Let’s say you want to hear the John Lennon song “Imagine.” (I won’t pretend I understand why, but I can accept the hypothetical.) You could stream it on Spotify, or buy it on iTunes. You could check out the demo and live versions on YouTube. Maybe you actually have a CD or record that includes “Imagine,” and you have the option of basking in the piano ballad as preserved by physical media. Cool.
I mean, you’d have to run up against some dozen separate technical difficulties before you were forced — in your dire craving for “Imagine” — to watch a slew of Hollywood celebrities sing it a cappella from their mansions during quarantine.
But that exact Instagram video, courtesy of Gal Gadot and pals, has drawn well over 5 million views:
As is their right and duty, the hardened realists of Twitter let loose with a chorus of jeers, lambasting the footage as “peak cringe.” Indeed, it is hard to watch, and I do not recommend it, especially because you are bound to have at least one fave crooning along in there. As a social good, I’d say the clip rates somewhere below the ice bucket challenge; like “Imagine” itself, this remote karaoke version is a banal and almost involuntary response to trauma and tragedy, a bromide that resists any nuance or insight in favor of plain, C-major sentiment. The song’s popularity derives from both the simplicity of the chords (it’s a go-to for amateur, self-serious pianists) and the absence of real politics. At best, it’s a lullaby that poses this question: What if the world got vastly better, somehow, through no actual effort or sacrifice? Picture that, man.
Yoko Ono has a knack for striking at earnest wonder — it took until 2017, but she did get a co-writing credit on her late husband’s top-selling solo single. Most other people, and I’d include Lennon, struggle with what it means to be genuine. If it rubbed people the wrong way to see Amy Adams, Mark Ruffalo, James Marsden et al warble their way through a pop hymn to hippie fantasies, that’s because the video demonstrates the opposite of the soul it promises. The connection is false. We, the underclass, are not “in it together” with the A-listers. We are delivering them UberEats and continuing to clean their houses. We are losing hours or jobs, as well as health insurance, going deeper into debt and finding that COVID-19 tests are hard to come by for anyone not rich and famous. There is no solace for us in a reminder that successful actors are friends in real life, that they’re riding this pandemic out in idle comfort, that they believe they can soothe us with vacuous profundity and baseless optimism.
Of course the millionaires like “Imagine” — it was the work of another millionaire, and the elite are in the best position to hope that everything turns out fine. They may as well serenade us from a luxury spaceship en route to a virgin planet.
We needn’t dehumanize the stars, who did, after all, mean well. Yet their contribution to morale was the clueless, condescending performance of a dipshit ensemble. This group, for whom the plague is not a life-derailing cataclysm but an imposed staycation, is more invested in the public eye than the human beings who make up that public. Otherwise, they might have gauged this for the hokey stunt it was — the grasping at validation from a populace that has far bigger problems to worry about. A purported message of unified hope was really just: “Our movies were delayed, and our concerts were canceled, so we’re checking in to say that we still exist and want to be praised.”
That they picked a tune with little application to the crisis at hand — stretching the generic aspect of a pop-cultural artifact already known as laughably shallow — infuses the clips with self-parodic disharmony. Could it be some kind of in-joke — the celebs adopting a mask of deadpan irony while posing as nakedly sincere, vulnerable and real?
No: the horror is the confidence in their power, their obligation to inspire, which prevents them from seeing that’s not what we need right now. We are dying for material support and direct empathy, and “Imagine” offers neither, only the hollow dream that circumstance be magically shifted. And the more you listen to those lyrics, the more you intuit a brutal cynicism, the learned helplessness that comes with inhabiting the society we’ve built. Perhaps John and Yoko, by challenging us to glimpse utopia, meant to say this reverie is the best we can ever do. No better place awaits, except in fairy tales.
I guess we can’t be shocked that our wealthy entertainers have chosen to dwell inside the mirage, but honestly, it’s hard to imagine a dumber response.