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Yesterday misunderstands what made the Beatles so popular

The Beatles-obsessed drama believes musical stardom is a meritocracy. The reality is much different.

Jack Malik (Himseh Patel) plays to a sold-out, adoring audience in Yesterday. Universal Pictures

The film Yesterday has an intriguing premise: What if the Beatles never existed? Unsuccessful, moderately talented singer-songwriter Jack Malik wakes up one day and is the only one who remembers the Beatles’ songs. Suddenly he can pose as the creator of the greatest music ever written. As a result, he quickly becomes a world-renowned superstar.

The movie itself is a cheerfully silly rom-com; screenwriter Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle don’t have much interest in exploring the music industry or the ins and outs of the creative process. Nonetheless, Yesterday raises bigger questions about how artistic quality affects artistic careers, ones that may last with us after the credits roll.

Jack is successful because the Beatles’ songs, removed from their original context, still maintain the universal, instant appeal that has canonized them in our non-fictional world, offscreen. Label execs, other musicians, and huge numbers of fans are all won over by “Jack’s” music; when his skeptical parents don’t immediately recognize that “Let It Be” is great, Yesterday chalks it up to their being philistines. Even decades after the Soviet Union disintegrated, “Back in the USSR” still rocks people’s world.

But would “Back in the USSR” really be an automatic, surefire hit if it were released today, into a music scene whose interests have evolved far beyond the Beatles? Is quality in the arts so transcendent that it can overcome all differences of era, culture, and happenstance? Is music a meritocracy — an art form that privileges natural talent over everything else?

There’s good reason to believe that the answer to all three of those questions is no. Wonderful songs aren’t always hits; talented musicians don’t always achieve success commensurate with their abilities. And sometimes a twist of fate lands the less talented (like Yesterday’s Jack Malik) in a position to reap massive rewards.

It takes popularity to become popular — not just quality

We tend to expect that good things don’t always come to the most deserving people. Sometimes the most successful people get that way because they’re in the right place at the right time, or know the right people, or were even born into it. And art is no exception — something that Yesterday’s Jack seems to know well, even if the movie itself suggests otherwise.

Take Austin-based singer/songwriter Mobley, for example. He’s a fairly successful performer who makes a living touring on his original music; though he isn’t fantastically famous like the Beatles, he isn’t floundering like Jack. But Mobley’s position as a working, non-superstar performer is one that’s rarely presented in popular culture.

”People have romanticized ideas about the way things work in music and in the creative world generally, but in my experience, it’s in a lot of ways not especially different from any other field,” Mobley says.

“[So] how can you espouse the idea of a musical meritocracy when the history of music, especially in the Western world, has been so segregated and so exploitative of people who originated so many of those musical forms?” he continues. “Is it meritocracy that it was the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and Elvis” who became music’s biggest hits?

There’s research to back up the notion that fame and fortune comes from more than pure talent. Sociologists Matthew Salganik of Princeton and Duncan Watts of Microsoft have conducted a number of studies to determine what makes a song popular. They discovered that when someone approaches a song knowing only that it’s popular and well-liked within the cultural mass, that person is more inclined to come away liking the song too. This can create a ripple effect, with songs becoming more and more popular because they already are popular. Salganik and Watts’s research suggests that the more visible something is — whether it became that way through marketing, grassroots efforts, or sheer word of mouth — the more highly regarded it is, and the more popular it is likely to become.

Social influence has a powerful effect on which songs become popular. As art is a form of communication we often share and experience socially, it makes sense that we like art that we believe will connect us to others.

Our instincts to spread what we like, and to like what others like, mean that what seem like small advantages for a song — perhaps a well-placed promo on Spotify, or appearing on the soundtrack of a Netflix show — can lead to a big chart presence. A good review at the right time or being used in a viral meme on a slow news day could help more people discover a song just out of happenstance. Songs that get an initial bump can ride that wave, so more people seek them out, buy them, and boost their popularity. This cycle can lead to one song, good or not, becoming a hit, while another disappears into obscurity.

The Beatles were talented, but they also were in the right place at the right time

In the music industry, success is often more about popularity than quality. And although achieving popularity may seem formulaic, doing so relies as much on luck as on calculation. As economist Alan Krueger explained in a speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, “in addition to talent, arbitrary factors can lead to success or failure, like whether another band happens to release a more popular song than your band at the same time. The difference between a Sugar Man, a Dylan, and a Post Break Tragedy depends a lot more on luck than is commonly acknowledged.”

This isn’t to say that a band as big as the Beatles got that way just by being lucky. Talent still does matter, according to economist Robert H. Frank, author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. “When you make the point that chance events matter, people insist on hearing you as having said that those are the only things that matter,” Frank told me. “That’s not the message. The people who win generally are very good. If you’re not very good, you generally don’t win. What’s true is that being very good isn’t by itself enough to win.”

The Beatles were very good by most qualitative metrics. But the band’s quantitative achievements don’t mean they are indisputably the most meritorious musicians of all time, or even of their day. More likely, the band also managed to be in the right place at the right time, on top of everything else.

Other critically heralded musicians had no such luck. Consider Buddy Holly, an enormously skilled songwriter who was poised to redefine pop and rock music but never reached the upper echelons of music stardom. If he’d lived long enough to continue developing his sound, he might have become rock ’n’ roll’s breath of fresh air before the Beatles had the chance. But Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, cutting his career short before he could parlay his early success into Buddymania.

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 prevented 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.

The Beatles at Kennedy Airport in 1964.
The Beatles were young, attractive, and able to tour extensively — privileges not afforded to many of their peers.
New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection via Library of Congress

The 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 Pop podcast, 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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