The Beatles’ Hit-Making Secret Ingredient? Personal Pronouns
As songwriters, The Beatles had a special trick for making lyrics resonate: They leveraged the power of personal pronouns to connect with listeners.
Before they were anything else, The Beatles were over-the-top fans of great popular music. Having consumed and studied the hits so fervently, when it came time to write what they called their “fan songs,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney made a strategic decision about how to write ones that would matter to people: They’d use personal pronouns in the songs to help every listener feel like each song was their very own.
As teenagers, Lennon and McCartney had listened to everything they could get their hands on, from Tin Pan Alley and show tunes to the most obscure American R&B. The Beatles were still a smoking-hot cover band—playing others’ songs—when Beatlemania began. (It was a one-two punch really, since they were also known for their hilarious onstage behavior that included a hail of off-the-cuff jokes, skits, and mockery of each other.)
Once recording was starting to seem like a real possibility, Lennon and McCartney got serious about writing their own songs. In fact, it was through now-mostly-forgotten song plugger Kim Bennett’s interest in an early—and only ever released on Anthology 1 in 1995—McCartney song, “Like Dreamers Do,” that they got their history-making recording contract with EMI’s Parlophone label.
The pair fired their secret weapon: personal pronouns. ”All our early songs contained 'me' or 'you.' We were completely direct and shameless to the fans: 'Love Me Do’, 'Please Please Me’, 'I Want to Hold Your Hand,” explained McCartney to Billboard in 2015. McCartney wasn’t kidding. If the pronoun wasn’t in the title, it was in the lyric, as with “Nowhere Man’s” “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” or the pronoun avalanche of “I Am the Walrus”: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
The website Chalkface did the math. On The Beatles’ first British album, Please Please Me, 57% of the songs had these and other personal pronouns in them, 64% of the songs on their second album With the Beatles, and 79% on their third, Hard Days Night. For Please Please Me, the site counted 325 personal pronouns in 19 minutes 30 seconds of music, an average of approximately one pronoun every 3.6 seconds.
In addition to the three songs mentioned above, consider:
“I Saw Her Standing There”
“From Me to You”
“Do You Want to Know a Secret”
“Can’t Buy Me Love”
“If I Fell”
“And I Love Her”
“I Should Have Known Better’
“I’ll Be Back”
“I Feel Fine”
“I’ll Follow the Sun”
“We Can Work It Out”
“In My Life”
“She Said She Said”
“Got to Get You Into My Life”
“All You Need Is Love”
“Don’t Let Me Down”
“Two of Us”
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
…and on and on and on.
Now, obviously, just using personal pronouns in your songs won’t make them hits, and it’s likely Lennon and McCartney had other private formulas for creating their uniquely sparkling music. But The Beatles’ focus on using pronouns that personally connect with others offers an intriguing case study in the power of carefully choosing your words.
Note: This article’s source for The Beatles early history is the indispensable first volume of Mark Lewisons’ The Beatles: All These Years trilogy, “Tune In.”
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."
By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.
In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."
That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.
As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.
Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.
And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.
"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"
It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…
The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.
* * *
If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
- Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
- Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
- But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.