The Hidden Meaning Of John Lennon's Imagine

It's been almost half a century since its release and we're still seeing John Lennon's "Imagine" seeping into the headlines. Admittedly, the headlines have read along lines similar to Slate's "A Video of Celebrities Singing 'Imagine' So Bad It Can Bring Us All Together in Hatred" and the New York Post's "National anthem should be changed to John Lennon's 'Imagine,' activists say".

In fact, as Rolling Stone notes, this is the second time in the twenty-first century that "Imagine" has popped out as a kind of American Anthem. After 9/11, many Americans turned, like Tori Amos, to "Imagine" : "'Imagine' is the one thing that can bring me to a place where I can get logical, think, breathe. Yes, the song is an anthem. But it's also oxygen.'" This sentiment echoes in Gal Gadot's original instagram post, the one receiving the righteous mocking: "We are in this together, we will get through it together. Let's imagine together. Sing with us."

However, while Lennon believed in one people and all that, he wrote the words as "virtually the Communist Manifesto, even though I am not particularly a communist and I do not belong to any movement.... But because it is sugarcoated, it is accepted." Such a message only added to the ire directed towards celebrities who were relatively unaffected by the pandemic, yet broadcasting such a message to the masses. 

But, really... imagine

The charge of wealthy people preaching "Imagine" to the masses could be and indeed was thrown at the songwriter himself, albeit not as a social media pile-on.

In his 1991 single "The Other Side of Summer", Elvis Costello asks his listener if it was "a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions'?" Later, he would claim in a New York Times interview that "'The Other Side of Summer' is not a slap at John Lennon. John Lennon wrote some wonderful songs, but 'Imagine,' which has been so sanctified, was one of his worst. He didn't think it all the way through." So, perhaps not a slap at Lennon, but a bit of a slap at "Imagine."

Similarly, Frank Turner, a British punk folk singer, seethes over this song, partly due to the knowledge that Lennon was a better songwriter than this yet this is "THE Lennon Song" and partly, as he raged to AV Club, because that "[compared] to, say, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," or indeed anything by Crass or The Clash or Propagandhi, it's so utterly vacuous. It's a Hallmark card set to music. There's a pretty high dose of hypocrisy in here as well."

However, the value of the song, despite its more hypocritical aspects, is that like its inspiration, Yoko Ono's book Grapefruit, it invokes its reader/listener to imagine such things, opening the possibility in the mind. Just imagine. Then work towards it.