Deep Inside the Song: “Imagine” by John Lennon
For the past several months, I’ve been moonlighting over at the Bluegrass Situation, contributing a column called Songwriters on Songwriting. There, I talk to great songwriters about the art of the craft, discuss geeky things like how to manipulate melody, what kind of note to assign to a word like “the” (not a high note, according to Mary Gauthier), and what makes a song a good song. Usually this last item is followed by asking the songwriter, “What’s a song that gets everything right?” More often than not, the answer to that question has included John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
It’s hard to argue. It’s one of the most digestible provocative pop songs ever written (“Blowin’ in the Wind” is another). The melody is overwhelmingly accessible. Few people can’t manage that melody — even the tone deaf, I reckon, can pull it off. It’s an almost conversational melody with a rhythm so intrinsic, it would be written alongside the words themselves, if Merriam Webster listed word rhythms in the dictionary.
For the musically uninclined, to know what I mean, say the phrase “It isn’t hard to do” out loud. Then sing it like Lennon does. There is no tonal or rhythmic manipulation. The music is in the words, and Lennon simply gets out of the way to let them sing themselves.
This isn’t always the best way to write a melody — sometimes as a songwriter, you need to blow a phrase out arhythmically so that it stands out from all the other phrases. You have to emphasize unintuitively so that the listener stops to hear and think about what you just said, think about why it bothered them. Sometimes, breaking the conversational musicality is the best thing you can do.
But not with “Imagine.” “Imagine” is a straight-shooter. The brilliance of the song is not only in its direct and simple musicality; it’s also in the simple and direct requests the songwriter is making.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger…
The distilling of greed and hunger down to a want for possessions is profound, absolutely, but also true in the truest sense of truth. Without possessions, there is nothing to want but food and water. Without wanting, there’s nothing but common interest. And so on. It’s not just the melody that ignores the urge to grandslam the song; it’s the spirit of the lyricism as well. It’s not just words; it’s the point. All the elements of the song are working together on the exceptional simplicity inherent therein — the same way Lennon is asking listeners to “live as one.” The song leads by example.
With all these disparate elements working together toward such a clear, simple aim, we’re forced to reckon with Lennon’s questions, to ask ourselves if we can imagine no possessions, no countries, no heaven. If we close off our excuse-making brains, can we imagine? Can we simplify? Can we live as one?
Probably the most life-affirming truth of the last half-century is that most of us would answer “yes.” I know this because the song still is not laughed off by the music-listening public. The song is still considered profound, its precedent is still striven toward by the greatest songwriters at work these days.
There is hope yet.