Last night, Cee Lo Green sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but he changed the words to a single line and incurred the virtual wrath of people who respect the song as it was written. The line he changed was “and no religion too.” Accounts vary on exactly what he changed the lyrics to, but it was something along the lines of “and all religion is true” or “and all religions too.”
I’m biased. I think John Lennon was one of the best songwriters and lyricists in the English language in the 20th Century, and possibly of the history of the English language. You can see growth in his lyrics from the early Beatle days when he played with the multiple meanings of words (“Please Please Me”) in simple—or sometimes not so simple—love songs, to the later Beatle era, when drugs and war and the FBI keeping tabs on him made life not so sweet. You could see a bit of cynicism creep in (“Sexy Sadie”) as well as political activism (“Revolution”). After the Beatles broke up, his lyrics for the most part became more thoughtful and as a result, more powerful.
He wrote “Imagine” early in his solo career. In my opinion, this is about as close to perfect as a pop or rock song can get. Its message of simple peace (or peaceful simplicity?) is set to a simple, clean melody with a simple, sparse arrangement. The lyrics don’t challenge the listener’s vocabulary, but as with the melody and arrangement, that’s where its power lies. Using simple words, he challenges beliefs, and more importantly, acceptance of the status quo. If we can imagine a different world, we can build a different world.
Lennon’s lyrics display an elegant sensibility of positive and negative. There’s also a parallel construction to the lyrics that cannot be accidental. The only significant variation in the structure of the verses occurs in the third and final verse, when instead of imagining the absence of heaven in the sky or of religion, he imagines a “brotherhood of man.” It’s difficult to imagine that Lennon’s choice of words was anything but careful and deliberate.
Which brings us back to Cee Lo Green.
If Lennon’s lyrics had no connection from line to line, that would be one thing, but if one considers the words just prior to altered line, “nothing to kill or die for,” or even the entire second verse, Green’s change renders the song nonsensical. People kill and die for their countries, and they kill and die for religion. As far as I know, no one has killed or died for Scientology, but a) I could be wrong and b) there’s still time.
Green has attempted to explain the change as expressing support for everyone being able to think or believe what they want. There are two problems with this explanation. The first is that religion does not allow its adherents to think whatever they want; religion tries to convert people of other religions, so it isn’t conducive to the freedom of thought that Green says he wanted to convey. I don’t know if Lennon made a distinction between religion and faith, but it seems clear that Green does not. Also, if his altered line was “all religion’s true,” then he’s specifically discouraging non-belief.
The second problem with Green’s explanation is that it reads false. The only reasons to change a line by one of the world’s most (deservedly) respected lyricists is if you don’t believe what the line conveys or if the line offends you. Green obviously does not believe the line, and I think it’s more likely than not that he is also offended by it. That’s fine. That’s his prerogative. And it’s my prerogative to be offended by the unintentional irony he injected into one of my favorite songs.
John Lennon invited us on a journey of imagination, and Cee Lo Green was willing to go on this journey, but not all the way. He’s willing to imagine no heaven, no hell, no countries, no possessions (as he wears a fur coat and what appears to be a half ton of gold), no need for greed or hunger, nothing to kill or die for—but religion? No, Green won’t even imagine no religion. So, how can he imagine nothing to kill or die for? How can he imagine no heaven or hell? And if he imagines that all religion’s true, then how can he imagine no countries?
Green says he meant no disrespect by changing the lyrics. I think he probably thought the largely religious American public would appreciate his pro-religion lyric and the denouncing of his lyric change surprised him. Not that he cares about my opinion, but any respect I had for him, even as an influence on other musicians, has taken a nose-dive, not only for the thoughtlessness of his lyrical alteration, but for the poor reason he gave as an excuse for it.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, Leonard Bernstein changed the lyrics of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony from “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) to “An die Freiheit” (Ode to Freedom). It was controversial at the time, but he had a good reason for it, and never suggested that there was any problem with the original lyrics. I mention this because Beethoven’s 9th is my favorite Symphony. I’m not completely adverse to changing the lyrics to my favorite music, but I do have to understand the reason and believe that there’s nothing else to it. Bernstein gave a reason I understood, and I believe there was never anything else to it.
I don’t understand Green’s stated reason, and I’m unconvinced that there isn’t more to it.