Not since Sinéad O'Connor ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992 have so many believers been so outraged by such a simple act.
I refer to the furor that erupted in the early hours of Jan. 1 over Cee Lo Green's performance of John Lennon's utopian anthem "Imagine" before the ball dropped at Times Square. The three-time Grammy winner had replaced the line "And no religion too" with "And all religion's true." As they say in the 'hood, oh no he didn't.
Green tried to fend off Lennon fans' anger by tweeting, "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." Green may have been wishing away religious-based conflict the same as Lennon, though in a different way. Unfortunately for him, and ironically to say the least, he was messing with a sacred text.
The Twitterverse was not mollified. @Occupylvcampout tweeted, "@CeeLoGreen you don't change the words to one of the best songs to what you believe go to hell fat boy I wish you a heart attack #bigfail" Green replied, "wow and u sir are upholding respect talking like that?"
Kevin Lyda tweeted, "@CeeLoGreen You sang 'Imagine' in a fur coat & expensive jewelry and changed lyric to be pro-religion. #2011WrongnessSummedUp" Green replied, "its cold I work for a living and I believe u still have the right to send this simple ass tweet." He added, "all of a sudden ima asshole? What about yesterday? who the f--k are u? And I'm not rich … I'm fortunate! But I 'imagined' being rich."
Thus I began the year laughing at trash talk. Green's tweets were soon deleted, but the damage was done. A blogger named "J Street" (unrelated to the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" advocacy group) declared, "Cee Lo Green Re-Murders John Lennon." Someone less unhinged said, "You suck!" Inevitably, altered versions of Green's hit song "F--k You" will spring up. There will be calls for a boycott.
Green has stirred controversy before, as in June 2011 when he responded to a bad review by tweeting, "I respect your criticism but be fair! People enjoyed last night! I'm guessing ur gay? And my masculinity offended u? well f--k U!" Given his claim of masculinity, I presume that Green's outfit for that performance was not the sequins-and-feathers affair he wore at last year's Grammys. And it took chutzpah for him to question someone else's orientation, considering the rumors about him. This thought prompted my friend Mark Thompson of Sirius/XM Radio to say, "There's a whole category of people out here who enjoy perceived ambiguity."
Green's lyric change on New Year's Eve offended both religionists (who tend to consider only their own faith true) and non-religionists, and inadvertently provoked the quasi-religious fervor of fans for whom the late former Beatle is a martyr. It may offend pilgrims to the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park, but Lennon's wealth and privilege were just as dissonant with the line "Imagine no possessions" as Green's fur coat.
All of this prompts a few questions. Don't fans violate Lennon's dream of "a brotherhood of man" by wishing a heart attack on someone or casually accusing him of murder? Is it really egalitarian for an atheist to wish that others would conveniently drop their beliefs and agree with him? And if there were no religion, how could a song lyric be sacred? Ah, but as Christopher Hitchens observed, "fan" is derived from "fanatic."
We can't escape it: One man's utopia is another man's dystopia. It is therefore fitting that a song that was probably chosen as a feel-good gesture started the year instead with an argument.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.