Saturday, July 28, 2012

Across the Universe

There is very little in this world that is actually "universal." In literal branding, I guess we have Universal Studios (the theme park and the motion picture producers) and their parent company NBCUniversal. And I'm sure there are many smaller ventures that carry the term. But even the things that are supposedly universal generally don't live up to the title.

Take universal health care - this idea we had for our country (which, by the way, is not the universe - even if we believe it to be) of creating a government funded health care option - that has now become the watered down version of the individual health care mandate. Even what we want to span a wide variety of people, a plan that could benefit everyone in this country, draws anger and polarization. Even the term "universal" isn't universal. We use it to describe the world (or the country, if we're talking universal health care). But the universe is so much bigger than the world we live in.

So what is universal?

To be honest, there isn't much that is. Especially because we have such limited knowledge of the universe outside of our solar system, it would be difficult to make exact answers to this question. Unless you're a scientist with NASA - in which case you have some authority. I do not.

But I am a scientist of other things. Art, for instance. Or at least I like to think of myself as one. And with this distinction - self-proclaimed, but still - I like to think I can make a pretty keen, yet obvious observation about universality in the art world.

Of course, we must limit the term "universal" to mean, as it often does, the world we know. The world we live in. The seven continents of the planet Earth.

So what is universal in art throughout this many continents featuring many individual countries with unique states, provinces, cities, towns, etc. etc.?

Let's just be honest: not much. The world is a very diverse place filled with varied societies with differing temperaments and interests.

But if I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there's one artistic thing that is universal - in the limited sense of being universal in the world we know (and even more limited sense of being universal in the world I know, which is strictly the modern westernized world) - then I'd know what I'd go with...

My favorite photo of the fab four.
The Beatles.

When you grow up with this band like I did, you get this mistaken feeling from a very early age that they're yours and yours alone. In my single-digit years, I remember watching an event on television - maybe it was the Grammy's, maybe it was something else (I have such a bad memory) - where Paul, Ringo and George came out onto the stage for some reason (See? What a bad memory).

While I was watching the show with my dad, I remember thinking "If he likes them so much, he should just be friends with them." If only I knew.

Since then I learned a lot about my dad's obsession with The Beatles. For one, he liked them back during their Ed Sullivan Show first appearance year, as the phenomenon - Beatlemania, as they call it - was just beginning. I also learned that he had a greater knowledge of the band than most people who purport to be great fans do. And that's entirely credited to the fact that The Beatles are so incredibly universal.

Yesterday I was at the office where I'm interning and my coworker decided to bring in her iPod to play over speaker throughout the day. At first she put on a country music playlist and I cringed for every song other than those by Taylor Swift. Then she put on her photoshoot playlist which was basically a conglomeration of house party music and other tunes I just couldn't care to pay attention to.

When she finally left the room for a moment, I ran over to the iPod and looked through the playlists only to find my godsend, one entitled "Beatles." I turned it on, only to be astonished by the fact that there were only about 20-something titles within it.

What excuses someone to choose around 20 of the Beatles songs when there are over 250 to choose from? Isn't it just common sense to make a playlist of at least 100?

A few years ago, I was in my dad's room when I found a crumpled up piece of paper he'd been writing on. The text on the page was all scribbled, like he'd been frantic about copying everything down before it left his mind. But the title was clear. This was a list of his Top 100 Beatles Songs.

I think that was when it first hit me what a prolific and consistently wonderful band The Beatles were. And why they have managed to garner what seems like the widest spread audience of any musical performer in the history of the world. Move over Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and every other classical composer known for the widespread appreciation of their work. By 1964 you will be outshadowed by an irreverent bunch of drug-doing, alcohol-swigging, girl-loving post-pubescent but still immature teenagers who somehow have the intensity to make some of the most passionate music of all time.

When I found that list of my dad's favorite Beatles songs, I decided it was my job to compile a collection of them to put on CDs and present to him as a gift. I spent more than a few days fishing through all of my dad's Beatles CDs, ripping music onto Windows Media Player and burning four CDs, each with 25 songs, of the "best" Beatles music.

In the process, I learned more about this band that had felt like it belonged to me since infancy - when I sat in the backseat of my dad's car and he blasted "Yellow Submarine" as we sang along.

So it took about a decade for me to fully grasp why The Beatles were such a big deal. But I think the great thing is that no matter what stage of your life you're listening to them in, they never actually seem like they were such a big deal.

Unlike musicians that grew into phenomenons that outshined even their best songs - take Michael Jackson or Madonna or any other celebrity who became tabloid royalty in the past several decades - The Beatles have always been about music first. Even after they parted ways to pursue their own careers separately, it was always more about the music than the image.

When we listen to them now, that devotion still resonates. We think of them as this infallible, yet constantly improving and changing musical group. Their sound went through so many stages, yet all of them were inextricable from the larger notion of The Beatles - that name in neon lights that has always represented the epitome of rock music, nay all music.

One of the most difficult, yet wonderful things about art is that it isn't universal. That when you love something artistic, it feels like it's yours. That you can be astonished to learn that people share your interests, and that you can share your passion with them and, to put it in sophisticated terms, "geek out" about what interests you.

You'd think that this might be lost on Beatles fans, if only because they have become such a worldwide phenomenon that they almost no longer feel like art at all. They're pin-up boys, T-Shirt emblems, the faces of memorabilia and even a franchise.

But that's not the case at all. And I believe that's why they've been able to create such a hearty, yet devoted and strangely connected fanbase.

Because even though we tend to understand that The Beatles are the universal music - that everyone and their brother is a fan, even if that means they only have a playlist of 22 Beatles songs on their iPod (still a travesty) - they still feel like our band. Like the musical act we listen to in the car with our three year old, or the songs we commiserate with when we're sad, or the band we tell new acquaintances about if they ask what our favorite music is. They may be huge, but their singularly ours just the same.

It's weird to think that this band that I believed my dad could be best friends with a few years ago is really such an unreachable, global collection of men. That I grew up in a time when The Beatles were in no way my thing because they had been so many other people's thing before me.

Yet I believe there's some underlying force that keeps their music successful - it's a feeling that you get when you hear it. It's constantly fresh, constantly inviting, constantly reminding you that you're hearing the creation of a small group of men, that in some way you're connecting with them even if a million other people have done so in the exact same fashion.

For all these reasons, The Beatles continue to live on as the one group that you can count on everyone to love. And if they don't, you can start checking for wires because they're probably a robot. The Beatles music has traveled "Across the Universe" and back again. And it only makes sense that they foretold that with a song title.

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