I recently partook of an indulgence that I only allow myself rarely: I got involved in an internet pie-fight about the Beatles. It was the kind of nitpicking, semantic, ahistorical, aesthetically-charged argument that’s been going on since rec.music.beatles went live on Usenet, so there’s really not much to be learned from the exchange itself.

In response to a side comment about how my sparring partner was overstating his case, I quipped:

The Beatles are the Godwin of music threads.

I’ll go ahead and formalize that statment:

As an online discussion about music grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Beatles approaches 1.

There’s a perfectly good reason that Hitler comes up in conversations even when the comparison is inappropriate: he looms huge in our history, his impact was both deep and wide, and his actual actions beggared caricature. Furthermore, the Third Reich is not obscure; bring it up, and everybody has an idea of what you’re talking about.

The Beatles are just as handy an example in music conversation, for many of the same abstract reasons — familiarity, wide impact, lasting legacy. And they are just as ripe for overreach — they get pulled into inappropriate comparisons where far better examples exist.

A commonly expressed tangent of Godwin’s Law is “the first person to make a Nazi comparison loses the argument.” I generally don’t accept this, because there are so many places where the comparison (or contrast) is illustrative, and I value overstatement as a rhetorical device. But it’s true that a Nazi reference is often a lazy out, and the same goes for a Beatles reference. Comparing some band or other to the Beatles (favorably or unfavorably) might serve a useful purpose, but it might also suggest that your analogy isn’t well thought out.

Not to mention, you’re just poking a hornet’s nest. Nothing like a horde of agitated Beatlemaniacs to derail a thread.

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