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She Told Me What to Say: The Beatles and Girl‐Group Discourse

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Abstract:

The Beatles' admiration for the US girl-groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s has generally been taken to imply an “androgynous” positioning on their part, particularly in their covers of girl-group songs. However, a comparison of the discourses of girl-group and early Beatles love songs shows a clear distinction between active and passive expressions of desire, with the Beatles predominantly using the active “I love you” form. Girl-group songs, by contrast, tend to use the passive “You-me” form, as in the Ronettes' “So won't you say you love me?” From this point of view, the Beatles' frequent assertions of “I love you” can be seen as a direct response to the repeated questions and requests for men to voice these words, by the Shirelles and other groups. This is the first sense in which the girl-groups can be said to have “told (the Beatles) what to say.” However, girl-group songs were also distinctive in developing an active discourse of desire where girls talked to each other about their love for a third person, addressed as “him.” The paper examines the emergence of this discourse historically in relation to the composition of the Beatles' first five hits. The song “She Loves You” represents the reporting (to a male “you”) of this discourse of active female desire, by means of the go-between, the singer of the song. In this exchange, “She said she loves you” is the trans-position of the direct speech, “She said, ‘I love him'.” The third term (“him”) is what has enabled the female subject to escape the “you-me” binary and speak her desire. This structural layering of girl talk and female desire within male discourse of the “exchange of women” provided a place from which the female audience could, and did, publicly voice that desire. But it also made the Beatles themselves into go-betweens, or vehicles of female discourse. In this sense too, then, the Beatles can be said to enact the line of the song “She told me what to say.”

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007760500105180

Publication date: July 1, 2005

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