The Sentimental Journey of "Imagine"

Once it was a simple song of hope and quiet revolution. Thanks to the media, "Imagine" now has a wholly misunderstood message.

To many growing up in the '60s, the Beatles' revelationary music grew into revolutionary passion as the decade progressed. Although John Lennon became an icon of peace and love, glorified in popular culture through events like the "bed in" for peace as much as his martyrdom by senseless violence, his place in the music scene was more revolutionary and incendiary than Middle American. The "more popular than Jesus Christ" comment is only one pop culture example of the way that John Lennon could attract global public attention with his message. Yet this message often made even his ardent followers a bit uncomfortable, not only by the way in which the message was delivered, but because it would require them to actively change their lives -- and the direction of global politics. Many people revere their idealized version of John Lennon, but few today seem inclined to take his political message to heart.

The same is true of Lennon's iconic song, "Imagine". In the decades since his death, "Imagine" ironically has become associated not with revolution or anti-establishment protest, but with the warm fuzziness of a comfortable dream that increasingly is beyond our grasp. Its lyrics proclaim revolutionary concepts: a world without religion, humanity without the constrictions of borders and politics' marriage with big business, no capitalist dream of greater production/profits coming from greater consumerism. Instead, Lennon's vision seems increasingly simplistic and unattainable today, although even in 1971 it promoted a radically different reality than that found in the UK or US.

Among its many "uses" in popular entertainment outside the music industry, "Imagine" has been featured during the most poignant moments of beloved television series that celebrate Middle American values -- late ‘80s/early ‘90s Quantum Leap and more recent hit Glee -- as well as the televised celebration of each new year in Times Square, an annual rite of hopeful penance and temporary banishment of cynicism.

"Imagine" a World without War

In 1990, science fiction television series Quantum Leap broadcast an episode that would become not only one of fans' favorites, but perhaps one of the most emotion-rending moments on television fiction. Even years later, fan forums and lists of favorite episodes include "The Leap Home, Part 1", in which time traveler Sam Beckett leaps into his teenaged self and tries to right wrongs within his own family. The leap takes place in 1969, during the last Thanksgiving the family would have together before Sam's brother is deployed to Vietnam (a tour of duty during which he would be killed). The prevalence of war and its horrific separation of families is a recurring theme in the series, and in this episode, Sam naturally wants to save his brother from death by battlefield. "War" is implied in another terrifying future scenario for adult Sam; his younger sister will someday face domestic violence from an abusive partner. Violence, separation, and death are often associated with war, whether on a foreign field or behind locked doors, and Sam tries to imagine a future for his family without such strife.

A primary reason why this episode strikes such a sentimental chord among fans of all ages (who watched first-run episodes or enjoy reruns or DVDs years later) is the use of "Imagine" to emotionally connect Sam with younger sister Katie. Pippa Parry, the webmistress of long-running, still-popular Quantum Leap fan site, Project Quantum Leap, explains why this song meshed beautifully with the television series' philosophy and why, through Sam, "Imagine" is the perfect theme: "Sam is the epitome of goodness and kindness, always trying to do the right thing and help people as much as he can. [He] reminds us all of what the human race could be like if we would all pull together." In this episode, "Sam wanted desperately to please everybody; he wanted to save his brother from being killed in Vietnam and his father from having a coronary, and he also needed to reassure his little sister that her favorite Beatle (Paul) wasn't dead. He nearly gave the game away by starting to say that it was John who was dead in the future, but Al stopped him just in time, so he went on to say that John wrote his favorite song, 'Imagine.' I'm sure this song evokes feelings in everyone who hears it, and for Sam it had great meaning because he so wanted everything in his family's life to be perfect."

On 28 September 1990, when "The Leap Home, Part 1" was broadcast, the tenth anniversary of Lennon's death was only a few months away. Because the "leap" took place during Thanksgiving 1969, the family-oriented holiday and theme of being thankful added special emphasis to the hopeful nature of "Imagine" as a generic wish for peace, not an anthem for radical sociopolitical change. Sam, like so many Americans of his generation, latched onto "Imagine" as a personal anthem, a motivational song by which he would live his life. Sam's purpose for leaping through time was to "make right what once went wrong," indicating his ability to imagine a greater future for others, even at the price of personal sacrifice.

Although this episode underscores Sam's need to re-imagine his family's future, it also illustrates that the reality of what we can imagine often is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Quantum Leap sentimentalizes the song, but it also highlights the fact that, to attain world peace, we need to do more than just "Imagine". As Parry notes, "Unfortunately [Sam] ended up making his sister cry and realizing that he couldn't re-imagine his life after all -- so sad. Just thinking of this episode brings tears to my eyes." In the second part of this episode, Sam finds himself leaping onto the front lines in Vietnam with yet another chance to save his brother, and in later episodes he continues to fight against oppression and violence in order to bring about a more enlightened, peace-promoting world. Sam continues his "activism", even though he realizes that changing the world is a difficult, often thankless commitment.

The sentimentalism of "Imagine" in a series that promoted peaceful activism and the desire to help others improve the future nevertheless was tempered by the lead character's difficulty in making reality fit the dream. In a small way, Lennon's revolutionary theme within "Imagine" was kept alive -- those who believe in the future described in this song need to act in order to make this vision become real. Quantum Leap fans today, however, mostly recall their emotional response to a well-acted scene that emphasized the importance of family.

The 2009 use of "Imagine" within the television hit Glee indicates how much the song has become further sentimentalized but less activist during the intervening two decades since "The Leap Home". Again, "Imagine" frames holiday sentiments surrounding Thanksgiving, whether a holiday being celebrated on screen or by the audience watching an episode. Ironically, "Hairography" was broadcast on 25 November 2009 -- 40 years after the "leap" date of Sam's Thanksgiving visit home. (Yet another bit of Quantum Leap trivia: John Lennon and Scott "Sam Beckett" Bakula share a 9th October birthdate.) On Glee, however, opposition to war/violence isn't the predominant theme supported by "Imagine" -- equality in social status or individual acceptance is emphasized.

The Haverbrook Deaf Choir begins to sing "Imagine," but the New Directions glee club (the series' stars) interrupt, an action that bothered some television critics. Liz Purdue wrote in her Zap2It review: "The deaf students perform ‘Imagine', with sign language and one student talk-singing until Mercedes and the rest of Glee Club join in. Or should I say butt in? It's lovely, and I understand the symbolism, but isn't it a little insulting for them to just take over the other students' performance?" Alden Habacon's Schema review, however, called this musical moment "groundbreaking TV" because the deaf choir succeeded in "stealing the show [with] the heart-felt rendition of John Lennon's ‘Imagine'."

Although critical reactions to this scene were mixed, "Imagine" serves as a way for the deaf students -- and eventually the multicultural New Directions singers, many who also face discrimination as a sociopolitical minority -- to envision a category-free world. Glee re-imagined "Imagine" to fit its own sentimentalized purposes, but the episode had a powerful positive effect on many fans who watched that scene. As one blogger posted on Forum DVD Talk shortly after the episode ended, "That's the second time "Imagine" got that kind of reaction from me by a TV show. The first was Quantum Leap."

By 2010, "Imagine" has become the go-to song to evoke a positive emotional response to a variety of causes or, more generally, to the need for global improvement. The annual ritual of New Year's Eve in Times Square, as broadcast by cable and national networks, further cements "Imagine" as the all-purpose sentimental wish for a peaceful, prosperous future. The loud speakers throughout Time Square play "Imagine" close to midnight, and Lennon's voice can be heard above the revelers and stage performers -- even over network announcers. Audiences have become attuned to listening above all the noise for "Imagine". It introduces the countdown before the ball drops -- and another year lands heavily upon the crowds cheering in New York and watching from around the world. Replacing Guy Lombardo's rendition of "Auld Lang Syne", John Lennon's "Imagine" has become a holiday tradition. Audiences don't have to do anything; they merely can cheer the sentiment, and their resolution somehow to help create a better tomorrow most likely goes the way of most New Year's resolutions.

Whether Thanksgiving or New Year's, television or real life, "Imagine" has become synonymous with heart-tugging emotion and, increasingly, a wistful desire for a better future. No one seems to mind that Lennon's meaning has been co-opted for an ever-widening range of causes or watered down to a general desire for something better.

The Fatal Flaw of "Imagine"-ing

Perhaps "Imagine"'s fatal flaw that makes it irresistibly attractive as a national anthem or hopeful plea for a more generalized peaceful future is its gentle tone, singable range, and quiet approach. Through a simple tune and quiet delivery, Lennon can still lull the populace into thinking that his radical ideals are not only desirable but possible. He ensnares a wide audience in his musical net with the line, "I hope someday you'll join us." That inclusiveness hints that Lennon has/had the answers for those post-‘60s flower children joining the workforce and, decades later, their children and grandchildren looking for a better tomorrow. Of course, the better tomorrow Lennon envisioned is vastly different from the wishes of increasingly stressed out, technologically left behind, cash-depleted masses who long to be some of the "haves" rather than the "have nots". Lennon's lyrics portray the bliss of having fewer or no possessions; that reality is not perceived as blissful in the current global economy. Such disconnect between Lennon's lyrics and languid melody is mirrored today by the continuing popularity of "Imagine" as an idealized, romanticized vision of the future versus its original message.

Even Lennon recognized the discrepancy between his meaning and the song's popularity. In Lennon in America: 1971-1980, Based in Part on the Lennon Diaries, author Geoffrey Guiliani quotes Lennon noting the irony of "Imagine"'s popularity. Lennon called "Imagine" an "anti-capitalistic" song, adding "Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey. . . Our work is to tell [apathetic young people] there is still hope and still a lot to do." The honeyed vocals of "Imagine" still inspire sweet sentimentality, but the song's effectiveness as a revolutionary call to action has become muted over the decades. Whereas even in a memorable 1990 Quantum Leap episode Sam's desire to change the future accompanied an emotional on-screen moment, more recent uses of the song emphasize hope and emotion over an active agenda for sociopolitical change. Lennon's political message is losing ground, even as "Imagine" becomes further entrenched in American popular culture via television episodes and events.

Through "Imagine", John Lennon's legacy may become a permanent part of popular culture, not just of music or even political history and culture; however, its use on US television, through such idealistic mainstream fiction as Quantum Leap or Glee, as well as co-optation for sentimentalized public events like New Year's Eve celebrations, ultimately may shift "Imagine" from an anthem for change to a dream that stands little chance of being realized. Consequently, it distances public perceptions of Lennon ever farther from his real role as an instigator for sociopolitical change.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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