Today I was reading something that reminded me of the Beatles’ song All You Need is Love and in particular, the first line of the first verse struck me in a way it had not previously. It got me thinking: what does that line mean?
“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.”
Seems straightforward enough; ridiculously so. It seems to be saying something like this: everything you can do is doable; everything you can accomplish is accomplishable. It is simple, obvious and hardly worth saying at all. I guess that’s why it got me thinking.
With a bit of Googling, I discovered the question had been discussed on Yahoo answers. Despite the phrasing, many people seemed to think the intention was to communicate the message that you can do anything you want. If that is the case, the idea would be better expressed as:
There’s nothing you can’t do that can be done.
But, of course, that line does not scan very well at all and so it is certainly something that would not be found in a decent pop song. Still, bearing in mind that some writers of pop songs (notably including both David Bowie and Jon Anderson) allowed making sense with their words a secondary matter to constructing a memorable song, it is possible that the transposition was allowed for that purpose.
Bowie made use of a device he called ‘cut-ups’ in which he literally cut up the lines of his lyrics into short phrases and then moved them around into pleasing arrangements. Anderson said that he was more concerned with the sounds that words made, rather than their meaning. And there is at least some evidence that John Lennon had a similar regard for song lyrics. When he told McCartney that the ‘fill-in words’ Paul had used in Hey Jude (the movement you need is on your shoulder) was the best line in the song, for example.
But the song was meant to be a simple message to a worldwide audience. It was broadcast live, via satellite, on the first ever worldwide TV link. An audience of around 400 million people in 26 countries saw the group perform and part of the brief was to write a song that could be easily understood by all of those people.
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
Of course, the broader message is simple – all you need is love.
But I would like to think of that first line of the verse as perhaps an echo of the message we find in the Book of Ecclesiastes, written a few thousand years ago i.e. that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything has been done before. It’s a distinct possibility, I think, and it is something that I remember hearing Stephen Covey remark about one occasion.
Covey said something to the effect that, although it may be true that there is nothing new that we may be able to add to some field of endeavour, what we can certainly do is … learn how to do it better. The sentiment is congruent with John’s line, “[there’s] nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game”.
So, I think the meaning of the verse is:
- Everything you need to know is already known
- Everything you need to say has already been said
- All the problems you face in life have already been solved
You just need to learn how to play the game – it’s easy!