On Expectations, Elections, and Pop Culture Messiahs
Language warning: This essay uses a four-letter word twice. If you don’t like four-letter words or the repeated use of same, move on.
The dream: John Lennon in 1967 stepped out of the Indica Art Gallery in London. He was virtually unrecognizable as the mop-topped Beatles guitarist. His hair was thick but swept over to one side of his forehead. He wore granny glasses for the first time and sported a bright blue shirt and black sweater vest. As he glanced down the street, a man approached. Behaving as a gentleman, Lennon held open the door. Then he held it longer so a dark-skinned mother and her daughter could enter. Lennon exchanged pleasantries with these people, but they did not recognize him.
He went back inside and joined them and others in a queue at the bottom of the stairs leading into the gallery. A man at the top of the stairs read a sign on the door: The Beatles’ concert, scheduled for that night, had been cancelled. The people were disappointed. One asked who had cancelled the concert. The man at the top read further: “John Lennon.” Everyone looked around at the bespectacled young man at the bottom of the stairs. Suddenly, they recognized him. Lennon smiled awkwardly, now tasked to explain why he had cancelled the concert.
Observations and Interpretation: In this dream, Lennon looks like he would several years later — following his move with Yoko Ono to New York. But in this dream, it’s 1967 — and the Indica is the art gallery at which he first met Yoko in 1966. It’s not clear in the dream if he’s met her yet, but he’s moved on from the first phase of The Beatles’ fame. Gone are the expectations of being the loveable and witty mop-top. He enjoys his anonymity. The people he encounters don’t recognize the Greatness in the midst.
There’s a Christ-like motif in all this. When Jesus’s followers rolled away the tomb, they found it empty. Later, they encountered him on the road to Emmaus but did not recognize him (Luke 24:13–32).
I’ve always been troubled by this story. How could Jesus’s friends not recognize him? Metaphorically, there are different interpretations — they were overcome by grief, we often don’t recognize what is right in front of us, and so forth — but I’ve always taken the story literally. Jesus’s friends and followers have lost the one person central to their existence, the person who brought them together, their teacher and mentor, the one they believed in. He’s dead. And then he’s walking beside them and later breaking bread with them. Even if they were stunned that he had risen from the dead, they would surely recognize him.
Perhaps he didn’t look like he used to.
In this dream, John Lennon does not look like the gallery visitors expect — and who would imagine a rock star holding the door for ordinary citizens? This would be a humble gesture for someone regarded by his followers as on par with Christ —even “more popular than Jesus,” as Lennon himself put it.
And Lennon himself . . . in 1967, he turned 27 — still young, but he had seen the world and become incredibly rich and famous. He represented so many things to so many people, but who was he, really? Who was he to himself? In various songs, such as “Help,” he confesses to feeling lost and unsure of himself. In this dream, there’s a chance for him to be whoever he wants to be, free of the expectations of others.
As I write this, it is a few days before the 2020 election. In America, we will be voting for whoever is to lead the country going forward (and, indeed, thanks to mail-in, absentee, and early voting, many of us have already voted). We look to one of two choices to represent us as a country, to lead us out of this global pandemic, and to restore something most of us feel we’ve lost, even if we disagree on exactly what that is.
Many people want to go back to some imagined past, where things were better or safer. Others want to move forward and embrace the possibilities the 21st century has to offer.
Yet it seems that, no matter who gets elected, our lives are controlled by others who are smarter, more powerful, or richer than we are: scientists, doctors, politicians, corporations. We spend our lives trying to live up to their expectations, buying into the lip service that we have a voice and that we can choose our own destiny. Often, we seek wealth and fame because they represent two elusive qualities we desire most: freedom and happiness. Even when we get what we want, we find ourselves trapped by the expectations of others: brand managers, publics, handlers of all kinds.
No matter our lot in life, the system appears to be rigged.
Lennon was one of those people who, in my view, bucked the system — though it now seems naïve to think of him this way. He became rich and famous not by buying and selling businesses or manufacturing weapons but by writing and singing songs. Then, after his initial success, he departed from the pop hit formula by writing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I am the Walrus,” and, later, “Woman” — songs that expressed his unconventional, innovative, and vulnerable sides. He basically said to the world, “This is who I am. Take it or fuck off.”
And he succeeded in this evolution, too. Many celebrities who “tamper” with their brands fall by the wayside of pop consumer attention spans. But a generation of young people needed its celebrities and heroes and Christs. In their eyes, Lennon could do no wrong — and he responded to their adulation by ripping apart the envelope of their expectations. He challenged our perceptions of what he could be and what we could do. He encouraged us to think beyond the ordinary.
So, here I am, at an age he never reached, dreaming about him and trying to learn new lessons from his short 40-year existence. Perhaps a clue can be found in the dream. Once the people on the stairs recognize him, they aren’t thrilled to see him. Gone is the idol worship, the Christ-like reverence. They want to know why he has deprived them of their Beatles concert.
Lennon could give a reason — he’s tired of touring or he wants to spend time with his new girlfriend — but would they understand? Maybe he’d just tell them to fuck off.