Is Now and Then Really a New Beatles Song?

Now and Then, a “new” Beatles song, was uploaded to YouTube on November 3 (or thereabouts) and 5 days later has 23 million views. Apparently a demo tape of the song was originally created by John Lennon.

Music fans, especially those who grew up with the Beatles, are excited that a new, or at least never before released. Beatles song is available. From a musical standpoint, the song is great and gives us another entry into the band’s already massive collection of music to enjoy. However, music that combines work from living and dead artists also raises some questions. The new song and music video was created using AI technology developed by filmmaker Peter Jackson.

This is not the first time footage from deceased musicians has been combined with new music but it’s certainly the most ambitious and high profile example. Probably the most famous prior example was the “duet” of Unforgettable between Natalie Cole and her late father Nat King Cole. This came out back in 1991, proving that cutting edge AI technology isn’t needed to pull off such feats.

Is This Really The Beatles?

Is Now and Then really a Beatles song? This is actually a complex question. First of all, this isn’t a deep fake as some have suggested. A deep fake implies that the footage is not real, as in using AI-generated characters to impersonate the Beatles. All the footage in the video is real, it just isn’t happening at the same time as it’s depicted. So, it’s real in one sense, but the result is still fabricated,  creating a somewhat eerie effect. We see, for example, an 80-year-old Paul McCartney alongside younger versions of his bandmates.

Many of the reactions to this video are very emotional, even tearful, especially among boomers nostalgic for the 1960s. As a Beatles fan myself, I get it. A new song from what many call the greatest band in the world is a big deal. However, to state the obvious, we are not watching a literal Beatles reunion but a technology-driven piece of art. Yet I also get the feeling people want to believe that this is something more than it is -a brilliant technologically enhanced compilation of work from different periods.

The official video description says:

It marks the completion of the last recording that John, Paul and George and Ringo will get to make together and celebrates the legacy of the foremost and most influential band in popular music history.”

Of course, the original four Beatles did not make this recording, which places it in a strange liminal category between reality and artifice.

Now and Then Raises Interesting Questions

From a purely aesthetic point of view, we can just enjoy music and not worry about definitions and implications.. However, looking at it from a wider perspective, this video is a reminder how hard it is to distinguish AI from reality these days.

Most people, music fans in particular, know that the original Beatles can never record again. However, younger people are often cut off from history. I can imagine kids and even older Gen-Zers who aren’t very familiar with the Beatles watching the Now and Then video and thinking that it’s literally a Beatles reunion. And think of how murky it gets when AI footage of lesser known artists is put together.

Now And Then illustrates how slippery our reality is getting. The Beatles are arguably the most famous band in history, so combining footage of living and dead members isn’t going to fool anyone (at least anyone who bothers to do even a minute of research). However, most recordings, videos, and other works of art are far less famous. Combine that with the growing power of AI to create entirely fictitious “people” and we have a world where the old adage that “seeing is believing” is less and less reliable.