In his recent book, Lucy in the Mind of Lennon (Oxford University Press), Psychologist Tim Kasser (Knox College) utilizes the methods of psychological science to explore John Lennon’s life through one of Lennon’s most famous and controversial songs: Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. In the exclusive excerpt below, Kasser applies the techniques of linguistic analysis to better understand the meaning of the song, as well as the life and mind of John Lennon.
When the Beatles released their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the late spring of 1967, fans and critics alike were quick to find references to drugs throughout the LP. The album’s deliriously decorated jacket featured marijuana plants in the garden behind which the Beatles stood. The lyrics of With a Little Help from My Friends, Lovely Rita, and A Day in the Life all referred to marijuana, mentioning getting “high” and taking “some tea,” as well a desire to “turn you on.” And tuned-in listeners easily connected the feelings, sensations, and visions people typically experience while on hallucinogenic drugs to the dreamlike imagery of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Some clever listeners even pointed out that the song’s title shares the initials of the hallucinogen LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).
The Beatles had no doubt contributed to the perception that Sgt. Pepper was indeed a piece of hippie propaganda for hallucinogenic partying. Around the time the album was released, Paul McCartney revealed in a Life magazine interview that he had been using marijuana and LSD. McCartney even went on to extol the virtues of LSD, claiming that it had brought him closer to God and would yield world peace if only politicians would try it. Soon after, John Lennon, George Harrison, and the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein also admitted that they had used LSD. Later that summer, the Beatles endorsed the legalization of marijuana by signing their names to a full-page advertisement in the London Times.
Despite these public proclamations about his drug use, John Lennon steadfastly denied that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was about drugs. Lennon instead consistently claimed that the song was a response to a picture painted by his almost four-year-old son Julian. The oft-repeated story goes that Julian had brought the picture home from school and told his father that it was of his friend, Lucy, who was up in the sky with diamonds. Lennon’s mind had then wandered toward the Lewis Carroll books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass that he had long admired and recently been re-reading. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was born when Lennon took images from Julian’s picture and combined them with elements of Carroll’s stories and poems.
A third explanation for the song’s meaning and origin was provided by Lennon many years after it was written, just a few weeks before he was killed. While reflecting on each of the songs in his discography, Lennon said this about Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds:
“There was also the image of the female who would someday come save me—a “girl with kaleidoscope eyes” who would come out of the sky. It turned out to be Yoko, though I hadn’t met Yoko yet. . . . The imagery was Alice in the boat. And also the image of this female who would come and save me—this secret love that was going to come one day. So it turned out to be Yoko, though, and I hadn’t met Yoko then. But she was my imaginary girl that we all have.”
Lennon’s 1980 explanation provided the springboard for yet another interpretation of the song. In a footnote to his 1994 book, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, music critic Ian MacDonald suggested the following:
“The “girl with kaleidoscope eyes” . . . was, for Lennon, the lover/mother of his most helpless fantasies: “the image of the female who would someday come save me.” This mysterious, oracular woman—mourned for in Yes It Is [Lennon’s 1965 recording ], bewildered by in She Said, She Said [Lennon’s 1966 song ]—was originally his mother, Julia, a role subsequently assumed by Yoko Ono [in the song Julia, Lennon’s 1968 recording].”
So here we have four explanations for the origin and meaning of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: (1) It is about the drug LSD; (2) it is a lyrical response to Julian’s drawing, colored by the writings of Lewis Carroll; (3) it is about a female savior who turned out to be Yoko Ono; and (4) it is about Lennon’s mother, Julia. Is only one of these explanations true? Are none of them true? Are they all true?
My sense is that while all of these explanations have some appeal, each one by itself is incomplete and only partially satisfying.
Given the array of potential explanations that have been provided for the meaning of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and the limitations of each explanation, perhaps it is not surprising that Stephen Spignesi and Michael Lewis offered a fifth approach to the song in their book Here, There, and Everywhere: “Is there an ultimate meaning to the song? Not empirically: The observation of the song’s “reality” does not provide answers.”
The problem with this statement is that, to my knowledge, an empirical observation of the song’s reality has not yet been fully attempted. Previous explanations have provided rather superficial descriptions of the event that inspired the song’s creation, unsubstantiated speculations about the role of drugs and women in its composition, and an introspective explanation by the song’s author, who perhaps should not be fully trusted.
In this book, I therefore use psychological approaches to closely and systematically observe the song’s “reality” so as to collect some empirical data that might shed light on the song’s meaning, as well as on its place in Lennon’s psyche.
Linguistic Analysis of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
The idea that linguistic style reflects both people’s personalities and their current psychological states has been written about at great length by many psychologists over the decades. More contemporary psychological research on the topic has benefited from a computer program developed by Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin.
This program, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), quickly scans through a text of any length and searches out words that have been shown to be reliable indicators of around 70 preset categories. These categories include pronouns, verb tense, cognitive activity, and emotional words, but also prepositions (e.g., “over” and “under”) and articles (e.g., “a” and “the”), words that concern space (e.g., “down”) and time (e.g., “hour”), words that refer to discrepancies (e.g., “would” or “should”), and many others. Some words are classified by the LIWC computer program as simultaneously belonging to multiple categories. For example, words such as “laughed” would be classified as an “emotion,” a “positive emotion,” and a “past tense verb.” After scanning through and categorizing a text, the LIWC program presents the user with information about the percentage of words that fall into each category.
This research literature shows that that the linguistic style used in a particular piece of writing or speech is influenced by features of the author’s personality (e.g., whether one is depressed and suicidal), by the author’s current situation (e.g., whether one is lying, whether one is addressing an authority figure), and even by current societal events (e.g., whether one’s country has just suffered a terrorist attack). For this reason, merely running the LIWC program on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is unlikely to reveal anything very useful, as there would be no way to sort out how much the song’s linguistic style was influenced by Lennon’s personality, by his psychological situation at the time he was writing the song, or by the general era in which the song was recorded.
Rather than expressing the bevy of emotions that typically occur while one is tripping, and that Lennon often expressed in his other songs, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is almost barren of feeling.
What is needed, therefore, is a group of songs whose linguistic styles can be compared to that of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. I therefore collected two such groups of comparison songs: the lyrics to other songs that Lennon had recorded in the previous year or so, and the lyrics to the no. 1 hit songs in the United States and the United Kingdom between January of 1966 and February of 1967.
I then compared the LIWC scores for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds to these two samples of songs. If the linguistic style of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is basically similar to the linguistic styles of the songs in these two comparison groups, it would suggest that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was little different than other songs of the era and reflected nothing particularly special about Lennon’s personality or about his psychological state at the time he was writing this particular song. If the linguistic style of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is different from the no. 1 hit songs but similar to other songs Lennon had recently been writing, it would suggest that the song’s linguistic style mostly reflects Lennon’s personality. Finally, if the linguistic style of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds differs from the songs in both of these comparison groups, it would suggest that something about Lennon’s psychological state at the time he was writing this particular song was primarily responsible for its linguistic style.
The results of the LIWC analysis show many ways in which the linguistic style of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is not especially different from the styles of the songs in the comparison groups. For example, the song is fairly typical in terms of its use of second and third person pronouns, and in its use of words concerning family, friends, achievement, money, religion, and the like. In these ways, the song appears to be typical of the songs Lennon and other musicians were writing during that era.
At the same time, there are numerous LIWC indicators on which Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds consistently differs both from songs Lennon had recently written and from other popular songs of the time. My understanding of the findings led me to classify these differences into three groups of indicators, as shown in Table 1.
The first group of indicators includes linguistic features that parallel what many people report experiencing when they take the drug LSD. For example, the cardinal feature of the drug experience is the presence of vivid visual hallucinations, in which colors and patterns seem to move through space and stable objects change their form unexpectedly. These types of experiences seem to be well-represented in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, as it scores consistently higher than many other popular songs of the era and songs Lennon had recently written in the percentage of words that concern seeing (e.g., “picture” and “eyes”), motion (e.g., “follow” and “drift”), and space (“in” and “down”). The song is also rather lower than these other songs in words that convey certainty (e.g., “always” and “never”). Certainty is often in doubt while people are under the influence of LSD, given how the drug changes their perceptual experiences.
Users of LSD also often report what is known as an “oceanic feeling,” a blissful experience in which the boundaries between themselves and others become less distinct, resulting in a feeling of connectedness with everyone and everything in the universe. These feelings of connection and the dissolution of boundaries are perhaps expressed in the song’s lyrics through the high use of inclusive words (like “and” and “with”) and the relative lack of exclusive words (like “but” and “without”). It is also tantalizing to note that, just as people typically take LSD by swallowing a small piece of paper infused with the chemical, words concerning ingestion (e.g., “eat” and “pies”) occur more frequently in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds than in the comparison songs.
While these findings are no doubt excellent fodder for those who claim that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is primarily about the experience of taking LSD, the song’s linguistic style has other interesting linguistic features that suggest the song is not just “an acid song.” In fact, five of the linguistic indicators on which Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds stands out map almost exactly onto one of the fundamental dimensions of linguistic style, called immediacy vs. distancing. This dimension indexes the extent to which a person’s language reflects being present in the here and now vs. separating oneself from what is happening at a particular moment.
Research using the LIWC program has identified five specific linguistic features that cluster together to represent how immediate vs. distant a particular verbal expression is. More immediate language uses first person singular words (like “I” and “me”) and present tense words (like “am” and “run”), whereas distanced language avoids such words, presumably in an attempt to direct one’s awareness away from the experience of the moment. The third linguistic indicator includes words that imply a discrepancy (like “would” or “should”). Immediate language uses such words, as they often relate some other state to the present (e.g., “I should have bought an apple instead of this candy bar”), whereas distanced language tends to avoid discrepancies. Immediate language also uses few articles (e.g., “a” and “the”), whereas distanced language uses many. This is probably because articles occur alongside concrete nouns (like “a river” or “the shore”) that usually make reference to something outside of oneself. Finally, immediate language uses shorter, simpler words whereas distanced language uses longer, more complicated words (like “plasticine” and “tangerine”); this tendency likely reflects the fact that people often use abstractions and intellectualized language to avoid awareness of what they are actually experiencing in the moment.
The lyrics of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds are actually more similar to how people write and speak when they are lying and when they are attempting to psychologically distance themselves from painful psychological material.
What is remarkable about the LIWC results for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is that for each of these five indicators, the song consistently scores in the direction of being distanced rather than immediate. That is, compared both to other recent Lennon songs and to other recent popular songs, the lyrics of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds have a relatively low percentage of first person singular pronouns, present tense verbs, and discrepant words, and a relatively high percentage of long words and of articles. Indeed, when I computed a summary score following the standard LIWC formula for combining these five indicators, the results showed that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is more distanced and less immediate than any of the songs Lennon had written in the previous year and than any of the no. 1 hits of the era.
The finding that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a very distanced and non-immediate song is also consistent with the last set of indicators I will mention here: words expressing emotion and feeling. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is almost stripped of emotion according to the LIWC results. Only 0.44% of the words in the lyrics convey positive emotion, and there are no words that the LIWC program recognizes as conveying negative emotion. The song also has no feeling words, i.e., words that reflect a bodily sense of connection to one’s inner world (e.g., a gut feeling) or to the outer world (e.g., a caress or a punch). Both of these findings stand in contrast to the fact that while people are under the influence of LSD, they often report relatively strong emotions, both of the pleasant and not-so-pleasant varieties.
Summary of Linguistic Analyses
In some ways, the results of the LIWC analysis can be seen as consistent with the common claim that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is about the drug LSD. But instead of reflecting the deep involvement in one’s subjective experience and feelings that are typical of taking LSD, the lyrics of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds are actually more similar to how people write and speak when they are lying and when they are attempting to psychologically distance themselves from painful psychological material. Rather than focusing on the experience of the here and now, the lyrics of the song avoid the self and the present, and instead focus on the abstract, the intellectual, and that which is outside of one’s self. Moreover, rather than expressing the bevy of emotions that typically occur while one is tripping, and that Lennon often expressed in his other songs, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is almost barren of feeling. Emotions, of course, are notoriously “here and now,” and rarely abstract.
In sum, these analyses suggest that while Lennon was writing these lyrics, he may have been rather wary of engaging the present moment, his own inner experience, and his emotions.
Reprinted from Lucy in the Mind of Lennon by Tim Kasser with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © 2013 by Oxford University Press.