The Beatles’ Influence on Modern Pop

In 2009, a viral video made the YouTube rounds called “Beatles 3000,” a short mockumentary that imagined how The Beatles would be remembered in the next millennium. Its answer was: not very well. But more than just playfully prodding a sacred cow, the video serves as a cogent commentary on how significant historical details are compacted and distorted over time, and how much of what we consider fact today is likely the product of a prolonged game of broken telephone. In “Beatles 3000,” various talking heads from the future make the authoritative claims that Scottie Pippen was a member of the group, that their list of hits included “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and that they won the Super Bowl at Shea Stadium in 1965. But as absurd as that all sounds, we’re arguably witnessing the earliest stages of The Beatles’ legacy being slowly dismantled.

Sure, 50 years on from their breakup, The Beatles are arguably as popular as ever—they generate billions of streams, have their own dedicated satellite-radio station, and provide inspirational fodder for Netflix cartoon shows and Hollywood rom-coms. And their influence can still be heard in countless rock acts, from The Flaming Lips and Foo Fighters to Tame Impala and Ty Segall. However, when you look at the field they once dominated so thoroughly—the top of the pop charts—it can seem as if they never existed. Not only is the Billboard Hot 100 bereft of any bands that sound like The Beatles, it’s largely bereft of any bands, period. The dominant sounds of popular music today—trap, R&B, Latin pop—bear none of The Beatles’ DNA and speak to vastly different cultural experiences; in fact, the only time you really see The Beatles mentioned in relation to modern pop is when an artist like Drake eclipses their chart records (or gets a tattoo to celebrate such a feat), or in Migos memes. And lest we forget, the unanimously violent reaction to Gal Gadot’s recent quarantined-celebrity sing-along of John Lennon’s “Imagine” strongly suggested that the utopian peace-and-love platitudes of the Beatles generation provide little assurance to a more anxious younger generation that is worried more about how they’re going to pay for their next meal.

And yet: If you look and listen closely, you can still sense The Beatles’ lingering presence in contemporary pop. Beyond singers like Dua Lipa and Miley Cyrus taking a crack at covers, there are myriad rap and R&B artists who have paid their respects through subtle melodic lifts (see: the echoes of “Here, There and Everywhere” on Frank Ocean’s “White Ferrari”), shout-outs (Kehlani’s “All You Need Is Love”-referencing “Honey”), and tributes both direct (Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles”) and indirect (Post Malone’s “Stay,” which he originally planned to name “George” in honor of its Harrison-esque guitar solo). What we’re hearing now is The Beatles being held up less as a direct musical influence than as a more abstract aspirational emblem of artistic freedom, pop-cultural ubiquity, and us-against-the-world camaraderie. In other words, the biggest pop stars of today may not sound like The Beatles, but they still want to be The Beatles.