'Imagine' is a bad, bad song
Why John Lennon's most famous piece of music is fundamentally nihilistic
In these horrifying and divisive times, all of us — progressives and right-wingers, Karens and corona doves — need a cause around which we can unite. The question is what, though. On Wednesday, Bill de Blasio provided the answer: "I don't mean to make light of this," the mayor of New York City said in reference to the worst rioting America has seen in my lifetime, "but I'm reminded of the song ‘Imagine' by John Lennon. We played it at my inauguration. I think everyone who hears that song in its fullness thinks about a world where people got along differently."
"Imagine" is, notwithstanding the existence of "Ice Ice Baby" and "White Christmas," the worst song ever recorded. Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for reminding us.
Where do you even begin? The droopy four-bar intro? The soporific nasal whine of Lennon's voice? The mind-numbing facetiousness of ending the verses with "youuuuuuuu" and then starting the chorus with the same word? The other lyrics that insult the intelligence with such ferocity that I'm pretty sure singing it violates the Geneva Convention? The part where the rock star who wrote this song in about an hour (it shows, by the way) in one of several luxury homes he owned encourages you maybe to consider having "no possessions," presumably including underwear and a toothbrush, and then passive-aggressively insists that you're so attached to your stuff that you can't even contemplate the idea? The other part where the same guy not only confidently predicts a world in which the world is made up not even of a single country, but of literally no countries, and then triples down by suggesting that it's "easy" to envision this? The way its all-consuming badness forces you to question the value of everything, including the key of C major and words like "the"?
Let's face it. Even though the whisper-singing vocals and the cheap music-box lullaby chord progression are intensely grating, this song would have been okay stuffed away on side four of the White Album, albeit with totally different lyrics (e.g., "I really love my Rolls Royce"). The real problem with "Imagine" is the theme, if that word can be used fairly to describe a series of nonsensical propositions delivered according to no detectable logical pattern.
Start with the word salad of Marxism, anarchism, and existentialism. Nowhere is there even the faintest hint of how any of the hypotheticals we are being asked to consider might be realized. Instead Lennon does the political equivalent of telling us that the real magic was inside us all along. A far more serious problem is that even if additional verses did somehow outline a series of discrete practical steps that tomorrow could bring about the actual world he envisions, no one would want to live in it. This is because it is fundamentally nihilistic, a vision of a reality in which "lol nothing matters" is elevated to a first-order principle. This is a problem. A world in which nothing is worth dying for is one in which exactly zero of the things from which we derive meaning and pleasure could exist. The effect is worse than purgatorial: It is an actual vision of hell.
It's worth admitting that if "Imagine" were less popular it would be vastly less annoying, at least to some of us. It's not Lennon's fault that playing his worst single somehow became the default response to every bad thing that has befallen the human race in the last half century or so, from the attacks of September 11, 2001, to the existence of Train, who performed it in Times Square in 2013. Wanting to impose "Imagine" on the victims of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and people who just want to own a compilation of Lennon's other solo recordings verges on the sociopathic.
This is why whenever people (like the editors of Rolling Stone, who named it the third best song of all time in a 2004 special issue of their Boomer lifestyle catalogue) say that "Imagine" is great or even their favorite song and that it has some kind of serious emotional meaning for them, I want to smash things. That someone would actually enjoy the song as a piece of music is hard enough to believe. (I personally would rather listen to "Revolution 9" or even Two Virgins, the 29-minute album of John and Yoko farting into a tape recorder and playing with wind chimes that somehow charted in 1968.) But thinking it's profound, much less the answer to serious problems like police brutality and looting and economic depression? That's not quixotic; it's insulting.
I realize that some readers will disagree with this verdict. If that's you, in keeping with the principles of your favorite record I invite you to imagine a world in which this opinion column does not exist, along with the computer or mobile device you are using to read it — and the hell in which the devil is cackling with wicked glee at your sins against musical taste and sound politics.
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