I have gotten worked up, or at least annoyed, by a change to the song before. Back in October 2001, that strange and difficult autumn ten years ago, Kevin Spacey hosted a TV concert to pay tribute to Lennon. The first singer sang a gospel version of "Imagine." I was unsure that that was the best way to reinterpret the song, the original of which is such a model of song-craft simplicity without being simplistic, but then -- I think accidentally -- the singer changed the line
Nothing to kill or die for
Nothing to live or die for
LIKE TINFOIL ON TEETH. I think I cringed. One of the song's points is We can live better. Here's what I think would help us do that. It's about finding things to live for, possibly new things: changing our lives. "Nothing to live or die for," even sung in rousing gospel style, implies What's the point? And even if that was an accident, as I think it was, I found that that cut off the song at the knees, metaphorically speaking. That, for me, is the gold standard for screwing up "Imagine." The rest of the show? A mixed bag, but that opening made me more skeptical that the show would be completely good. (I still appreciated Spacey's singing chops, though.)
This time, Green changed the song's next line from "And no religion, too" to "And all religion's true." Though he's since deleted it, according to Rolling Stone he posted a message on his Twitter feed (which I've edited for spelling), "Yo, I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric, guys! I was trying to say a world where you could believe what you wanted, that's all." Here's part of why I support him saying that. I like the concept in Babylon 5 of Foundationism, which was Dr. Franklin's religion: what ideas are at the core of religious beliefs across nations and (since it's science fiction) species? Or in other words, What can religions agree on? So I like the idea that there are many, many ways to reach the truth, and that maybe religions lead people to at least a part of that truth. Even with me being more agnostic than religious, I'd prefer religion be used as a way to reach truth than for religion to be misused, for religion to be hurtful. I want religion to be a functional way to help people see, and live in, the world better.
Am I giving Cee Lo Green too much benefit of the doubt? Maybe, but I think he deserves it. I've been fond of Green since I first heard the Gnarls Barkley single "Crazy" in 2006. Him having a genuine viral hit with his insanely catchy "F*** You" (fair warning: contains profanity and other words you might not want to hear) shows chutzpah, and possibly (as Mojo Nixon said about Don Henley) "balls the size of church bells." I try to support chutzpah; it's a way to be bold, though it carries the risk of going too far and annoying people, as Green has. (Even me, careful me, has gone too far and annoyed people plenty of times before.) But I'd rather allow that risk.
Lennon had the chutzpah to publicly have issue with religion, because of the way religion can be misused and abused. To Lennon, religion wasn't sacred. My hunch: as proud as he was of it, Lennon didn't think "Imagine" was sacred, either, because there's a difference between This is what I think and You must agree with what I think. Lennon disliked dogma (though I like to think he would've been at least amused at Dogma), and he and Yoko Ono have weathered genuine attacks on "Imagine." How dare he! people have said. It's an outrage to say religion can be used badly! Which is a dogmatic attack -- We can't be wrong, so you can't be right -- and an insecure reaction. Lennon knew he'd cause a shitstorm with the song; he'd done that before, in the hopes of making people think (cf. "War is Over! If you want it"). He risked getting attacked, and he often was. He knew it wasn't easy, but he could handle all attacks short of actually getting shot.
What Cee Lo Green did was not an attack. He sang the song out of love, for Lennon, for his ideas, for the Beatles. Maybe Green over-thought about that particular line -- it makes me wonder what his experience of religion has been (again, just a hunch, but I think Green's has been happier than what Lennon's was) -- but he was thinking about it and wanting to be positive about it. I still think that 10-years-ago singer on Spacey's show didn't think about what she'd sung. I prefer over-thought to under-thought. Of course, I'm good at over-thinking. But more so, I prefer chutzpah to being timid. (I also would've preferred that Green kept up his Tweets about what happened, because that feels like a momentary failure of chutzpah.)
Feel free to tell me I'm wrong. I can handle it. I can risk that.
Later: I don't necessarily agree with this, but maybe there are other reasons not to be outraged here...