A makeshift peace sign of flowers lies on top John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields" memorial in New York's Central Park. The memorial is near the Dakota building where Lennon lived and was murdered on Dec. 8, 1980. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

As we approach the 32nd anniversary of John Lennon’s death, I think it’s time to take a hard look at the song that — sadly and improperly — personifies Lennon’s legacy for far too many people.

That song is “Imagine.”

Why this weak entry in Lennon’s dazzling oeuvre receives such adoration mystifies me. The song features a syrupy melody, a cloying piano line, none of the startling chord or time changes that distinguished Lennon’s great Beatles songs, and no memorable hook.

Lyrically it’s even worse. There are lines in this song that a young John Lennon would have savaged.

No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.”

Oh, spare me. This is Jonathan Livingston Seagull territory; mawkish sentiment shoehorned into Lennon’s ironically un-Imaginative melodic framework.

Clearly, the song has attained its beloved status because it addresses world peace, or some Yoko-inspired concept of what world peace should look like: The “world will be as one,” stuff, clumsy phrasing depicting inaccessible ideals.

World peace is a wonderful value. I appreciate Lennon’s pursuit of it, as nutty as that pursuit was (Literally nutty: John and Yoko sent acorns to world leaders).

The problem is, every time I hear “Imagine” I feel the need to listen to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or some other brilliant Lennon song to remind me of his true genius.

Some artists can turn big societal observations into memorable pieces. Others lose their art to their cause. Lennon’s musical creativity seemed to decline in proportion to the importance of his subject matter.

When I hear “Imagine” I picture Lennon setting about to write an Important Song about Important Things: peace, love, understanding, Heaven, whatever. This approach — big thought, music and lyrics to follow –doomed the piece from the outset. It is precisely opposite from the approach that made Lennon a songwriting immortal. His great pieces featured flashpoint creativity, whether sparked by a poster (“Mr. Kite”), a cereal jingle (“Good Morning, Good Morning”), a drawing by his son (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), or the death of a friend (“A Day in the Life”).

Lennon mined his boyhood to great effect, both in his memories of place (“Strawberry Fields Forever”) and literature (“I Am the Walrus”). He produced many of his gems under deadline pressure, with recording schedules beckoning and Paul McCartney ready to go. Lennon lacked the time to reflect, thus, he created.

“Imagine” is all reflection, and that’s what makes it so mundane.

Some artists can turn big societal observations into memorable pieces. Others lose their art to their cause. Lennon’s musical creativity seemed to decline in proportion to the importance of his subject matter. “Imagine” has its roots in “Give Peace a Chance,” another Lennon world-improvement effort featuring inspired concepts and featureless musicality. Message trumped music. Whether this was a byproduct of ego, or laziness, or misguidance, or simple evaporation of talent, I’m not sure.

Plus, there’s an undercurrent of condescension to the piece, with Lennon laying out his insipid version of world peace (“no hell below us, above us only sky”) and then asking whether we can imagine it along with him, before belittling our capacity to do so (“I wonder if you can”). Yes, we can. Imagining world peace is the easy part.

Jim Borghesani: “Imagine” is all reflection, and that’s what makes it so mundane. (Album cover)

McCartney certainly released his share of saccharine tunes over the years, but at least he had the good graces to call them what they were — silly love songs. And Paul never fell into the pretentious trap of thinking that his music could stop bullets from flying.

I don’t disparage “Imagine” and other post-Beatle Lennon compositions (“Our life, together, is so precious, together, we have grown, we have grown” Oh, the pain!) because I dislike Lennon’s music. Quite the contrary. I disparage them because I love Lennon’s music. His memory should live on in the sparkling songs he created as an acerbic, witty Beatle — not in the mushy musical observations of his later years.

So, on Dec. 8, I’ll be thinking about John Lennon. I’ll be thinking about how utterly cool he looked on the back of “Revolver.” I’ll be thinking about his ghostly vocal on “A Day in the Life.” I’ll remember seeing the Beatles perform Lennon’s “Rain” on The Ed Sullivan Show, and realizing their music had, impossibly, become even more brilliant.

And, in honor of Lennon, when “Imagine” comes on the radio, I’ll change the station.


Tags: Music

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  • J__o__h__n

    Imagining no religion is still too much for many people to deal with.

  • Ponder

    This song is not popular as in pop song – it does not need a hook. It’s a powerful message that people are hungry for.

  • George Orwell

    OK, I get it Mr. Borghesani. Before writing this article, only your mother and and a couple friends knew you existed. But now you give value to your title of “Strategic Media” something-rather. You criticize Lennon, people will notice it, then they will notice you for your “analysis” of a successful song.

    Infamy is also fame, as they say in your circles. Next, analyze why Normandy was not such a big deal in WWII.

  • LennonFan

    Sometimes you just have to spell it out plain and simple to reach the masses. I think that’s what Lennon wanted. And it worked because it has — and continues to — resonate with millions across the globe. I’d call that a successful piece of songwriting no matter what you think of it.

  • geraldfnord

    I agree that it were often awkward and treacly, but it’s not terrible, and I’m just glad that any message of peace, atheism, and true communism makes it out there.

    • jabv5225

      atheism? true communism? huh?

  • Nick Sophinos

    I like Rush Limbaugh’s parody of it “Imagine there’s no hippies…. Imagine all the people, paying their own way….”

    • Bob Nelson

      A conservative T shirt maker has one with a cartoon of Lennon and the caption “Imagine–No Liberals.”

    • Bob Nelson

      My alternate lyrics to another of his tunes: War is over–cause we won it–we have won it, now.

    • joeleven

      Rush Limbaugh himself is a parody.

  • TJtruthandjustice

    Oh please. It’s a political song. It’s intended to be easy to sing and easy to remember. Why don’t you take a stab at “This Land is Your Land” while you’re at it. Or how about “If I Had a Hammer.” Christ.

  • sherry

    i like imagine but i like crippled inside more.

  • Al Dorman28

    This is a truly ridiculous article and I’m getting tired of this blog being included in the otherwise brilliant stuff that WBUR produces. This blog is trying to be TED but ends up being “mundane” click-bait.
    As to the thrust of it, that the big, nebulous message of “Imagine” fails to convince the author, here’s the deal. The song isn’t for you, it’s a peace-weapon aimed at middle America. In fact it’s so strikingly effective because it’s still played today and still controversial because middle America actually doesn’t have the capacity to imagine secular humanism in their own lives. Get out more, talk to them, they live in a world of the Bible, self-aware supernaturalism, and the National Security State. “Imagine” holds up because its message is still relevant towards changing these minds, not yours.

    • Craig Donnelly

      Click-bait. That sums it up.

  • Bob Nelson

    From National Lampoon’s Letters FROM the Editors (fictional): “Dear Sirs: Imagine no possessions? What a terrible, terrible thought.–Yoko Ono, New York City”. Also, high taxes on the rich in ol’ blighty so some Brit rockers moved to US to escape the…Taxman! George said he wrote that song when he realized how much of the money the lads made was being taken from them in taxation.

  • Bob Nelson
  • J__o__h__n

    I like the concept of the Cognoscenti essay series but the name implies a level or expertise in the subject matter by the author. This author is described as a president of a media company and former business and local reporter. I’d be interested in a music critic’s opinion, or a cultural historian, etc. but not just some guy’s musings.

  • Rocco

    Lennon’s best song is “Mind Games.”

  • joeleven

    Musical simplicity, cloying lyrics. . .blah, blah, blah. What this song has going for it is truth. Lennon expressed perfectly the weariness of many of his generation after fighting so many causes.

    Lennon, approaching his middle years, had seen a lot, and a bit wiser, he realized that change is a very long and very difficult road. But at the same time, one loses one’s childlike belief in a better world at the expense of one’s soul. It is this belief–like a mantra–that is so simply expressed in this song. Lennon was speaking to our souls, not our sense of aesthetic sophistication. Many of the anthems of Peter, Paul and Mary are just as simple and yet no less powerful.

    The brilliance of the song is not musical invention, but Lennon’s ability to touch a nerve in his audience, to give voice to things we were feeling and give us comfort and perspective. When I hear this song it brings a tear to my eye, because I suspect that if he were still with us, he would still be doing so. And I still miss him.

  • RJW

    Ze’ev Maghen wrote a whole book on this subject: _John Lennon and the Jews_ . It’s fantastic book.

  • Babyface

    I always felt the bits about ‘no hell below us…’ ‘…and no religion, too’ were the difference between ‘Imagine’ being only wistful/hopeful and powerful…

  • lie detector

    Lennon rightful attached “I wonder if you can” to imagining no possessions” which is by far the harder of the three. The “imagine there’s no heaven” represents the first anti-terrorist song in effect since there’d be no 72 virgins as an eternal reward. Anyway, I’ve always like the musicality of it; you can hear it without lyrics/vocals on youtube-sounds good to me.

  • Mary

    You completely missed the boat on this. First if all it’s the simplicity of the song that makes it what it is and it is not a saccharine tune. It’s a song that defines a generation. There is nothing condescending or belittling whatsoever..rather it feels as if he’s having a conversation with the listener saying just imagine the world as a better place. And for you to reference stopping bullets from flying is absolutely sickening..SHAME ON YOU

  • Jan Hare

    Are you insane?

  • Jamie Sweeney

    Oh for God’s sake… One of the most stupid articles I’ve ever read. Who cares what YOU think of “Imagine.” Go ahead and change the station.

  • DrJimbob

    Get over yourself. Lennon’s other great creations aren’t going to languish in obscurity because people play and remember this song. And its deceptive simplicity, that hymn-like character that makes Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” one of his best known tunes, even if it isn’t his greatest composition, means that people will be singing and playing this piece when nobody remembers or cares what Jim Borghesani liked or disliked.

  • Richard

    Really inept article. Waste of time by an ultra-hip guy who is much smarter than us peasants.

  • RJP

    Cognoscenti!! I didn’t know the word meant “clueless”!

  • jimbo

    “Imagine no possessions, John,” Neil told him. “It’s only a bloody song,” Lennon replied….

  • mystro1

    All of the criticism of the article is right on. It was never intended to be aesthetically pleasing but a strong and enduring message of hopefulness of peace.

  • jabv522

    Well, we are all entitled to our opinions. Here’s mine: it is an expression of his vision for the world’s future. It’s a political message. A statement of personal philosophy. It doesn’t have to have the most clever lyrics or the most sophisticated piano line to be beloved and beautiful. And it is. Duh.

  • JonFrum

    The comments here are hilarious – you can’t make this stuff up. Multi-hundred-millionaire John Lennon sings ‘Imagine no posessions” Bwahahaha! He lived in a building in New York City where the janitors needed references from their stockbrokers to get a job. This was the equivalent of John the Atheist singing “Jesus loves us, this I know, because the Bible tells me so!” All I can think of is “How can you sleep at night?”

  • Rowbear

    What a ridiculously pretentious piece. Come on. Enjoy the song. Let it be.

  • Pointpanic

    Mr. Borghesani doesn’t like it becasue it calls into question the unrelenting pursuit of the corporate bottom line.

  • Randy C.

    Woh, looks like NoHellBelowUs hath no fury like a Lennonista scorned! I’m pretty sure the late Christopher Hichen’s savaging of the late Mother Teresa met w/ significantly less fury than Mr. B’s opinions elicited, but then she was no millionaire celeb dedicated to making us feel good about ourselves. Reminds me of the line spoken by an actor as Lennon, in full Cockney, in one of the old National Lampoon variety shows–Leming’s?–“I don’t have to take this! I’m a bleedin’ artist, & I’m sensitive as shit!” Speaking for those of us in the minority, all we are saying is give taste a chance.

    • POintpanic

      No, she wasn’t Randy but she was well -subsidized by dictators who were allowed to burinsh their images standing next to her.

  • Randy C.

    However, to his credit, it’s only been a few years ago–over 40 years after its publication–that I finally got the title of his second book of poetry “A Spaniard in the Works.” Guess I had to learn a little cockney slang first. Good one, JL!

  • GoatHerder

    I would not say it was his worst song.You have to remember people are stupid and USA people top the charts!The best songs from any band or artist are never the ones played or remembered.If you listen to any radio station for any length of time, you will hear only the same 3 or 4 songs from the Beatles,Stones,Pink Floyd etc when they all wrote tons more brilliant songs!

  • Beaugard Stevens

    What bullcrap is this? You’re an idiot. If you really loved John, you would be happy his song is one of the greatest songs of the century.

  • pamjpamj

    Not everyone is able to see the message. Wake up!

  • Proud Pats Fan

    The treatment you gave this beautiful song in this article was like someone stomping a beautiful flower under their boot. Could it be that because you don’t understand why the song is special to other people mean you’re missing something? You don’t seem to consider that with your highbrow dismissal. So either you’re wrong about it or 100 million other people are wrong about it. I’ll go with the numbers.