PORTLAND, ORE. — In the distant future, when some historian asks me to name the most memorable pop-culture craze of my lifetime, the answer won't be Harry Potter. I do admit that Harry is obviously a heavy hitter in the batting lineup of modern entertainment, but all the news video showing throngs of kids lined up at bookstores begins to look routine after a while.
That's because American society is constantly seeking the next big success story, so we often end up covering the same ground over and over, much like the crowds who camp outside movie box offices every time a new "Stars Wars" episode is released.
You have to wonder how much of the excitement surrounding any hot new name in books, movies, music, or TV is genuine, and how much is created by our aggressive media infrastructure. Certainly there is news value in some of these stories; no reporter could ignore the huge amounts of money fans are spending on a product or personality. But I don't believe you can rank the importance of social trends by simply adding up sales receipts.
When I look back over the past five decades and think in terms of spontaneous, visceral impact on a whole generation, one word describes a phenomenon that may never be equaled: Beatlemania! The exclamation point is intended to emphasize the decibel level of their popularity. Anyone who wasn't around for all the excitement in 1964 would have a hard time believing how LOUD public venues could get when the Beatles were nearby.
Yes, Frank Sinatra and Elvis also attracted legions of boisterous followers, as do Bruce Springsteen and Ricky Martin. But the Liverpudlian lads took the ambient noise factor to new heights. Crowds would erupt in wild celebrations just by seeing pictures of the group. I know because I watched it happen.
My brush with the Fab Four took place in a hometown movie theater. Some clever promoter must have realized that John, Paul, George, and Ringo could not possibly accommodate all the fans who wanted tickets during the first US tour. So one of the early concerts was filmed (with the Beach Boys as the opening act), and when the production came to my town I figured a celluloid performance was as close as I would ever get to "the boys."
It was a poor quality black-and-white film, and was projected onto a small, portable screen that had been set up onstage for the occasion. Nowadays we call events like this a "rip-off," but the word wasn't part of youth vocabulary back then. I was just happy to get inside, since the show was sold out, and quietly took a seat in the back row. The place didn't stay quiet for long.
Never before, or since, have I heard such voluminous hollering once the lights dimmed. It was nonstop pandemonium, totally overwhelming the pitiful sound system. When the ongoing din occasionally lowered for a moment, a few faint notes of music were barely audible, like bad reception on a cheap transistor radio. I was amazed and bewildered. Who would scream so determinedly at grainy images on a flimsy screen as if they were real performers? It was a defining afternoon for me; I had participated in genuine Beatlemania! All of which makes the recent stampedes of young Jedi Knight enthusiasts and Harry Potter readers seem like cakewalks in comparison. You may smile with approval or scowl with disdain every time you see another crate of books being unloaded for sale, and eager little wizards flipping through the pages. But at least you can hear yourself think.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society