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8 Reasons Why The White Album Is The Perfect Beatles Record For 2017

The band's 1968 masterpiece is the perfect soundtrack our our anxious and polarized times

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Why The White Album?

Melody Supreme / Via

Earlier this year, The Beatles marked the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with a reissue campaign to recontextualize one of pop’s most iconic albums. While people who care about The Beatles will argue about how over or underrated the record might be half a century later, almost all agree that it emerged at a special moment in music history — a moment when The Beatles’ boundless optimism about their abilities coincided with a society-wide belief that the world might be getting better all the time.

Sgt. Pepper is just as astounding as its most ardent defenders say it is, but the album can’t help but feel out of step with how broken America seems right now. The most popular cultural products of our era don’t imagine a better world right around the corner; they envision a near-future where faceless corporations record our every move and racial progress has deteriorated to the point of resembling a horror movie. For an America this lost, stressed out, and prone to horrifying outbreaks of violence, 1968’s White Album could not be more timely.

1. There are echoes of 1968 everywhere today / Via

If 1967 was characterized by a somewhat naive optimism, 1968 was defined by blood in the streets. The year The Beatles put out The White Album, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the Vietnam War reached a new peak of violence, riots broke out in most major cities, and the Democratic National Convention led to beatings, exposing rifts in the party that would endure for decades. As crime and domestic unrest mounted, George Wallace won 13.5% of the presidential vote on an openly racist platform, while Richard Nixon’s victory in that year’s presidential election began a drift right in our politics that has yet to stop.

Abroad, France teetered on the edge of revolution, the Cultural Revolution reached its peak in China, Israel clashed with Arab states in the Six Day War, and the Soviet Union brutally suppressed Prague Spring demonstrators in just a few of that year’s flashpoints of chaos.

As America again reels from white supremacist terrorism and the consequences of a caustic election, we have not reached 1968’s levels of unrest, but we’re closer to that point than in any year since.

2. The White Album embraces the apocalypse / Via

So far, 2017 looks destined to be a golden year for dystopia. With Black Mirror, Logan, and Stranger Things all doing huge numbers, Americans are clearly drawn to visions of societal collapse. As the country teeters on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, that bleak vision of the future seems to get closer every day.

On The White Album’s controversial centerpiece, “Revolution 9,” John Lennon and Yoko Ono assemble an eight-minute, melody-free tape collage meant to invoke the chaos and horror of revolution. In “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” George Harrison looks on from the distance upon a world catapulting towards disaster. If Sgt. Pepper prepared for a utopian future, The White Album finds The Beatles bracing for impact in a world with its best years behind it.

3. It mixes genre in a very 2017 way

The Beatles In The Studio Blog / Via

Streaming is quickly becoming the default way we consume music, and the lines between genres have never been more unclear. In 1968, the divisions between different music subcultures were much more strict — the music industry was still deeply racially segregated and black musicians were especially limited in how much they could reach white audiences. The Beatles, however, never had much use for genre and spent much of their early career moving between rock and roll, R&B, and pop while incorporating more esoteric influences like Indian classical music along the way.

The White Album found the group embarking on their most radical genre experimentation yet. It features styles as varied as ska (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da), musique concrète (“Revolution 9”), early heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”), British music hall (“Honey Pie”), folk (“Julia,”), country (“Rocky Raccoon,”), and blues (“Yer Blues”), among many others. Their previous albums channeled one overriding aesthetic or artistic vision, but The White Album is scatterbrained in a way that slots right in with our current listening habits. It’s hard to imagine any number of recent albums — The Life of Pablo, Lemonade, and Blonde among them — existing without the grab-bag approach to genre The Beatles helped pioneer.

4. More than any other Beatles album, The White Album is about violence

ABC News

The universe of The White Album is defined by a feeling that violence could break out at any time. The Beatles also went a step beyond just creating a mood to examine the effects of violence on the human psyche. In “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” John Lennon fuses his violent love for Yoko Ono, the heroin addiction that was gradually upending his life, and the bloodlust he saw in a gun magazine to create psychedelic opus that stands as one of the group’s best songs. It’s a startling achievement.

“Helter Skelter,” the album’s most notorious composition and one of Paul McCartney’s masterpieces, painted such an intense portrait of drug-fueled destruction that it ended up taking on another life as the inspiration for the Manson Family murders that helped bury 60s idealism. George Harrison’s “Piggies,” another Manson touchstone, painted a crude vision of class war that is more fitting than ever in our era of yawning inequality.

5. The album deals with crises of faith and cynicism about religious leaders

YouTube / Via

Spurred by George Harrison’s burgeoning fascination with Indian culture and religion, the Beatles traveled to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India to study transcendental meditation. While they all left the retreat disillusioned or disappointed, Lennon was especially bitter at his impression that the Maharishi was preying on some of the women at the ashram sexually and exploiting the guests for their money. To express his newfound cynicism about transcendental meditation, he composed “Sexy Sadie,” arguably the album’s most biting and sarcastic track.

Elsewhere on the album, George Harrison’s plaintive ballad “Long Long Long” chronicles the struggles of trying to reach inner enlightenment, and Paul McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son” finds joy in a spiritual experience achievable by just going outside. The Beatles had famous brushes with organized religion before, but they never tackled the challenges of belief as directly as they did here.

6. It dissects our obsession with celebrity

NBC / Via

1968 found The Beatles trapped by their own celebrity, with tabloids and obsessed fans eating away at their senses of identity and control.

On “Glass Onion,” John Lennon tears down the Beatles myth to satirize the fan culture that studied his band’s every move. It’s one of the most meta moments in The Beatles whole catalogue, but it feels appropriate when Taylor Swift appears to be basing her entire album cycle on her negative press coverage. Even the blank, white album artwork, coming on the heels of the riotous Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour covers, is aimed at subverting the band’s relationship with their audience and the critics who tried to pigeonhole them.

Even if Lennon’s lyrics to “Glass Onion” are a bit more literary than “Look What You Made Me Do,” his work shares a willingness to deconstruct his own celebrity with many of today’s biggest musicians, from Kanye West to Lady Gaga.

7. The White Album is all about mental health

After their manager’s untimely death, The Beatles were no longer able to paper over the personality, relationship, and lifestyle differences that seemed bound to tear them apart. Fitting with the turmoil within the band and in the outside world, The White Album vividly illustrates the ravages of insomnia (“I’m So Tired”), suicidal thoughts (“Yer Blues”), drug addiction (“Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” “Helter Skelter”), sexual frustration (“Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”), and depression (“Dear Prudence”).

The album tries to use the Ringo Starr-sung lullaby “Good Night” as a salve for all the psychological damage showcased across the album, but the song takes on an eerie and hollow quality after so many pieces about psychological crack-ups. In a country that now seems on the cusp of a collective nervous breakdown, The White Album’s songs take an honest look at issues few artists of their stature had discussed so directly.

8. It paints a vivid picture of a band and society falling apart simultaneously

Pinterest / Via

For all The White Album’s musical brilliance, The Beatles were often at war with each other while making it, using their bandmates' talents to record parts on the songs they wrote almost entirely separately. They recorded many of its songs effectively as solo artists, without any input from the other members of the band at all. As John Lennon would later say, The White Album was where the Beatles broke up in spirit.

Intentionally or not, The Beatles captured the sense of dislocation, disillusionment, division, and turn towards darkness that characterized the late 1960s. As we careen towards an ever more precarious future as a nation, there isn’t any better soundtrack for our own slide into the abyss.

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