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Try to Imagine: Revisiting Two of John Lennon's Most Perplexing Political Songs

Revisiting Two of John Lennon's Most Perplexing Political Songs

October 10, 2018 | by C.M. Crockford

I'm not really here to condemn John Lennon, or to praise him much either. He is already buried. Doing any of those things seems like words wasted on what's already been done by thousands of other writers. I think I prefer to grapple with Lennon as a songwriter and public figure, especially in the era of the 1970's where he released several explicitly political songs, often to profoundly mixed results. All of these songs — from “Power to the People” to the ones discussed here — have Lennon's sense of raucous melody, his deep gifts as a songwriter. But they're, at worst, preachy as all hell and often deeply trite. “Give Peace a Chance” reduces the problems of political conflicts to a simple slogan and a rejection of “isms” that would make a dorm room proud. (I also firmly believe that Lennon, a violent man in many ways, would have been incredibly bored in a truly pacifistic world.)

As a result I've always preferred Lennon's more personal solo efforts — they were stormy and reflective, the music of a person changing and growing, and less the sloganeering of a wealthy musician who'd ridden in limousines with Bob Dylan. But his political songwriting was important to his body of music, so here I am, analyzing two frustrating and even catastrophic songs by him and his wife Yoko Ono: “Luck of the Irish” and “Woman Is the Ni***r of the World.” The former was never actually released and the latter did not receive much airplay due to controversy over the title. If you want to take him all in all, here he is.

“Luck of the Irish” is the song of the two that is just disastrous. Piano, flute, and string overdubs are drizzled on top of a repetitive, waltzing acoustic melody that just adds to the teeth-gritting irritation of the lyrics. And oh, the lyrics. John and Yoko sing syrupy, reductive bon mots like, “If we could make chains with the morning dew / The world would be like Galway Bay / Let's walk over rainbows like leprechauns / The world would be one big blarney stone.” All the while the two decidedly non-Irish singers condescendingly describe how miserable the Irish are thanks to the English, concluding that “You should have the luck of the Irish / And you'd wish you was English instead.” And they decide to repeat this at least three times towards the end.

We can be all be grateful the song was buried in a box set instead of being released as a single as was planned, because in all honesty it may be the worst song Lennon ever wrote or co-wrote. It's a protest song where the writer in question simply doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, has no experience with the subject matter, and has nothing new to say about it.

Whereas “Woman” is much more messy and complicated. To be blunt, it was a stupid, unfair, and insensitive thing for Ono and Lennon to title and center the song around the phrase “Woman Is the Ni***r of the World.” I can try to understand why Ono came up with it: it's a concept from before intersectionality becomes a mainstream idea, it grabs your attention, it's catchy. But all of that is no excuse for a song that, in the end, involved a white man singing the n-word over and over, and that seemed pretty fucking rich considering he had no experience being a person of color or a woman. Who was this guy to sing about any of this, especially someone who abused his own wife? Why did either Lennon or Ono think this wouldn't be not just insensitive, but fundamentally misguided?

Still, this is a strange song to write about because I find the music in and of itself deeply compelling and powerful, a triumph of Wall of Sound Spector production and the kind of polished R&B Lennon was making at the time. A blast of saxophone introduces a pop backbeat, jamming over Lennon's gorgeous, passionate vocals that grow in rawness over the course of the song. It's powerful stuff — I often wonder how much of the song was written by Ono over Lennon, because the lyrics echo much of the feminist critique of societal norms that still reverberate in 2018: “We insult her everyday on TV / And wonder why she has no guts or confidence / When she's young we kill her will to be free.” It's rhetoric fit into the confines of pop, but it does work. Listening to it over and over for this piece, I wonder if the song simply should've been given to someone else. Would “Woman” work better with Aretha Franklin singing it, or with a different hook altogether?

We'll never know, because John Lennon presumably thought he'd be just fine as the singer. (To be fair, his being the artist probably did draw more attention.) Lennon as a songwriter predicted the problems of protest music in the next few decades, that of powerful, wealthy men and women singing about serious issues without (1) really knowing what they were talking about, and (2) not prescribing any concrete solutions, assuming the spotlight on the politics were enough. “We Are the World” or the obnoxious self-aggrandizement of “Man in the Mirror” are concrete examples, the Boomer preoccupation with social change mixing with the narcissism of the ‘80s into something that could be repulsive.

I don't really believe that an individual piece of art can totally change a person or shape them into better people. That's one of the worst parts of woke pop culture criticism — the idea that a work of art should confirm your biases or have the “right” political leanings, mostly liberal. What it can do, along with thousands of other texts you'll be regularly exposed to, is create your values and change how you perceive things.

John Lennon wanted to do that with his political material and to use his fame and position to challenge his listeners. That often didn't work because, at its core, a majority of his political writing wasn't demanding much and was even misinterpreted or ignored. (No one points out how radical and weird “Imagine” is.) But his failures as a political figure are still interesting, have value to them. I came to this wanting to dismiss Lennon's protest work and it just wasn't that easy because even a song as aggravating as “Woman Is the Ni***r of the World” has real power to it.

A single piece of art can't change me… but it can change how I see a person, an artist, or even a whole body of art. And that means something.

“Luck of the Irish”

“Woman Is the Ni***r of the World”

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