The Art of Protest Songwriting – John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"

Throughout the years, John Lennon’s “Merry Xmas (War is Over)” has been established as a winter holidays standard, as mainstream radio stations seem to always give it significant airplay time in the month of December. However, the fact that the song is played in between the likes of “White Christmas”, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, “Jingle Bell Rock” and other Christmas time classics, does nothing but to water down the message and incidentally ruin the purpose of a protest song which ends up blending in with positive sugar-coated pieces of jolly pop.

Despite Lennon’s well-known claim according to which political messages have to be accompanied by “honey” (as referenced in Mikal Gilmore’s book, “Lennon Lives Forever”), the heart-warming children choir and the advocative messages for peace and social cohesion should be put into the right context and regarded accordingly. The song itself, a Phil Spector-produced cover of the traditional English song named “Skewball” (which was covered by American artists Woody Guthrie in 1940 and Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963),  features original lyrics and marks the apex of the John Lennon-Yoko Ono political activism. Their 1969 bed-ins against the Vietnam War (which culminated with the recording of the worldwide hit “Give Peace a Chance”), the 1970 protest song “Working Class Hero”, and the 1971 ethereal  depiction of Marxist utopia from “Imagine” lay at the foundation of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and establish a new standard for celebrity involvement in social and political movements. Furthermore, the release of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” has been accompanied by billboards that contained the message “WAR IS OVER! If you want it – Happy Christmas from John and Yoko” – which the Lennon-Ono couple have paid for and placed in multiple cities around the world. It marked a new type of outdoor advertisement, as if peace was being sold as a product.

 

From a strictly lyrical point of view, the message John Lennon conveys is timeless (as it doesn’t name any particular event, even though it was obviously thought as a protest against the ongoing Vietnam War), simple and easy to understand: human life, security through universal peace, and dignity are much more valuable than political decisions regarding military intervention (“A merry, merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear”), the road towards peace can and should be paved through a Rousseaunian intellectual and ideological gathering of all people, regardless of their wealth and social status (“For rich and for strong, for rich and the poor ones, the road is so long”), and for the very purpose of achieving a peaceful volonté générale, conflicts regarding race should be put to an end once and for all (“And so happy Christmas for black and for white, for yellow and red ones, let’s stop all the fight”). The quintessence of the message is presented as part of the climatic and acoustically-intense outro of the song, when the strings arrangement, the drums and the choir reach a quickly-fading peak: “The war is over if you want it, war is over now”). While the lines are smartly separated by pauses in singing, the middle part doubles up and splits in two complementary statements: the war is over if you want it, and if you want it (and act immediately), then an end can be put to any war (via volonté générale).

 

This memorable and ever-contemporary attempt to promote a message of peace during Christmas time has managed to secure John Lennon and Yoko Ono a much-deserved slot in the list of winter holidays classic songs, while also earning them the attention of the Nixon administration (which had been quite unhappy about the political undertakings of the Lennon-Ono couple since the bed-ins) and, consequently, an extensive file by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Merry Christmas! War is over if you want it!

 

War Is Over

Sources:

Mikal Gilmore, “Lennon Lives Forever”, Preview and summary available at: http://www.john-lennon.com/lennonlivesforever.php 

Robert J. Kruse, “Geographies of John and Yoko’s 1969 Campaign for Peace—An Intersection of Celebrity, Space, Art, and Activism”, in “Sound, Society, and the Geography of Popular Music” , Pages 20-28
John Lennon’s FBI files, Available at: https://vault.fbi.gov/john-winston-lennon

Lyrics of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, Available at: http://www.metrolyrics.com/happy-christmas-war-is-over-lyrics-john-lennon.html

Picture of “War Is Over” Billboard: https://www.flickr.com/photos/drmotte/14784904776

Picture of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” LP Cover: http://ukuleleclub.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Happy_Xmas_War_is_Over-e1418734799181.jpg

 

 

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