Cee Lo Green was wrong to subvert the lyrics of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ when ringing in the new year, and NBC was wrong to allow him to do this.
He subverted the meaning of a controversial song because he disagreed with its core message of atheism, and he did this at a public event that was unrelated to religion or his own fanbase.
Also, ‘Imagine’ was the wrong choice of song for a public event that should have been secular. Events where all citizens gather to collectively celebrate the new year should not be used to promote either religion or atheism.
The background: when Cee Lo sang ‘Imagine’ live in Times Square on NBC’s New Year’s Eve show, he changed the lyrics from “Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too” to “Nothing to kill or die for, And all religion is true.”
Almost immediately, Cee Lo tried to quell the resulting controversy by tweeting: “Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys! I was trying to say a world were u could believe what u wanted that’s all.”
But this explanation does not match with the way that he changed the lyrics. A world where ‘all religion is true’ would be a world where ‘you could believe what you wanted’… unless you were an atheist.
Also, he must have known that he was disrespecting the core message of a controversial song. This wasn’t a benign case of an artist putting his own take on a cover version of a bubbly pop song. This was a conscious decision to subvert a song that had a strong core message promoting atheism.
Actually, I don’t have a problem in principle with him subverting ‘Imagine’, if he does so on his own private time, or at an event he organizes himself, for the specific purpose of promoting his own religious beliefs to his own fans or to a religious audience, and if he complies with whatever copyright permissions that he might require.
(That said, his own beliefs seem somewhat flexible, as he sang ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ and ‘no hell below us’ before he contradictorily combined this scenario with all religion being true, presumably including the ones that believe in heaven and hell. Also, he seems happy to imagine no countries and no possessions without changing the lyrics, while presumably being an American citizen and owning things.)
But I do have a problem with him doing this at a public event, that is unrelated to religion, where all citizens have gathered collectively to celebrate the new year. If he felt unable to sing the song as written at such a public event, he should have declined to sing it.
For the same reason, it would be wrong to use such a public event to promote the idea of there being no religion. The underlying problem is that ‘Imagine’ was the wrong choice of song for this event, whether or not Cee Lo had changed the lyrics.
I strongly believe that there are no gods, and that religion corrupts our sense of morality, and I actively campaign for a world with no religion. But I also want a secular world, where public events such as celebrating the new year are made welcoming to all citizens, and are not used to promote either religion or atheism.
As a caveat, assuming that the event was organised by NBC, this is not an issue of separation of church and state, but one of best practice when a major company is organizing a seasonal public event that is unrelated to religion.