“Imagine” World Peace: Protest Song Analysis

“Imagine all the people / Living life in peace.”  It’s a simple request to listeners, but the rhetoric of John Lennon’s “Imagine” is much more complex than meets the ear. Released in 1971 on the album of the same name, “Imagine” quickly rocketed to the top of the charts in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia.  Its conscious message for unity has made the song a staple in antiviolence protests from 1971 to present.  Countless artists, from Diana Ross to Elton John, Neil Young to Lady Gaga, have performed covers of the revolutionary song at benefits and protests.  Ranked third in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, “Imagine” is a universal anthem for world peace that rings true for each generation.[1]

Lennon grew to musical fame throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s as a member of the legendary Liverpool rock band, The Beatles.  Lennon, with fellow front man Paul McCartney, lead guitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr, led a rock-and-roll revolution with their innovative instrumental techniques.  Each album represented an evolution in musical sound, and as the group’s popularity grew, they became more experimental with structure, melody and controversial lyrics.  The band rose to legend during the Vietnam War, a time when tragedy and destruction became universal, leaving much of the world in unrest.  Beatles’ songs throughout the ‘60s encouraged peace and harmony, but it wasn’t until June 1966 when the group officially opposed the war at a press conference in Tokyo.[2]  In 1968, the aftermath of the Tet Offensive spurred the group to write “Revolution,” a protest song criticizing anti war radicals.

Lennon broke off into his solo career a year later, bringing activism to the next level with his wife, Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono.  In 1969, Lennon and Ono took an unusual twist on sit-in protest, staging a “bed-in” for world peace.  The couple said they would not get out of bed until America withdrew from Vietnam, and they invited the press to document their protest. He was passionate about the cause and, as he told a reporter, “We are willing to become the world’s clowns if it helps spread the word for peace.”[3] While the media may have perceived Lennon as naïve and idealistic, his notoriety gave the anti war movement strength.  His songs “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” offered a hope for peace that could be universally accepted.  Lennon especially inspired the younger generations, in whose short existence violence and war had become commonplace.

Upon its release in 1971, “Imagine” became an instant anthem for world peace.  It dominated the radio streams and inspired other artists as well as the public to protest war and violence.  Lennon offered few mainstream solo concerts, but he did perform the song at several anti-war rallies and protests.  Lennon’s success as a rock legend amplified him as an icon for change.  He was so influential in the anti war movement that the Nixon administration initiated an investigation to deport him, a failed effort that lasted four years. [4]  Lennon’s advocacy for peace is epitomized in “Imagine,” which Lennon said asks, “Can you imagine a world without countries or religions? It’s the same message over and over, and it’s positive.”[5]

At first listen, it’s easy to deduce that Lennon intended “Imagine” as a call for peace and cooperation during a time ultimately devoid of harmony.  While it’s easy for many to uncover this message, the lyrics offer a deeper utopian significance.

Imagine there’s no Heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today

In the first verse, Lennon suggests that we live in the moment, driven by personal motives as opposed to moral or religious ones.  He asks the listener to disregard the concept of heaven and hell in an effort to appreciate life now, ignoring the idea of rewards or consequences of present decisions in the afterlife.

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

In the second verse, Lennon is suggesting that an ideal world is one without separation.  With no borders, no divisions of boundaries, all people become part of a unified group—simply, the human race.  Lennon also insinuates the destructiveness of organized religion.  It can be interpreted that each religion isolates itself by preaching its beliefs as superior to others, which virtually counteracts the concept of religion as a unifier.  Essentially, without geographical or religious boundaries, humanity would be united.

You may say that 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

The chorus of “Imagine” is probably one of the most recognizable and influential choruses in history.  In the chorus, Lennon asserts that his worldview is as universal as the song itself.  He may be a dreamer for presenting a seemingly impractical utopia, but because others share his vision, it offers hope for shaping this ideal world.  Lennon invites his listeners to join the movement, in hopes that through the power of peace we can exist in harmony.

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

In the final verse Lennon asks to imagine a world where material possessions are superfluous, where quality of life trumps quantity of goods.  But unlike a world with no afterlife or physical or religious boundaries, Lennon recognizes—as petty as it is—most people cannot imagine life without possession.  When compared with the second verse, it’s clear Lennon realizes that most wars are only ostensibly about religion or territory; in reality, war is about greed—political power, gold, oil, and so on.  Lennon wanted to eliminate the gluttony of society to promote social and economic unity.

When it comes to appreciating “Imagine” as one of the most influential protest songs in history, “I’m not the only one.”  The poetic lyrics coupled with rhythmic piano, gentle string ensemble, and subtle drumbeat makes the song brilliant aurally and intellectually.  The beautiful melody provides the perfect backdrop for romantic lyrics; this combination magnetized audiences across the globe and continues to attract listeners today.  “Imagine” preaches a universal message of global peace and unity that engages and inspires most people, but the lyrics are deceptively simple.  Lennon suggests an ideal world is one devoid of heaven or hell, boundaries or religion, possessions or greed.  The message for oneness with ourselves, our world, our fellow man is simple, but attaining it would require moral, political, social and economic sacrifices.

The message itself is simple; if only achieving it could be the same. Some people interpret the song as anti-religious and anti-patriotic but the point is not to condemn what is, rather to dream what could be.  What I love most about this song is Lennon’s passive optimism.  He wasn’t aggressive, nor did he demand listeners to change.  He asks us to visualize a different world, a united world, and hopes this visualization motivates us to progress toward it.  There is no anger, no frustration; just concern, patience and hope for humanity.  If we continue to spread Lennon’s vision of hope, peace and love, maybe someday “the world will live as one.”

[1] “The Beatles,” 2001. The Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/the-beatles/biography

[2] “John and Yoko,” 2000. Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/6595848/imagine.

[3] “John Lennon’s Legacy,” 2000. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/954617.stm

[4] Hammet, W. 2011. “John Lennon’s Political Activism,” John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café Blog. http://www.johnlennonandthemercystreetcafe.com/lennonactivism.html

[5] Sheff, D. “Playboy Interview: John Lennon and Yoko Ono”. Playboy. http://members.tripod.com/~taz4158/playboy.html.

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