “When I’ve been asked if I’ve ever seen that done. I say, ‘Yes, the Beatles did it.’ ”

In the case of the Beatles — with John Lennon and George Harrison having long since died and McCartney and Ringo Starr moving into their sunset years — the music is what matters. It is the only genuine record of their attainment, the only meaningful representation of the realization of their artistic vision — from the simple ebullience of “She Loves You” and the gentle nostalgia of “In My Life” to the bone-crushing terror of “Helter Skelter” and the cultural apocalypse of “I Am the Walrus.”

But what makes all the difference, what really matters in the grand sweep of time, is the insight that the Beatles derive from their backward glances into the hearts and minds of humankind — from their first-generation fans in the 1960s right on through Generation Y. In such provocative, self-critical songs as “Eleanor Rigby,” “A Day in the Life,” “Blackbird,” “Revolution,” and the “Abbey Road” medley, the Beatles mine the inherent truth in Socrates’ famous dictum in the “Apology” that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” By sharing our journeys of the self, the Beatles urge us to embrace the restorative powers of love, friendship and a universalizing belief in a redeemable past — a past to which, if our aim is really true, we can get back to where we once belonged.

* * *

Kenneth Womack is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including "Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles" (2007). He has also written three novels, including "John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel" (2010), "The Restaurant at the End of the World" (2012), and "Playing the Angel" (2013). A Professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, Womack was selected in April 2013 to serve as the sixth Penn State laureate.

Contacts: 
Last Updated November 13, 2013