There's a subversive genius at work beneath the surface of John Lennon's "Imagine." At first glance, it's an instantly approachable bit of lite-rock fluff that peddles an equally pleasant message: "Hey, guys, wouldn't it be great if we could all, like, just get along?"
But that was never how John Lennon rolled, and "Imagine" has a few other tricks up its sleeve — namely, that it's a bit of atheist commie propaganda that's totally at odds with the values of every Republican mom who ever cranked it up in her minivan and sang along with the chorus. Because it's only when you listen to the verses that you realize what it is that Lennon is really saying: that we can live in harmony only when we renounce national sovereignty and individual property rights and recognize that religion is the opiate of the masses.
That message evidently didn't sit too well with Cee Lo Green, who sent astute Lennon fans into conniptions on New Year's Eve when, during a soulful cover of the song on NBC's NYE telecast, he changed the lyric "And no religion too" to "All religion's true." The singer was immediately beset by extremely scornful tweets.
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Initially, Cee Lo defended the change, arguing that it was within the spirit of Lennon's original message: "Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys," he tweeted. "I was trying to say a world where u could believe what u wanted, that's all." When that didn't fly, he deleted that tweet and replaced it with the somewhat petulant "Now playing: we just disagree: dave mason."
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Cee Lo is, of course, wrong. The message of "Imagine" is not that we should live in a world where you can believe what you want. The message is pretty clearly that we should live in a world where, seriously, there's no religion (see: "Imagine there's no heaven" and "No hell below us"). Like all good communists, Lennon argues that adherence to the dogma of organized religion serves to create schisms between factions of the faux righteous, who are so secure in their belief that everyone else is wrong that they would literally kill just to prove it, and that by eliminating religion, we eliminate that which turns us against ourselves. Then again, if everyone believed that all religion is true — a scenario no more or less likely to happen than the demise of religion, it's worth noting — it would have roughly the same effect.
But there's an even more interesting irony at play in this dispute. At the heart of religion and nationalism, the two main things Lennon takes on in "Imagine," is the sacred. Think about how pissed Muslims get when you draw a cartoon of Mohammed, or how Christians just really get rubbed the wrong way when you turn a cross upside down. That's how wars get started. That's what Lennon was arguing against in "Imagine." So to make that very song a sacred thing whose message it is blasphemous to change — like, you know, the Bible or something — is pretty rich. Let's not get so wrapped up in our idols. That's all Lennon was saying.