Despite hailing from Liverpool in the United Kingdom, an ocean away from the birthplace of rock and roll, The Beatles’ importance in the influence of American popular music can not be understated. But why do they keep getting compared to American rap groups from Atlanta, namely Migos and Outkast? In a recurring social media gag, every so often some prominent figure on Twitter declares a modern rap group “bigger” or “better” than The Beatles, setting off another round of vigorous and — it must be stated — mostly irreverent, tongue-in-cheek debate.
On one side are The Beatles’ defenders — those who believe that even feigning to compare them to newer acts, across genres, generations, and geography, amounts to nothing less than musical sacrilege. On the other, a mass of folks who seem delighted to do nothing more than joyfully impugn the legacy of the most successful rock band of all time by arguing for one group whose biggest breakout involved the repetitious invoking of a luxury design house and another whose most mainstream hit was accompanied by a video that parodied the height of Beatlemania.
Caught in between them are bewildered music fans who can’t help but wonder how the artists being compared even relate to each other and why either side seems so intent on making such a fuss over the others’ opinions. Some may wonder how Migos, barely a decade into their career, or Outkast, more than a decade past their golden years as a respected rap duo, even merit discussion alongside the act that held more Billboard records than any other until very recently. However, the answer is not so simple as comparing plaques, and the motivations of both sides are more complex than they appear.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think anyone takes these declarations all that seriously — and if they do, that’s their prerogative. Art is subjective; one person’s most successful rock band of all time is Quincy Jones’ pick for “worst musicians in the world.” For someone whose tastes run more toward blasting bass-heavy, 808-ridden triplet raps through the streets of downtown Atlanta than dropping the needle on the psychedelic meditations of a groovy quartet of shaggy-haired British misfits, making the claims that “Stir Fry” is greater than “Penny Lane” might seem pretty reasonable.
But for an elder generation who grew up with The Beatles, it’s a slap in the face — which is part of the fun for their disruptive detractors. For many of hip-hop’s formative years, rock-chauvinist music critics and fans denied the nascent movement’s musicality, value, and validity as an art form. Fans of rap endured sneering comments that dubbed rap “crap” (haha, so clever) and demeaned the poetry in its often blunt, plainspoken lyrics. Used to lofty, esoteric references to walruses and thinly veiled references to the wonders of LSD — you know damn well that’s what that song is about — rap’s tendency to drive home its points with the force of a nail gun rubbed them the wrong way.
By the same token, their criticisms got under rap fans’ skin, but all rap fans could do was rankle privately and defend the value of the form publicly, through multiple waves of indecency witchhunts led by the likes of Barbara Bush all the way up to Bill O’Reilly. Even today, Cardi B has to defend herself from the Tucker Carlsons of the world almost weekly. But now that rappers like Cardi and Migos are the best-selling acts in the country (an easily quantified claim to make thanks to the advent of streaming), their legitimacy is already assured and all that’s left is to return four decades’ worth of grief one trollish tweet at a time.
Furthermore, The Beatles are no longer a group that defines youth culture. Where once they shocked the world, sent teen girls into hysterical paroxysms, and made concerned mothers clutch their pearls even as they tapped their feet, they’re beyond tame by today’s standards — they’re lame. Furthermore, The Beatles’ prime was a long time ago. We’re in an era where most news items, hit singles, and viral discoveries have a shelf life of about 18 months. For younger millennials and Generation Z, a group that had their own “mania” 50 years ago and no new hits in the last 30 would barely register against the non-stop deluge of new content we’re asked to consume just to keep up these days.
And while The Beatles ruled radio in their day, the average 13-year-old today has probably never even willingly turned one on for their own benefit — if they even know what radios are (again, thanks to the advent of streaming). Many can likely only name a handful of songs — songs that, to them, probably sound how the tunes Captain America was listening to sound to elder millennials and Generation X. It’s their grandparents’ music, and while grandparents can be cool, their taste usually isn’t. So while older hip-hop heads — and it’s usually members of the aforementioned “X-ennial” generation who actually post the tweets in the first place (see: Ron Funches and Donald Glover) — plot to torment their own elders as a means of resistance and revenge for all the pestering of their formative years, for the zoomers, it’s a way to assert their own tastes and identities, as well as indulging in their generations’ unique taste for digital chaos (see: Lil Nas X).
However, that alliance is mostly one of convenience and circumstance and there are already signs of it fracturing. Consider this: Outkast’s last major hit came out almost 20 years ago. That’s just long enough to be retro — which is only a few more years away from being terminally uncool. Time marches on, and Father Time remains undefeated. So while Migos and Outkast may be better than The Beatles today, tomorrow, they might just be inferior to the Polo Gs and Lil Nas Xs of the world. And The Beatles? Well, you know what they say: Everything old is new again. Maybe in another 10 years, they’ll be back in fashion after some 17-year-old samples “Hey Jude.”