(This article written by special guest contributor Curtis Gruenler, Professor of English at Hope College)
On March 21, 1964, “She Loves You” hit the top of the U. S. chart. It was The Beatles’ second American hit, but their first triangular song—the first to begin to explore love as a relation not just between two people, but involving a third who acts as a model of desire and can become also a rival and an obstacle or, potentially, a reconciler. Woven throughout the rest of The Beatles’ catalog and beyond, all the way up to Sir Paul McCartney’s recent “Queenie Eye,” are songs that explore the ins and outs, ups and downs of our relational life in ways that come into sharper focus through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory.
“She Loves You” sprang from McCartney’s idea of writing a song in the third person rather than the usual first or second, as in their earlier British and American hits “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The third person in the triangle plays a mostly reconciling role (“Apologize to her”) except for a hint at the end of the singer’s own desire for the woman: “With a love like that, you know you should be glad.” The singer offers his own admiration to help turn his friend’s heart back to the woman who, the singer believes, still loves him.
Mimetic theory would say that our hearts are always turned by the model of others. That’s how human hearts work, not driven just by appetite or instinct, but by the desires of those around us, especially those closest to us and those we most want to be like. This imitation of desire for a cookie or a Cadillac is unconscious. But it is in romantic relationships that we are, paradoxically, both most likely to become aware of the importance of a third person’s desire and most resistant to that knowledge. I want my desire to hold your hand to be an expression of my unique individuality and a sign of what makes you my unique soul-mate. Yet we all know about love triangles.
A third person becomes a problem on “You Can’t Do That,” released March 16, 1964, as the B side of what would become The Beatles’ third U.S. hit, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” On the flip side of this typical romantic declaration that love can’t be bought with money is a more penetrating insight into what does actually ignite passion. What the singer tells his lover she can’t do is talk to “that boy” again. Possessive lovers are provoked into rivalry by the smallest sign of anyone else’s desire for their beloved. As the song’s chorus admits, the singer’s possession of the girl is no doubt what has drawn the other boy’s interest. But as soon as the singer spots it, that boy becomes the singer’s own model of desire and inflames his passion even more: “I can’t help my feelings, I go out of my mind.” In fact, his feelings are fixed more on preventing the rival and potential obstacle than on wooing the girl.
Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head, reads “You Can’t Do That” as also a statement of rivalry between Lennon and McCartney. After their early, “head-to-head” collaborations like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the two had begun to write more independently. McCartney wrote what looked to be a success with “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Lennon responded with “You Can’t Do That” and elevated the competitiveness that would lead them to ever greater heights throughout their careers, both together and apart. There were dark sides to this competition, but at its heart was mimetic rivalry in one of its happy modes, when the object, such as musical creativity, is not finite, like a romantic love interest, but infinite.
Of course they were also competing for success, and having plenty of it, which not only allowed them to stray farther and farther from the usual love-song narratives, but also gave them a privileged window into human relations. Surely the only bigger mimetic phenomenon than Beatlemania at the time was war. What must it have been like to be the object of all that screaming and fainting? No doubt the boys from Liverpool were doing their best to be attractive, but they must have realized that their haircuts and the quality of the music was not enough to explain it. An old word for one of the dangers mimetic desire leads to is envy, and the chorus of “You Can’t Do That” identifies both the cause and its worst consequences: “Everybody’s green ’cause I’m the one who won your love. But if they’d seen you talkin’ that way, they’d laugh in my face.” The worst is not the rivalry between two but when rivalry among a whole crowd focuses on one victim.
This establishment of solidarity among a group by scapegoating a single victim is, according to Girard, the way human communities since pre-historic times have managed to preserve themselves against the violence that is always simmering because of mimetic rivalry. It’s a long and winding road from the sacrificial rituals of primitive religions to the more supposedly advanced forms of culture that are still based on legitimated, sacred violence against an excluded other. The Beatles had a privileged position to witness this too, not just as innovators of a counter-culture, but especially after the popularization in the U.S. of Lennon’s remark, “We’re more popular than Jesus now.” Christian groups especially were provoked into rivalry and even violence.
The irony here is that Girard points to Christ’s non-retaliatory giving of himself to death as the conclusive, world-historical exposure of the single-victim, scapegoating mechanism, bringing it out from the shadows as the hidden driver of institutions and opening another way of human community based on a non-possessive, non-rivalrous love. Lennon seems to have grasped some of this too, singing in “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” “Christ you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be. The way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.” More could be said about “All You Need Is Love,” “Come together right now over me,” many other Beatles songs, and solo songs by its members. The end of the story for Lennon came when someone scandalized into rivalry by his remark about popularity shot him four times in the back. Thus he became a martyr for witnessing (the original meaning of “martyr”) to what he saw in people: the mimetic faddishness, the rivalries, the scapegoating.
The latest chapter for McCartney’s never-ending creativity is the wonderful album New and its featured song “Queenie Eye.” Always the sunnier of the song-writing pair, given to casting third parties as reconcilers (“Hey Jude”) but aware too of the dynamics of scapegoating even if told as nursery rhymes (“The Fool on the Hill”), McCartney here recalls a game from the streets of Liverpool. A child tosses a ball backwards and then, after it is caught, turns around and identifies who is holding it behind their back; that one will then be singled out as the next thrower. The game, with its central gesture of pointing out the one with the “queenie eye,” turns inside-out the sequence of pointing and throwing in the most primal sort of scapegoating: stoning.
The song begins, “There were rules you never told me,” and they seem to cover much of the game of success as McCartney has witnessed it through 50 years of celebrity. Central to this game is the mimetic fickleness of crowds that can turn someone from darling to goat in an instant: “O.U.T. spells out, that’s out, without a shadow of a doubt, ’cause you been putting it about. Hear the people shout. Hear the people shout.” Perhaps the finger of the song points especially to those who start the contagion of blame: “Lay the blame on the snitches. Wicked witches fan the flame. Careful what you touch in case you burn.” McCartney has been burned plenty of times. But a witch-hunt is also one of our modern terms for recognizing making up victims in order to preserve solidarity. Beneath any complaint in the song, and more in keeping with its sound, is a rueful acceptance that this is how the game works. And behind that, one wonders if the “you” of the first line is Lennon and the song is another of McCartney’s tributes to the genius of his old rival and friend. If so, the line “Never pick a fight you’re going to lose,” brings to mind the fight Lennon inadvertently picked and lost. And the whole song, then, urges us not so much to avoid fights as to carry on the infinite game that both friends played, the game of creative freedom and compassionate witness, despite the way finger-pointing games tend to end. Yeah, yeah, yeah.