For this seminar I will talk about an article on the role of young girls in the phenomenoa of Bealtlemania. It was written by three women writers: Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs. It is published in the Gelder and Thornton ‘Subcultures Reader’ and is callled “Beatlemania: A Sexually Defiant Consumer Culture.”
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The article argues that Beatlemania was the first mass outburst of the 1960s tp feature women – albeit, in this case, girls mostly between the ages of ten and fourteen. The article concedes that these girls weren’t consciously making a stand for women’s liberation, but unconsciously they were striking a blow against the rigid sexual repression of the time.
Girls were expected to be not only ‘good’ and ‘pure’ but to be enforcers of moral standards on their peers who tansgressed such moral codes. The article says that to to abandon control, to scream, faint, dash about in mobs – all symbols of Beatlemania – was in form a protest against sexual repression. The article argues that Beatlemania struck with the force, if not the conviction, of a social movement.
Beatlemania certainly did hit with force. The article cites some examples of how dangerous the phenomena could become. For example, police in London and Birmingham refused to guarantee the safety of The Beatles from the hordes of fans. The Dublin police chief commented that “The Beatles visit was alright until the mania generated into barbarism.” This was echoed in New York, where Life magazine said that a “Beatle who ventures out unguarded into the streets runs the bery real peril of being dismembered or crushed to death by hisa fans.” (31 January 1964). At home in Liverpool, before Beatlemania had sprerad across the world, police ‘protection’ would be needed simply to get the four members of The Beatles from their front doors safely to their waiting cars.
Beatlemania in Britain was remarkable enough, but when the group began touring America the reaction to The Beatles intensified to another level altogether. Thousands swamped every airport and hotel they visited, making the group virtual prisoners to their own fans. When they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, a record 73 million tuned in. That night was later described as the night when there wasn’t a single hubcap stolen anywhere in America.
In the States, Beatlemania reached the proportions of religious idoltry. Some towns and cities tried to ban The Beatles. Others were forced to deploy huge numbers of police to keep Beatle and fan apart. Beatle fans became obsessed with anything to do with the group. One man cashed in on this by stealing some pillowcases The Beatles had used – then cut them up into 160,000 pieces, mounted them on certificates and sold them at a dollar a time.
In this environment of mass hysteria and obsession, them music of The Beatles became secondary. All the fans wanted was to see their idols in person, and then to scream as loud as they could until either unconsciiousness or laryngitis set in. The Beatles peformed live in huge stadia but increasingly the music became inaudible to both the band and to the audience over the constant screams of the fans. It was this inability to even hear themselves sing which quickly drove them away from live performances. In effect, they became the first band to be driven from the stage by their own fans.
For many adults, Beatlemania was a disease and The Beatles were the carriers. At risk were all ten- to fourteen-year-old girls – and the only cure was age. Parents were reassured that the girls would get over it and, for example, the “bobby-sockers” who had screamed for Frank Sinatra a decade or so before had grown up to be “responsible, settled housewives.”
The writer David Dempsey reflected to the past as well when he drew on the work of Adorno. Adorno had diagnosed the “jitterbugs” of the 1940s as “rhythmic obedients” who “were expressing their desire to obey” and subsume themselves into the masses. Dempsey related this to Beatlemania, so that to “Beatle” was to lose one’s identity in an automated, insect-like activity, to obey.
Variety magazine in the States focused on the notion of a threat to social stability. It argued that Beatlemania was linked to the wave of racial rioting in the States and that it was hard to miss the element of defiance in the phenomena. They argued that if Beatlemania was conformity, it was conformity to an imperative that overruled adult mores and laws. The American sociologist David Riesman suggested that Beatlemania was a form of protest against the adult world. These are just two examples of the “moral panic” that often accomapnies any youth-led movement or trend.
The article by Ehrenreich, Hess and Jacobs links in with the Freud’s ideas of “female hysteria,” which the now largely discredited psycho-analyst identified as taking the form of fits, convulsions, tics and neuroses – all of which was the product of sexual repression. Despite all that Freud had to say about childhood sexuality, most adults would not choose to believe that such young girls had any sexual feelings to repress. No ‘normal’ or ‘decent’ girl, or woman for that matter, was supposed to have the libidinal voltage required for three hours screaming, sobbing, incontinent acute-phase of Beatlemania.
One psychologist said that “adolescents are going through a strenuous period of emotional and physical growth, which leads to a need for expressiveness, especially in girls. Boys have sports as an outlet; girls only have the screaming and swooning afforded by Beatlemania, which could be seen as a release of sexual energy.”
Sex was an obvious part of the excitement generated by The Beatles. It was rebellious to lay claim to sexual feelings, to the active desiring side of sexual attraction. The girls who perceived The Beatles as sexy were acknowledging the force of an ungovernable, if somewhat disembodied, lust. To do this in groups of tens of thousands verges on a revolutionary act.
Beatlemania stemmed out of the development of a mass teen culture and teen market. Post-war affluence, especially in America, sharpened the differences between the teen years and adulthood. Teens had more money to spend and rock ‘n’ roll was the most potent commodity to enter the teen consumer subculture. The term “teenager” itslef was a relatively new notion. Teenagers could not only buy the top singles, but could also buy the clothes their idols were wearing and collect all the paraphernalia which surrounded the stars. Teenagers were displaying conspicuous consumption and chose to spend their money on things alien to previous generations. This only separated them further from their parents and the adult world.
Manufactured hysteria was critical to the marketing of The Beatles. First there were reports of near-riots elsewhere, then the deliberate tease “The Beatles are Coming” was posted all over the latest towm they were visiting on posters. Disc jockeys were blitzed with promo material, which they gladly diseminated on the airwaves. All this enlisted the public into a mass “countdown” to the arrival of The Beatles. By the time they did arrive the tension and anticipation of the fans was unbearable and the fear and trepidation of the authorities and residents was heightened.
It was shameless manipulation and exploitation of children as consumers. The article claims Beatlemania had a positive, and commercial, side effect. Wheras ‘bad’ kids became juvenile delinquents, smoked reefers or got pregnant, ‘good’ kids embraced the paraphenalia, the lore, and the disciplined fandom.
For girls, fandom offered a way not only to sublimate and sexual yearnings, but to carve out subversive versions of heterosexuality. The Beatles constructed sex more generously and playfully, lifting it out of the rigid scenario of mid-century gender roles. It made them sexy – their appeal lay in a vision of sexuality that was guiless and without the idea of sex as intercourse with the possibility of pregnancy or a ruined reputation.
Beatlemania faded as The Beatles moved away from live performance and became a studio-based band. The obsession with the band, who became the most successful in history, remained high throughout their career and beyond. The heady days of Beatlemania were a relatively short period of their career but its intensity was remarkable. The fans who screamed after The Beatles no doubt did grow up and lead normal lives. For many, however, those days will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Following generations moved onto new targets of their obsession: The Bay City Rollers, The Osmonds and so on. It could be argued, however, that none that followed The Beatles could match those days in 1963 and 1964 when Beatlemania descended on the world.
Ehrenreich, Barbara and Hess, Eliazbeth and Jacobs, Gloria (1992), “Beatlemania: A Sexually Defiant Consumer Subculture?”, in Gelder, Ken and Thornton, Sarah (eds.) (1997), ‘The Subcultures Reader’, Routledge, London, pp. 532-536. First published as “Beatlemania: Girls Just Want To Have Fun.”