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2016 has seen the build up of events of the last few decades finally burst — and The Beatles saw it coming

By Nick Jeyarajah/Posted at;mancunion.com/ –

It seems that this year the simmering tensions of a digital age have came to the fore — the post-Cold War liberal agenda faced a searing conservative backlash, the post-Arab Spring Middle East continues to burn while swarms of its victims are swatted away by a crumbling European Union — while individuals’ interactions with the world are shaped by the distorting veils of online filter-bubbles and the murky threats of Russian hackers and fake news.

‘Post-truth’ is the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. As we interact with our world socially, politically, and even emotionally through virtual mediums, it seems hard to escape the sense of an Orwellian disintegration of reality into a digital sludge of Trump memes. We struggle to tell truth from half-truth, fact from fiction.

Inevitably, there has been a cultural response — the youth culture’s dizzying nostalgia for the past is exemplified in the revival of 90s fashion and music, while creative online movements reflect our collective confusion by mashing together a queasy tonic of old video game music and clips from The Simpsons into a dystopian echo of our childhood years. This digital haze appears to in many ways resemble the blur of late-60s psychedelic culture.

The parallels between the 1960s and the present are clear: as brought to life in the V&A’s recent Revolution exhibition in London, domestic and international political uncertainty, racial tensions and a vibrant boom of creativity characterise both ages. However, where I propose that we might find a close relationship between the ages is in our common questions of perception and reality — especially in music. This conversation of reality can be traced to the mid-1960s when popular culture drew upon west-coast hippie movements, and, fuelled by LSD and loosely political utopianism (helped by an English World Cup victory), British counter-culture, led by its music, defined the decade.

Nowhere were these concepts entertained and expanded more in popular culture than in the music of The Beatles. In their psychedelic period, The Beatles sought to tear down all that mop-top Beatlemania had achieved, evolving both lyrically and sonically to change (or rather, blur) their focus, disorientating their listeners and invite them into a different reality. They uniquely used techniques of tape-looping and modification of sound in the studio (as well as the introduction of foreign instruments and forms). In fact, some Beatles records from this time sound genuinely modern (Baby You’re a Rich Man), while others are still fresh and exciting despite their typically 60s aesthetic (She Said She Said).

Where these recordings relate to 2016 is in their common discussion of hazy confusion in an unclear reality. While “Tomorrow Never Knows” borrows loose Buddhist themes, its commentary is coldly political when applied to the 21st century — the iconic ‘turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream’ is relevant in our context of constant digital contact and blaring TVs. Meanwhile, its loose contemplation of the different realms of perception relate to our modern grapples with anchoring our identities in the pace and fluidity of a digital life. The themes of the simplistic “All You Need is Love” are strikingly relatable to the modern cosmopolitan outlook adopted by the young and left-leaning. For example, Barack Obama’s claim to being a ‘citizen of the world’ in 2008 is an increasingly popular rhetorical answer to the puzzle of globalisation, and echoes the communitarianism of 60s counter-culture. The experimental use of backwards recordings (“Rain, I’m Only Sleeping”) acts as a sonic translation of the dislocation we can feel in modern society, its incoherent language an echo of the almost-reality of the 24-hour news that forms the white-noise backdrop of 2016 living.

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