Who would have thought that, 30 years later, John Lennons "Imagine" could be rescued from the dustbin of commercial sentimentality? Sure, it was wheeled out every Dec. 8 to commemorate the anniversary of Lennons death, but everyone knew the song was as dead as its singer. Now, in the post-Sept. 11 world, the song has again become a vital statement of hope and even a resource for resistance.
How did this happen? "Imagine" was not Lennons greatest solo hit; "Instant Karma" easily surpassed it on the charts. Even in 1971, the line "imagine no religion" was a hard sell in the pop marketplace. And on pop radio, that line about "no possessions" made for a bumpy segue into the car commercials. But back in 71, the song overcame those obstacles mostly on the basis of its ear-candy melody. It also came into an environment in which political protest was a fairly popular phenomenon. But there was more at work in the song even then. It was, and is, a stunningly direct and simple appeal to the human need for transcendence. In the midst of horrible war and domestic strife, the song asked the audience to listen to a tiny voice that suggested humans were made for peace and community.
When he was alive, Lennon said that "Imagine" was really "Power to the People" with a sugar coating. But that was only half right. The song was also the sequel to "All You Need is Love." In other early 70s songs, Lennon set to music the Freudian and Marxist interpretations of religion as a projection and an opiate. In "Imagine" it is placed alongside the nation-state as a tool of division and war-making. But in both "All You Need is Love" and "Imagine," you can also hear the sound of an unrelentingly honest man looking for a credible way to capitalize Truth.
SO, YES, IN A roundabout way I am suggesting that "Imagine" could be considered a kind of post-Christian gospel music. It quietly affirms the possibility of a new and different world from the very darkest pit of this old one. That may be why "Imagine" has achieved its greatest resonance at the most terrible times. When the song came out in 1971, the movement it spoke for was in disarray. Nixon was headed toward a landslide re-election, and it seemed that the Vietnam War would never end. Of course, the song reemerged on the night of Dec. 8, 1980, when Lennon was assassinated. In the early 80s it was recited as a liturgy of grief. It became a gentile Kaddish for a lost hero and a lost country.
But with the passage of time, the song disappeared into the haze of oldies radio and Clintonesque boomer hypocrisy. The endearing melody became instrumental elevator music. The utopian message was co-opted by the gods of the computer industry, whose propaganda proclaimed that digital globalization would create a world without borders, or hunger, or stock market downturns. Finally, by the turn of that ugly, old century, it seemed there was nothing left to "Imagine."
Then came Sept. 11. Within hours, the song turned up on the famous Clear Channel radio chain list of dangerous or discomfiting music to be avoided in the new war era. Then came the America: A Tribute to the Heroes telethon on Sept. 21, and there was grizzled old Neil Young, God bless him, sitting at a grand piano, delivering an absolutely beautiful, and absolutely defiant, rendition of the dangerous ballad itself. On that night the verse "Imagine theres no countries nothing to kill or die for, no religion, too " became a pointed rebuke both to al Qaeda and George W. Bush. The line about "no need for greed or hunger " suggested itself as a constructive program of enlightened self-defense. The somber chords of the verses became a dirge for New York, Lennons adopted home, and the soaring bridge ("you may say Im a dreamer ") gave a distant glimpse of blue sky. It was by far the deepest moment of the evening.
Now were in a war, and one with a just cause, for a change. But even a "just" war is bound to become a deathly, divisive, and deceitful thing. In these days, we will all, in our own ways, need to hear quiet voices that remind us what we are really here for. "Imagine all the people sharing all the world ."
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.