Last week, the NY Times published Seth Schiesel’s effusive review of The Beatles: Rock Band. Calling the game a “transformative entertainment experience,” Schiesel argued that it “may be the most important video game yet made.”
Schiesel’s logic is sensical: the combination of Beatles + videogame gives baby boomers something concrete to share with their kids and grandkids. Harmonix, a company founded by the Gen-X kids of boomers, has done a top-notch job treating the band with honor and respect. The game’s stylized visuals and evocative instruments really do make the legendary nature of the band pop out at you.
Yet, were it not for my job as a videogame critic, I doubt ever would have chosen to play The Beatles: Rock Band. For one part, I’m tired of music games. I enjoyed the original Guitar Hero, and I played many of its predecessors and follow-ups. My house is literally littered with these games, and I can’t stomach the idea of admitting more of them in. Given the dozens of rock band derivatives out there, is my situation really that unusual? The irony seems to escape everyone’s notice: The Beatles, that ur-rock band, takes videogame form as mere derivative, as copycat act. Another plastic guitar is another plastic guitar, even if it’s supposed to be Paul McCartney’s.
For another part, how surprised should we be to learn that Harmonix’s take on the Beatles treats them as legend? In last month’s New York Times Magazine feature on the making of the game, Daniel Radosh describes the incredibly tight control the Apple Corps principals exerted over the development of the game. It’s hardly an independent take on the Beatles as musicians or as pop culture icons; rather, it’s a carefully controlled $50 million homage. Money can’t buy them love, but it sure can take care of everything else.
Here’s an alternative view to try on: The Beatles: Rock Band represents the apotheosis of boomer nostalgia. It is memory created from scratch by their children, as if to affirm, “Yes Mom, The Beatles really are the pinnacle of music and culture, just like you always suspected.” It is a game that says, implicitly, “It’s still 1969 in everyone’s heart, even if we couldn’t all be there.” It is the Greatest Generation for that generation’s children. It is a pat on the back and a knowing smile to those who gave the finger to the back-patters and knowing-smilers.
The most important game yet made? Perhaps, but not for the Beatles’ sake. Forty years after their favorite band’s last performance, boomer nostalgia is overshadowed by its consequences. As 20- and 30-somethings happily strum and tap and sing with their boomer brethren to the tune of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” perhaps the former may want to reflect on their complex relationship with the latter generation. For one part, they are our parents, or our grandparents. They are the forebearers of cultural revolution, of the very idea of the personal computer that makes this game possible to play in the first place. And then, for another part, they are our biggest consumers of healthcare. They are the only large-scale recipients of state-provided health insurance, via Medicare. They are beginning to enjoy benefits from Social Security, a system that will go into the red in another seven years or so, just as the tail end of Gen-X turns 40. Here comes the sun indeed.
So I ask: must we appreciate The Beatles? Must we reminisce with the newly aged about their privileged lives as naive youthful radicals, and then later as greedy yuppie centrists, and then finally as truculent conservative majority? Must we give them their final thrill in the medium we popularized, and which they spent decades not only failing to understand, but also deriding as useless and insolent? Must we allow them to celebrate not through change, not through novelty, but through utter sameness?
Or can we now also take a stand, fists raised, bras off, beards untrimmed, sandals afoot, and refuse? The Beatles: Rock Band is not the past in the present, but the present in the past. And it’s a past we can’t afford to pretend exists any longer. In that sense, there’s one Beatles tune we ought to revisit. Tap your plastic guitar along with me: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they’re here to stay / Oh, I believe in yesterday.”