Why Cee Lo Green’s performance of ‘Imagine’ stirred outrageWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Imagine there’s no heaven.
It’s easy if you try.
No hell below us.
Above us, only sky.”
It isn’t an unforgivable crime to alter someone else’s work. Adaptations and alterations occur all the time in pop culture — it’s part of the creative process. When someone decides to tweak an earlier piece in an interesting way, that often freshens up the existing work and makes it something new again.
“Imagine all the people living for today.”
But you have to be careful. When you’re adapting a work that is universally beloved —one that speaks to people beyond being a simple piece of art — the liberty to make changes comes fraught with perils. Above all, it’s important that the idea of the original work, the themes that make it what it is, are left intact.
“Imagine there’s no countries.
It isn’t hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for.
And no religion, too.”
That’s what has made some people so angry about Cee Lo Green’s performance of John Lennon’s immortal “Imagine” on New Year’s Eve. It’s not just that he changed a few words. It’s that he altered the message of the work, seemingly without really comprehending what his changes meant. And, in an apparent effort to not cause offense, he ended up causing the most offense of all.
“Imagine all the people living life in peace.”
Green is a gifted performer. I have enjoyed his bawdy yet charming pop stylings for a while now, and not just because he gives fat guys like me hope that we could one day be as cool as he is. What I have especially enjoyed is his willingness to not take himself too seriously. Anyone who could record something as rollicking and fun as “F*** You” definitely has a good sense of humor.
“You, you may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will be as one.”
Green’s rendition of the song in Times Square came only a few minutes before midnight. He performed almost all of the lyrics faithfully and beautifully. Then he got to the line about “and no religion, too.” But that’s not what he sang. His version went, “and all religion’s true.”
Lennon fans — a group that makes up about half of the world’s population, I’d guess —were outraged. They took to Twitter and lashed out at Green for the alteration, a response that seemed to genuinely surprise him. “Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys! I was trying to say a world were u could believe what u wanted that’s all,” he tweeted.
“Imagine no possessions.
I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger.
A brotherhood of man.”
This is not the first time that a performance of “Imagine” has seen alteration. I’ve heard of versions where the line has been changed to “and one religion, too,” which is a far more perverse mutation of the song’s meaning. Green’s effort to make it more inclusive is certainly a far lesser offense than that.
But still, it cannot be denied that Green’s change completely reverses the meaning of the lyric, if not the whole song. The piece is designed to inspire unity by suggesting a world where all the things that divide us — countries, affiliations, possessions and more — simply don’t exist. By injecting religion back into the song, Green’s interpretation sidestepped its intention.
“Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”
It also made it somewhat nonsensical. Why did Green change the “no religion” line when, just a few seconds before, he felt comfortable singing “Imagine”’s opening lines, where there’s no heaven or hell? This falls in line with the song’s nonreligious themes, but those stayed intact.
I believe I understand Green’s reasons for changing the piece. He was trying to avoid causing controversy by changing the lyric, giving it what he felt was a more “universal” theme.
But there was the flaw — “Imagine” is already universal. I know many people, religious and otherwise, who adore the song for what it is: an appeal for understanding and brotherhood. To them, it’s not anti-religion. It’s pro-humanity. And so many believe in that message that when Green made his alteration, they felt he was insulting not only the song, but what it stood for.
“You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.”
Email Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.