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Matter and Significance of John Lennon's Song 'Imagine'

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There are not a great number of songs that endure the test of time. Music comes and goes with trends, as there is always a need to follow the newest styles. This is especially the case with songs that serve a purpose other than entertainment. Songs can serve as a commentary of the world at a specific moment in time; whether highlighting morals, trends, politics, or social change, the lyrics of a song reveal as well as impact real-world events. John Lennon’s “Imagine” called for radical change during the Vietnam War and Cold War, a time of general social unrest, through a series of thought provoking scenarios, effectively communicating the message of peace during a time of war and leaving a lasting impression even until today’s time as seen by modern use of the song.

John Lennon was a singer and songwriter who along with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr made up part of The Beatles. The Beatles were an English rock band who attained international fame in the early 1960s. The band has sold over 800 million albums worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Despite the group breaking up in 1970, each of the members continued their musical careers as soloists. In the same year, Lennon released his debut solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and a year later he released his second album Imagine. With both albums receiving high amounts of praise, it was his song “Imagine” from his second album that became his signature song and best-known solo work.

“Imagine” was released in 1971. The Cold War had been ongoing since 1947 and the Vietnam War since 1955. Both events created an atmosphere of tension, with the Vietnam War resulting in millions of casualties and the Cold War causing mass hysteria as a result of the threat of nuclear annihilation. John Lennon, along with his wife Yoko Ono, attempted non-violent protests and began promoting world peace as a result of the wars and general violence occurring in the world around them. The first of these were their “Bed-Ins for Peace” where they invited the media into their hotel room during their honeymoon. Groups of reporters arrived, fully expecting some form of controversial spectacle, but the couple just sat in their bed, discussing world peace for two weeks. An experimental form of non-violent protesting, their “Bed-Ins” sparked interest in the public eye and have been used as a way to promote peace by many artists since. It is common for big celebrities to use their fame to promote products or raise awareness, and they are often paid to do so. This is not the case with John Lennon; he was genuinely passionate about anti-violence efforts and was involved in vigorous political activism. He took his passions and used his platform to inspire others to follow him. He and his wife were interviewed in 1969 by David Wigg for a BBC Radio-One program. When asked how he would want to be remembered, Lennon replied “As the great peaceniks.” He would choose to be remembered as a pacifist before a musician despite his great musical success. Despite the revenue brought upon by his musical career, it was a volunteer role that had a deep meaning for him. He and his wife continued their work as activists, followed by the release of “Imagine” that urged world peace through song.

It is clear that time and place, in this case the United States in the 1970s, greatly influenced the lyrics of “Imagine”. Paralleling what causes wars between nations, Lennon addresses issues that cause conflict among people. Specifically, Lennon chooses to sing about religion, politics, possessions, and the existence of countries. These problematic topics, according to the song, could be eliminated, so that “the world will be as one”. In a world lacking countries, there would be no opposing teams to fight. In a world without varying political or religious opinions, there can be no disagreements. In a world where no person has possessions, people cannot lose themselves in greed and jealousy. The chorus is what summarizes Lennon’s main point: a call for world peace. He sings, “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.” He addresses the fact that even though this ideal world he is describing is but a dream, he knows that there are others in the world who share this dream with him. If enough people work together, this unthinkable dream world could become a reality. While being interviewed by Dave Sholin and Laurie Kaye in 1980, shortly before his murder, Lennon explained how imagination is a strong power and the basis of modern society. He said, “Well, the other great dream of mankind, one was to fly – which might’ve taken us a long time, but it took somebody to imagine it first. The second was reach the moon, right? Which we reached.” He gives these examples to serve as proof that the peaceful world he dreams of is not completely impossible.

“Imagine” evokes a peaceful mood, primarily featuring piano and a soft drum. The song is played at an adagio tempo, representing calmness rather than the higher-energy mood presented by a faster tempo. It is in the key of C Major, which is common in western music. Lennon’s voice resembles the feel of the music, as he sings gently and calmly. In a way, the peaceful tone of Lennon’s voice works as a word-music relationship, exemplifying the peace he urges listeners to live by. This would not have the same effect had he sung with force or louder volume. The pitch rises every fifth line, which helps catch the listener’s attention and allows them to absorb the lyrics. For example, this difference can be heard in the fifth line: “Imagine all the people living for today”. The dynamics remain steady until the chorus where the volume increases slightly. This is the part of the song where Lennon states that he is not alone in dreaming about peace and calls for listeners to join this movement. Changing the dynamics at this point of the song emphasizes its overall purpose and draws in listeners with the hope that they will be inspired to help change the world.

Of all of his songs, John Lennon’s “Imagine” is the one that had the most influence worldwide. For example, President Jimmy Carter stated that in the hundreds of countries he had visited “’Imagine’ was used almost equally with national anthems.” For him to compare the song to a national anthem means that “Imagine” was not just a popular song, but one that evoked history and was respected by the people. The two places Lennon called home, New York and Liverpool, have memorialized the song. In Central Park in New York City, a mosaic of the word “Imagine” serves as a place to mourn Lennon and celebrate what he left behind. The Liverpool Airport was renamed the Liverpool John Lennon Airport, and a lyric from the song, “above us only sky,” is written on the ceiling. To celebrate the International Day of Peace in 2017, Lennon’s lyrics to “Imagine” were published for the first time as a picture book. It was published in over 15 languages for children around the world to imagine a world of kindness and peace. This shows how iconic the song was worldwide and its role it played in symbolizing peace. The song has remained a symbol of peace due to its timeless message. In a world of unsteady politics, discrimination, violence, and crime, a song calling for peace is as relevant now as it was during a time of war.

In conclusion, a song like “Imagine” will be infinitely influential. While the song was written as a peaceful opposition to the war, its message does not limit itself to a war-ridden world. The need for peace can apply to a world were hate and opposing ideas cause conflict on a scale lower than war. The desire for peace and unity will remain relevant for years to come. For this reason, John Lennon’s “Imagine” continues to be used even today, nearly 50 years after its initial release.  

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