I’ve now listened to “Do You Want to Know a Secret” many times, read of its origins, and taken ample notes. Even so, I don’t think I could put together a commentary that aspires to be original or insightful. Throughout, I found myself insistently qualifying both the positive and negative reactions I had toward the song. As in: “Secret” doesn’t amount to much but it easily delivers a warm and modest pop pleasure. It’s hard to dislike but closer to forgettable than not. It’s lightweight but knowingly so. Such ambivalence can frustrate one’s attempt at lucid criticism.
The song itself is simple and fairly straightforward. Musically, the Beatles drew inspiration from an early ‘60s doo-wop hit called “I Really Love You” by the Stereos. What results is a tight but fanciful bounce of a song that moves along with a procession of lilting guitar plucks and a crisp, contained rhythm. The only twist comes right at the outset when the combined effect of minimalist spaghetti strumming and George’s earnest vocal produces a heavier, more uncertain tone. This dissolves within seconds though, giving way to the wispy amble that marks the song.
Lyrically, John borrowed from a tune in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which includes the line “Wanna know a secret/ Promise not to tell”. According to Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write, the titular “secret” referred to how John “had just realized that he was really in love” with his first wife Cynthia. Strangely, he wrote this song a short time after his marriage to her, which would seem to undercut the sense of excitement and discovery that one might experience while harboring such emotion (and not wedding its target). But John couldn’t have felt too strongly about how “Secret” would convey these sentiments because the vast majority of the song is so breezy and also because he allowed George to take the lead vocal.
Perhaps this detail, that “Secret” seems like a bone which the band tossed to George, partly animates my mixed thoughts. It almost reinforces the song’s disposable feel or attaches a negating asterisk to any enjoyment you might derive. But this is likely just an instance of outside factors unduly influencing how a song is received. The effect is more contrived than anything. What isn’t contrived is that enjoyment, which, however qualified, doesn’t require a tedious explanation for its existence.