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John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’: When Art Becomes More

The year was 1971, and only a year on from leaving behind the band that had propelled him to incomprehensible levels of fame and success, John Lennon had already put pen to paper in the crafting of what would one day become the best-selling single of his entire solo career. The Vietnam War was on its last legs, fast approaching, however unaware, its final hour. Back in the United States, anti-war protests raged on with fervour. From the May Day protests in Washington D.C. to the Camden 28 – a group of 28 leftist Catholic activists who broke into a draft board in Camden, New Jersey, seeking to destroy any draft registration records they could find. Tensions were reaching boiling point across the US, and, with the release of “Imagine”, perhaps Lennon had intended upon mellowing things down.

Carrying a sense of familiarity experienced equally among hardened Beatlemaniacs and just about everyone outside of that admittedly sizeable sphere, the songs influence, and more importantly, power, is immutable. Just about every accolade, prize and endorsement stands firm to bolster at the song’s back. The praise appears endless, from Rolling Stone labelling it as Lennon’s “greatest musical gift to the world”, to the Grammy Hall of Fame award it received in 1999, to its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the same year. One piece of praise for “Imagine” that definitely stands out, however, is a quote taken from former US President Jimmy Carter, who said that “in many countries around the world – my wife and I have visited about 125 countries– you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems”.

This quote, I think, is one that is most effective in summing up the impact that this song had, continues to have, and the legacy that it has forged since it first hit record stores in ‘71. “Imagine”, universally, is comfort in a crisis. It miraculously tows the line of a profound melancholic sadness without ever surrendering and submerging fully into sorrow. The idealist lyrics (“Imagine there’s no countries…Nothing to kill or die for”) don’t make themselves vulnerable to the ridicule of cynics, because they aren’t proposals, plans, or frameworks. They are dreams and imaginings, far too grand and far too good to exist upon our plane of administrations and bureaucracy. The song expresses a hope so profoundly utopian – so easy to disprove and criticize – that it somehow manages to transcend all worldly judgement, leaving no room for cynicism in the process. It feigns no capability to resolve, and offers only a helping hand, beckoning us gently forward to imagine.

A friend of mine once told me about how, on the day of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, radio stations all across France broadcasted “Imagine” simultaneously, in a gesture of solidarity. That, I think, is exactly what the song has come to represent. It’s comfort in a crisis because it asks nothing more of the listener than to imagine, and – as Lennon said it best – that really isn’t hard to do. Again, in France, the morning after the 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris, pianist Davide Martello took to the streets outside the venue, playing a rudimentary instrumental version of the song on a grand piano. A video of the performance soon went viral online, once again offering some inexplicable sense of hope and comfort to all those who witnessed it.

When John Lennon finished off the last few scribblings of lyrics and chords on his song sheet, and released “Imagine” off into the world, he was doing far more than just publishing another song. He couldn’t possibly have comprehended even a fraction of what his newest little piece of music would go on to represent. Yet, still, “Imagine” has gone on to represent something far larger than Lennon himself, or anything me may have intended to achieve with the song. In a sense, “Imagine” is no longer just a song that John Lennon released. It has become a cultural symbol. A universally understood articulation of hope in the direst of circumstances, that speaks to all and demands to be heard.