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Posted at 2:21 PM ET, 12/ 8/2010

In memory of John Lennon, why 'Imagine' is a terrible idea

By Alexandra Petri

I love John Lennon. He was always my favorite Beatle. My mother loves Paul, and I know J.K. Rowling's favorite is George, and that awful girl in 500 Days of Summer preferred Ringo, but I've always enjoyed John. He's responsible for my favorite Beatles song -- In My Life -- along with countless others, and I'm always sad to think of all the other music he would have been able to keep enchanting the world with had he survived Mark David Chapman's bullet.

But as it is, I think I'm obligated to make this point: "Imagine" terrifies me. If you just allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security by the piano part, you might think it's some sort of song about world peace and justice. But listen to the lyrics, and you're plunged into a dystopic nightmare.

Whenever I hear it, I actually indulge in the imaginings John suggests, and by the time it is over, I am cowering in terror behind a rock snarling at passersby. I don't know if it produces this effect on you, but let me explain, lyric by lyric.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

For millennia, most great thinkers have maintained that a looming lifelong concern about a pleasant or unpleasant fate in the afterlife is one of the few threads holding civilization together. Voltaire said that "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." I hate to argue with Voltaire.

Imagine all the people
Living for today...

If we were actually living for today, without the threat of some sort of supernal reward or punishment, we would in most cases be running around looting and pillaging and finally telling Old Mrs. Feeny next door what we really think of her and her twenty-six cats. There would be a lot of orgies. Nobody would hold doors for anyone.
When the world inevitably failed to end, everyone would be disappointed, and when we ran into people we'd met at End-of-the-World orgies, it would be awkward.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do

Are you sure, John? Countries are widely viewed as a fairly logical way of organizing space into chunks of people who (in most cases) share a common language, governing system, popular culture, and some sort of general enthusiasm for the place in which they live. So, all right, I'm imagining life without countries. But without countries, are we just sort of wandering around en masse? How are we organized? Has the whole Earth decided on some sort of one-state solution, some Pan-Continental World Order? This doesn't seem like something John would advocate.

I can only assume that the reason there aren't countries is because, say, a giant icemass has overwhelmed an entire continent and we have reverted to a herd mentality.

Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Hopefully "Nothing to kill or die for" refers to "no countries," but in case it doesn't, that knocks out pretty much everything that is worthwhile and beautiful in this world.

That's the difficulty with this song -- by eliminating everything that has caused controversy and violence in the past, you wind up without anything worth having.

And -- maybe this is wildly controversial -- but I hear some people, well, like religion. It's a source of hope. It's a way of explaining your relationship with the cosmos. And most religions tend to agree, at least in public at summits about The Fundamental Similarity of All Religions, that deep down they do not mean to encourage violence against non-believers or "heathens," in spite of what it says in the book of Jeremiah and all that awkwardness in the Middle Ages.

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

I have difficulty picturing people doing this after all the above, since pretty much everything just eliminated is something that keeps people in states of relative peace at most times.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

The phrase I was actually planning on applying to John Lennon in light of this was not "dreamer," although it did end with "er" and implied his mind was in an altered state. However, even if everyone joined him and followed this example, I don't think we would wind up at peace. For every John Lennon and Yoko Ono who sit around peacefully playing the tambourine, making tea, and singing about giving peace a chance, there is a Hunter S. Thompson who has ingested roughly the same substances and is off stealing someone's Cadillac and assaulting a police officer.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can

Oh, I can. But I will miss my elaborate collection of ceramic celery.

No need for greed or hunger

Wait, hold up a second. I got through the no possessions part, but I'm not certain how you go from having no possessions to having no greed or hunger? I think that's the opposite of how these things are generally viewed as working.

So in order for this to work, we must be sharing everything. But who is working to provide food? Who is organizing the sharing? Are we all on some sort of commune?

Or are we back to my original explanation, where a giant ice floe has covered most of North America, and we have just hunted down an elk using the communal spear, which I think works so far.

A brotherhood of man

At this point in the song I think I am naked and starving on a frozen steppe somewhere, and now I am waiting in line to use the communal shower.

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

I want to mention the Tragedy of the Commons, but I am too faint from inability to hunt, and somebody else already gathered all the low-hanging fruit.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Yes, you're a dreamer! What about capitalism? What about the economy? What about --

Still, I hope you're not the only one.

Oscar Wilde said a cynic was someone who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. John Lennon seemed to understand the value of everything. He was wise enough to know that cynicism is not the price of intelligence. I miss him, and I wish there were more people like him.

But I wish he'd come up with different lyrics.

By Alexandra Petri  | December 8, 2010; 2:21 PM ET
Categories:  From bad to verse, Petri, Worst Things Ever  | Tags:  Beatles, the power of myth  
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What a preposterous wish for John Lennon to have come up with different lyrics. You mean, you wish he agreed with your ideology and silenced his? The man had a vision of what ideologies he thinks humanity should embrace to be "successful" (for him meaning peace, no useless death, no useless starving). You don't have to agree with him, you can call him a dreamer. That's his whole point. To finish off an analysis of his lyrics with "I wish he'd come up with different lyrics" makes you sound like a square amongst squares.

And don't worry, you can enjoy your ceramic collection even if you don't have possessions. All it means is everyone can enjoy the ceramic collection. Learning to share is a thing we learn in Kindergarten. Learning to not follow but be an individual is something we learn throughout middle school. It is funny how easily adults forget what they learnt as children.....

Posted by: jreedy88 | December 8, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I understand that these ideas, were they to be written as law, would probably not maintain a society for very long. John Lennon was not crafting laws however--he was crafting three minute pop songs. At the very least he was putting together lyrics that were catchy and fit with the melody. At most he was trying to challenge people's views to prevent our culture from becoming intellectually sedentary. The main problem with your idea (aside from a couple vague, and obtuse notions regarding how people would act without fearing God) is that Lennon never claimed to be anything more than an entertainer (as further evidenced by the recently uncovered interview in Rolling Stone). He never thought he had cornered the market on truth, right and wrong, or how people should live their lives. Religion and government, on the other hand, both make those claims. So shaking the establishment in verse, even if it's directionless and fanciful, is one of the most important things an artist can do. We should question the establishments that shape our lives. Without that, there is no progress.

Posted by: CRWW | December 8, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Well, I couldn't even get thru to read all of your article when I noticed that you mentioned "Mark Alan Chapman". Hello? His name is MARK DAVID CHAPMAN!!!!!!!!!!! How much weight can I give your opinions if you don't even know John's killer's name.

Posted by: sohrmurphy | December 8, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

This is honestly, in all seriousness, quite possibly the worst article I have ever read.

Posted by: blavasandr | December 8, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Very sad to knock the guy and his idealistic hopes of a world filled with nothing but peace, love, and brotherhood, on the anniversary of his death. Thanks sohrmurphy for pointing out she didn't even get the killer's name correct, I noticed that too.

Posted by: CapHill32 | December 8, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

please tell me you don't get paid to spew such drivel. No, I will allow you the right to imagine your ridiculously illogical scenarios - after all, that's all that John was suggesting. Let's not accept the world and the dogmas of politics, consumption and religion to dominate us. Let's try to imagine how to make ourselves better. He never said to imagine no spirituality or morality. And like you acknowledge, religion is supposed to simply provide a guiding moral compass. However, the religious structure, hierarchy, dominance and control make religion a battle for whose god is better. People living solely for the afterlife don't live better - they live like nihilists, without care for the one world we have. Why are so many religious fundamentalists also the most destructive people? Why don't American evangelicals care about protecting the planet's resources? If people lived for today, there would be much greater levels of Humanism - just being good because it's right, not because some imaginary horned guy might burn you.

This article is an insult to anyone who has ever been touched by the possibilities of the better world that John imagined.

Posted by: jgsuperpants | December 8, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Why would you write this on the anniversary of his murder by a mad American with a gun. Imagine was about a world without people killing one another for their perception of god. It was for me and it was always one of their best, along with Fool On a Hill. I don't have the quote in front of me but in essence John Lennon said he believed the world was being run my maniacs for maniacal means and worst of all he thought people might think him insane for believing they were insane which is certainly the definition of insane isn't it? Imagine, to me, was about a peaceful world where people were more absorbed about enriching their present existence rather than the promise of an everlasting soul dependent upon good behavior. To me, there can be only only one unconditional love and light. Imagine writing something complementary on the anniversary of the murder of our friend. Love and peace!

Posted by: rhyer | December 8, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Wait...was this entire article a joke? Were you trying to be funny? I can't tell. I'm still gobsmacked that someone would dance on anyone's grave on the anniversary of their death. But John Lennon was, if nothing else, a funny guy. Don't add insult to injury by being "not-funny" at his expense. And if you weren't trying to be funny...then...Jesus. No wonder this industry is dying.

Posted by: CRWW | December 8, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

As some people do with the Bible, perhaps you're reading the lyrics too literally. I've always been spiritually inspired by these lyrics: countries & religion=rich man's reason for wars; no greed, no hunger=giving back to the community and don't covet. I guess everything is subjective..."beauty is in the eye of the beholder".

Posted by: PerrosBravos | December 8, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

There are a great deal of misinterpretations floating around this page. "Imagine" isn't about life as we know it today. It's about some mythical place, not too different from the concept of heaven. Lennon clearly states: "I'm a dreamer." He never claimed to have the answers, he just said what if that is the way life was? What if? And it's a song. Did we all forget this? Hey Alexandra, for your next article, why don't you try dissecting House of Pain's "Jump Around." Do they really want us to get out of our seats and jump around...Because I am really comfortable in this seat.

Posted by: mjb11 | December 8, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

This piece has got to be the dumbest I've read this year. I'm trying to imagine that you didn't write it, but alas you did.

It's kind of like ridiculing the Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci, for making her "too fat". Jeez... you totally missed the point. BTW, who the heck is Mark ALAN Chapman?

Posted by: alexramirez | December 8, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

These lyrics should terrify close-minded people like you, Alexandra, clinging to the very beliefs that prevent the rest of us from living the wonderful life that John imagined.

Posted by: alwaysrecord | December 8, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

OK, let's forget for a moment that you have called every athiest a barbarian that wants to run around raping and pillaging. That in itself was supremely offensive to me, presonally. That someone needs to believe in God to hold a door open is just so stupid you should be fired on the spot.

But the sad part is this song wasn't written for me or the people who are commenting, but for you. He's trying to ask you to forget the dogma you've been instilled with over your life. He wants you to just live and love, not hate and prepare for something that might not be coming.

The song is a rallying cry for we that believe what Lennon does, but it's written for you that don't. I am not going to call you a horrible person for not believing in what I do, but I will take a page from Lennon, and just ask you to imagine what the world would be like if columnists didn't ask revolutionaries to change their ideas to the status quo.

Posted by: exoren22 | December 8, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

ok, seriously people, let's at least make an attempt to interpret the author's tone.

the penultimate paragraph,

"Oscar Wilde said a cynic was someone who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. John Lennon seemed to understand the value of everything. He was wise enough to know that cynicism is not the price of intelligence. I miss him, and I wish there were more people like him,"

is eloquent, and lucid, and makes it abundantly clear that our Alexandra does in fact love and respect john and that the rest of this article is a farce. And a pretty funny one, if you stop trying to be offended by it.

In context, this makes her final statement tongue-in-cheek funny, instead of foot-in-mouth preposterous, which it would be were there even the smallest chance that she was being serious. she is not. this is a humor blog. chill out. that's what john would want.

Posted by: plsdonotfeedtherhino | December 8, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: LWittgenstein2 | December 8, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

wow! congratulations on writing the worst article ever! I, who never read washpo, signed up just to comment on this disaster of a piece!

This just in...the teachings of every philosopher/religious leader/artist from jesus to lennon may not be immediately practicably applied as absolute law to the world in which we live! which in no way diminishes their value! i am baffled by your buffoonery...yowza!

im going to go with you're the type of person who doesn't really "get" art...sheesh!

Posted by: espana99 | December 8, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

Pathetic, just pathetic. Don't you have an editor? Don't you have anyone to stop you from releasing anything written like this? Like a friend or coworker you run things by before you submit something like this. If you do and they said submit this, then never ask their opinion again.

Posted by: MDterpfan | December 9, 2010 7:59 AM | Report abuse

I never thought I would see those lyrics so grossly misunderstood.
So, without the carrot and stick of the afterlife, Ms. Petri would not do right by her fellow human beings? Surely she is aware that there are more philanthropic atheists than anarchic ones. Some of us do the right thing, not in order to reap rewards for it after we die, or to avoid eternal hellfire, but simply because it's the right thing to do.
Lennon's idea to erase those imaginary lines divinding land masses isn't a call for anarchy, it's a call for communion. In order to share space, you have to learn to accomodate your neighbor's differences. There's no rational reason for people to kill each other because one bleieves in god A, another believes in gods B, C, D, and 42, and another doesn't believe in any gods.
As for the author's inability to hunt and only being able to reach the low-hanging fruit, the idea behind the lyric is that those who COULD hunt would share meat with those who couldn't, those who COULD reach the higher fruit would share with those who couldn't reach any of it, and those who had a knack for gathering would share with those who couldn't tell a portobello mushroom from a toadstool.

Speaking for myself, I try to live that song, and I think it makes my lives and the lives of those around me better when I do.
I do nice things for my neighbors, not because I beleive that God will punish me if I don't and reward me if I do, but because they're my neighbors and they have needs that I am able to fill. Sometimes they reciprocate, sometimes not. Either way, it doesn't matter. If you're hungry and I have food, you will be invited to share it with me, not because some invisible supernatural being says I'm supoosed to, but simply because you are hungry and I have bread. That's all the reason I need.
I don't care what god/s, if any you worship. I won't try to convert you to my religion, nor will I listen to your attempts to convert me to yours.
I take in strays, both animals and people. I give of my time, money, and belongings to those who have less than I.
Many people live as I do, and as far as I can tell, our efforts improve our little corners of the world.

Posted by: lepidopteryx | December 9, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

I've never liked "Imagine," either. Hippie socialism.

Posted by: wmpowellfan | December 9, 2010 8:19 AM | Report abuse

This article proves the Washington Post can't imagine what editorial judgment is.

Posted by: Kas300 | December 9, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

"Imagine" the incredibly obtuse reading of one of Lennon's greatest songs! Oh, now I get it, the woman's trying to be funny!

Posted by: des67champs | December 9, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

OK, CLASS. Put down your pencils, stop shooting spitballs, and listen up!

Welcome to Satire 101. Satire is a form of writing where NOTHING can be taken literally. Satire is meant to show that an idea is wrong by taking it to the absurd extreme.

Petri's message is this: John Lennon's song, "Imagine", is a beautiful and valuable ideal to strive for, like "All men are created equal." Don't lose sight of its value by over-criticizing it.

And the same could be said for Alexandra Petri. Don't lose sight of her value by picking apart her individual sentences. She's the most intelligent and interesting writer of satire I've ever come across. And I mean that, literally!

So far, only one member of the class understands satire. Others should read his comment, and the re-read Petri's column:
Posted by: plsdonotfeedtherhino | December 8, 2010 6:20 PM

ok, seriously people, let's at least make an attempt to interpret the author's tone.

the penultimate paragraph,

"Oscar Wilde said a cynic was someone who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. John Lennon seemed to understand the value of everything. He was wise enough to know that cynicism is not the price of intelligence. I miss him, and I wish there were more people like him,"

is eloquent, and lucid, and makes it abundantly clear that our Alexandra does in fact love and respect john and that the rest of this article is a farce. And a pretty funny one, if you stop trying to be offended by it.

In context, this makes her final statement tongue-in-cheek funny, instead of foot-in-mouth preposterous, which it would be were there even the smallest chance that she was being serious. she is not. this is a humor blog. chill out. that's what john would want.

Posted by: divtune | December 9, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

You completely missed the point of the song. He didn't say that we should magically make the world the way he described it; that's impossible. You can't change reality, you can only alter what's in your own mind, so he said IMAGINE.

Imagine that people do the right thing simply because it's the right thing to do, not because they want to get into heaven or avoid hell.

Imagine the things that give us an "us against them" mentality, such as nationalism and religion, didn't exist, so that people didn't have those feelings, and didn't want to make war as a result.

Imagine that the concept of personal ownership didn't exist, so that greedy people wouldn't hoard the world's riches and there was nobody who missed out entirely on basic necessities.

If you can imagine these things; doing the right thing because it's the right thing, not having any reasons to go to war, and having no desire to be greedy, then you're one step closer to becoming that person, and the world is one person closer to becoming free of conflict.

"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one..."

Posted by: goterfunkn | December 9, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

I also felt the same way for a long time that this was one of John's worst songs he'd ever written. I think a lot of you dreamers weren't even born when he wrote the song but at the time it came out it was basically bashing the US for its involvement in Vietnam.

Posted by: RFRBoy2 | December 9, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

700 Club

William Miller calculated the end of the world. Date passed, rechecked data and arrived at new date. 700 ministers united to win converts. Forgot to check St. Matthew..."But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no not the angels in heaven..." Blind, puzzled and confused, he died at Low Hampton, NY, 1849

Posted by: jobandon | December 10, 2010 5:38 AM | Report abuse

Whitehall, New York, a small town on the eastern edge of New York's Adirondack Mountain Preserve, has long been considered a Bigfoot 'hotbed' of activity in ...#
256 Ryder Road Whitehall, NY 12887
# $798,900 needed for Bigfoot Research Center. Reported activity on 303 acre NY site. Imagine that!

Posted by: jobandon | December 10, 2010 5:57 AM | Report abuse

So because John is you FAVORITE beatle you can completely misinterpret a song that is essentially about self-realization? Coming to terms with one's inner demons? Imagine that. Stick to politics, sister.

Posted by: Mitchavery7 | December 10, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

This song is based on a poem that Yoko wrote. John put it to music. ALL u John&Yoko haters never understood John in the first place.

Posted by: Mitchavery7 | December 10, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

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