17 November 2023. Culture | Drugs
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones at #1. What does that mean? // Legalise it, says American public opinion.[#516]
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1: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones at #1. What does that mean?
The Beatles are at #1 in the UK singles charts this week, and the Rolling Stones are at #1 in the UK album charts. I tried to work out the combined age of the surviving members of both bands, but my calculator lost track, and eventually printed out ITSBIG across its screen. At least, I think that’s what 175819 was telling me.
(Now and Then: Image, Apple Records, fair use. Hacney Diamonds: Image Rolling Stones)
The last time the Beatles were at #1 in the singles charts was in 1969, with The Ballad of John and Yoko. The last time the Rolling Stones were at #1 in the album charts is a lot more recent, with Blue and Lonesome in 2016, which is one of the benefits of still touring, I guess.
The Rolling Stones’ formula for success here has been more old school. As a band with a big reputation, a decent following, and less dynamism than they once had, they have energised themselves by working with a much younger producer, Andrew Watt, and wheeling in some contemporaries to give the record a broader appeal (Elton, Stevie Wonder, at least Lady Gaga is reducing the average age here.)
The Beatles, on the other hand, have used the technology that the film director Peter Jackson developed to clean up the sound on Get Back and applied it to a cassette of a song that John Lennon recorded in 1977, and was completed in 1995, before George Harrison’s death. For my money it’s a dreary song, even if this is disguised by some familiar Beatles musical tropes in the arrangement. I’m not a big fan of the Rolling Stones, but their record has more energy about it. But I’m more interested here in the cultural phenomena of having our charts topped by a whole bunch of eighty-somethings.
Ian Christie asked me this question on an email earlier this week, and we batted some hypotheses around. Ian also noted that in possibly related news John Le Carre’s son is to write a new Le Carre novel set in the early 60s. I don’t know which of these is right—maybe none of them—but let me just set them out.
Hypothesis #1. We’re drowning in nostalgia because we have given up on the future
The future is increasingly dismal, so we’re taking refuge in the past. Historical fiction, the deeply resentful, weaponised nostalgia of rightwing populism, and a left-liberal version of this which is nostalgic for the solidarities of the post-war settlement, which is why the British NHS remains such a potent symbol even while it is eviscerated by budget cuts.
One emblem of this might be the contrast between Star Trek—a genuinely progressive vision of the 23rd century—and the current space opera For All Mankind, which revises the last half century so that a nicely diverse and empowering USA goes to the Moon and Mars.
Of course, this version sounds more Sex Pistols than Beatles. And it’s also a reminder of the work of the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, who argued that neoliberalism had essentially killed off notions of the future—partly, perhaps, as a political strategy. However it worked, he wrote that “the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude”.
Looking back through some of the things I’d written about Fisher, I found a review of his book Ghosts of my Life, and found that I’d pulled out a relevant quote:
Why did the arrival of neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospection and pastiche? … Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar? (p14).
Hypothesis #2. It’s a function of an ageing society.
When I talk to people about the demographics of an ageing society, I sometimes say that as a species, we haven’t lived—ever—in societies where the average age is over 40, and that this is bound to have profound cultural effects as well. But so far we don’t really know what these are, because living in an ageing society is a new experience.
But all of the phenomena above—Stones, Beatles, LeCarre—might be evidence of a cultural atrophy that comes with an ageing society. (In contrast: James Shapiro’s Shakespeare book 1599 notes that the average age in London when Shakespeare was living and working there was 21.)
Similarly, writing in the 1990s, Umberto Eco reflects on the rise of ‘gold’ music stations and also the emergence of accessible digital copies of everything—CDs, DVDs—and says that something along the lines that “culture nowadays has genealogy and geography but not history”. So Hypothesis #2 might be a mix of ageing society combined with having all of the cultural artefacts of the last seventy years floating around us.
Hypothesis #3. It’s the last gasp of the ‘rock stars’
In his book Uncommon People, published in 2017, the music writer David Hepworth suggests that we have seen, just about, the last of the “rock stars”. (The book is sub-titled “The rise and fall of the rock stars”.) He seems to see it as a personality-driven thing, starting in the 1950s and extending into the ‘80s, with the death of John Lennon being a decisive moment, but I think there are structural reasons for this idea.
Culturally, the 60s and the 70s had two distinctive features. One, media was quite narrow (two TV channels in the UK at the start of the decade, three at the end) and cultural production was quite sparse. A few thousand records were released in any year. Two, for the first time, those cultural footprints were broadcast worldwide by satellite. (The Beatles performed ‘All You Need Is Love’ for the launch of the first live transnational satellite link.) Hence we got a generation of globally-known rock stars.
So the nostalgia here might not be for a general sense of the past, but instead for the more coherent cultural world that was represented by that more contained cultural footprint, as opposed to the more diverse and more fragmented culture that we have now. In this hypothesis, we have a developing sense of cultural overload. So much music and so much culture is available that curation at any level is getting difficult. It becomes a burden, even, psychologically and logistically.
And a bit more: that we also sense that this generation has almost gone now.
Hypothesis #4. The Beatles were always drenched in notions of the past, and Now and Then plays up to this.
On this version, the fact that the Rolling Stones are #1 in the album charts at the same time is just an accident of timing, and we’re overthinking it.
A lot of the best Beatles songs are evocations of their past: Penny Lane, We Can Work It Out, In My Life, Eleanor Rigby, Things We Said Today, Yesterday, When I’m 64, Strawberry Fields. And possibly evocations of childhood and the childlike as well: Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and all of the iconography goes with that.
When you look at the biographies of McCartney and Lennon, they both had disrupted childhoods, and it’s a commonplace among Beatles biographers that this was part of the bond between them. They filled that gap in their childhoods in their songs.
Peter Jackson’s official music viceo plays with a sense of loss, of looking back, and at the end, a sense of going back in time. There’s something quite visceral about the way the imagery works.
And this allows me to share one of my late brother’s Beatles insights: that you can tell the difference between Paul McCartney’s songs and John Lennon’s songs because McCartney’s songs go up and down, and Lennon’s songs go along. Now and Then definitely goes along.
Thanks to Ian Christie for the discussion.
I was struck by a chart published by Bloomberg Opinion this week, showing the change in American opinion about the legalisation of marijuana. Some of the commentary around it made me reflect on how change happens.
After flatlining in the low 20 per cents for the last two decades of the 20th century, the proportion of Americans in favour of legalisation has climbed steadily up through the mid-60 per cents. The latest Gallup poll on the issue says approval levels have hit 70% for the first time. It was 12% when they first asked the question in 1969.
Some of the political history here is interesting. Gallup notes that generally approval levels have increased as self-reported use of marijuana has increased, but they jumped 10 percentage points in 2013 when Colorado and Washington legalised recreational use of the drug, before returning to the trend line.
And looking at all the usual breakdowns in the Gallup data, there’s no group where approval for legalisation is below 50%. Even Republicans are 55% in favour; self described ‘conservatives’ come in at 52%. Gallup’s summary is:
The nation has reached a broad consensus on legalizing marijuana, with a full seven in 10 now supportive. Not only do most U.S. adults favor it, but so do majorities of all major political and ideological subgroups... For now, the high level of support among younger adults suggests national backing will only expand in the years ahead, likely resulting in more states, and perhaps the federal government, moving to legalize it.
Ah, the Federal Government. In a Bloomberg political column, outside of the paywall, Francis Wilkinson points out Biden’s current electoral weaknesses with just under a year to go to the 2024 election:
Joe Biden’s weaknesses — his age, his failure to connect with many young voters — are similar to his shortcomings in 2020. The big difference is that he is the incumbent now, and polls consistently show him struggling.
And the Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein puts these two things together. (This is also outside the paywall):
As President Joe Biden looks to boost his reelection campaign and lousy poll numbers, there's one policy position that is popular with voters, could help unite Democrats and would leave Republicans scrambling to respond. It's time he come out in support of legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
(‘Legalise it’. Photo by John Keogh/flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0)
I’m not that interested here in the detail of American politics, although I am interested as a citizen who lives in the long shadow of the United States in absolutely anything that reduces the grim prospect of a second Trump Presidency. I’m more interested in the mechanics.
First, the risk of doing this is low:
24 states have moved forward on their own and legalized recreational use, the latest being Ohio where voters approved a ballot measure last week. According to Politico , more than half the country’s adult population lives somewhere weed is legal so it seems clear that this is an issues Democrats could embrace with little worry of a backlash.
Second, it would delight Democrats and split the Republicans (some groups within the Republic Party are strongly opposed) which is usually a good plan in an election year:
The Gallup survey found a whopping 87% of all Democrats support legalization, while Republicans are split with 55% supporting legalization and 45% opposed. No single policy position will decide an election, but on the margins taking the popular side of a 70/30 issue that splits the other party is certainly a net plus with voters.
And third, there’s a playbook for how to do this, based on the equal marriage campaign. In 2012, as Vice President, Biden was able to make the public push that helped Obama move to support marriage equality, in line with American opinion more generally. This time around, his Vice President could do the same for him:
Having Harris make the first step makes sense for multiple reasons. As both a former prosecutor and a criminal justice reformer, her own record on marijuana is complicated , but she’s supported legalization in the past. For her to take a strong step now, perhaps just by saying what she thinks Biden should do, could help solidify her position as a reformer.
So, if it happens, what are the ingredients here? A steady change in public opinion, to the point where it’s no longer a controversial position. Changes in legislation at State level (in other countries such as the UK devolved administrations might have the same role) have already normalised the path, albeit not at national level. There’s a political reason to take action, and the risk of this is low. And finally, there are ways to reduce that risk further to test the water first.
In short, the long change in public opinion needed to hit a certain level, then needs a political moment to catalyse it. It’s one of the reasons why social change often happens through a series of punctuated equilibria.
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