Global Studies and the Humanities

Postnational Humanities and the Beatles

— Brian Culver

The touchstone passage from Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s Globalization and Culture highlights three of the reasons that the humanistic disciplines have been largely reluctant to adopt the insights of Global Studies. First, the isomorphism of place, people, and culture (Axford 91) has been exposed by contemporary accelerated globalization as a 19th-century nationalist bias. Second, a history of cultural globalization calls for “a counter narrative to the narrative of imperial history” (Nedeveen Pieterse 82). Unlike Postcolonial Studies, in Global Studies, “crucial as colonialism-postcolonialism might be for understanding contemporary developments, there is no reason to consider it to be pre-eminently and super-determinatively important” (Gupta 110). Third, demonstrating that “hybridization has been taking place all along but has been concealed” (Nedeveen Pieterse 82) would require, among others, a methodology currently marginalized in humanistic scholarship, namely, formalism.

What follows focuses on the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” as simultaneously a product of and commentary on the geopolitical forces of contemporary 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.” Each of the 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.” Media scholar Lisa Parks has shown that “Our World” presented itself as heralding the utopianist promise of, in Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, 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). However, as Parks shows, this utopianist promise scarcely hides the program’s neocolonialist ideology, one that insists upon the economic and political disparities between the Global North and South.

Situating “All You Need Is Love” in the context of the “Our World” broadcast, and this broadcast in the history of contemporary globalization, implicates the Beatles’ song in what Doreen Massey has called the inevitable “power geometry” (194) of neoliberal capitalist globalization. Moreover, the 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 rather that love is the one thing still needed? The latter reading is borne out by the lyrics of the song’s three verses, repeating the word “nothing” seven times. The final verse’s variation, “Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be,” comments ironically on the broadcast’s promise of, in Parks works, “interpellating the viewer…as ‘geographically mobile’” (75).

The song’s musical features underscore these ironies. The coda, for example, comprises a string of musical quotations that includes a two-part invention by J.S. Bach, the opening riff of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” the Renaissance ballad “Greensleeves,” and two self-quotations, the Beatles’ own songs “Yesterday” and “She Loves You.” As the literary critic Richard Poirier has argued, “All You Need Is Love” is less a song about love than a song about songs about love. The recurrent need for love is situated in the history of music about its need. That love is the one need that can never be fully met is proclaimed by the recurrence of songs about it.

Other formal features likewise comment ironically on the nationalism of the program’s presentation of global culture.   Although chosen by the BBC as Britain’s cultural “representative,” the Beatles begin their song by quoting 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. Like the self-quotation at the song’s conclusion, the recurrent presence of “La Marseilles” is likely intended as self-mockery, but it also might be a more general mockery of nationalistic pride, or even of musical anthems of any kind, including the very one the Beatles are singing. The song’s hidden hybridity inheres in it’s shifting meter, a metrical scheme closely resembling that of a tala in Indian raga, a genre that is a well-documented influence on other Beatles’ songs.

Only by attending to its verbal and musical subtleties is “All You Need Is Love” revealed as highly skeptical of any utopianist vision of globalization. While the song is situated in a specific historical moment of postwar technological globalization, its context does not disclose its meaning. Postnational humanities likewise requires abandoning a nationalist basis, foregoing any assumptions about ideological content, and a formalism capable of uncovering concealed hybridization.

Works Cited

Axford, Barrie. Theories of Globalization. Polity Press, 2013.

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

Gupta, Suman. Globalization and Literature. Polity Press, 2009.

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

Nederveen Pieterse, Jan. Globalization and Culture: Global Mélange, revised edition.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

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.