Music · Opinion

On John Lennon’s “Imagine”

My list of Songs I Hate is a long one. It would include anything Ace of Base have ever done. “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions.  Tom Jones’ version of “Kiss”.

But my #1 Most Hateful Song is “Imagine”, by John Lennon.

I know: this seems a bit hipster, a bit cooler-than-thou. After all, it’s “Imagine”. It’s the song everyone who loves peace and a better world holds as their anthem. John Lennon died for our sins.

Only, it’s not really, is it? “Imagine” is loved by the kind of people who think “Every Breath You Take” is a suitable song for a wedding.

I hate “Imagine” because it seems to think it’s a song about changing the world, when it’s really about mouthing banal platitudes and not really changing anything at all. Let me explain, from the beginning.

Imagine there’s no heaven,

It’s easy if you try.

No hell below us,

Above us only sky.

Imagine all the people

Living for today . . .

OK, I admit, this is a good start. It’s piqued my interest. As a card-carrying heathen, I can get behind this, even as a thought experiment. With so much death and misery perpetrated under the name of one deity or another, let’s all stop for a moment and imagine we don’t have a superior being prodding, instructing and excusing our actions. You’re your own master, the responsibility for everything you do is yours and yours alone, in the here and now: what are you going to do?

Like I said: interesting.

But already, we have reached our first hurdle. Because, OK, I’ve imagined that. I’ve put myself into that world. Not too big a leap. Now…what next?

Oh, next we’re doing some more imagining.

Imagine there’s no countries,

It isn’t hard to do.

Nothing to kill or die for,

And no religion too.

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace . . .

No countries? OK. Clear the map. The only boundaries are natural – coastlines, rivers, mountain ranges. He’s right; it isn’t hard to do. And?

After doing that, that simple thing, there’s nothing to kill or die for? Because, somehow, familial links have also been removed? People no longer think tribally? Really, just by getting rid of the notion of nationhood? Really?

Um, no.

And, yes, I can imagine everyone I’ve ever known, seen or heard of “living life in peace”. And you know what happens after I’ve done that? Absolutely nothing, funnily enough. World peace not achieved.

This is getting depressing, but we’re nearly home, so – next!

You may say I’m a dreamer,

But I’m not the only one.

I hope someday you’ll join us,

And the world will be as one.

(I’ll come back to this. This is just stupid.)

Imagine no possessions,

I wonder if you can.

No need for greed or hunger,

A brotherhood of man.

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world . . .

So here, Mr Lennon seems to be espousing some kind of communist utopia. Which is fine. Some people do. Mostly, if they’re imaging no possessions while sitting on a huge pile of money, living in luxury and relying on a huge multinational corporation to transmit this communist message to the world, a slight smell we could call “hypocrisy” starts to waft around the whole endeavor. And don’t tell me he was being revolutionary – using the system to bring down the system. Lennon was perfectly happy within the system. It gave him a very comfortable life. He was a class warrior for money.

As a small aside, “All we are saying is ‘Give peace a chance’” makes me want to kill someone. It’s naive – the kind of thing you can get away with saying at 3 am in your university dorm room. In the real world that these songs seem intent to completely ignore, such casual banality will get you killed. Giving peace a chance will not help you when you’re being bombed, shelled or machine-gunned out of your homes. When rival tribes are invading your village, killing your sons and raping your daughters. When rogue states are invading your capital cities. When superpowers are bombing your infrastructure back to the Stone Age.

Imagine John Lennon standing in the middle of Afghanistan any time in the last 30 years saying, “Have you considered imagining peace?”

No one is saying that war is a good thing; but you know what? The next time Edwin Starr asks, “War? Huh! What is it good for?” The answer is, “Defeating fascist dictators and ensuring power-hungry madmen don’t commit genocide” (although that might not fit the music). The massacres in Uganda and the former Yugoslavia would have been better-avoided with UN troops than idealists with notions that do not belong in the real world.

Wars rage continuously around the world. Innocent people are being killed right now. People are starving, fearful for their lives, living in poverty that is avoidable. The changes will not come from imagining a better world. Change comes from direct action. By government action. By changing the ways rich countries interact with poor. And sometimes, good, humanitarian, worthwhile change comes through well-trained troops doing their jobs well.

You may say I’m a dreamer,

But I’m not the only one.

I hope someday you’ll join us,

And the world will be as one

No, it won’t. You know what dreaming does? Nothing, except allow the dreamer to avoid the real world and the very real, complicated, messy problems that exist there. “Imagine” is not about changing the world, it’s about pretending that doing some thought experiments will magically make things better.  Before changing the world for the better, that better world must be created in our minds, definitely. But “Imagine” suggests that dreaming is not just the most important part – but maybe the only part. John Lennon had a lot of nice words, but no real, useful ideas. All through this song, I’m thinking “and then what, John?” What happens after the imagining and dreaming? It’s something the song doesn’t  want to get its hands dirty thinking about. And, by pretending these issues don’t exist, the song becomes nothing but an idealist’s banal platitude from an ivory tower far away from reality.

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