In a 1974 interview with Howard Cosell, John Lennon revealed, “I think my greatest pleasure is writing a song that will last longer than a couple of years.” He went on to say that if he wrote one out of 20 or 30 songs that anybody could sing—from Frank Sinatra to Tiny Tim—then that would give him the greatest joy.
John Lennon has done just that many times over the course of his lifetime while he was with The Beatles and as a solo artist. In 1971 he and Yoko Ono released the album and single, “Imagine”—a song that asks us to consider the idea that peace is within everyone’s reach. With music and lyrics that have the ability to soothe the soul, Lennon/Ono ask us to visualize what the world would be like without greed, war, separateness, borders, prejudice, and hate. They wanted us to open our minds to the concept of a society where all people are accepted, respected, and live in solidarity. It didn’t matter where in the world we called home, which God (or lack there of) we believed in, whether we were wealthy or poor, or which race or group of humans we identified with. This utopia would welcome us all.
Sounds like heaven on earth, right? The lyrics ask us to consider the concept of living in a society where there is no heaven or hell, possessions or greed, religions, or countries that divide us and keep us from living in peace. Like Ying and Yang, the song Imagine speaks of peace, but has also sparked much debate about what is being asked of us. Most mainstream fans thought it was a song of hope for peace and love among all people, while others who follow a particular religion or political view were outraged by the lyrics. Was Lennon asking them to put away their Rosaries, hang up their yarmulkes, put their Korans aside, live in a commune, and become an atheist? Or, was Lennon asking people to join him in working towards a world where acceptance of all ethnicities, respect for all religions, eliminating walls and borders that divide us, and practicing peace and love as a way of life?
No matter how the song affected you, Imagine, shook up many people with deep-seeded ideologies, as well as gave peace lovers hope that the Viet Nam war would end soon and everything would be alright in the world. It’s amazing that a beautiful ballad with a melody that can soothe the soul in the first few bars of the piano intro, can also cause a firestorm of controversy.
But—isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Some of the best artistic works in history have ignited debate about the intention of the artist and the work’s meaning. Just like any other piece of art, a song is open for interpretation. “Imagine” can calm your entire being, inspire you to think of new concepts, and allow you to see the world in a totally new way. It all depends on the listener’s own ideologies and if he/she is open to challenging them. Were the lyrics of the song meant to be taken literally? Are we supposed to abandon our religions, give away all of our ‘things’, and bust through customs barricades whenever we please? Or, could it be that Lennon understood that in order for peace on earth to take hold and become a reality that he needed to first challenge the world with an imagination-stretching exercise.
Sadly, we cannot ask him what the lyrics meant, and this article does not offer a definitive answer. “Imagine” is art, open for interpretation. Whether you’re one of those dreamers who share John and Yoko’s vision of love and peace, or someone who disagrees with their beliefs, the core message of the song is loud and clear—to give peace a chance.