Imagine there’s no smoking. It’s easy if you try.
Obviously I could have started this blog with ‘imagine there’s no Beatles,’ as a number of journalists have done in their write-ups about Danny Boyle’s Richard Curtis-scripted Yesterday.
However, I want to start with the smoking because at one point in the film, lead character Jack (Himesh Patel) says that he’s dying for a cigarette only for his best friend Rocky (Joel Fry) to ask what cigarettes are – with Google (which along with Apple of course does exist) then confirming that in the alternative world where Jack has woken up, cigarettes do not indeed exist, alongside the Beatles, Oasis (the band), Coca Cola (the drink) and Harry Potter.
There are several things to pick apart here – beyond the obvious fact that bands like Coldplay (namechecked) would also not exist had the Beatles not existed.
For more specifically, without the tobacco industry, firstly the USA would quite possibly not have enjoyed the global economic dominance that it enjoyed in the twentieth century (and periods around it).
Secondly, slavery was a key component of the American tobacco industry, and so to imagine a world without smoking is, for better or for worse, to imagine an America without slavery.
Furthermore, the Indian tobacco industry is one of the world’s largest, and it historically commenced with the introduction of tobacco to Goa by the Portuguese, before the British then created a tobacco industry during their colonial rule of the country.
I wish simply to suggest, then, that to imagine a world without tobacco is in some senses to imagine a world without slavery and a world without colonialism.
Oh to imagine such a world.
And yet, to imagine such a world is in some senses to deny such a world.
That is, Yesterday asks us in part to imagine that slavery and colonialism never took place – even though Jack Malik’s British-Asian family has found its way to Lowestoft in order to live there, and even though there has, even without the Beatles, still been a history of music that includes many African-American sounds (Stevie Wonder is namechecked, among other indicators, including Ed Sheeran’s rapping).
Indeed, in Boyle’s film it is early confirmed that the Rolling Stones continue to exist, meaning that these arch-appropriators of African-American sounds have indeed continued to be successful, even though the grounds for their success – the African-American music from which they ‘borrowed’ so many licks and beats – ought not to have existed since there was no tobacco trade and thus not slavery in the same fashion.
Jack, bless him, feels bad for appropriating the Beatles’ music, even though John Lennon (Robert Carlyle) appears in the film to confirm that basically he has not written his songs (he is not a frustrated musician, but a happy widower living on a beach, seemingly only a taxi ride from Lowestoft, blissfully unaware of pop music and the media).
And yet, if in effect appropriation has gone on (the Stones are still around), and if in effect the supposed non-existence of a history of slavery and colonialism has still resulted in more or less the same world as we have now – except without the Beatles and without Coke – then the principle of the film is that theft and the occultation of theft through the rewriting of history is absolutely fine.
Let us imagine basically the same world as we have now – except that there was no slavery and no colonialism.
So basically the film is a denial of at least two of the most pernicious moments in western history, including the gigantic theft that led to the very creation and dominance of the west that the film affirms.
More fool Jack, then, for confessing – even if it allows him to get the girl (Lily James). For, in doing so he basically demonstrates that he is a dupe for a set of values (upheld in typical Curtis fashion as implicitly ‘English’) that he has been fed and yet which no one else believes in.
Indeed, Jack’s gesture might have a touch of the Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, USA, 1939) about it, but I am not sure what the panic from record producer Debra Hammer, played by Kate McKinnon, is about.
For while Rocky uploads all of the Beatles songs at the end of the film to the internet for people to download for free, the production and recording rights would still belong to her record company, and so Rocky/Jack will spend their whole life in penury, if not in prison, as a result of their unprovable story and their breach of contract (how to prove the existence of a band that never existed?) – all the while the record company owns rights to the songs, regardless of whether people have downloaded them for free.
Indeed, pretty much every song in the world is already easily available online on a host of websites, and it has not led to the collapse of the music industry – even if bands like Radiohead (whose poster for In Rainbows adorns Jack’s door) have attempted to give away their music.
(Besides, the record label would just get a better set of musicians and singers to sell better versions of the songs to the world, thereby making more money.)
So, Jack/Rocky’s ‘revolutionary’ gesture is in other words just business as usual in the contemporary record industry.
What is perhaps of greater import, though, is that the denial of history is also business as usual in the contemporary world.
Perhaps it is not by accident that Jack first ‘breaks through’ internationally while playing a gig in Moscow as Ed Sheeran’s warm-up – with the sequence of course involving a cover of ‘Back in the USSR.’
For if there is a country that knows about how to manipulate history, then it is surely Russia. And the manipulation does not stop at history; it also includes the present, as the victory of Vladimir Putin in the 2016 American Presidential elections makes clear.
What is more, it is notable that Jack also relies solely on Google for his verification or otherwise of the existence of the Beatles.
Not only does Yesterday thus affirm that it is only by existing on the internet that one can be validated as real, but it also implies – in a celebratory, product-placement fashion – that companies like Google shape our reality, determining what is real or not.
In other words, Yesterday plays out as comedy what is perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the digital, ‘post-truth’ age: that what we consider to be real is highly manipulable, is indeed manipulated, but here is something to be celebrated as we deny slavery and deny colonialism as we live in a world without history and smoking.
Facetiously one might suggest that Yesterday could just as easily be called ‘Cambridge Analytica Saves The World.’
And yet in this facetious comment lies a sense in which Yesterday plays fast and loose with history as it offers up an extended Google advert, even as Google surely does shape our perceptions of reality thanks to its manipulable algorithms, data mining, listings of people and events, and so on.
If ‘Imagine’ were indeed a song about imagining ‘no countries,’ ‘peace,’ and more, it perhaps is a song about a world that beats to the unified drum of a single military-industrial-entertainment complex. That is, ‘Imagine’ is as much a bitter indictment of world history as it is an attempt to dream that humanity’s bloody, planet-destroying history did not take place.
A denial of a reality in which borders are being continuously reaffirmed on both sides of the Pond. A denial of a reality in which exploitation has created this world of huge injustice… Yesterday is in some senses, then, simply a reimagined version of today: the world is falling apart but no one wants to believe it and everyone just denies it. And so the entropy of the world will just go on happening…
In the face of trying to build of a new tomorrow, Boyle and Curtis instead waste their time dreaming of an alternative yesterday. Where that will get us… no one knows.