January 4, 2012
I was fortunate enough to spend New Year’s Eve with my family and my beautiful fiancée. I had a slight breakdown, but I’m better now. The massive doses of caffeine I’d been depriving myself are working better than before. We watched the ball drop on Mexican television, which is an odd thing to say because the ball is in Times Square and we watched the feed from Mexico City.
I was also fortunate enough to not have watched Cee Lo’s performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” one of the classics of pop culture from one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists. If I had, I’m sure I would have foamed at the mouth and rushed the television.
See if you can spot the point at which my brain would have decided to induce in me a 28 Days Later-style rage.
Did you miss it? The iconic lyrics “Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion true” were changed to “Nothing to kill or die for/ And all religion’s true.”
Changing a lyric, adapting a work of any kind, to suit the new artists or a new audience is nothing new. Tim Burton managed to turn “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” into a full-on horror movie and made it work. Jimi Hendrix turned “All Along the Watchtower” into one of the definitive rock songs of all time. These covers and adaptations took the original and made it something greater.
Cee Lo dug up John Lennon and humped the corpse to keep warm.
And before anyone starts claiming that I’m just some Lennon ubber-fan who can’t stand someone messing with his idol, I’m not. I’m always weary, though. I watch those who would take Star Trek and cast someone besides Shatner and Nemoy as Kirk and Spock and await in the wings for the new film with napalm at the ready. I listened the Susan Boyle’s cover of “Enjoy the Silence” and thought she did service to Depeche Mode. These adaptations kept the message of the original and put it through the filter of a new artist.
I do the same here. These are my words. Take them. Do with them what you will.
But do NOT make it sound like I endorse a Republican, think censorship is good, or believe teachers are overpaid. I will find you. I will hunt you for sport. I’ll nail your dog’s head to the coffee table and have a tea party.
By changing one line, Cee Lo said something Lennon would never have said. Lennon was an atheist, pure and simple. The song is a dream of a communist utopia complete with atheism and lack of religious magical thinking. This isn’t a dream of a world where the religions of the world come together and we find out all faiths are expressions of the one true god. “Imagine” is a world where we find out the ultimate hoax of religion, a world where heaven and hell are gone and humanity is left alone to realize the beauty of life and communion with our fellow brothers and sisters.
What Cee Lo did was intellectual hijacking. It would be like making Lord of the Rings about the benefits of industrialization. It would be like making every slasher film about the benefits of premarital sex and rampant drug use. It would be like inserting actual characterization and plot into a Michael Bay movie.
If you don’t like the message in the song, write your own song. You can interpret lyrics differently, sometimes coming out with wildly different themes that are a reflection of the listener’s thought process, but to change the lyrics to suit your needs is an insult.
And I don’t care if it’s John Lennon or a first-year writing student. When you do a cover, you agree to care for the source material. Sometimes you make it your own, like Hendrix did. Other times, you create something so horrible and so numbing that your only real reaction is to gag on your own bile as you charge the so-called artist with the full intent of choking them with the original lyrics printed on steel wool.
Oh, and one more thing. Did he have to sing a song about no possessions while wearing a fur coat and enough jewelry to stock Tiffany’s!?