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February 7, 2008

The Modern Beatles

We live, as I’m sure many know, in a “postmodern” society; that is the phrase that gets thrown around a lot, especially when discussing contemporary short-comings: they are, more often than not, rooted in postmodernity. But, just what the heck is postmodernity? Hell, what is modernity, and when did we give that up? Being modern seems like a pretty good gig to most – just ask four single women in New York City who had an entire television series (and, soon a movie!) loosely based on the problem of becoming “modern” – so why even move to postmodernity? And what comes after? Luckily for all of us, the Beatles saw these problems coming forty years ago and have quite nicely embodied both sentiments, as well as the transition, within the larger arc of their discography.

Modernism, succinctly and perhaps too simply, is standardization. It can be standardization of anything: time, space, and most importantly, knowledge. During the Enlightenment, science became the coolest thing ever and the world became ridiculously ordered and rational. We can consider this movement in the Beatles’ early catalogue, up to, roughly, Rubber Soul in 1965. The beauty of the Beatles’ early songs is that they are simple, they are rational: McCartney’s circular bass harmonies are built upon standard blues scales, to which Lennon adds harmonic counterpoints with his vocals.

Modernity, in its strict rationalism, is obsessed with the power of the word. The word was what could categorize everything, even Victorian sexuality. And, not surprisingly, the Beatles’ “The Word” on Rubber Soul is perhaps their most stridently modern song. The song orders the world around the word “love”: saying the word will allow you to be free, to be like the Beatles. Past Beatles love songs would also allude to “love” being the solution to most problems, but this strict song, largely built around one note, is the first to explicitly say that “the word is good.” The modern Beatles center their entire universe around this word. When Lennon sings “spread the word and you’ll be free,” he is very obviously granting the word a very modern logo centric weight: “The Word” posits “love” as the solution to problems like oppression (“say the word and you’ll be free”), class mobility (“say the word and be like me,” implying that the listener too, through love, could perhaps be rich and famous), and the solution to a metaphoric darkness (“it’s sunshine… I’m here to show everybody the light”). Implicitly, then, the cause of all these problems is something that is decidedly not-love, which creates a perfect modern opposition between a binary such as love and not-love.

Rubber Soul is an important album within the Beatles discography not only because it represents their most mature and collaborative effort to that point, but because that very maturity would grow into their seminal albums, Sgt. Peppers and The Beatles; the transition into their more mature work parallels in many ways modernity’s transition into postmodernity. Postmodernity, though potentially even more nebulous than modernity, is commonly charged with the destruction of logocentrism, that is to say, that the word no longer was the center of the rational universe. This creates an endless playfulness between words, between thoughts and ideas, in which one gives way to another infinitely, causing a metaphoric feeling of vertigo that is often attributed to the alleged postmodern condition. This playfulness is seen in such examples as the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus”, on Magical Mystery Tour, and “Glass Onion”, on The Beatles. “I am the Walrus” begins by Lennon declaring that “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” Right from the beginning, Lennon sets a playful deferral of identification, a cyclical set of relations that offer a fragmented sense of self: who am I? I am he? But you are he, and you are me. Furthermore, “I am the Walrus” is a textbook example of Lennon’s playfulness that characterizes his late Beatles’ career: the whole song is a bricolage of images that are for the most part nonsensical and meaningless – a veritable postmodern pastiche. The song begs for interpretation, for some sense to be injected into the nonsensical, but at the same time resists any grand narrative, any central theme, to be imposed upon it. “Glass Onion” follows the same trend started in “I am the Walrus,” with Lennon conceiving a song that “explained” much of the imagery found in previous Beatles songs, including “I am the Walrus” (apparently, the walrus is Paul). “Glass Onion” is postmodern in the sense that the lyrics are for the most part recycled – there is nothing new except for three new images – and forces the listener through a constant set of referrals back into Beatles’ mythology to garner any sense from the song. The word, so strong on Rubber Soul, is extremely unstable in “Glass Onion,” as it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between Lennon’s truth and fiction, in as much as it is ever possible to differentiate between the two.

The arc from modernity to postmodernity in the Beatles is not perfectly linear, however. Just because The Beatles came after Rubber Soul, which came after A Hard Day’s Night, doesn’t necessarily make songs on The Beatles more modern, or immune to possible regressions to simpler boy-loves-girl songs. And likewise, because the terms “modernity” and “postmodernity” are so multi-faceted, the Beatles’ discography is positively replete of songs that can be used as examples for and against many other uses. But in the end, that is exactly what makes the Beatles so important, culturally and musically. Whenever we do move past “postmodernity” into our next cultural and intellectual age, I’m sure that the Beatles will be able to be used to decode it.

This thought is brought to you by: Sebastian Buzzalino

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