The Death of the Author: The Convergence of ‘Now and Then’ and the Resurrection of a Pluralized Authorship Through Posthumous Publication

In a Tortoiseshell

This excerpt is chosen from my R3 for my first-year writing seminar, WRI 178: The Posthuman. Using the Beatles’ newest and final single, “Now and Then” as a form of posthumous publication in the digital era, my paper focuses on understanding how the details of the song’s publication following the death of its original creator was reconstructed into a new interpretation irrespective of what the original creator might have intended. To understand the cause of an unexpectedly positive response to the song’s release despite numerous revisions and the explicit presence of living collaborators that John Lennon did not consent to, I analyzed critic reviews, promotional materials, and differences between the official and original audio to recognize a pattern for its positive reception. The excerpt occurs towards the conclusion of my essay during my revision of current theories of authorship to suggest a pluralized view of authorship, in which “Now and Then” is attributed to the collaboration of all four Beatles preserved through time, rather than John Lennon on his own.

Excerpt / Cheryl Li

The dedication to preserving elements of an authentic Beatles recording is particularly prominent in the short film when Lennon’s voice, isolated from background noise with the help of technology, sings for the first time since his death. With the sound of electronics beeping in the background builds to the reveal, the sudden cut off mid-beep reaches the height of the viewer’s anticipation just before Lennon’s voice cuts through the silence, focusing the viewer’s attention to the voice’s strength and clarity in contrast to its muffled sound in the original demo. The camera cuts to an empty recording studio as Lennon sings in the background, and the frame pans in on the microphone stand where Lennon would have stood in the present had he been alive, suggesting that Lennon has been brought back to life to reunite with the rest of the Beatles one last time. Starr expresses in amazement, “it was like John’s there,” speaking to how hearing Lennon’s voice with such clarity decades after his death almost felt as though Lennon himself was working with McCartney and Starr in the present to complete “Now and Then”’s production like any other Beatles recording before his death (“The Beatles – Short Film”). The moment is emotional as the viewer is confronted with Lennon’s absence, and yet the short film’s subtle suggestion that Lennon is there in the recording studio demonstrates the authenticity of “Now and Then” through Lennon’s voice. Through the song’s portrayal of a faithful collaboration between all four members of the Beatles in the past and present similar to when all four Beatles were alive, “Now and Then”’s marketing appeals to authenticating the song’s plural authorship, successfully establishing “Now and Then” as an authentic Beatles recording. 

“Now and Then”’s depiction of a thematic convergence between past and present justifies the extensive revisions to the original demo recording as a transformation from a lonely solo to a joyous reunion, reframing the band’s conclusion from a death to a resurrection. With the band’s dissolution in the 1970s that marked the “death” of the Beatles as an identity, it became difficult to discern whether a reunion was foreseeable despite the public’s overwhelming support for the band. Lennon’s abrupt murder seemed to finalize the Beatles’ death, creating a dissatisfying end for the public and leaving the greatest hypothetical of what would have happened had Lennon been alive for just a little longer. However, the abrupt and unnatural death of not just a talented songwriter but also an adored musical group with “untapped potential and unsettled legacies” was crucial to “Now and Then”’s success by appealing to the public’s desire for a satisfying conclusion to one of the most popular rock bands in history (Prewitt and Accardi 95). While the significant amount of revisions to the demo flagged the song to scholars as a focal point for widespread disapproval, it’s this very transformation that fulfills the public’s desire for a satisfying conclusion to the Beatles in the form of the reunion fans have always hoped for. The original demo takes on a solemn tune, an equally sorrowful piano playing quietly in the background. The lyrics sound nostalgic as Lennon harmonizes his lonely grieving of a past relationship, something that McCartney builds upon to express his own remorse and desire to reunite with a lost friend, Lennon himself. In both the demo recording and the official audio, “Now and Then” seems to bridge a connection between two friends, Lennon and McCartney, each struggling to express a desire to reunite with one another despite being unable to say these words directly to each other (Sheffield). However, the transfer of authorship for “Now and Then” from just Lennon to his former bandmates creates this long desired reunion among friends despite the chronological barriers. In contrast to the demo’s mournful ballad, “Now and Then” takes on an upbeat tune, the harmonization of guitar, drums, strings, and a more confident piano adopting a rock style characteristic of the Beatles’ past songs as Lennon’s voice sings stronger than ever. While the demo’s audio sounds vulnerable, a private confession coupled with hopelessness that the relationship being grieved will never be restored, the official audio’s addition of a collaborative symphony of instrumentals played by the very bandmates Lennon had missed presents a harmonization between Lennon and the rest of the Beatles, communicating a reciprocation of the sentiments Lennon expresses. The demo transforms into a hopeful reconciliation as McCartney’s voice in the present intertwines with Lennon’s in the past as though McCartney was supporting Lennon half a century from the future, “[reframing] the group’s ending” from “solo competition” to “studio unity”, from “losing…friends” to “finding their voices once more” as the harmonization of all four Beatles in the official audio triumphs over the discord that had previously broken the band apart (Murray). As one listener points out, “Now and Then” is “powerful because it feels like the final goodbye of the most influential rock band that ever existed” (Isaacalconrovira5231). While “Now and Then”’s status as the last song would suggest a conclusion to the Beatles, the significance of the band’s reunion reverses its death, rewriting the Beatles’ conclusion into a simultaneous resurrection. Therefore, the transformation of “Now and Then” from a solo work into a pluralized authorship distinguished by collaboration among all four Beatles provides a satisfying conclusion in the form of a reunion, authenticating “Now and Then” as a Beatles song through the reclamation of harmony among its members.

Author Commentary / Cheryl Li

In these paragraphs, it was imperative to establish how the song’s promotion perpetuated this concept of collaboration between past and present that would influence the public’s positive perception of the song. I began by watching the short film that preceded the song’s release to gain some insight on what the surviving Beatles members hoped for their audience to take away. The short film itself was densely packed with information in terms of historical context, the production process, and subtle messages through visual storytelling. I noted details in dialogue and cinematography that I felt uniquely stood out from the rest of the footage. Scenes like the camera shot panning on empty space around a microphone stood out as a reconciliation with the past. After comparing the official audio with the demo recording, I noted how differences in instrumentation and dynamics perpetuated the theme of accentuating the past. The excerpt I selected best demonstrates how my analysis emphasizes elements of the short film and audio for “Now and Then” that contribute to the idea of a reunion between the dead and living, thereby guiding my reader through my argument with the support of my original sources.

It was during the writing process for this essay that I truly understood what my writing seminar professor meant by saying “to be a writer is to be a reader.” I undoubtedly spent the most time understanding how to link my sources and subsequent analysis into a coherent line of reasoning. Oftentimes, I felt as though I was retracing my mental footsteps to best figure out how I managed to arrive at my working thesis based on the sources I gathered, and how to best replicate this path on paper for a reader. I found it most helpful to understand components such as the motive, thesis, and analysis should contribute to crafting a convincing argument from the perspective of a reader before I could execute each component.

Editor Commentary / Nadja Markov

Adjusting to college writing may seem daunting for many reasons – from understanding how to introduce yourself in the scholarly conversation, all the way to learning how to come up with an argument that is not just a reiteration of previously read points. The R3 (or, in some cases, R2) can be especially intimidating because of its open-ended nature. I think Cheryl’s paper is a great example of just how much you can achieve and learn as a writer through writing your R3.

The first thing that struck me while reading this essay, as well as this particular excerpt, was the orienting of the reader. The first few sentences of the essay do an incredible job of painting the contextual picture of how the authentic Beatles sound was preserved, as well as introducing the accompanying visual choices. From the reader’s point of view, I felt as if I was transported to the exact scene being described. From the writer’s point of view, I was amazed by Cheryl’s efficient usage of her close reading of the short film material to orient the reader. I think this tactic of utilizing some of the compelling material you’ve noticed in your sources and painting a picture to bring the reader closer to your point of view works particularly well with creative sources.

This method of orienting provides Cheryl with a strong foundation for her analysis, which flows seamlessly from this section. Cheryl starts her analysis by reiterating her argument about the song “Now and Then” being transformed “from a lonely solo to a joyous reunion”, which provides the reader with a sense of assurance on where the conclusion is headed. This is followed by yet another brief burst of orienting the reader, now within a historical context, adding yet another layer to her paper. 

Her motive shines within the middle section of this excerpt, where she shows the reader why they should pay attention to this seemingly insignificant shift between the demo and the published version by incorporating strong analysis. Although she didn’t specifically mention her motive within the conclusion, this choice made sense, as her orienting and analysis did the work for her.

The author

Cheryl Li

Cheryl Li, ’27 is a prospective Electrical and Computer Engineering major from Fayetteville, North Carolina. She enjoys spending time working with the Princeton University Robotics Club, swimming, writing stories, and trying her hand at all types of hands-on crafts while listening to any and all genres of music. She wrote this essay as a first-year.

Nadja Markov ‘26 is a Computer Science major from Zrenjanin, Serbia. Apart from being a Writing Center Fellow, she’s also a Chapel Choir singer, RCA for the Freshman Scholars Institute, and involved with Outdoor Action. When she’s not working with fellow students, she enjoys playing bass guitar, crocheting, and taking pictures of squirrels.