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The scratched lens of history: A closer look at the words of John Lennon August 24, 2007

Posted by Lindsay in Criticism, Feminism, History, Hyperreality, Media, Music, Race, Writing.

It’s always interesting to find what is and isn’t in the common consciousness of United States society when we talk of our beloved national figures (even if they are from the United Kingdom). I still remember watching “Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music,” that concert held in October 2001 at Radio City Music Hall. In all likelihood, it was planned several months before, and in light of the September 11 attacks, the producers apparently decided to jam a new theme into all the speeches that prefaced the performances–Lennon’s love of New York. The assertion of a connection between John Lennon and New York City apparently hinges on a classic black-and-white photo that tends to adorn the walls of the most pretentious college students’ dorms, projected on the walls behind Yoko Ono’s beaming, self-assured face. At that show, which supposedly celebrated the message of John Lennon’s music, and his connection to New York City, songs from his poorly received album, Some Time In New York City, were conveniently left off the set list. Of course, at first glance, the song entitled “New York City” might be an obvious choice for a concert about New York City, but upon inspection, the lyrics don’t quite capture the sentimental, romanticized vision of New York City that post-9/11 New Yorkers thought they so desparately needed…

Well we did the Staten Island Ferry
Making movies for the telly
Played the Fillmore and Apollo for freedom
Tried to shake our image
Just a cycling through the Village
But found that we had left it back in London
Well nobody came to bug us
Hustle us or shove us
So we decided to make it our home
If the Man wants to shove us out
We gonna jump and shout
The Statue of Liberty said, “Come!”

What’s this? Is John Lennon suggesting that the practices of the powers that be don’t live up to the promise of the United States’s ideals? But how could this be? We New Yorkers and apparently, no other city in the United States, were victimized by a bunch of cowardly towel-heads who tried to suggest that capitalism, not freedom, is the prominent theme of American life, and here comes some dead British guy who’s songs we used to make out to in our parents’ bedrooms who refuses to support our misguided attempt at injecting grandiosity into his lyrics!

As if that weren’t retroactively subversive enough, not one, but two songs on Some Time In New York City, “Attica State” and “Born In A Prison,” humanize criminals, pushed away from society, and to some, out of the realm of humanity. In the former, a line in the refrain, “We’re all mates with Attica State” reintegrates prisoners into humanity, and in “Born In A Prison,” the panopticon rears its ugly head as Lennon sings, “We’re born in a prison / Raised in a prison / Sent to a prison called school // We cry in a prison / We love in a prison / We dream in a prison like fools,” implying that there is another reason that marginalization of criminals is wrong–it is not merely that they are human beings and deserve to be treated as such, but also, to marginalize them is hypocritical, because our entire lives are of a carceral nature. Of course, these songs could never appear at such a concert meant to celebrate New York City in the wake of such a devastating attack without calling to mind the monolithic human rights violation called Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Inevitably, the entire enterprise of attempting to use John Lennon as a symbol of classic American values was empty and contradictory. But there was another song on Some Time In New York City that was certainly never a candidate for a cover by any of the artists in attendance, not just because of what its message was, but how impotently it was delivered…

Clearly, Lennon knew that the ideas in “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” would be difficult to express in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The lines are often so long and incapable of being smoothly delivered that even Benjamin Gibbard and Conor Oberst would cringe. However, brevity would have obscured the political implications of the song in favor of aesthetics. It is almost impossible to misread the intention of the song: it is not sung in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek voice (as such satiric voices are so often unappreciated, especially when it comes to race), making it painfully didactic. But by starting so many lines as “We make her,” “We tell her,” and “We insult her” allows Lennon to place the agency/blame on white men. Plus, every act of victimization and contradiction referred to is definitely to be reviled whether it referred to women as a whole or just the brown peoples of the world. This is a point for Lennon. However, Lennon is taking for granted that the audience already knows that the non-white peoples of the world have been victimized throughout history, which is dangerous and, I would even argue, somewhat esoteric for his time period. By that I simply mean that there is a danger that the last line of the first verse “Think about it…do something about it” simply means “Uplift women so that they are no longer in the realm in which we treat Negroes.” The fact that blacks are victimized is still, unfortunately, unseen by many people today. Lennon wants to treat it as a given, but for many ill-informed people, it is not, which is why, ultimately, the song is so problematic. In addition, the final, unfortunate line, “We make her paint her face and dance,” utilizes the tired stereotype of the National Geographic jungle native to make its point, and therefore, contradicts what Lennon accomplishes with other lines. Before, he was comparing how white men treat all women to the way white men treat brown peoples of the world. Now, he is saying that white men treat all women as if they actually are spear-chuckers, as if the stereotype of the spear-chucker is a reality. One might argue that stereotypes are a form of victimization, and by calling on this stereotype, the last line is consistent with the rest of the song by maintaining the understanding that non-whites are victimized, but I’d say that it is difficult to successfully argue such a deeply submerged subtextual reading of one line when the rest of the lyrics make that point so straightforwardly and superficially.

Jon Wiener, in his Come Together: John Lennon In His Time, points out the “weaknesses in the song’s ideas” (214), namely that lyrics such as “We insult her everyday on TV / And wonder why she has no guts or confidence” are “both condescending and erroneous” (213). However, Wiener also takes care to reveal how his iconic status acts as an invisible forcefield from serious criticism, even by his contemporaries. “The song, released as a single, peaked at Number Fifty-seven in June 1972, and did the worst of all John’s post-Beatles singles. Many stations banned it for using the derogatory term “nigger.” Broadcasting magazine reported that only five AM stations added the record to their playlists. ‘I think it will offend people,’ the program director of New York City’s WOR-FM said. ‘I tried it out on a couple of girls in the office, and they thought it was offensive.’ John tried to reverse the ban. ‘Dick Gregory helped us by getting us in Ebony…posing with pictures of us with a lot of black guys and women, who stood up and said, ‘We understand what he’s saying, we’re not offended.’

It’s disheartening to find out that someone as well-respected as John Lennon would attempt to salve such a gaffe by wrapping an arm around his black friend Alan,* but it also exposes just how flawed the enterprise of history is when the artistic contributions of our icons are left unquestioned by today’s critics. It is also a testament to how pop culture turns people into unassailable historical figures before actual historians have a chance to. The Beatles were lambasted by American conservatives when John Lennon said, “We’re more popular than Jesus” in 1966, a statement that is still remembered today. But just six years later, already John Lennon had proven it to be true, being able to get away with saying such things as: “If you define ‘nigger’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by others, the good news is you don’t have to be black to be a nigger in this society. Most of the people in America are niggers” (Wiener, 215). I wince whenever someone, whether its President Bush, or the liberal professor moderating a debate on satire and race, says we should let history decide how to interpret our times, because the process of writing history always entails delineating the canonical from the apocryphal. It is almost always that forgotten, apocryphal source that tells the most accurate stories of events. It is always ready in the here and now. Because when one interpretation gains too much ground, we wind up with retellings like this…



1. Ryan Harris - February 12, 2008

Well, there’s actually a video on youtube where Lennon explains why he made the song. I found it pretty interesting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5lMxWWK218

I don’t think he’s using the quote just because a black person said it first, I think he’s just justifying the using of the word in his song, since so many people has different interpretations of the word. Especially during these times, it seems like the meaning of the word has changed, and he never meant it to be degrading to anyone. Plus I guess the shock value of using such a word in a song would raise awareness of the issue. Look at Nas, his next album is going to be titled “Nigger”, and it’s raising so many eyebrows (especially after what happened at the grammys yesterday), so it could be a marketing thing too. Who knows?

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