Wed. Jan 26th, 2022


It was inevitable, in retrospect, that the Beatles would get bored and the television bored, two of society’s most grinding bores, would merge. “Of course Paul was the real one. . . ”And“ Have you watched. . . Would find their way into the same dead talk. It just needed an exciting event. Peter Jackson obliges with Get back. Last week was the eighth or ninth in a row that someone tried to call me into conversation about what McCartney, no doubt, was trying to instill a bit of his indifference in his fans, once called a “big group.”

The peculiarity of modern Beatlemania is how much of it dwells on their utterly banal disintegration. If some mates who have grown to about 20 have grown to about 30 apart, it is not unheard of. Their glory, like that of their country, was behind them. If they had continued in the experimental but uneven style of their late albums, the hard mustache of punk would have been directed at them, not at prog or stadium rock. The group would now have a naf or at least a reputation. The Beatles’ career has benefited from the very thing that Get back forswear: brevity.

Why the mania then? Why are friends in their forties, aware that life is ending, watching 460 minutes about making the group’s least acclaimed album? If the answer was just male obsession, the world could relax. But I fear a greater malaise at work.

2022 is the centenary of a sharp turn in Western thought and art. In 1922, Ulysses and The Wild Country took the written word in an elliptical, inward direction. That taste for novelty also drove Wassily Kandinsky to join the Bauhaus and Louis Armstrong to bring a solo flair to the team sport of jazz in Chicago. It is possible to be ambivalent or even scathing about “modernism” (atonal music, for example, was a wrong turn) and still delight that people were open and forward-thinking, even after, or as a result of, the First World War.

It’s also hard not to make the ridiculous comparison with 2022. Hollywood’s addiction to franchise sequels and superhero lumbering is the best example of today’s cultural stasis. But we are spoiled for others. Structurally, an Adele or Ed Sheeran single is no different from the 1972 No. 1 average. No one will accuse Sally Rooney or Jonathan Franzen of playing fast and loose with the basic form of the novel.

There is something to be said for stasis. The neophilia of the 1920s led to some foolish enthusiasm. Support for a new and technology-obsessed creed called fascism was one of them. Ezra Pound, Modernism’s village caller, who considered 1922 “One Year”, was a political thug.

Yet an almost total lack of forward momentum cannot be taken very lightly. First, it feeds into an existing story about the West’s exhaustion, as told by its enemies. (Who, of course, saw Modernism and other novelties of the past as “decadence”.) For another, stagnation in the arts is difficult to separate from those in higher-important pursuits. In the US, the pace of new business formation has slowed over the last 40 years. The pace of change in social media foam may obscure the slow progress in other technologies.

It is in this context that Beatlemania begins to make sense. People are more likely to have an obsession with the Beatles because there is nothing new, than to have nothing new because people are obsessed with the Beatles. But I suspect a bit of both. And no one is healthy. When the group’s prestige last weakened a bit, in the 1980s, new things happened in music and food. Many of the films that earned the most were standalone original screenplays. The orchestra was reverent but not used as an escape from contemporary disorder.

Much of the heroization has taken place since then. (1995’s Anthology documentary was a turning point.) And it left the remaining members in an awkward solution. They have belonged to the most important force in mass culture since the war. They are, given the lives they have led, unbelievably wry and well-adjusted people. But it is possible that the raw weight of their legacy is now more of a drag than a stimulus to the creation of the new. There is no less appropriate tribute to innovators than a backward look at them.

Email Janan by janan.ganesh@ft.com

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