“Imagine” There’s a COVID-19 Pandemic
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THE SPECTACLE APPEARS at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness converges...THE SPECTACLE IS NOT a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.
Consider the Source: John Lennon’s Imagine (1971)
“Imagine” is arguably the most utopian song in the pop music catalog, a ballad in which John Lennon offers a vision of the world as it ought to be – Lennon’s invention of a future of egalitarian peace – that starkly contrasted with the world as it was in 1971: life in the daily shadow of Vietnam, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear warfare, poverty, and inequality. In late March 2020, spectacle society is in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time where “social distancing” and “together apart” and “alone together” is now the modus operandi of daily life. This essay briefly considers three cover versions of “Imagine” which became viral videos responding to a global pandemic. My focus is on the “roles” the featured players play in a spectacular society at a time of global crisis. Raoul Vaneigem argued:
The role is a consumption of power. It locates one in the representational hierarchy and hence in the spectacle, at the top, at the bottom, in the middle – but never outside the hierarchy. The role is thus a means of access to the mechanism of culture: a form of initiation....No matter how much or how little limelight a given role attains in the public eye...its prime function is that of social adaptation, of integrating people into a well-policed universe of things.
Live at Lockdown Italy: Alberto Anguzza performing “Imagine”
Confined to their homes in a nation-state being ravaged by COVID-19, people took to staging impromptu performances on balconies to boost morale. An early COVID-19 cover of “Imagine” was an instrumental version performed by Italian trumpeter Alberto Anguzza that went viral (this video was posted on YouTube on March14, 2020). The role Anguzza assumes is a “dual-role.” One is the person literally trapped in the confines of his barred balcony offering the musical “voice” of hope to those around him. The other more ominous role is that anyone of us could be Anguzza desperately contemplating the “ought” rather than the “is” of social existence: a proverbial cry in the wilderness. At the risk of cynicism, given the situation in Italy, instead of “Imagine” perhaps “Funeral March” or “Taps” would have been be more appropriate music for the situation.
“Imagine”: Spot the Celebrity Edition
After viewing the Anguzza video, Gal Gadot spearheaded a second version of “Imagine” (it posted on Instagram on March 18). After ruminating on how the self-imposed isolation most of us currently endure during the pandemic has made her “philosophical,” there is an a cappella version of “Imagine” which starts with Gadot singing first line of the song followed by jump cuts of twenty-one celebrity actors, comedians, and musicians each contributing a line of the song until the sequence cuts back to Gadot delivering the final line. To be sure, the video had good intentions but no matter how melismatic (Sia) or monotone (Zoë Kravitz) the singing is, whether a performance takes itself too seriously (Eddie Benjamin) or not seriously enough (Sarah Silverman), there is a continual air of self-importance and even condescension. While Gadot posits that “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, we’re all in this together” watching the all-star version of “Imagine” the message is not “we are you” but “we are here for you.” As Guy Debord put it:
MEDIA STARS ARE SPECATCULAR representations of living human beings ...Celebrities figure various styles of life and various views of society which anyone is supposedly free to embrace and pursue in a global manner...THE INDIVIDUAL WHO in service of the spectacle is placed in stardom’s spotlight is in fact the opposite of an individual.
Live from the Mayo Clinic: Dr. Francois and Dr. Robinson
The third version of “Imagine” features Dr. Elvis L. Francois on vocals and Dr. William Robinson on piano, two residents in the Orthopedic department at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, performed in hospital scrubs. Robinson stated, “We decided to post it as the quarantine had kinda hit its stride and people were inside and...scared and, if nothing else, stir crazy – looking for some hope and comfort.” Francois and Robinson play the role of the beleaguered yet dedicated American medical professionals on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic that could be catastrophic with the American health-care system –or lack thereof – under siege. Alberto Anguzza plays the role of the Italian citizen bravely soldering on in a nation-state decimated by COVID-19. Gal Gadot and the cavalcade of stars reinforce the public’s love-hate relationship with celebrities playing the role of the privileged elites whose response to the crisis comes across as patronizing and tone-deaf (pun intended). In the end, they all are stars who play roles that enter the “limelight” via viral videos that “locates one in the representational hierarchy and hence in the spectacle.” Shakespeare wrote that “all the world’s stage and all men and women merely players.” It could also be said that “all the world is spectacle and all men and women merely play roles.” In a society of the spectacle inundated by a global pandemic, the dual-role everyone plays is someone who can contract COVID-19 (the role of the “endangered me”) and someone who may carry the COVID-19 virus infecting someone else (the role of the “dangerous you” in relation to someone else as the “endangered me.”). Our current mode of social existence is semi-voluntary self-isolation in a system that amounts to quasi-martial law. The solace is that the internet is our stairway to the stars in an ostensibly “well-policed universe” of things” as it falls apart around our ears. The show must go on.
Doyle Greene is an independent scholar who has written several books and articles on film, television, and popular music. His primary area of interest is ideology critique of American popular culture. He currently serves as a co-editor of Film Criticism.
4. It should be noted that Francois and Robinson already had a certain “star power” on the internet prior to the “Imagine” music video. The duo posted several short music-videos of them performing in hospital scrubs including a cover of Mark Yung’s “Alright” that went viral in 2018. This resulted in an appearance on Ellen. The problematic of this segment was that it did not honor the doctors but Ellen DeGeneres. The doctors thanked Ellen for being a vital part of their patient’s recovery due to watching Ellen every afternoon (DeGeneres: “You fix ‘em up and I finish them”). At the end of the segment DeGeneres bestowed the two doctors with two sets of hospital scrubs emblazoned with her smiling face and the inscription, “An Ellen a day keeps the doctor way.” This compares to the attitude manifest in the celebrity line-up cover of “Imagine.” When all else fails, it is the mere presence of the celebrity in daily spectacle of “social relationships mediated by images” that brings the masses the most “comfort and hope.”
5. As quoted at https://abcnews.go.com/US/doctors-story-viral-rendition-john-lennons-imagine-music/story?id=69776258. The video was officially posted on YouTube by Dr. Francois on March 25, 2020.