It feels as though every day, more abuse allegations are coming to light, accusing powerful men in Hollywood of doing horrible things to women. This has made me question my love of one such man: John Lennon.
I have loved Lennon since before I can remember — the Beatles and his solo album, Imagine, were always being played around the house and on my tiny iPod when I was a kid. Back then, I had no idea of anything out of the ordinary about him. I knew only that I loved him, that he spoke to the young hippie inside of me with his preaching of peace and love.
This is the stance on Lennon that popular media takes, it seems. On his birthday a month or so ago, Twitter and Facebook were full of people wishing him a posthumous happy birthday, asking their followers to not forget his words of hope. Radio stations will start to blast “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” once the holiday season comes again, and many of us (myself included) always leave his music on, welcoming the familiar chords when they arrive on the radio or Spotify.
We love this man and we ignore his faults, but should we?
In a Playboy interview in 1980, preceding the release of his last album, when discussing the song “Getting Better,” Lennon admitted to abusing his ex-wife Cynthia Lennon, seemingly without much thought.
“(The song) is a diary form of writing. All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically… any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women… But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
People have questioned whether the abuse extended to his son with Cynthia, Julian Lennon. John Lennon left his then-wife and son while Julian was very young, and he was never as close with his first son as he was with his second son Sean and second wife Yoko Ono.
In an interview, Julian did not confirm or deny abuse claims, but he called his father a “hypocrite,” stating, “Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces — no communication, adultery, divorce? You can’t do it, not if you’re being true and honest with yourself.”
These facts make it clear that John Lennon was not the bastion of love and peace he is traditionally viewed as, and it raises a moral issue: How can we love a man who caused so much harm?
The truth is, I do love John Lennon. I don’t know who I would be — what my taste in music and art would be like — if not for the Beatles and Lennon himself. I can’t figure out how to extricate myself from that love, if it’s even possible to stop from singing along to “Watching the Wheels,” “Imagine,” or frankly every song off Abbey Road or the “White Album.”
I am always very skeptical of people for enjoying and advocating for the work of abusers — I’m quick to jump at people who defend Woody Allen or who say we must separate artists’ private lives from professional. When the only way to support artists is to consume and pay for their work, the only way to show we as a society will not tolerate abuse from those in power is by not supporting them in any way — financially or simply in conversation with coworkers.
Now this is all well and good when you have trained yourself to be on the lookout for abusers. It is a different story when you have grown up loving one.
So if I can’t turn off my love (and believe me, I’ve tried), how can I morally justify my feelings?
Is it different because he’s dead? He’s not receiving any of the money from me buying Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on vinyl. And he can’t feel our collective anger if we stop consuming his work because he wouldn’t profit from our love either.
Is it different because, after the Beatles, he became a staunch opposer of the Vietnam War, with him and Ono protesting for love and peace up until his death? While it seems he changed his behavior as he grew older, doing good things cannot excuse the harm he caused in his early life.
Is it different because he changed music? The Beatles, by all accounts, changed the way modern music is made and consumed. The band is globally revered and inspired countless bands to follow in its rock, pop, experimental footsteps. And should we condemn the whole band for their association with John Lennon when the rest of them seem innocent?
People defend John Lennon by trivializing his actions. But once we start making exceptions on which abuse is forgivable, where do we stop? The argument that it was a different time also falls short, as there has never been a point in time where it was justifiable for a man to hit his wife.
There is no good answer for how to stop yourself from loving an artist, nor a good moral justification for loving their music despite their painful history.
The only thing I can think to do is go on loving him, but also to never justify his actions. I love John Lennon, and I know his actions were inexcusable. While I can’t really help who I love, I have full control over who I can defend, and all we can do in the future is refuse to support a system that lets powerful men commit abuse without consequences.