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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Why I'm Not Buying

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Some people say, "Hey! Who are YOU to be writing a column and why should we be reading it? HuH?" I usually answer, "I don't know."

Just for a change of pace . . .

One of my students asked me last week if I'd purchased the new Beatles' CD yet, that "Beatles Retrospective" which includes outtakes, different versions of songs, and rehearsal cuts. I guess he figured that, being a child of the 60's, I'd snap up ANY "new" Beatles material immediately (which is what the surviving Beatles figured as well).

And I told him that I hadn't and tried to explain why. But I'm still mulling it over in my mind.

The songs on the "new" double CD are (by definition) versions of songs that had been rejected by the Beatles over 25 years ago. They had never been released -- and with good reason. They were judged (by the artists themselves) to be inferior, as needing more work, or somehow just not the right version that they wanted to put out to the public.

It's funny about art. They say that no work of art is ever truly finished -- it's only abandoned. I don't know a single writer or singer or artist who doesn't want to go back and fiddle with something they've released, make minor changes.

But art (writing, painting, music) IS released at a certain point in time, and once it's out there -- in front of the public -- it seems vaguely dishonest to screw around with it, to show people what you COULD have done or ALMOST did or MIGHT have done differently. I mean, Van Gogh never released "Starry Night II," nor did he show us sketches or versions he abandoned for one reason or other. When he was satisfied with his work (or MOSTLY satisfied with it), it was done.

Sure, it's interesting to see how an artist got to the final product, to look through Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks or to see the first draft of The Declaration of Independence and note the changes between the first and final drafts. And it's fun to hear various versions of songs -- "Sgt, Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," for example, without the string orchestra. But these are curiosities only. They were never intended to be made public and were rejected by the artists themselves in favor of something they (at least) considered better.

Yes, I KNOW that the performing arts are different because performers are constantly expected to do the same piece over and over and over again. I mean, no one ever shouted to Mark Twain, "Hey! Write Huck Finn again!" And yes, I know that songs (and plays and dances and such) ARE constantly evolving, constantly changing.

Eric Clapton's recent "Unplugged" performance showcases a completely different version of the song "Layla," 20 years ago a soaring electric rock-and-roll classic done by a full rock band. In the newest version, Clapton sings it simply, like a blues tune. Livingston Taylor releases different versions of songs he's done before on different albums, and although Arlo Guthrie still sings "Alice's Restaurant" sometimes, the words have changed to reflect the changing times.

But all of this is art CHANGING, growing. It's not a collection of never-released stuff, rejected artifacts which have sat in a vault for 25 years and then are pulled out to make another financial killing. It is something more than simply passing off the "rough draft" of a work as something new.

One of the basic tenets of media literacy is that each form of media has its own unique characteristics. Artists who perform live, saddled with the expectation that they duplicate and "re-perform" pieces regularly, also enjoy the freedom to change, to experiment with each new performance and to grow. Other media is frozen in time. Once it's done, it's done.

The Beatles gave us the best they had twenty-five years ago. Like any artist, they made judgments about the tiniest facet of everything they released. And although I might be interested in anything NEW they decide to perform, dredging up stuff that they rejected a quarter of a century ago as beneath them seems . . . I dunno . . . somehow cheap. A curiosity only.

Of course (as Dennis Miller often says) that's just the way I feel. I could be wrong. After all, the "new" Beatles anthology was (the last time I looked) at the top of the Billboard charts. Millions of people are gobbling up this (by definition) second-rate work.

Which may say something more about the state of rock and roll today (or our own need for nostalgia) than about the quality of what they're buying.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.