Why We Remember the Beatles and Forget So Much Else
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JANUARY 7, 2016
Why We Remember the Beatles and Forget So Much Else
BY ADAM GOPNIK
The Beatles, whose music was released to streaming services last month, at Shea Stadium in 1966.
CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY SANTI VISALLI INC. / GETTY
Over Christmas, when the Beatles catalogue finally got released on several music-streaming services, Spotify notably among them, a few of us waited to see not whether anybody wanted the old songs but which ones they would want. Would the audience in 2016 make smart choices, or confused ones, about music already a half century old?
Well, not only was there an audience out there—many millions have already streamed the Beatles songs—but, more important, with an eerie wisdom-of-crowds instinct, the choices it made did perfect justice to the spread of talent in the band and its distinctive interminglings. On Spotify’s list of the top-ten most-streamed songs of the Christmas weekend, there were, the Independent in London reported, three all-Johns (“Help,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Come Together”), three all-Pauls (“Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” and “Hey, Jude”), two fifty-fifties (“Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), one George (“Here Comes the Sun”), and one cover (“Twist and Shout”). It was a perfectly balanced and insightful list.
This much justice was done and wisdom shown because simply, more than fifty years after their first appearance, the Beatles remain a part of our available past. What they did, how they did it, and who among them did it best—all this is still familiar to millions of people, with many of them apparently under thirty-five. It’s a heritage whose basics require only minimal introduction, even to the not-entirely-obsessed.
Yet one need only think of the pop-music circumstances of 1966, when the Beatles were touring America for the third time, to see how oddly and irregularly stored the past can be. Back then, the popular music of fifty years earlier was as remote as the Arctic Circle. It belonged to the archival past. The music of 1916 was, in 1966, thought to be either good for a gentle laugh—as with the straw-hatted “Dixieland” bands—or else in need of much scholarly understanding to be made sense of. Joe Oliver was a subject for learned liner notes, while the early Irving Berlin and the very early Jerome Kern were barely heard. Yet, curiously, other things just as old were then still part of the available past: silent comedy, for instance—the work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy—was still present in reissues and re-releases and books, and got general enthusiasm from the cognoscenti. (One small proof of this being the presence of Oliver Hardy and W. C. Fields on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper.”)
One might expect the rule of the past to be simple: that memorable things get remembered. But, in truth, what gets remembered is usually stranger and much more haphazardly stored. Many things worth remembering vanish; some things that you would expect to vanish remain. The past becomes available or archival according to processes more mysterious than its mere vivacity. That is the doubled past we live with, superintended by strange, arbitrary spells of amnesia.
Some pieces of even quite distant history are surprisingly available. The Civil War for instance—aided, perhaps, by Ken Burns, but not by Ken Burns alone—is part of an ever-present past. Gettysburg and Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson and Frederick Douglass—even those who don’t know much about history know who they are, to the extent that the arguments about what they did and why seem current and raw. But other seemingly equally memorable events and epochs have to be painfully quarried from the archives. On the political front, for instance, one of the oddest things to have gotten archived is the history of anarchist terrorism a century ago. In a time when terrorism is on everyone’s lips and the prime subject of popular, if hyperbolic, worry, you would think that its history would be available: in fact, almost no one now recalls, without an effort, that terrorists a century ago managed to assassinate an American President, a French President, the Czar of all the Russians, and many a secondary figure along the way. What would become of us, and our civil liberties, if the same score were run up now? As Bill James points out in his good recent history, “Popular Crime,” the violence of that period has gotten tucked away in the vaults. This is true even though the lessons—both that terrorism is a general and probably permanent apparition of modernity, and that it tends to get defeated not by military acts but by police work and its own exhaustion—would be worth relearning.
Another, more startling piece of what ought to be part of the available past but has, oddly, instead become archival, dates, strangely, to the same period as the Beatles. It is the truth that right-wing populist nationalism, of the sort that Donald Trump currently offers, far from being a special growth of our period and its specific discontents, has been constant and mostly unchanging throughout America’s modern history. Exactly the same ideology, making all the normal allowances for inflection and personal tone, that Sarah Palin presented in 2008, that Pat Buchanan cried for in 1992, was offered by George Wallace at the height of American prosperity and confusion, in 1968. (The John Birch Society had been offering it in full before that.) At any moment, prosperous or troubled, about ten to fifteen per cent of the population of this country—really, of almost any modern country—will be susceptible to some kind of extreme populist nationalism, populist nationalism being different from other kinds of populism inasmuch as its economic protest is secondary to militarist self-assertion. (When Wallace ran for President in 1968, his running mate was, significantly, not another Southern segregationist but Curtis LeMay, the bloodthirsty bomber militarist.)
The contours of the ideology are always exactly the same, even if its internal shadings, its chiaroscuro, differ: an evil foreign force (Freemasonry, Communism, terrorism) awaits outside to destroy all that we value, and is working in collusion with an élite who either don’t oppose it adequately or are actually in secret collusion. (It is difficult to recall now that Cold War liberals like Adlai Stevenson were routinely condemned as traitors to their country, but they were.) At the same time, the élite is said to look down on the ordinary people who have detected their treachery. These elements—the exaggerated outside threat, the insistence on élite collusion—and a third, the hysterical certainty that an assertion, any assertion, of national strength will be the antidote, manifest themselves over and over, and probably always will. The keynote is insecurity, and the insecurity is a function not really of the specifics of the moment but of the permanent insecurities of modernity, with its constant dissolution of hierarchies and stable orders.
The most persistent mistake that historians and politicians have made in analyzing the modern world is to imagine, again and again—a fallacy shared by liberals and Marxists alike—that people will pursue their own economic interests in preference to their ideological fixations. They don’t. They never will. Nationalist ideology has been a much stronger force in the modern world than class interest. This dates at least to the memorable moment when the Great War began and socialists throughout Europe were sure that transnational class-consciousness would trump nationalist war fever. It didn’t. It never has.
The better question may be what divides our past so radically between the things we remember and the things we don’t. It may be that the general force of anxiety that affects everything in modern life is also responsible for the way our pasts get divided. The truth about modern life is that it creates enormous anxiety at every moment. It’s like a traumatic force that suppresses some memories and refuses to suppress others at all. Our past is divided between the archival and the available exactly because it is so quickly past—so rapidly dissolved in confusion. We all want to stop the process of traumatic change from happening, and sometimes we do it by forgetting everything, sometimes by remembering almost too much. The Beatles linger; other bands unduly fade. (Do we really need to remember “Mr. Moonlight” or “Don’t Pass Me By?” We do, though.) When he was running for President the first time, Barack Obama got into some trouble for saying that people in small towns that had lost manufacturing jobs “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as a way to explain their frustrations. It was impolitic, but, with a crucial proviso added, true: we all are clinging to something, if no more than an app at our Beatle-loving fingertips.