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Imagine No Religion

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.

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Posted by on January 1, 2012 in atheism, media, music

 

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A Few Hundred Words About Fuck

I used to have a book about fuck and its variants, as well as archaic words that meant the same thing but which now mean something else entirely or have fallen into disuse. It described “swive” as the female version of fuck, but for any number of possible reasons, it has been lost to history. It’s tempting to attribute it to the attitude that women should not take an active role in sex, but I think it’s probably more likely that “fuck,” with its hard sounds at either end, was more aggressive and so more satisfying as a cuss word.

The book, whose title is lost to some neuron playing hide-and-seek, suggested the possibility that the etymological origin of “fuck” may have something to do with early warfare involving bows and arrows made from the wood of the yew tree. The strings on the bows were plucked with the middle finger, and the men who used bows and arrows in battle were said to have approached their victims with their middle fingers extended, yelling “pluck yew.” As I recall, there was no evidence to support this claim, so while I’m willing to recount this story as an example of how colorful people’s imaginations can get when discussing unknown etymologies, I’m not willing to say that it’s anything more than imagination.

I also saw a sort of documentary called “Fuck,” available on netflix as “The F-Bomb,” but it was more entertaining than informative. Several people, including some famous comedians, tried to say that “fuck” stood for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or “Fornication Under Consent of the King.” Cute, but not likely. There was no evidence to support either as the source for “fuck.” The filmmakers acknowledge that, but spend an inordinate amount of time on it. It’s not that entertaining, and its informative value is almost nonexistent.

As for modern usage, “fuck” (and its variants) has become one of the most versatile words in the English language. I won’t go into its many uses, as I’m sure anyone even vaguely familiar with the word is aware of them.

I wrote the other day about my personal distaste for the use of the names of body parts as insults. I also mentioned in comments that I didn’t have a problem with fuck because it names an action and not a body part. I’m not satisfied with my own position.

It took me a long time to overcome my religious upbringing, and doing so involved, among many other things, the ability to say without embarrassment what religious people call dirty words. It surprises me to this day that people are still stunned to hear me say “fuck.” I don’t swear often. But at this stage in my life, I’m not going to revert to saying “you know” when I mean “fuck.” And if I think something is “fucking brilliant,” I’m going to say so, because “very” just doesn’t cut it as a modifier of “brilliant.”

I rarely say “fuck you,” and when I do, it’s usually to politicians on television saying stupid shit. Sometimes I say it to pundits on television saying stupid shit. I’m sure in the past I’ve written it to someone online, but I don’t recall whom or when (or under which pseudonym). I don’t recall saying it to anyone’s face, but I have thought it plenty. On at least one occasion, I was the very model of restraint in not saying it, but that was then.

I am aware that there are different cultural norms for the use of offensive language. I know that the words for certain body parts don’t carry the same weight in Australia or Scotland that they do in the United States. I live in the US, so that’s my cultural context. I also know that norms vary within countries, and people in the US vary widely in the ease with which they are offended by language. I’m not going to refrain from using foul language just because someone somewhere might get offended. Foul language enriches our ability to express ourselves fully and accurately.

Expressing ourselves fully and accurately does not include begging off the offensiveness of foul language or denying its etymology when someone is offended by its use, especially if its use is directed at them. By the same token, no one has the right not to be offended. It’s a balancing act that I doubt anyone has completely mastered.

As a (currently would-be) writer, I face a dilemma with fuck and its friends every time I write fiction. I have rules for how I use language, but I have to be willing to write characters who use language differently than I do. I don’t call people cunts, but I have to allow for the possibility that a character I write might. I have to decide if that person belongs to a culture that allows for it, or if that person is a sexist shit, or both. Or neither.

If, or more likely when, it happens that I write a character with no apparent limitations on the use of dirty words, I will likely have to rethink my position on my own use. That sort of thing happens from time to time. For now, I think my judgment regarding language use is fair.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2011 in language

 

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