The first time I witnessed just how angry old people get when young people don’t respect the Beatles enough was at a Billy Crystal stand-up show in the early ’80s. My dad took me, despite the fact that I’d never heard of Billy Crystal and had little to no interest in seeing him in concert. (I was in the midst of a deep Richard Pryor obsession, and I suspect this father-son outing was his attempt to deprogram me.) I only remember one joke from Crystal’s act — not because it was funny, but because of the audience’s reaction. Crystal was talking about how young people are idiots (I’m paraphrasing), and to prove it he recounted an awkward exchange with his daughter, when she asked him, without irony, “Daddy, is it true Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” The audience howled, not with amusement but unmitigated rage. Their faces went red, the veins on their foreheads throbbing like cartoon exclamation points. With just a little encouragement, they would have happily formed a lynch mob and chased Crystal’s daughter into the countryside with pitchforks and torches, cornering her in a windmill and burning it the ground.
I was only 12 at the time, and though I was well aware of McCartney’s pre-Wings creative period, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the crowd’s fury. Yes, Crystal’s daughter was obviously a moron. Not being aware of the Beatles is like not being aware of Mozart or Lincoln or Jesus. You don’t have to be a fan, but you can’t exist in the world and not have at least heard those names once or twice. But judging by the vaguely violent grumble coming from Crystal’s audience, you’d think they were South Carolinians being told about gay Muslims performing abortions at God-defying weddings. The old guy sitting next to me — he was probably no older than 50, but he seemed ancient at the time — kicked the seat in front of him and literally harrumphed, like a Dickens character. “So fucking typical,” he muttered, like Crystal’s daughter had personally insulted everything he held dear. I was actually a little frightened. I considered asking my dad if we could leave early. If we stayed till the end, it seemed entirely possible that a gang of riled-up Baby Boomers would spot my greasy adolescent complexion, block the exit and demand that I provide answers to Beatles trivia before allowing me to pass.
“But this isn’t really about whether Paul McCartney should or shouldn’t be recognized by kids who only communicate in 140 characters. It’s about how Baby Boomers are essentially bullies about their musical memories, particularly when it comes to the Beatles.”
Those bad memories came crashing back last week, when Paul McCartney ignorance reared its ugly head once again, and the mob responded with the same white-knuckled outrage. You all know the story by now; McCartney sang at the Grammys, some youngsters tweeted about not knowing who the fuck he is, and the Baby Boomer generation screamed as one “release the Kraken!” To be fair, the tweets of shameless Fab Four nescience, while admittedly cringe-worthy, didn’t say anything that wasn’t technically true. McCartney is a white dude. His new song, “My Valentine,” did indeed suck. And he is, by all accounts, “hella old.”
The real embarrassment came in the backlash again these tweets. The Huffington Post called them “ignorant and shameful.” A writer for the website Zap2it considered these kids proof that “we’ve somehow failed as a nation.” The tweets from humorless McCartney fans were somewhere between passive-aggressive melodrama and a Chris Brown first date. “I’ve lost the will to live,” moaned one Twitterer. “If someone asks you ‘Who is Paul McCartney,’” observed another, “you are perfectly within your rights to break their iPod in half and pee on it.” And it only got worse from there, with the injured parties screaming (I assume) about dark caves full of rats, the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, and how a failure to recognize a Beatle is grounds for being evicted from the planet.
It’s not debatable that a failure to recognize Paul McCartney makes you stupid. But getting angry about that stupidity is like going to the Special Olympics and slapping every contestant as they cross the finish line. At least they’re trying. At least they’re asking about Paul McCartney. And they’re definitely not the only ones asking stupid questions about popular artists. During the Grammy broadcast, I turned to my wife and said, with a smug tone I thought sounded clever, “What’s a Skrillex?” I own Give My Regards to Broad Street in several media formats, but I’m only just now hearing about Skrillex. I don’t want to get all religious on you, but this seems to be one of those “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” kinda deals.
But this isn’t really about whether Paul McCartney should or shouldn’t be recognized by kids who only communicate in 140 characters. It’s about how Baby Boomers are essentially bullies about their musical memories, particularly when it comes to the Beatles. As a kid, I was only ever almost slapped by an adult once in my life, and it was for claiming that “Come Together” was an Aerosmith song. (It wasn’t a family member, and I’m not sure if that makes it more or less creepy.) I came of age musically in the ’90s, and if somebody who’d only just gotten pubic hair asked me “Who the fuck is Kurt Cobain,” I can promise you that I wouldn’t urinate on their iPod. But tell somebody of a certain age demographic that you thought the Martin Scorsese documentary about George Harrison wasn’t all that interesting, and they’ll give you a look like you just called their mother a whore.