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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.

Any student of pop culture history is aware of the persistent targeting and castigation of Yoko Ono as the singular culprit of the Beatle’s break-up. What is often obscured, however, is the level of racist and sexist vitriol directed against Ono and Lennon for their union. Although many young people in the United Kingdom were questioning the imperialist and racist attitudes of the past, the union greatly roused both veiled and overt racism in both the British media and public. This was perhaps exacerbated by Ono’s national origins.

As World War II was still a relatively fresh memory for many Britons, xenophobia against the former Axis Powers persisted. In marrying Japanese-born Ono, John Winston Lennon was effectively marrying his father’s enemy. Lennon described the rabid response of some to their union to Red Mole: “When Yoko and I got married, we got terrible racialist letters–you know warning me that she would slit my throat. These mainly came from Army people living in Aldershot. Officers.” (Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn, Red Mole, 1971)

The union also testifies to the couple’s ability to liberate themselves from the racism and xenophobia of their respective countries. Although he had Irish blood, Lennon would have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by racist Anglo-Saxon attitudes. While his childhood coincided with the downfall of the British Empire, he grew up with Empire Day and nostalgic imperialistic beliefs.

As a young man, Lennon expressed an appreciation for the culture of the subjugated peoples. Playing Indian classical music for the journalist Maureen Cleave in 1966, Lennon remarked, “This music is a thousand years old; it makes me laugh the British going over there and telling them what to do.” (“How Does a Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This”, Maureen Cleave, Evening Standard, 1966)

Americans were equally racist and sexist in their characterization of Ono as ‘an Oriental witch’ who cast a spell on a defenseless English lad and broke up the best band in the world. Racism towards interracial couples in the United States thrived. In fact, interracial marriage was illegal in many states until 1967. A majority of Americans, three-quarters, still opposed interracial marriage in the United States in that year.

The castigation of Ono continued throughout the ’70s. John Lennon was still pleading to journalists in 1980, “Why do you want to throw a rock at her or punish me for being in love?” (David Sheff, Playboy, 1981) Attitudes towards race, of course ,evolved throughout their lives and it is easy to understand why Lennon chose to stay in the gorgeous multi-racial mosaic that is New York City.

Lennon’s capacity and desire to move across cultures is evident in his art and politics. “Imagine” has been defanged and sanitized through kitsch, over-saturation, and appropriation by those committed to the constraints of borders. Espousing a radical humanism and internationalism in its conception of a world without borders, it is, however, more revolutionary than ever. How many people, particularly those in the wealthy nations of the North, would be willing to surrender their nationality, to effectively do away with their country? Imagine no land to defend, no national sports team to support.

Inspired by the ethos of “Imagine”, Lennon called a press conference in 1973 to announce the establishment of Nutopia, “a conceptual country” that “has no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people.” Nutopia’s national anthem- a brief line of silence–appears on the album Mind Games (1973). The event was intended to be both playful and provocative.

The following words by James Joyce suggest Lennon’s spirit: “When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language and religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916).

John Lennon helped to transform the art and image of the pop star from a figure of entertainment to a means of political expression. 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.

Lennon was at once noble and narcissistic. He had both an artist’s arrogance and empathy. But what cannot be doubted is his creative intelligence, intellectual curiosity, capacity for growth and willingness to take risks.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published 22 November 2010. Minor updates have been made.

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