Over the weekend, Cee Lo Green ruined John Lennon’s seminal song — Imagine — by changing the lyric in performance. At first, Cee Lo was apologetic about censoring the song, but he then later recanted his apology as ego and excess overwhelmed his overweening talent:
“Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys!” he wrote. “I was trying to say a world were u could believe what u wanted that’s all.” But the Gnarls Barkley singer seemed to change his mind, deleting the apology and all related posts. “Happy new year everyone!!!” he tweeted instead. “Now playing: we just disagree [by] dave mason.”
Here are the details of Cee Lo Green’s censorship of the song:
Green’s appearance on NBC’s New Year’s Eve concert had a promising start. Dressed in a black robe and shades, he stood onstage at New York’s Times Square, summoning a soundtrack of piano and beats. “Imagine there’s no heaven,” he sang, “it’s easy if you try.” But things got trickier around the one-minute mark. “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do /Nothing to kill or die for,” Green crooned, “and all religion is true.”
“All religion is true.” It’s a clunky line – and one Green made up. Lennon’s original lyrics don’t praise pluralism or interchangeable religious truths – they damn them. Back in 1971, Lennon asked us to imagine a world without borders, possessions, hunger or greed – “and no religion too”.
Yes, what Cee Lo did was censor John Lennon’s song. Imagine has a depth and a meaning that existed in a tight context before Cee Lo decided, on his own, to wholly change the meaning of the song.
It’s unfortunate that Cee Lo doesn’t see, or appreciate, his error in judgment in performance. He decided that his censorship of the song was more important than Lennon’s original intent. It doesn’t matter that the song was Imagine. It doesn’t matter the song author was John Lennon. What matters is that Cee Lo Green took an existing song, with a published and Copyrighted lyric protected by law, and decided to change the meaning of the song to fit his religious view of the world and not the viewpoint the author of the song intended. This is not a question of interpretation in performance — it is rather a serious matter of changing the underlying meaning of the original text.
I remember a few years ago when Christian Fundamentalist zealot Kathie Lee Gifford was performing in a Stephen Sondheim musical and, because of her religion, she didn’t want to sing the “f-word” in the lyric of one of the songs. She directly asked Sondheim for permission to change the word that offended her and he — incredibly — graciously agreed to let her change the word to something she felt the Baby Jesus would approve of her singing in public.
Yes, changing a single word in a lyric — or a script or a poem or other sacred text; and all published text is sacred — is a massively big thing and the real pros don’t touch-to-change the original intention of the author because they respect the work. If the performer is offended by the text, then the performer doesn’t get involved in the project performance in the first place.
Kathie Lee Gifford actually did the right thing in the narrow roots of a semantic niche. She asked permission for a lyric change and it was granted by the author — even though Sondheim should’ve told her to stuff the f-word where the Baby Jesus don’t shine and sing the lyric as written or get off the stage. We probably should ask why Kathie Lee felt that changing one word would make any difference whatsoever in the overall scheme of her faith, but we’ll leave that matter to a future article concerning, among other infantile infatuations, the notion of which is actually dumber: A box of hair or a bag of hammers?
Cee Lo Green didn’t ask the Imagine rights holder for permission to change the lyric because — unlike Sondheim-to-Gifford — he knew the answer would be “No.” Cee Lo is a cunning music businessman — but not a moral performer — and so he felt it was better to act now and ask for forgiveness later. Now, Cee Lo Green is learning the hard way that the power of the original text is a sword-like force that doesn’t cut just once when offended, it slices deeply into the offender’s core and it strikes a multiplicity of times, in unison, with an offended, and righteously madding, crowd.