Like most people alive on the internet last year, you might have gotten a bit emotional seeing Paul McCartney singing Penny Lane on Carpool Karaoke with James Corden while touring his hometown of Liverpool, England. Maybe you were struck by his performance of “She Loves You” in his acoustically-blessed childhood bathroom. Or you might have felt the passage of time keenly when he crooned “When I’m Sixty-Four.” If so, you’re not alone. You’re feeling the lyrically emotional personalities of the Beatles at work, say experts in linguistic psychology.
Over a decade ago, James Pennebaker, Keith Petrie at The University of Auckland, and Børge Sivertsen at the University of Bergen, began researching the lyrical personalities of the Beatles.
Pennebaker explains that the Beatles’ diverse lyrical expression reflects their personal development at the time of writing. As Pennebaker remarks, “the way we look at the world is reflected in our language…so, if I’m a young guy, looking around, eager for love, sex and attraction, it’s going to reflect in the language I use and the references I make.”
Pennebaker adds that the success of the Beatles with young listeners is not surprising, because “people are commonly influenced by songs that hit them between the ages of 14 and 22. That’s why your parents tend to listen to ‘oldies’ music in the car. The Beatles were writing about love and topics associated with coming of age. It was relevant to their generation and sounded different than music from just five years before. That’s why they had such a mass appeal.” Between 1962 and 1970, the Beatles released more than 300 songs on 12 studio albums, 13 extended plays (EPs), and 22 singles.
At the beginning of their career, the Beatles’ lyrics were full of positive emotion and references to love and sexual experiences — think “Love Me Do” (1962), “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1962), “Twist and Shout” (1963), and “All My Loving” (1963). Why these themes—well, young people think they’re invincible and often embrace the present moment. We found that “earlier songs were characterized by a sense of immediacy, based on the usage of present tense, small words, first-person singular and low usage of articles,” Pennebaker explains. “The use of these words highlights the degree to which someone is living in the moment.” As the Beatles matured, so did their songs. They dealt with loss in “Hey Jude” (1968) and “Let it Be,” (1970) the Civil Rights movement with “Blackbird,” (1968) and even the Cold War, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” (1968).
- Read the full article, Things We Said Today: A Linguistic Analysis of the Beatles
- The Untold Stories of Paul McCartney