I was born in 1982 and by that time John Lennon was more then a man, he was a legend. What John Lennon did and who he was has become an integral part of our cultural consciousness so much so that his life and his music seem unremarkable. However there are few people in our popular culture who were as influential as John Lennon and there are songs in popular music as powerful as “Imagine.”
As a teenager, I explored the Beatles and was fascinated by variety, the invention and the depth of their music. I knew all four of the Beatles did solo work after they broke-up but I disregarded their solo work and assumed it was inferior to the work they did as the Beatles. Later, I found that to be unfair and not true and was exploring John Lennon’s music that changed my mind. After he left the Beatles, Lennon didn’t take the easy route, he pushed his music further and experimented more than most of the public accepted. He work was audacious, extreme and progressive and there is no better example of this than “Imagine.”
The piano line is plodding and repetitive. There are some interesting harmonies in the chorus but there is nothing inventive or unique about the piano part. The melody if played alone would come off as trite, repetitive and forgettable. However, like great folk music, the background music and harmonies are merely a blank canvas for the lyrics and the singing to express the meaning of the music.
The lyrics are broken up between three verses and a chorus. In the verses, Lennon is asking us to imagine different things and in the chorus, he defends his own belief. The form is simple. There are no missing beats or twists in the song. We know exactly how it is going to unfold from the beginning and it does with slow and deliberate pace like a flower blooming. Like the leaves folding outward the song reveals a deeper meaning than is expected in a way that we don’t imagine.
The three verses outline three ideas which Lennon feel will lead to living as one: living for today, living life in peace and sharing all the world. Critics have called this song anti-religious, anti-nationalistic and anti-capitalistic and Lennon himself commented that this song was virtually the “communist manifesto” (which he may have been saying in jest). Regardless of Lennon’s intent, I believe that this song is none of those things. If this song expressed all of these things it would not be as widely accepted in this Christian-centric, nationalistic and capitalistic culture that we live in.
Lennon never says that all the things that he imagines needs to come true for the world to be one. What he asking us is to examine and reflect on our lives and by doing so we can reach a better place. In the first verse, he asks us to imagine that there’s no heaven or hell so that people can live for today. Do some people focus too much of their lives on the afterlife? Probably, just as there are people who disregard the afterlife. What John Lennon is doing is asking us to examine this question. If we ask ourselves what if their no heaven, what does that change? Finding that answer in your heart may change your mind but more likely, it will reinforce your beliefs. It is through this self-examination that we can truly understand what our lives mean and how important it is to live for today.
Americans base much of their nationalistic pride on our borders and more so our wars. In the second verse, Lennon asks us to imagine no countries, nothing to kill and die for and no religion. He ends the verse asking us to imagine living life in peace and all these things, countries, reasons to kill and die and religion, are interrelated. John Lennon grew up during World War II in Liverpool, England and he saw first hand how countries, death and religion get in the way of peace.
Lennon is not saying that all religion leads to war, but there is no argument that religion has be used in history to justify killing and his statement here is more focused on that facet of religion. Throughout history, people have misrepresented, manipulated and misinterpreted religions leading to atrocious horrors. It is through imagining a world without religions that we can see what parts of religion when gone would enhance our lives and what parts would we need to complete ourselves. With that perspective, the world can actively work to keep religion close to its true intentions.
Would there be there peace on earth is there wasn’t countries? No of course not and is Lennon saying that countries are bad and we shouldn’t have pride in them? No, but like Thomas Jefferson argued, we should always questions our government and its actions. This helps us define what it means to be a country and what we should base our nationalistic pride on.
In the last verse, Lennon is contemplating the Buddhist idea that through releasing our earthly possessions we will be free from want. This is directly contrary to our capitalistic mindset and if there is any true “anti-” argument in the songs it is against capitalism effect on our capacity to share with each other. I work with fourth grades and you’d think that by nine years old that they would have the “sharing” thing down. Well, they don’t and many adults don’t either.
A world without possessions would free us because it we truly shared everything they we never want anything for ourselves. In questioning our desire to want things, we come to realize not only how much we have but how much other people lack. I know that sharing with others is at the core of what’s important in life but I guess sometimes we forget that.
In the choruses, Lennon says that he may be a dreamer but he’s not alone. As adults, optimism sometimes takes a back cynicism, but I believe that at heart we all imagine the world as better place. Lennon is not the only one and maybe through self-reflection we can join together, embrace hope and the world can live as one.
Lennon’s voice is calm and patient like a philosopher stating deep truths. At the ends of the verses he jumps singing a high note “you” which is a throw-back to early Beatles songs in which they would sing high notes that would make girls scream. This is a little wink at us all that he’s not mad at us. This is a joyous thing. He believes what he is saying and it brings him happiness. It makes us want to believe these things too.
What John Lennon asks us to imagine are things that I can’t imagine and I desperately want to. I want so much to feel the hope that John Lennon does. He inspires us to dream of something better through questioning our intentions, our actions and our beliefs.
Take a moment, imagine.
It probably will not change the world, but it just might change you.