A quick note on Cee Lo Green changing a phrase in his NYE performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine”

No doubt you’ve seen or heard about this little New Year’s Eve performance by Cee Lo Green. It’s around the 4:00 mark of this video:

Imagine no giant Nivea pylons

If you listen closely, you’ll note that Cee Lo altered Lennon’s original lyric “no religion too” to “all religions true.” This small revision has ticked off a whole lot of people. They are all Lennon purists, or more exactly “Imagine” purists, who feel that by changing the negation of the original phrase to an all-inclusive meaning, that Cee Lo has – I’m quoting one YouTube artiste here – “desecrated a masterpiece.”

Good Lord, people. I mean, Good Unspecified Deistic Construct, people. Is this where your first unholy outrage of the new year is going to go?

I didn’t care for Cee Lo’s version, so don’t confuse this for a defense of its merits. He kinda butchered the end of it by going all Maria Callas on us. It wasn’t very good. Secondly, I don’t think Cee Lo’s edit was well-executed or enlightening. “All religions true” in essence means the same as “no religions too,” or is at least a mirror image of the concept. If all religions were true there’d be no real point in the demarcation of religious thought, ergo there would be no point in religion. It’s the same statement, except it goes through a longer channel of explanation. Lennon’s original line is the stronger artistic message.

But from the whizzing sound of the internets the last couple of days, you’d think Green had injected some sort of fundamentalist undertone to the song. Like he’d figuratively donned the Papal Tiara, or brought back The PTL Club, or endorsed Rick Santorum. He didn’t.

Green was trying to express a standpoint of inclusion. That may have been foolish, in fact probably was. Lennon clearly had no interest in any kind of organized religion (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”). But he lived alongside religion. All religions. I think he would have laughed at this whole tempest that’s going on.

You know those bumper stickers that have the word "Coexist," with the letters made from iconic symbols of all the world religions? Surely you "Imagine" fans dig that sticker, right? Well, that's what Cee Lo Green intended to say. It might've been clumsy, it might've been artless, certainly it might've been futile, but that's what he intended. I consider that a good intention. Y'all are forcing Cee Lo Green to the place where the road paved with good intentions traditionally leads, and I don't think that's fair.

As far as “desecration” of a “masterpiece” is concerned – well, clamp onto an arm cushion here if you love your heroes as icons more than you love them as people, but I’ll be honest: “Imagine” is no masterpiece.

It’s not! It’s essentially the same song as “Over The Rainbow.” Which also offered no real solutions and merely expressed hope. Which is fine. But Lennon wrote a bunch of “message” songs that I personally thought were thematically stronger, if not so ubiquitous and universal-looking as “Imagine.” “Revolution” was better. “Instant Karma” was better. “Working Class Hero” was way better. And as for flights of fantasy or dreaminess, I personally preferred “#9 Dream” and “Mind Games.”*

“Imagine” felt like a tract. I passed out way too many tracts as a kid for me to feel altogether comfortable with it. Given my predisposition for other Lennon songs, though, I concede "Imagine" is exactly the kind of song someone would mistake for a mystical scroll exhumed from the Lost Ark. It’s not. It’s a fleeting thought turned into a pop song.

Lennon knew that the answers to life weren’t as simplistic as he painted them in “Imagine.” “So flower power didn’t work,” he said not long after the song became a hit. “So what? We start again.” That doesn’t negate whatever power you take from “Imagine,” it’s just how his maturation progressed. You can take comfort in the soothing thoughts of the song, you can set course on the tailwinds of a bodacious and beautiful dream, but in the final analysis, that wasn’t good enough even for Lennon.

Idealism is easy. Faith is hard. Lennon was not an idealist.

But I think he would have been much, much more tolerant of Cee Lo Green’s ad lib, awkward as it was, than anybody else who’s appointed themselves Defenders Of Lennon’s Honor. From their rather petulant outrage, you’d think that they were planning a bonfire this weekend to burn all of Cee Lo’s records. Which, incidentally, is what people did to Beatles records after Lennon said his band was more popular (not “better”) than Christ. Imagine that.

*(Also, for a song that has the exact same plot as "Imagine" or "Over The Rainbow," but conveys a much more complex, questioning and deep message, check out "Visions" from Stevie Wonder's 1973 album Innervisions. That's one of my five favorite albums of all time, and "Visions" is its emotional core.)

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