Jan. 11 2012 12:31 PM

Changing John Lennon’s lyrics wasn’t the problem

Edwin Decker

You probably heard about the hullaballoo over the New Year’s Eve performance by Cee Lo Green—or, as I like to call him, See Mo Green (’cause he’s all about gittin’ paid).

For those who haven’t, during his performance of “Imagine” at NBC’s Time Square gala, See Mo replaced “and no religion too” with “and all religion is true.” And, boy, did that outrage all the atheists and John Lennon purists, sparking a profanity-addled Twitter backlash.

Said @SKYENICOLAS: “@CeeLoGreen Look man, you’re nothing close to John’s intellect. You editing the song makes it a Pro Religion song and not a SECULAR song!”

Said @VisibleTroll: “Don’t fuck with Lennon, Fuck with ANY other writer…”

Said @vegardkvaale: “Who are you to change the words of a true artist. So fucking disrespectful and ignorant.”

Now, far be it for me—a longtime Cee Logynist—to come to his defense, but it’s not blasphemy to revise John Lennon’s music. His songs are not sacred artifacts to be preserved in bulletproof glass cases. Much as I adore his music, it’s open to reinterpretation, just as all music is open to reinterpretation; thinking otherwise is tantamount to deifying the man, which is the very thing he was trying to disavow in “Imagine.”

“Who is Cee Lo to change the words of a true artist?” asked one of the chronically offended over-reactors. Well, he’s also a true artist—albeit a shitty, soulless one—whose prerogative it is to change a lyric or melody to suit his true artistic message, however mundane. If anything, we should be criticizing the fact that he didn’t change more of the words. For instance, he didn’t change “Imagine there’s no heaven,” making the song incompatible with the “all religion is true” revision. That’s just sloppy rewriting.

How is it possible that all the over-reactionistas and followers of The John Lennon Church of Latter Day Music Snobs don’t recognize that redesigning old songs is an exciting and unpredictable part of the music scene. Indeed, some of the world’s greatest tunes are transmogrifications of already-awesome songs: “Sweet Jane” by The Cowboy Junkies is sweeter than Lou Reed’s version. Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” looked better on Warren Zevon. And the late Country Dick Montana of The Beat Farmers infamously turned a lovesick lament—“Lucille”— into a bellicose tirade. Instead of softly singing the line “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille / Four hungry children and a crop in the field,” Country Dick howled like a bloodshot demi-demon dripping with the resin of pure evil: “You booger-eating fat pig! / You picked a bitchin’ time to leave me, Lucille! / Four hungry children and a crotch that won’t heal!”

“Many have changed the lyrics to many songs over time,” wrote David Badash on TheNewCivil- RightsMovement.com, “but Cee Lo did it at the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong song, totally changing the very essence of ‘Imagine.’”

Um, yeah, but no, David. Changing the “essence” is often the point of a cover song. It’s called “poetic license,” and it’s been used by artists around the world since the beginning of art. Such as when Perfect Circle transformed the “essence” of “Imagine” from being a song of hope to a song of bereavement, which, when you think about it, is what it should have been in the first place. I mean, honestly, the things that Lennon imagined in “Imagine” ain’t ever gonna happen. The song was always a dirge— Lennon just didn’t know it yet.

But I digress. The point is, it’s ridiculous. And not just because of the non-blasphemy of changing a John Lennon Almighty song to suit Green’s seemingly opposite worldview, but because it’s actually not that opposite of a worldview after all. When Cee Baby said “all religion is true,” he meant that everybody has the right to believe what they want and whatever that belief is, it’s their own personal truth. Of course, I don’t buy into such fatuity. Facts are facts, and they don’t change from person to person. But I get the sentiment: From the perspective of the believers, their religions are true, to them—even the religions of atheism and agnosticism—so, let them have their truths and you have yours; whisper words of wisdom, let it be, says Cee, let it be. Certainly, the Tweet he posted (and quickly replaced) supports this theory:

“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.”

By the way, all the overreactions to Cee Saw’s version overshadowed the two things that really did bug me about the jam. The first one was: Wow—what a mediocre performer he is! His vocals are pitchy. He doesn’t move but an inch in either direction. And the only facial expressions he can muster are the They-better-save-me-some-of-those-mozarella-sticks-in-the-green-room grimace and the Man-I-can’t-wait-till-this-song-is-over-so-I-can-git-my-money smug.

But even more egregious than that: How on Earth was he able to walk out on an internationally televised stage and sing, with a straight face, “Imagine no possessions” while wearing thousands of dollars’ worth of precious gems, gold and fur? That’s what everyone should be howling about; that’s the real offense of the song; that’s the part Cee Mo Bling should have rewritten to frame his true artistic message.

“Imagine no possessions / It isn’t hard, you see / Take your jewels, your yachts and your mansions / And give them all to me.”

Maybe, instead of “See Mo,” I should call him “See No,” because he can’t see the hypocrisy through the dim of his dark, designer sunglasses.

Write to ed@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Edwin Decker blogs at www.edwindecker.com. Follow him on Twitter @edwindecker or find him on Facebook.