June 30, 2009
Move Over Once
It should be to nobody's surprise that the Beatles are still extremely capable of making people very excited. At least, the concept of the Beatles. For instance, personally speaking, the cinematic trailer for The Beatles: Rock Band revealed at E3 last month was immediately more interesting and exciting than pretty much any other game displayed at the show.
The animated trailer, less than three minutes long, doesn't say anything new, but is so completely charming and evocative of the entire legacy of the Beatles. The source material that it draws upon is incredibly strong.
It immediately puts into perspective the Beatles' extraordinary cultural relevance and creative power, and Rock Band, wielding these, shames every other action game with a convoluted plot about Russian warlords. It's not really fair. It's almost like cheating outright. A video game about the music of the Beatles versus a sequel where you still mostly shoot people, but this time it has a "very dark story." How can the Beatles still not automatically trump everything else, unless you are a huge fan of cover systems or anime backflips?
The Beatles: Rock Band, because of, presumably, a multi-million dollar deal, is able to draw on a massive and important cultural cachet. Unlike every other game at E3 which seemed to reiterate upon the comparatively narrow history and inventions of video games.
This is all exciting, then, but also, for a couple of reasons, sad.
First of all, none of the above enthusiasm for The Beatles: Rock Band really has anything to do with the game in question. It's entirely in the presentation, and compared to the new Modern Warfare, Uncharted, Splinter Cell, whatever, The Beatles: Rock Band is going to be the less mechanically interesting of them all. The fictional layer is fascinating, but it's the same game that you have been playing for four years and buying five times a year.
The inverse credit arrangement -- first, 'The Beatles'; second, 'Rock Band' -- is probably a contractual stipulation, and historical precedent for loser acts like Green Day to argue for top billing when they get their own Guitar Hero game in 2015. (Steve McQueen dropped out of starring in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because he couldn't get credited first on the poster. Welcome to the future of video games.) But the positions are also accurate: the notion of a Rock Band game isn't as attractive as it used to be, and the Beatles are going to carry this game's weight.
And it's sad because all of this music is at least forty years old, and so to a certain extent the excitement is based on nostalgia. Which means either that the video game industry has yet to come up with anything on the same level as the Beatles -- probably true -- or that nothing in your own life is currently as exciting to you as the music that your parents listened to.
The E3 situation reminds me of the Beatles' last live appearance in 1969, the spontaneous rooftop concert in London, because the Beatles were so obviously cooler than anything else that was going on that day. They brought everything to a halt.
Except there was that one guy, the very proper British gentleman who says that, "this type of music is alright in its place, and it's quite enjoyable." That part is a completely transparent lie. "But I think it's a bit of an imposition to actually disrupt all of the business in this area." Then he either calls the police or is glad when they break up the party. And, you know, is the last live appearance of the Beatles worth less historically than whatever typing he had to do that day?
I can appreciate his point: deadlines don't go away just because someone is playing rock music pretty loud. The man's problem is stodginess rather than outright anhedonia, but if you can't get excited about the Beatles playing on a roof after not appearing live in years, what can you get excited about?
Imagine how much the sophisticated young sixties radicals on the street hated that guy. Also imagine him transplanted 40 years into the future onto the E3 show floor and besieged by game journalists who sneer at his conservatism and tell him go play M.U.L.E.
The Beatles' music is now the same age as that guy, but instead of being relegated to the past, it's part of the future. Rock Band is the future of how we experience music, haven't you heard? Or maybe it's not, and that's a hyperbolic dot-com era kind of claim unsubstantiated by the fact that not very much has really happened since Rock Band and Guitar Hero were invented.
If Rock Band is the future of music, what would that mean for the future? That kids' first exposure to rock music will be in the form of a Rock Band challenge, rather than on the Ed Sullivan show or in English dance halls or whatever? They're never going to experience an album as a complete entity, they're not going to be buying anything in a store, and they're not going to be able have songs stuck in their head without 3D guitar charts also scrolling down across their minds.
The cool mod kids who loved the Beatles in 1969 have become the old man who thinks that "this type of music is quite enjoyable in its place", and don't understand what a video game is, and resent how their grandchildren think of music. But regardless of whether Rock Band exists or not, teenagers still aren't going to be buying vinyl en masse -- or whatever a 40 year old's romantic conception of how music should be experienced it is. Everything will change anyway.
It might be too bad if kids who are capable of producing great music but no more than three chords get dissatisfied with actual guitar playing and give up. If Rock Band and Guitar Hero ever get to be satisfaction enough for would-be musicians, and they never produce any recorded material, that isn't a turn for the better. Of course, there's no evidence of that yet, and I guess we've got to wait at least another generation.
Things change. The primary relevance of the Beatles changed all the time. They've gone from being a teenage girl's wet dream to acid-tripping weirdos to a litigation factory and now to video game business leaders.
There are generational shifts in progress all the time, and only when we notice them does it make us uncomfortable. There were people for whom early, early, I Want To Hold Your Hand-era Beatles was something dangerous, and they wouldn't have wanted to surrender their experiential or moral ground, even though, in retrospect, it seems like the easiest thing in the world to let happen.
A generational shift makes your experiences obsolete and little more than a novelty to your children. I can't tell whether Rock Band is an important change or a change at all. But do you just go with it because you as a person in the 21st century would have told that British gentleman in 1969 the same thing? Because you would have told him not to call the police, and just live with it even if he isn't excited about it, since it's so obviously the right thing to do?
Who knows. That's what makes it so exciting, though, right? Or does it?