Learning Globalization from the Beatles


New York University

My title, “Learning Globalization from the Beatles,” references one of the first essays about the Beatles by a professional academic, Richard Poirier’s “Learning from the Beatles” (1967). I reference it because Poirier argues that the Beatles teach us both how culture needs to be redefined and how disciplines that take culture as their object of study can be reformed. Moreover, Poirier’s analysis of the Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love” contains prescient hints of this song’s role in the history of contemporary globalization. 1 Consequently, in my essay I would like to expand upon Poirier’s by arguing that the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” not only was shaped by geopolitical forces of globalization, but also globalization comments on them. “All You Need Is Love” can teach us how to teach globalization.

“All You Need Is Love” was first performed on June 25th 1967 to an estimated audience of a half billion people as part of the first global live satellite television broadcast, “Our World.” The importance of the “Our World” broadcast in the history of globalization was exhaustively documented a decade ago by the media scholar Lisa Parks in her essay “Our World, Satellite Televisuality, and the Fantasy of Global Presence.” Although “Our World” was not the first satellite broadcast, it was the first conceived with a deliberate global reach (Parks 74). Unsurprisingly given Marshall McLuhan’s prominent role in the program’s introductory segment, “Our World” presented itself as heralding the utopianist promise of the “global village,” one that renders “our world” one world, “interpellating the viewer not only as ‘globally present’ but as ‘culturally worldly’ and ‘geographically mobile’” (Parks 75). But, as Parks shows, this utopianist promise scarcely hides the program’s neocolonialist ideology. “Our World” ’s self-proclaimed “liveness” is a discourse of Western modernization, one that widens the economic and political disparities between the Global North and Global South.

The conclusion of the broadcast’s penultimate segment features the Beatles recording “All You Need Is Love” in the Abbey Road studios. Situating this song in the context of the “Our World” broadcast, and this broadcast in the history of contemporary globalization, implicates “All You Need Is Love” in what Doreen Massey has called the inevitable “power geometry” (194) of neoliberal capitalist globalization. Moreover, this song’s place in the popular imagination as the hippie anthem for the “Summer of Love” seems to make it an affirmation of the utopianist promise of the “global village.” But does “All You Need Is Love” actually make any such affirmation?  Let’s begin with the verbal ambiguity of the song’s title and refrain. Does it assert, as is commonly assumed, that love is the only thing ever needed, or that love is the one thing still needed?  The refrain’s inversion in the song’s coda, “love is all you need,” puts the emphasis not on love but its need. Perhaps then love is the one thing still needed because it is a need that can never be met. This is precisely Richard Poirier’s reading; he adds that the song’s verses confirm this interpretation of its title. The three verses proceed through a series of the word “nothing” seven times, the first verse beginning “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,/Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.” The lyrics in fact lament the loss of any new possible makings. The musicologist Wilfred Mellers contends that the song is not celebratory but “infinitely sad” (103).

The song’s musical features underscore these ambiguities. The song is in the key of G major, traditionally the most cheerful of keys, but the voice leading produces an E minor chord on the last word of the first two lines of each verse – for example, on the words “done” and “sung” in the first verse (Everett 124). Each verse ends with the phrase “It’s easy,” but the word “easy” is set to an appoggiatura (a dissonant note quickly added and then resolved, like a musical sigh), implying that it’s not so easy after all. The song is most formally ambitious in its coda, comprising a string of musical quotations that includes a two-part invention by J.S. Bach, the opening riff of Glenn Miller’s 1939 hit “In the Mood,” the Renaissance ballad “Greensleeves,” and two self-quotations, the Beatles’ own songs “Yesterday” and “She Loves You.” The recurrent need for love is situated in the history of music about its need. That love is a need that can never be met – that we have never had love and so perhaps never shall – is proclaimed by the recurrence of songs about it. When we attend to its verbal and musical subtleties , we see “All You Need Is Love” is revealed as highly skeptical of any kind of utopia promised by any kind of new world order.

But “All You Need Is Love” is neither cynical nor wholly satirical. In “Learning from the Beatles” Richard Poirier also contends that when the Beatles are allusive they expand a “situation to the simultaneous condition of pathos, because the situation is recurrent and therefore possibly insoluble, and comic, because the recurrence has finally passed into cliché” (120). If the Beatles are skeptical of the promise held out by the new “global village,” they are equally skeptical of rhetoric that simply dismisses it. When I shared some of my ideas in this paper with a joint group of students and faculty, one of my colleagues remarked that in the song’s musically allusive coda she could hear nothing but chaos. I replied that her ear might be recoiling from the song’s polytonality when “Greensleeves” is quoted. Both the Bach and Glenn Miller quotations are transposed from their original keys to the song’s cheerful key of G. Not so with “Greensleeves,” which is left in its original Dorian mode and so, strictly speaking, is in no key at all. Musicologist Alan Pollock compares the polytonality used here to that often used by the composer Charles Ives, for whom polytonality is not chaos but energy and excitement. “All You Need Is Love” is no naïve hippie love-anthem, but neither is it, contrary to Meller’s suggestion, “infinitely sad.”

We still need to consider how “All You Need Is Love” comments on what Lisa Parks calls “Our World” ’s fantasy of “global presence” which imposes neocolonialism. For Parks, this fantasy is maintained by the program’s insistence on its “liveness.” But this insistence is contradicted by what we witness the Beatles doing “live,” which is making a recording. Indeed, during much of the Beatles’ televised segment the mediating presence of the recording studio is highlighted. We often view the Beatles through the window of the recording studio’s control room. The BBC announcer often explains that what we are hearing is not, in fact, “live.” “There’s several days work on that tape,” he declares at one point.

Of course, these “canned” moments equally point up that what the Beatles are making is not just a recording but a commodity, that their efforts are situated within the global marketplace of neoliberal capitalism, one that is decidedly dominated by the modern system of Western nation-states controlling the very broadcast we are viewing. Each of those nation-states participating in the “Our World” broadcast chose a “representative” to showcase its contribution to “world culture.” The Beatles were chosen by the BBC (not without controversy) as Great Britain’s “representative.” But here too ironies proliferate. “All You Need Is Love” is introduced by the opening of the French national anthem, “La Marseilles.” Moreover, the bass part quotes the opening three notes of “La Marseilles” at the end of every line of the verse. Is this recurrent presence of the French national anthem intended as a joke directed at the choice of the Beatles as Great Britain’s representative, or a more general mockery of nationalist pride, or a still more general mockery of musical anthems of any kind?  (Or all three?) Although the song begins with a nod to the French, it does conclude with the quintessential Englishness of  “Greensleeves.” But then what are we to make of the jarring polytonality it creates?  The song’s most transnational characteristic inheres in its most often remarked upon musical for – it’s shifting meter. The melodic structure of most pop songs is eight measures of four beats each. Each verse of “All You Need Is Love” is likewise eight measures, but it shifts between four and three beats for six of its eight bars. Such a metrical scheme closely resembles that of a tala in Indian raga. That the Beatles were influenced by Indian music (years before their trip to India) is well known. Musical scholarship is only recently, however, beginning to show how much of the Beatles’ metrical innovations were also driven by such influence. So even before it was part of a global television broadcast, “All You Need Is Love” was already the product of globalization.

So what can we learn about globalization from the Beatles? Let me preface my answer with a few assertions about globalization, to most of which I suspect we can all readily assent. First, globalization is a multi-dimensional process or set of processes. That is, globalization takes place in all of the social domains – the economic, the political, and the cultural. Second, while the social domains have always been interdependent, they are made even more so by globalization. Third, although increasingly interdependent with one another, no social domain has causal priority. 2 To these three I would like to add a fourth assertion to which we might not so readily assent:  while interdependent with one another, the social domains are also incommensurate. By “incommensurate” I do not mean “autonomous.” In its sense of self-governing, “autonomy” obtains in only one social domain, the political. Consequently, “autonomy” is precisely the kind of term that the incommensurateness of the social domains disavows. If no social domain has causal priority, then we cannot describe globalization in any one social domain using standards of measurement appropriated from the others. Furthermore, insistence upon the incommensurateness of the social domains has major implications for both the teaching and research of globalization, especially as it addresses three of the thorniest issues of global studies:  power, agency, and disciplinarity. Time permits me to address only the third of these.

With the theme of interdisciplinarity in mind, let’s return to Richard Poirier on the Beatles:

The Beatles are primarily musicians and musical composers…and don’t choose to get stuck even within their most intricate verbal contrivances…[U]ses of words that allude both to the subject of the moment and to their constant subject, musical creation, occur in “All You Need Is Love” (“Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung”)…“All You Need Is Love” is decisive evidence that when the Beatles think together (or apart) about anything they think musically and that musical thinking dictates their response to other things . . . (126-28).

I hope that the foregoing analysis of “All You Need Is Love” shows that the song does, in fact, engage with the issues of globalization entailed by its global context. But it is not this context that discloses its meaning. It is, rather, the context of music-making that situates the song’s engagement with globalization. Per my claim of the incommensurateness of the social domains, globalization manifests itself in this song as a relation between it and other music – including other music by the Beatles themselves. The simultaneous interdependency and incommensurateness of the social domains requires not more interdisciplinarity but more disciplinarity. 3 Lest I be thought to contradict the very premise of the conference for which this paper was originally conceived, let me add that by “more” disciplinarity I mean two things. While I do mean more work on globalization done within the confines of the individual disciplines, I also mean more disciplines working on globalization. What’s needed is not a referendum on the relevance of disciplinarity to a full account of globalization, but an increasingly greater number of disciplines producing increasingly more diverse accounts of globalization. What is needed, in short, is more occasions like the one that has just finished…now.



1 “Learning from the Beatles” was first published in The Partisan Review in December of 1967 (and so scarcely six months after the release of “All You Need Is Love”), then reprinted (with minor revisions) in Poirier’s essay-collection The Performing Self in 1971. The essay’s re-situation in this collection especially foregrounds its argument about disciplinary reform.

2 That these three assertions are uncontroversial I deduce from their recurrent presence in introductions to global studies, such as (to cite only a couple of the most recent ones) Manfred B. Steger’s introductory essay to Globalization, The Greatest Hits (2010) and Frank J. Lechner’s and John Boli’s to The Globalization Reader (2011).

3 In their essay “Discipline and Freedom,” Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente argue that “current celebrations of interdisciplinarity often harbor within them a deep – yet insufficiently examined distrust” of what both does and does not constitute an academic discipline. They further demonstrate how historicizing modern disciplinary formation reveals that interdisciplinarity was always “at the heart of disciplinarity itself” (2).


Anderson, Amanda and Joseph Valente. “Discipline and Freedom.” Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle. Princeton University Press, 2002:  pp. 1-15.

Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lechner, Frank J. and John Boli, eds. The Globalization Reader, fourth edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Massey, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender. Polity Press, 1994.

Mellers, Wilfred. The Twilight of the Gods: the Music of the Beatles. Schirmer Books, 1973.

Parks, Lisa. “Our World, Satellite Televisuality, and the Fantasy of Global Presence.” Global TV: A Global Television Reader, ed. Lisa Parks and Shanti Kumar. New York University Press, 2003, pp. 74-93.

Poirier, Richard. “Learning from the Beatles.” The Performing Self. Rutgers University Press, 1971:  pp. 112-40.

Pollock, Alan W. Notes on “All You Need Is Love,” #118. http://www.recmusicbeatles.com/public/files/awp/aynil.html. 1996.

Steger, Manfred B., ed. Globalization, The Greatest Hits:  A Global Studies Reader. Paradigm Publishers, 2010.