This week’s TBL is a favorite of mine. It focuses on music, beauty, and contingency. If you like The Better Letter, please subscribe, share it, and forward it widely.
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It’s Not Coldplay
Imagine there’s no Beatles, it’s easy if you try.
Yesterday, the 2019 film directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, Steve Jobs) and written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral), had a terrific cast, a brilliant (if not entirely original, even for Curtis) premise, and a great trailer.
Alas, the execution wasn’t up to the promise of the premise.
The protagonist is a struggling musician who has decided to give it up when the earth experiences a 12-second blackout. During those 12 seconds, Jack is hit by a bus, and he wakes up to a world where nobody seems to know who the Beatles are. He plays “Yesterday” for his friends and their hearing it for the first time allows us to recall the song’s melancholy beauty afresh. The camera lingers on the friends’ faces and their reactions are moving, even if one remarks, “It’s not Coldplay.”
That provides an opportunity for Jack.
Despite some early audience indifference, it doesn’t take long before Jack – playing the Fab Four’s music as his own – is the biggest thing on the planet. He is a very different sort of musician than John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and is playing their songs half-a-century later, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
Even the female fans act just like their grandmothers did in our alternative universe blessed with the Beatles. The last image of the film shows a row of screaming teen girls at a Beatles concert offering the exact sort of fanatical devotion that, in the 1960s, was such a tangible social force.
There was something alchemical and contingent about the Beatles’ success, which the film largely ignores. Much of life and success hinge upon a mash-up of right-place-right-time, right people, and precisely the right moment. As Louis Menand argued, stardom “is the intersection of personality with history, a perfect congruence of the way the world happens to be and the way the star is.”
Some things well-worth remembering disappear. Some things that should vanish remain front and center.
I remember this 1966 number one hit from the Hollies less for its general quality than that it was the song by which my then-babysitter taught me about rock-n-roll.
When he was running for President the first time, Barack Obama famously disparaged working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses. He said, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” That view isn’t altogether wrong but it’s far too narrow.
We all are clinging to things. Even Mr. Obama. And what we cling to, love, believe, support, and pay for seldom comports with what so-called “experts” think we should care about.
According to Curtis, however, Beatles’ songs are so good that it is impossible to suppress their importance. They are deemed necessarily timeless and transformative. It’s easy to think so, conditioned as we are to their greatness.
That implicit claim ignores the reality that success usually requires skill and effort but always requires luck — often a lot of luck. Ironically, Boyle recognized that the randomness of success makes it fleeting in one his earlier (and better) films.
The broader implications of chaos theory are also largely ignored. We generally assume that if history were bent a bit, things might change some, but not that much. However, changes in initial conditions, even small changes, change outcomes, often by surprisingly huge amounts.
In a funny bit, we learn that a Beatles-less world doesn’t produce Oasis, the derivative wannabes. The post-blackout world also lacks Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and Harry Potter, if without consequences. Yet Yesterday’s world remains essentially identical to ours. It’s a counterfactual without much that is different. The film could have considered how a music world without the Beatles might have evolved in a wildly different direction, for example, but doesn’t.
Finally, Curtis and Boyle lose sight of the primacy of music’s context and its evolution. The Beatles (and their songs) outside the 60s couldn’t be and feel the same. The Beatles and the Beach Boys in musical competition is a crucial part of who and why the musical canon evolved the way it did, for example. Similarly, it is impossible to believe that Twitter would be silent for Jack singing about a girl who “was just 17, you know what I mean.” But the movie is.
Meet the Beatles begets Revolver which begets Sgt. Pepper which begets Abbey Road. The road the band and the music traveled makes the songs more meaningful. Ironically, the Beatles were largely responsible for albums becoming singular bodies of work – more than mere collections of songs. Yesterday removes that legacy from the story.
Sadly, the film is, in essence, too much Curtis and not enough Boyle. The humdrum romance took center stage rather than the musical story and the ideas it generated. In the words of the music-obsessed hero of Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, “anyone who is against the Beatles…is against life.” Had the mop-tops and their songs stayed center stage throughout, it would have been a better movie.
Yesterday could have been a movie worthy of the Beatles, even if Paul McCartney “loved it.” Instead, it was just fine – perhaps worthy of Coldplay.
People Are Sleeping
We live in a culture increasingly dominated by the intentionally cruel, crass, and crude. To pick one obvious example, Twitter helps us to discover our worst selves at the worst possible moments.
Beauty, on the other hand, is a human universal, even though some of us have a greater capacity for seeing it and are more responsive to it than others. It gains and maintains our attention. It thrills and heightens our perception (particularly of truth), yet fleetingly so.
As a central character in Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel observes, “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see.”
Modern culture would have us believe that beauty is a pleasure technology, a social construct entirely in the eye of the beholder. Great art screams otherwise.
“People are sleeping,” Sun Ra said, in liner notes for a reissue of his jazz album, Lanquidity. “The right music can wake them up.” So, here are my answers (you know I couldn’t limit it to one) to Tom Morgan’s provocative question.
By the way, one of Tom’s followers provided a Spotify playlist of the suggested works.
Yesterday suggests that great art – great music – will always reveal its greatness. As noted above, I am unconvinced. So, I decided to challenge myself to come up with some answers you won’t have heard of. That art and artists don’t get the recognition they deserve – or are ignored entirely – doesn’t mean their work isn’t beautiful, great, or transformational.
Finding, even looking, for great new music isn’t easy.
By the time we reach the age of 20, our musical tastes have already calcified. By 33, most people have stopped listening to and looking for new music. We already prefer to relive the soundtrack of the previous two decades of our lives than finding something different. Status quo bias and familiarity bias carry the day.
Creativity is the lifeblood of innovation, progress, and forward-thinking ideas. However, recent research suggests we harbor an implicit aversion to creators and creativity. On the other hand, “We have an implicit belief the status quo is safe,” explained the University of San Diego’s Jennifer Mueller. That’s how the incentives usually line-up. “The goal of a middle manager is meeting metrics of an existing paradigm.”
One of the best pieces of arts criticism I know is an article from The Onion entitled, “Nation Affirms Commitment to Things They Recognize.” Popularism is a real thing.
As regular readers are already aware, our brains reward us for seeking and finding the familiar, the known, and the comfortable. Thus, to be a successful touring band today means living out Groundhog Day. Creativity requires change, without the certainty of a good outcome. It takes commitment and effort.
There are an estimated 97 million songs built off of just 12 notes, but far less than one percent of those songs resonate while the rest live in oblivion. Some of the oblivion songs and artists are great. Many of the resonating songs and artists are mediocre. Some of the resonating songs and artists are truly dreadful.
I wanted to offer some creative new music and/or new artists in response to Tom’s query that might wake you up. I provide ten. Let me know what you think about them.
How can it make sense that Milli Vanilli sold 30 million records while Eva Cassidy spent her entire career singing in obscurity? Eva was a largely unknown regional club singer, taken by cancer at 33, “discovered” by NPR and some Brits after her death, and now a gift for the ages.
Here’s a classic Eagles tune gorgeously sung by Morgan James.
Here is a terrific CSN cover by Home Free, who I have featured before.
This is stunning.
How is Larkin Poe not wildly famous?
Ditto the Muddy Magnolias.
Morissette is famous in Asia. She’s the best pop singer on the planet. But she’s largely anonymous here.
Here’s a classic of Americana, performed by an acapella singer you should hear.
How has Sara Niemietz not made it big?
You should have heard and heard of Alison Krauss. She’s won 27 (not a typo) Grammy awards and has two bestselling albums with the great Robert Plant. But maybe you haven’t.
As Churchill said, “All this shows how much luck there is in human affairs, and how little we should worry about anything except doing our best.”
And maybe, just maybe, per Dostoyevsky, “Beauty will save the world.”
Totally Worth It
Feel free to contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Praise, condemnation, and feedback are always welcome.
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The TBL Spotify playlist now includes more than 200 songs and about 15 hours of great music. I urge you to listen in, sing along, and turn the volume up.
Thank you for reading.
Issue 110 (April 22, 2022)