Many songs evoke tears based on a narrative basis–the lyrics tell a sad tale of woe or heartbreak–or a visceral basis–the “modulations in pitch, intensity, tempo, and rhythm” connect to our primitive sense of different types of expressive movement (“Why Does Music Make Us Feel?”). But John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a truly great song partly because it also evokes emotion on an intellectual basis. It is sad precisely because it is about an ideal that humanity never achieves. If I ever have a day when it’s hard to bring tears to my eyes, all I need do is listen to this one.
Of course, the song is also loaded with the tragic death of John Lennon himself, and nowadays with our nostalgia for more hopeful times, times when in spite of the horrors of the Vietnam War and social upheaval, a large swath of the population believed that positive social change and greater social justice were possible, even at our fingertips.
Noting that there are scads of YouTube versions of this song, I surmised that this hope is still alive. However, as I sorted through the versions and read the comments attached to many of them, I was horrified. The tendency of internet comment functions to attract nastiness was on hugely ironic display with many fights over interpretations and proper use of the song, whether soldiers themselves are good or evil, whether John Lennon was great or not, whether Mark David Chapman was evil or not, whether or not the song is anti-Christian, etc. etc. etc., all with plenty of vitriol. One guy on one site finally said, “Hey, the point of the song is to quit fighting!!!”