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Who Are the Beatles of Our Era?

14/02/2014 12:08 GMT | Updated 14/04/2014 10:59 BST

Iconic status is difficult to achieve. To be recognised as the defining sportsman, politician, or artist of one's generation is, in many ways, the highest accolade that can be lauded on a public figure. Whilst we may point to Ali, Thatcher, Presley or Shakespeare as such examples, it appears far easier to project greatness backwards from our present standpoint. Such a tendency should perhaps come as little surprise; how indeed can we be expected to estimate how the stars of today will shine in the uncertain orbits of the future?

Yet it has not prevented people from attempting to project greatness onto others of their time, or even themselves. In a recent interview with a celebrity magazine, Harry Styles, one of the five members of the hugely successful One Direction, compared the band's appeal to The Beatles. Whilst he was quick to concede the inferiority of their musical pedigree and reputation, Styles nevertheless asserted that, if it came down purely to a question of fame, his band had outstripped the record of the 'Fab Four' from Liverpool.

Styles certainly has a claim to make. In terms of combined music downloads, CD purchases and streaming, the bastions of the modern music business, One Direction came out on top of the IFPI's Global Recording Rankings of 2013. The numbers are dizzying, especially for a pop boy-band whose adolescent years have only just disappeared behind the crest of the hill. With two youtube videos amassing over 300 million views between them; three consecutive Billboard-topping albums, and total sales that make them the 10th most successful boy-band in history merely four years into their careers; One Direction's prospects of iconic status certainly seem better than most.

Iconic status is not, however, measured on success alone, it is an unprecedented act, a defining speech, a whole cultural transformation that becomes peerless in the annals of history and memory. To use one boxing case study, record alone should dictate that Joe Calzaghe, unbeaten in 46 professional bouts, should be venerated as an icon of the sport. Muhammed Ali? He may have floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, but he was defeated 5 times in his infamous career. Iconic status is not, in short, built on performance alone, but on conduct, on personality, on an ability to transcend the boundaries of that era or genre.

One Direction have a fair way to go before they match even the numerical successes of those cheeky chaps from Merseyside who have come to symbolise epochal changes of the Swinging Sixties. Their sales pale in comparison to the estimated 600 million records sold by The Beatles worldwide. Yet even if they do scale these dizzying heights, immortality cannot be assumed. In an ever-more commercialised industry, where more artists jostle for the limelight, fame has proven more transitory than ever before. If I were to stick my neck out, and for arguments' sake state my iconic artists of this era, it would not be One Direction. It would be Beyonce, it would be Eminem, it would be the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Amy Winehouse or the Gorillaz.

This is not to dispute the talent or appeal of a band that, by numbers alone, suggest that by the end of their careers One Direction will lead all the artists listed above, if things continue as they are. Yet fame is not so rational, indeed, it is truly for history to decide. For now we must sit, and wait, and enjoy, and let the debate rage.