Tales of Rock: Yesterday misunderstands what made the Beatles so popular -Part 2

Societal norms and attitudes also factor in. R.D. Burman was one of the most important composers of Bollywood pop, and began his career in the 1960s, around the same time as the Beatles. But due to factors including Bollywood’s Indian origins, widespread racism in the West, and language barriers, Bollywood soundtracks didn’t have access to massive Western markets the way that white, British musicians like the Beatles did. That left Burman relegated to a niche outside Southeast Asia, preventing him from breaking into the international music market despite his local popularity.

Western racial inequalities also stymied many homegrown artists. Influential African American singers and girl groups like the Shirelles didn’t have much opportunity to turn their Billboard hits into widespread celebrity and lasting cultural recognition. Paul McCartney and John Lennon are household names, but there aren’t many casual music fans who know the name of the Shirelles’ lead singer, Shirley Owens.

And then there are such bands as the Beach Boys. They were an extremely successful, enduring American counterpart of sorts to the Beatles. But the Beach Boys were not, like the Beatles, the most successful rock band in history — even as the Liverpudlians credited albums like 1966’s Pet Sounds with influencing one of their biggest albums, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Factors like mental health issues, mismanagement, and unflattering comparisons to the Beatles’ looks and fashion sense kept the Beach Boys from becoming a phenomenon on the level of their most direct contemporary.

New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection via Library of CongressThe Beatles were white, male English speakers who were able to tour and didn’t die young. But they had other advantages as well. Perhaps most obviously, they were working in a genre — what music critic Dave Marsh refers to as rock and soul — that was broadly popular. It’s true that some narratives claim rock was dying in the early ’60s, and that the Beatles swept in to save it. But those are apocryphal: The truth is that rock songs by performers like Stevie Wonder, the Chiffons, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, the wonderful but almost entirely forgotten Dee Dee Sharp, and their ilk had been chart-topping hits before the Beatles showed up.

By contrast, today’s most popular music is split between contemporary hip-hop and dance music that relies on synthesizers, electronics, and myriad cross-genre references. Pure rock ’n’ roll, built on a simple four-person setup of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, is no longer the dominant genre. Yesterday pokes fun at this, and how anachronistic Jack’s music is when compared to the rest of the pop landscape: He’s a solo act armed with just a guitar. He doesn’t have Cardi B coming in for a guest verse. But working in a waning dad genre doesn’t seem to interfere at all with his skyrocketing success.

”If a Beatles song came out today, it would sound dated,” Charlie Harding, host of Vox’s Switched on Poppodcast, told me. “There are hardly any synthesizers. It’s all live drumming. Plus, so much of their music is blues-based, and blues-based music just isn’t popular right now.”

At their height, the Beatles famously pushed boundaries in the studio, creating psychedelic effects and soundscapes that no one at the time had ever heard before. But that’s old hat in 2019. You can do all of what the Beatles did and more in your room with a laptop, at least technically speaking.

Yesterday has blinders on around the truth of a meritocratic music industry

Sure, it’s fun to think, as Yesterday does, that our love for the Beatles is universal, true, and incontrovertible. Where’s the harm in that?

The problem is that people often don’t see the myth of meritocracy as a myth; they really believe in it. And when they do, it can have some unfortunate effects. The myth of meritocracy, according to Frank, can make us less willing to invest in the collective good. If you think that all it takes to gain renown is skill and effort, “you have a sense of entitlement to whatever comes your way,” he says.

If we convince ourselves that talented artists like the Beatles will be successful no matter what, we can also convince ourselves that we don’t really need to provide people with safety nets or resources. After all, the best will win out anyway. Why invest in school arts programs, or fund arts grants, if great musicians will be just fine on their own?

As Mobley puts it, the myth of meritocracy in the arts can “blinker people to possibilities.” Yesterday gives Jack no career path between being the most successful musician on earth and treating his not-so-great music as an unpaid hobby; it presents the industry in terms of haves and have-nots. But conflating quality with success makes it hard to validate and support artistic work by people who aren’t superstars. We don’t know how many great songs we’ve lost because musicians had to get 9-to-5 jobs to better support themselves and didn’t have time to practice or tour or develop their art as fully as they could.

The Beatles made wonderful, undoubtedly influential art. But if Yesterday weren’t so hypnotized by the supposedly unmatchable quality of the Beatles’ music, it might be able to see that there are great songs being written by people like Jack Malik too. The film believes that songs like “Yesterday” are just so good, they would become mega-popular under any circumstances. And yet many people who think “Yesterday” is the best song ever have been inevitably swayed by the Beatles’ popularity and legacy, the song’s quality aside.

Maybe instead, the best song ever is one we haven’t heard yet; maybe it’s the one you’re going to write. Part of what happens when we abandon the myth of meritocracy is that we’re better able to see the merit all around us. And that gives everyone a greater chance at success.


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