Thursday, 15 November 2012


I've been to Liverpool last weekend. The city is nice and modern, but of course the main attraction was the history of the Beatles. It was interesting to have an insight into their lives and how everything conspired for them to became the phenomenon they were. It also helped to understand much better what is behind some of their lyrics.

This was just an introduction to what I really want to write about, specially after I've read a comment in the Internet by someone who said that Imagine is "the most overrated song of all time". We have to take into consideration that many comments in the Internet are written by people who are not ashamed of making their ignorance public. So I decided to write a post to explain why Imagine is a brilliant song and how brilliant it is. I'm going to warn you from the start that I'm analysing the LYRICS not the AUTHOR. I'll talk more about that as we proceed. Let me reproduce the whole lyrics here, so you can have a reference to what I'm going to talk about:

by John Lennon

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

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

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

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

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 live as one

Let's get to the analysis.


Start by the title. "Imagine" is the artist's equivalent to the scientist's "Think", but much more poetical and appealing to a larger audience. It looks like it requires a lesser effort, and that is true if you don;t take it too seriously. We can all imagine things and disconnect them from our day-to-day reality. That's not difficult. When we connect them, that's the tricky step...

Back tot he title. Note that it is not an order or a command. It's a suggestion. The tone of the music is not one of "I know the truth and I'm telling you, so believe it now!", it's more like, "Look, these are some conclusions I reached. Think about it for some time. Just think." We all know that people should reach the conclusions by themselves, right? Remember Russell's Question Everything? Never trust another person's conclusions. Try to reach them by yourself. Even about this music.

Just for completeness, some people say that the melody of the song is not great. I don't have enough expertise to analyse the technical content of this criticism, so I will not. Anyway, I'm not interested in the melody here, only the words. The lyrics itself has a very simple structure. Three blocks of 5 verses and the chorus. The overall organisation of the 3 blocks is, however, far from arbitrary.

Without diving too much into the blocks right now, let us analyse their general structure. The 1st, 3rd and 4th verses consist of propositions, the things the song asks us to imagine. The 5th verse is a proposed consequence of these 3 previous things. The 2nd verse holds the key for the organisation of the blocks. In each one of them, that verse sets the difficult of imagining those things could really happen. This difficulty increases from block to block:

It's easy if you try < It isn't hard to do < I wonder if you can  

Each block then requires an increasing intellectual effort from the reader to visualise, or even accept, the 3 propositions (never mention practice them!). There is also an increasing danger for the dominant classes here. Things in the 1st block are almost harmless, in the 2nd they already defy power structures that have been used since the dawn of man to manipulate the masses and, in the 3rd, it challenges the structure of the whole society and even deep human feelings and instincts! This cause also an increasing level of fear in the general public.

On the bright side, the possible benefits for the humanity increase with the blocks:

Living for today < Living life in peace < Sharing all the world

The graph below is a summary of this structure (I know, I'm not a designer, I'll improve the infographic with time...):


Right. Let us analyse each block in more detail now. The aim is to understand the meaning of each one.

First Block: It's easy if you try

The sequence of reasoning is:

There's no heaven / No hell below us / Above us only sky => Living for today

In each one of these blocks you can have a shallow and a deeper interpretation. Here, the shallow is that Lennon was a drug addict and irresponsible guy who did not want to take responsibility for his actions. He wanted just to enjoy the present without thinking about the consequences in the future. Note that the shallow interpretation is an ad ominen attack, one of the most common logical fallacies. Of course, I could have rephrased it without attacking Lennon himself, but I wanted to highlight this way of looking at it as it's the most common way of criticise it. You can say that this was actually the message he wanted to pass on, no matter what he was or did.

There is, however, a deeper interpretation of this block. Many people spend their lives worried about rewards and punishments, heaven and hell. Some religious people take it literally and behave in a somehow "good" way only for the hope of going to heaven or the fear of being sent to hell (literally, not metaphorically). Many of them are so obsessed with that that they forget the amount of wonderful things they can do  and see during their lives. Without these concepts, people would concentrate on doing good simply for good, avoiding doing wrong for personal moral and enjoying the things that life, and not afterlife (or after retirement), can provide. They would live for today.

An increasing number of people, even religious ones, don't really believe in physical heaven and hell nowadays. The idea of enjoying life (yes, responsibly) instead of holding hypocritical moral concepts is also widespread now. As the song says, once you try it, it's actually easy to understand the concept.

Second Block: It isn't hard to do

A more challenging reasoning comes in now:

There's no countries / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too => Living life in peace

The shallow interpretation here is the sight of an atheist and anarchist. A person without beliefs and moral strength to fight for his/her ideals. A lazy and passive human being. In fact, everybody knows that you should die for your country and that religion preaches peace, right?

Ahem. Here the lyrics identifies the key factor of wars. Of course, there are triggers like shortage of resources, but what is that thing that makes people kill each other instead of reaching an agreement? That's ideology, of course, and here the song provides two of the strongest examples: religion and patriotism. Both of them can make a normal person kill someone who never did any harm simply because it belongs to a different group and, at the same time, defend a murder or any other criminal simply because they are in the same group. Illogical, amoral, but true.

Both patriotism and religion ask for your own sacrifice. Nothing wrong if you are defending people you like against evil ones, but deeply wrong when you are just defending the rulers' interests. The same about killing a human being that you don't even know! If you don't have these reasons to kill or die for, peace becomes easier. It's not hard to understand that.

An apart is necessary here. Note that I didn't use the word nationalism, I used patriotism. You might be deeply annoyed by this, but the truth is that patriotism is used as a way to control the masses as much as religion. It is actually much more dangerous, because it looks not only reasonable but obvious. It's much easier to find an atheist than someone who's willing to admit that patriotism might not be that rational after all. This is a lengthy and complicate discussion. One that is dangerous as well as it threatens the power of rulers. I will leave it for another day, but notice how the song touches more delicate points now.

Third Block: I wonder if you can

Then, the real difficult one:

No possessions / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man => Sharing all the world

Communist threat detected! This is even old fashioned now, but still in the mind of many people. There's not much to talk about this shallow interpretation, so I will proceed to the deeper one.

The level of intellectual effort here is so high that I must admit that I myself don't believe this would ever happen. I can't imagine myself sharing everything. I like my belongings and I worked hard for them. Some attempt to that was indeed tried with the Communism, but seems to have failed. Chinese communism is a bit different.

Anyway, if you can visualise that, you might admit that a world without possessions would hardly have problems of greed, envy and hunger. Either everyone is fed or no one is. Probably people would grow ever detached from material things and desire them much less. Who knows? But surely it would be a paradise if everyone would share everything. You could have access to anything anyone would.

I know... it's difficult. I can't see that happening. I don't even want this to happen while I'm alive as I know I would not adapt. But surely would be great.


The chorus address the most common criticism to the whole lyrics: a dream that will never come true. The lyrics answer is "yes, that's a dream, but if enough people dream that dream, it might become reality."

Notice that there is no call to arms. There is no imposition to believe or to act for the cause. It presents a hope that the reader will realise that what the song says is true. That's one of the main attitudes of any critical thinker. You never force someone to believe in you just because, you want people to realise things by themselves because, in this way, the conclusions are in a more solid ground.

The chorus also doesn't say that you are a stupid if you don't believe in the music. It doesn't offend you or make fun of your way of thinking. Those would also be fallacies and the whole lyrics try to avoid falling into these pitfalls. The chorus is, itself, an ode to tolerance and hope.


You may argue that I'm over-interpreting the lyrics and that even Lennon did not believe in most of my "deeper interpretations". It doesn't matter. Lennon might not have lived in the way the music preaches, I certainly don't (and don't intend to), but the correctness of the whole reasoning stands in spite of this. Be careful with the logical fallacies!

So, I hope you can now appreciate how brilliant Imagine is. According to Lennon, it was inspired by a poem whose author is... Yoko, of course. That seems reasonable, as Yoko apparently changed a lot the way Lennon used to think.

The important thing is to understand that it doesn't matter if Lennon was neither atheist nor shared his  huge amount of possessions with all the world. Few of us would. That doesn't prevent us of understanding that Lennon contemplated something important and immortalised it in a way that all the world could see it. If he actually understood what he saw, that's not a question I'm interested in. The reasoning is there. If it came to be by intellectual effort or by shear luck, who cares?

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