Imagine There’s No Music Censorship: “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues”

I’m writing this because  someone on FB today (1/2/12) posted a link to an article entitled New state bill could make it illegal to sing national anthem ‘inappropriately’. (Introduced by a Republican senator from Indiana, the bill would set specific “performance standards” for singing and playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at any event sponsored by public schools and state universities.)

Singing “inappropriate words” for the National Anthem reminded me of my response to hearing rapper Cee Lo Green’s perverted rendition of John Lennon’s anthem-song ‘Imagine,’ sung to the nation on NBC’s New Years Eve from Times Square. Instead of singing “nothing to kill or die for/ and no religion too” as Lennon wrote, Green changed the lyrics to “nothing to kill or die for/ and all religion’s true.” What about these “inappropriate words” [lyrics]?

Now I know that there are those who are going to think I’m overreacting and making a federal case out of this (à la the state bill on singing the National Anthem “inappropriately”), I venture to say that Mr Cee Lo Green committed a kind of CENSORSHIP regarding Lennon’s song (which is sort of an anthem for some of us). Of course, some will always say: “Hey it’s a free country and Mr Cee Lo can sing the song in any way he wants, so what’s the big deal?”

“A free country,” where you can say–or sing–anything you want. Really? The reason I call Mr. Cee Lo’s low-blow rendition of ‘Imagine’ a form of censorship is that I definitely remember that Lennon and the Beatles suffered the censorship of their music from 1966 on. So I see Cee Lo’s rendition is in this greater context. Speaking about the American social context of music censorship (of which Frank Zappa led the fight against), we need to remember–and those too young to remember need to be informed–about the history of rock-music censorship. The history of banned and censored music is, unfortunately, as long and varied as the history of music itself. Wherever there’s great art being made, the morality police are always close by. “Free country, free speech”?

Rock’n’roll was from the get-go censored; condemned as “the devil’s music” by the Christian reactionaries, including the KKK. Thus when Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan show his gyrations had stirred up enough controversy across America that CBS censors demanded he be shot only from the waist up only. When the Doors later appeared on the same show the CBS network censors demanded that lead singer Jim Morrison change the lyrics to their hit single ‘Light My Fire’ by altering the line, “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” before the band performed the song live on September 17, 1967. However, Morrison sang the original line, and on live television with no delay, CBS was powerless to stop it. They were banned from the show forever. In 1963 Bob Dylan walked off the Sullivan Show when CBS censors balked at his song “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues.”

Though the Beatles appeared on the Sullivan Show in 1964 and never had to deal with CBS censorship, they certainly had their major share of it in 1966, when in an interview published in The London Evening Standard, John Lennon commented that “We’re more popular than Jesus now.” This was quoted by the American teen magazine, Datebook, five months later in August 1966. Taken out of context and twisted, his remark incited a worldwide frenzy of angry Christian religious backlash. The Beatles’ records were publicly burned, press conferences were cancelled and threats were made. The protest spread to other countries including Mexico, South Africa and Spain; there were anti-Beatles demonstrations and their music was banned on radio stations. The controversy erupted on the eve of the group’s US tour, their concerts were picketed (including the Christian Ku Klux Klan), and the anger and scale of the reaction led their manager, Brian Epstein, to consider canceling the tour. From the close of the 1966 tour until their break-up in 1970, they never played another commercial concert.

But this censorship wasn’t the end of the conservative Christian moral crusade–and its sympathizers in the media–against John Lennon. After the release of his song ‘Imagine’ in 1971, radio stations made it a practice to edit the song to remove or obscure the line “and no religion too.” One station even went as far as to change the line to “and one religion too.” I also recall that ‘Imagine’ was also one of the songs censored on radio stations after 2001. The biggest radio network, Clear Channel, included the song on its list of 150 “questionable” (i.e., banned) songs to its multitude of programmers in the wake of the 9-11 terror attacks. Then there was TV censorship. Fox’s American Idol censored the song in 2010; someone sang ‘Imagine,’ except for one line–“and no religion too.”

Thus, in point of fact, CEE LO’S HANDLING OF ‘IMAGINE’ IS ONLY THE LATEST EPISODE, ALBEIT ON A GRAND SCALE, OF THE NOTORIOUS SONG’S CENSORSHIP.

Don’t get me wrong, my problem isn’t that I would in turn censor those who have “religion.” Great for them! No, my problem is the censorship of those of us who want to be free not to have it and dare to say so–even in a song! Indeed, to dream of someday be free of having it crammed down our civil throats as social policy in a so-called “secular society.” If Cee Lo didn’t like the “message” of the problematic song, then he just didn’t have to sing it; he could have chosen another instead for New Years Eve –say, Phil Och’s ‘Love Me, I’m A Liberal.’ Cee Lo couldn’t understand why Lennon fans were outraged and tweeted: “Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys! I was trying to say a world were u could believe what u wanted that’s all.”  At best, this excuse is hypocritical, since in the American “world” those whose beliefs have been historically repressed–and censored–have been atheists, or all those who don’t share the Christian worldview. And what about the beliefs of the John Lennons of the world? You can’t allow them to voice critical of your “religion”? (And, if it doesn’t sound too paranoid, given that this did go down for the start of the new year of 2012, could this be symbolic/prophetic of what’s to come?)

Again, I don’t want to be misunderstood in my position here. It’s not coming from an angry, intolerant atheist type. John Lennon’s song is not, as some fans would assume, merely a political manifesto (of “communism” and etc.); i.e., propaganda in the form of verse. It’s a work of art and, therefore, transcends merely literal interpretation. In the same way as, say, MLK’s “Dream Speech” is prophetic. Utopian religio-literary visions (“You can say that I’m a dreamer …”) of an “ideal society” are open to deeper interpretation. Now, my position on today’s thorny issue of religion vs. irreligion, or theism vs. atheism, is complicated; too complicated to go into here. Suffice to say that in an ideal world there is the “no religion” of the atheist, but there’s also the paradoxical “no religion” of the type that sees the fulfillment of “religion” (the best of human aspirations codified) in its disappearance–there is just no need for it, as life is lived in its fullest. Imagine that! But that’s another (Taoist/Zen/Blake: e.g., “The dark religions have departed and sweet Science reigns”) story for some other post.

So the legal question arises with Cee Lo’s censorship. Does this mean you can record any song, but you need special permission to alter the lyrics? Essentially, yes. Alex Holz at the music licensing and royalty service provider Limelight explains: “Artists can be afforded ‘some’ leeway in adapting a track to your band’s style (so long as you don’t alter the fundamental character of the work), though lyric changes/alterations typically require direct permission from the publisher as a derivative work. Every songwriter/publisher/song is unique and requirements vary.” Given that Cee Lo’s perverted rendition of ‘Imagine’ is against the entire spirit of the song and not just the letter of it (with one verse), I would assume (if the copyright applies to a TV performance too) that what Cee Lo did on New Years Eve was not only an artistic travesty, but technically “illegal.

Thinking about this disgusting December act of New Year 2012 musical censorship, one final reflection on the matter. John Lennon was murdered on 8 December 1980 by Mark David Chapman, who had become a born-again Christian in 1970, and was supposedly incensed by Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, calling it blasphemy. But it wasn’t just this ancient history. Guess what song really provoked him? Chapman later stated that he was further enraged by the songs ‘God,’ and ‘Imagine’—even singing the latter with the altered lyric: “Imagine John Lennon dead.” It figures–this little song goes against everything Amerika has become. Did John Lennon die because of a song? “Nothing to kill or die for”–except a song! (This begs the question nobody wants to deal with: Was Chapman a manchurian candidate?)

So I dare venture this observation: First they have to assassinate the politically radical songwriter (preparing for a comeback and having the potential to arouse large numbers of people)–then make sure his message is likewise assassinated!

PS: As I finished writing this, I saw two TV shows emphasize the concept of “imagine.” The first was a highlight of the Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade, which feature “Imagination” as its theme this year. The second was the Ebert Presents at the Movies show, which featured a rundown of the best movies of the year: “I think that if there’s one thread that runs through the best movies of 2011 … is that they’re all, to a certain degree, about imagination and about how we imagine ourselves.”  Something’s going on here!

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