The constant, unforgiving churn of pop culture seems designed expressly to let the old know they’re boring and irrelevant. The carefully coded and collated cultural knowledge that defined your childhood, or even your adulthood, passes its sell-by date, and you're left staring at some ugly Nirvana shirts, wondering vaguely whether you should put them back in the closet for another pointless decade, or just chuck them now.
The reaction to the new Kanye/McCartney collaboration seems to argue for the "chuck them now" option. As one Twitter user declared after hearing the new track: "who tf is Paul McCartney ???!?? this is why I love kanye for shining light on unknown artists." Kanye fans, apparently, have never heard of the Beatles. Kids these days are broadly and hideously ignorant, and Western culture is doomed.
Or possibly not. It turned out all those people asking "who is Paul McCartney?" on Twitter were just tweaking those old, grizzled Boomer noses. Kids do, in fact, for the most part, know who Paul McCartney is; they're just implying that he's not as relevant as he once was—and perhaps suggesting that the ones who are really out of touch are their elders, who may not know who West is. If that was the joke, it seems to have worked pretty well. The painful part for Boomers and their ilk, presumably, isn't just that folks don't know who McCartney is, but that it’s at least somewhat feasible that some young people don't know who Paul McCartney is. And that’s not exactly a shame.
The Beatles were hugely popular, sure, but that was more than 40 years ago. McCartney had some hits with Wings and a famous collaboration or two with Michael Jackson, but even that was three decades ago. Most pop music fans today weren't even born the last time McCartney had a song in the charts. As far as their personal experience goes, he might as well be Bing Crosby.
For that matter, McCartney's music doesn't have much more to do with the current Top 40 than Crosby's does. Which is to say, it has something to do with it, but not all that much. Crosby's intimate vocal style is still a forebear of most country, rock, and even to some extent, R&B. In the way he took advantage of amplification technology, you could even say Crosby foreshadowed the current cyborg potential of Auto-Tune.
Similarly, the Beatles' pop-performer-as-genius stance continues to matter (not least to Kanye). And of course, Beatles samples show up in hip hop tracks on occasion. But James Brown and Michael Jackson are clearly a lot more important to what happens on the radio these days than Lennon/McCartney. Britney Spears was widely mocked when she didn't know who Yoko Ono was in 2002, but that conveniently overshadowed the way that she effusively and enthusiastically expressed her admiration for performers like Janet Jackson and Cher. It wasn't that she didn't know about music history; it was that the particular musical past of the Beatles wasn't her musical past. In a pop world dominated by hip hop and R&B, the Fab Four are old pop culture—and whatever its influence on the contemporary scene, old pop culture eventually becomes a specialist interest.
In his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond points out that in traditional societies, elders served an important function. They had knowledge that was still needed, or that could prove useful. An 80-year-old who remembered how the community had survived a 50-year-drought was invaluable when such a drought came around again. When cultures change slowly, long-held knowledge remains important, and even vital. The querulous protests of Beatles fans as they realize that their treasured Paul McCartney fandom is largely useless to their progeny conceals, perhaps, not just a nostalgia for the ‘60s, but a nostalgia for a lost time when being old didn't mean being irrelevant. Kids may know who Paul McCartney is, but they don't really care, nor do they have to.
Which only makes the West/McCartney collaboration more poignant. "Only One" is specifically about predecessors—West sings the song from the perspective of his mother Donda, who died in 2007. "Hello my only one," West-as-Donda says. “If you knew how proud I was, you'd never shed a tear, have a fear." As West vocalizes in nasal Auto-Tune, McCartney tinkles away on the keyboard, an echo of his classic schmaltz ballads, like "Yesterday" or "The Long and Winding Road."
As old fogeys remember, McCartney tends to be better when he's got a collaborator to lend some bitter to his saccharine. The sugary pop sheen takes on depth when coupled to West's specific grief, hope and longing. It's hard not to read McCartney's presence on the track as a tribute to, and acknowledgement of West's mom—she may or may not have been a fan, but he's certainly from her era, and so the music is hers more than it is West's. And the sadness here, the loss, is specifically that she can't speak to her child, and especially to her grandchild North, who was born after she passed. "I just want one favor," West-as-Donda says. "Tell Nori about me."
And that's what the song does: It's a message from the past to the present. But it's also a hope that the present can still hear the past. If the Beatles matter, "Only One" seems to say, it's not because they are Important Cultural Touchstones Whom All Right Thinking People Must Acknowledge. Rather, it's because they belonged to the lives of people who love you, or loved you.