Get Back

The repetition, the repetition is a killer. When watching Get Back in fits and starts over the past month, that’s what I kept thinking. A take, another take, and yet another take. Some tea and toast and tedium. The viewer gets to see the vibrancy of rock-and-roll pulverized under the weight of needing to get this chord progression just right, or adjusting that vocal line, or pointing those microphones in a different direction. You can see it wearing on everyone. Even Paul, who is really the engine keeping things moving in the weeks covered by the film, periodically drifts into a glassy dead-eyed stare.

How much of being an artist is just a willingness to keep going: to repeat and repeat and repeat?

Following up on my last post extolling hard work and dedication to artistic craft with a month of silence here on the blog I wish I could say that I started a first draft of a novel offline, or like a really excellent cycle of sonnets or something. But, alas. The days have been full – the “deluge of life” as I describe it – and there has been very little time to spend writing. Very little time, and yet I found time to watch the eight hour Get Back documentary off and on over the past month, usually in 15-20 minute chunks or so. I’m not even that much of a Beatles fan (the best thing I read on it by someone who actually knows about the Beatles was this Ian Leslie post).

Repetition is a foundational element in all sorts of endeavors – especially creative ones. Or rather, the importance of repetition is more easily identifiable in creative, performative endeavors. The office worker has to find the courage to open up the email inbox day after day, but whether the routine is leading anywhere, whether it is driving any sort of improvement or is headed any particular direction, is usually unclear. A final artistic product, the finished song at the end of all the practice, seems to place all the repetition into context, to make it worthwhile. Musicians seem to be especially at risk when it comes to the grind of repetition. The performative aspect of the art form basically enshrines it- come up with a hit song (or hit song formula) and you’ll be playing it forever if everything goes well. And the Beatles, with their unusual ability to reinvent their sound over and over again, seemed especially allergic to getting stuck on repeat.

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This is Let It Be! You are the first people on earth to hear this song!

There is a great scene in the 2019 movie Yesterday when Jack plays “Let It Be” for his parents (the poster tagline for the movie tells you more or less what you need to know: “Everyone in the world has forgotten the Beatles. Everyone except Jack.”):

Yesterday was one of my favorite movies from the past few years even though I’m not a huge Beatles fan. I found myself repeatedly bursting into laughter, but probably laughed longest and loudest at this scene. It is just so painfully recognizable (although I, like many, would love to possess even a single ounce of Himesh Patel’s charisma). Anyone who has ever made anything creative and put it out there knows exactly this sort of feeling – a collision between earnest, heartfelt passion (“This is like watching Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa right in front of your bloody eyes!”) and the general boredom and indifference of an early audience.

I was thinking of this scene again after the economist Tyler Cowen shared Cass Sunstein’s paper on the Beatles’ path to becoming “The Beatles” (i.e. successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams). In the paper Sunstein suggests Yesterday puts forward the hypothesis that “the Beatles were surpassingly great, and their sheer greatness was, and is, a guarantee of spectacular popularity, wherever and however their music emerged.” Sunstein goes on to explore recent social science research on cultural success and failure, including the importance of informational cascade and network effects, and also points out some of the straightforward good luck the Beatles ultimately enjoyed. While recognizing the importance of these different effects, Sunstein concludes the paper (“with fear and trembling”) by suggesting that while these contextual factors were important, ultimately the quality of the Beatles’ songs meant that they would have found a way to be successful.

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