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john-lennon

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John Lennon: Revolutionary Man As Political Artist

John Lennon helped transform the art and image of the pop star. His very public political activism and socially and politically aware lyrics have earned him a prominent place in the creative and political history of rock.

On The Dick Cavett Show, Lennon quoted the reflection by Socialist revolutionary and feminist James Connolly that “the female is the slave of the slave”. The Irish leader’s remark is included in the track itself. Class is a crucial consideration in the song. As Lennon noted on the Dick Cavett show, the subjugated status of poor men does not prevent them from abusing their gender-based power: “it’s the woman who takes it when they get home.”

“Woman is the Nigger of the World” aims to unsettle, persuade, and enlighten. Lennon addresses men in the song and asks them to recognize the patriarchal oppression of women: “Think about it, do something about it.” Women can’t win: “We tell her, home is the only place she should be / Then we complain that she’s too unworldly to be our friend.” They are sexually objectified and exploited: men make them “paint their face and dance”. Intended as a simple, powerful statement about man’s inhumanity to woman, the song arguably epitomizes Lennon’s growing feminist consciousness. Lennon recognized the misogyny of men on both the left and right. He insisted, “We can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women.” (Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn, Red Mole, 1972)

Lennon was honest about his chauvinist past. On meeting Ono, he confessed: “I was a working-class macho guy who was being served and Yoko didn’t buy that. From the day I met her, she demanded equal time, equal space, equal rights. I said, ‘Don’t expect me to change in anyway. Don’t impinge on my space.” She answered, ‘Then I can’t be here. Because there is not space where you are. Everything revolves around you and I can’t breathe in that atmosphere. I am thankful to her for that education.” (Barbara Graustark, Newsweek, 1980) A radical gesture at the time, he added his wife’s family name to his own.

By 1975, politics had become a dangerous game for Lennon. When asked about President Richard Nixon’s departure, he confessed, “I’m even nervous about commenting on politics. They’ve got me jumpy these days.” (“A Long Night’s Journey into Day: A Conversation with John Lennon”, Pete Hamill, Rolling Stone, 1975) It was in that very interview that Lennon expressed the opinion that his political engagements had a detrimental effect on his art: “It almost ruined it, in a way. It became journalism, not poetry.”

In 1980, he made this striking comment about his past political activism: “That radicalism was phony, really, because it was out of guilt. I’ve always felt guilty that I had money, so I had to give it away or lose it. I don’t believe I was a hypocrite. When I believe, I believe right to the roots. But being a chameleon. I became whoever I was with.” (Barbara Graustark, Newsweek, 1980)

The “revolutionary artist” as Lennon had characterized himself in the early ’70s (The Dick Cavett Show, 1972) now distanced himself from his radical past, manifestly wary and disillusioned. It is easy to give an ungenerous interpretation of Lennon’s motives ,but perhaps his struggles over his immigration status had silenced him. It would be also be incorrect to say that his life and art were now without political significance. ‘The personal is political’ was the cry of feminists in the ’60 and ’70s and it is a credo Lennon lived by in the late ’70s.

His retreat to The Dakota building in NYC represented a rejection of the homo-social and a radical embrace of the private feminine space. Lennon became a house-husband and primary caregiver of his young son, Sean. He now amusingly confided to journalists that he fed the baby, baked bread, and cleaned up cat shit while his wife ran the family business. Lennon’s last album Double Fantasy (1980) is a Valentine to those years. The beguiling lullaby “Beautiful Boy” and courtly confession of male vulnerability “Woman” express alternative ways of being a man.

Perhaps the most enduring political, social and cultural legacy of John Lennon is his contribution to changing dominant culture attitudes towards race, nationality, and migration. In an interview with Rolling Stone before his death, Lennon gave the moving anecdote, “One kid living up in Yorkshire wrote this heartfelt letter about being both Oriental and English and identifying with John and Yoko. The odd kid in the class. There are lots of those kids who identify with us. They don’t need the history of rock ‘n’ roll. They identify with us as a couple, a biracial couple, who stand for love, peace, feminism and the positive things in the world.” (Jonathan Cott, Rolling Stone, 1980)

Indeed, iInterracial marriage remained a rarity in the ’60s as interracial lovers were still subject to a virulent racism. This made the marriage between John Lennon and Yoko Ono extraordinary. Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, and Sammy Davis Junior were among the few figures in pop culture that also were in interracial unions.

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Image by Richard Eisenmenger from Pixabay

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