Re-'Imagine'-ing the secretly bloody peace song of the Olympic Games
Last week's opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games in South Korea featured an emotional rendition of the song "Imagine." This marks the song's second Olympic appearance – it was also performed at the 2012 Olympics in London. Forty-seven years after its release, John Lennon's iconic tune has become the unofficial peace song for the Olympics and the world at large. How has this happened? The answer is simple. The world sings along with "Imagine" because the world has never taken five seconds to consider the song's implications. It's time for a closer examination – one that is long overdue.
First, it must be admitted that "Imagine" is the standard for political protest songs. Much of the protest music from the 1960s and early 1970s was fueled by either rage or the jarring (for some) voice of Bob Dylan, but "Imagine" is soothing, beautiful, and accessible. It's also a lyrical masterpiece; even today, it is commonplace to see bumper stickers and t-shirts quoting its verses.
"Imagine" is a protest that's always in season. It was written not about Vietnam, or Kent State, or racism, or pollution. Instead, it stands against whatever is going wrong right now. And in prescribing actual cures for what ails society, the song dares to go where most protest songs won't. Better still, we're invited to take part in the artist's journey to a better world ("I hope someday you'll join us").
It's all inspiring and profound, provided you don't pay attention to the words. Because if you do, you will find that "Imagine" present some of the most horrific visions for society ever described by any artist, Beatle or otherwise.
Lennon asks us to imagine four things: no heaven, no countries, no religion, and no possessions. Any one of these concepts is guaranteed to offend a sizable portion of the population, but it is to Lennon's credit that he boldly lists them. Correction: He boldly lists three of them. The first – imagining no heaven – is "easy if you try," according to Lennon. Items two and three – imagining no countries and no religion – are likewise not "hard to do." As he effortlessly discards God, religion, and country, Lennon displays great faith in our ability to do the same.
But withhis fourth and final item – no possessions –Lennon loses that faith. He suddenly challenges us, questioning our ability to comprehend his beautiful vision. "Imagine no possessions," he sings. "I wonder if you can." It's a masterstroke of manipulation. As listeners, we suddenly find ourselves answering to the artist. With a single phrase, Lennon has changed the subject from no possessions to our worthiness as his compatriots.
But why? Having been bold enough to present us with such bombshells as no heaven, no countries, and no religion, why did Lennon have to create a diversion in order to slip no possessions into the mix? The answer can be found if we ignore that diversion and do as the man said: imagine no possessions.
So let's try it. Imagine that you're at work one afternoon, and the news rings out: the revolution is here. At long last, there are no possessions, "no need for greed or hunger / a brotherhood of man." In celebration, the office closes early, and you head for your car before it hits you: you don't have a car. Your car belongs to the people now. And the house you would have driven that car to is now the people's house; the key that opens the front door is the people's key, not yours. Your clothes, your shoes, the food in your refrigerator, the refrigerator itself, the ring your grandmother gave you, the picture of your spouse or parents or children – all of them now belong not to you, but to the brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, owning all your stuff.
If we consider Lennon's vision with any level of seriousness, we will find that the concept of no possessions is synonymous with hell. This is why he had to use trickery to draw us in.
In truth, you don't have to be a dreamer to know what life without possessions would be like. You just have to know a little history. As brilliant as Lennon was (see "Ticket to Ride" and dozens more), he wasn't the first to imagine no possessions. Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung, to name just two, imagined it decades before him, and the combined result of their imagination was the murder of 100 million souls in peacetime and the enslavement of more than a billion people. Did Lennon not know the history of these butchers?
While we're on the subject, are the members of the Olympic Committee also ignorant of recent world history and current events? They must be – otherwise, they wouldn't have missed the irony of South Korean K-Pop singers fervently pleading for a life without religion or possessions when that paradise is only a short walk away – across the DMZ.