Paul McCartney could’ve stopped being this endearing long, long ago, and we’d all understand.
When you’ve gifted the world with that many great songs, and received that kind of intense, widespread adoration, whose worldview wouldn’t become a little warped? It seems inevitable.
As I watched McCartney’s appearance on the latest installment of “Carpool Karaoke” — a surprisingly touching 20-minute segment that features McCartney taking host James Corden on a tour of his Liverpool hometown — I couldn’t believe how normal he seemed. How could McCartney, of all people, be so well adjusted?
In my last column I wrote about the way fame can break a person. And indeed, most discussions of fame concede the supposed toxicity at its core. Then there’s McCartney, your friendly Beatle next door, bucking the trend to a degree that feels astounding. It left me wondering a few things: (1) whether McCartney was just a good actor, and (2) whether fame really is inherently toxic, as I’d previously thought.
His appearances in “A Hard Day’s Night” and on “Saturday Night Live” show that yeah, McCartney is an OK actor. But he’s not good enough to feign the kind of normalcy he displayed with Corden.
When I was in high school, McCartney released “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.” It was a comeback album of sorts. McCartney recruited producer Nigel Godrich, known for his work with Radiohead and Beck, and the collaboration earned them a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. At the time, its media coverage explored the artistic tension between the two men: Godrich didn’t simply defer to McCartney, as most musicians would, but challenged him. If Godrich didn’t think a song was good, he’d tell him. Godrich also convinced McCartney to ditch his normal backing band and play all the instruments himself.
“Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” sounded great back then. I think it sounds even better now. The production and instrumentation avoid frills; the songs are intimate, understated and a bit melancholy. Godrich got McCartney to tap into his past instincts — when a lo-fi song like “Blackbird” could induce chills on the strength of its songwriting alone — without leaning on the limitless goodwill his past successes have accrued.
And McCartney let himself be challenged, guided and perhaps humbled.
On McCartney’s “Carpool Karaoke” appearance, he and Corden visited various Liverpool haunts from McCartney’s youth. Along the way, passers-by reacted the way you’d expect them to: elation and disbelief. What is it like to see a Beatle walking the streets of your hometown? And what is it like to be that Beatle, walking down those same streets — the ones from your own upbringing — and be embraced so warmly?
After watching “Carpool Karaoke,” I listened to a 2014 interview McCartney did on the “ID10T” podcast (formerly “The Nerdist”). At one point, he discusses the dichotomy between his public persona, which he calls “him,” and his own interior life and self, which he calls “me.”
“He’s very famous, and I’m not,” McCartney explained. “I’m, like, just a dad. I’m like a granddad. That’s me. I’m the guy who drops his youngest daughter off at school, who talks to the school moms — that’s me. But then the next week I’ll be in Rio in front of 45,000 people — that’s him. And I like him, you know, but I prefer me.”
In the “ID10T” interview, McCartney also recalled The Beatles’ iconic 1964 “Ed Sullivan Show” performance. The band, he said, was hesitant to wear makeup, and after the makeup was applied, they looked in the mirror with some alarm: Their faces looked orange. The makeup lady assured them it would look much different to the audience than it would to the band members themselves. And man, it was quite the audience: According to the official Ed Sullivan page, 73 million people tuned in that night.
For everyone else, that moment is two-dimensional, black and white. For McCartney, it’s three-dimensional and excessively orange. He’s internalized the contrast without revering or resenting it. The very fame that would warp most people's individual reality seems like the thing that has kept McCartney so grounded. That’s pretty remarkable.
So hey, maybe fame isn’t a one-way road to ruin, even if it usually appears that way. If a Beatle can keep a level head, maybe the rest of us can, too.