SXSW: Yoko Ono interview

>> Friday, March 18, 2011

If you can spend an hour listening to Yoko Ono and not come away impressed with the woman, there's something fucking wrong with you.

Okay, I come into this with a slight bias: I've always thought Yoko has gotten a raw deal from the general public. Somehow it was a cardinal sin to marry a Beatle. Linda McCartney had to put up with a lot of unearned shit in her life, too. And there was always this perception that maybe a musician shouldn't be putting his wife on an album, though I think the appropriate artist response is "fuck you"; I mean, Paul McCartney can pretty much do whatever the fuck he wants and he didn't have to ask you first, did he?

But the difference, to be not just fair but also accurate, was that Linda McCartey was a photographer (and a pretty good one), not a vocalist, while Yoko Ono was, actually, a musician and singer who was trained as a small child, who had done various musical things with John Cage and Ornette Coleman prior to even meeting this pop musician named John Lennon, and a lot of what Ono gets faulted for involves conscious artistic choices she was making. And maybe you can't fucking stand those choices--that's absolutely your prerogative--but at least have the brains to recognize that the woman knows what she's trying to do.

Hell, let me also say this, before we move along: I think a lot of Ono's work is a little silly and doesn't work or doesn't quite hold up. But then I feel that way about a lot of conceptual artists and artists from the 1960s. But I get what she's trying to do; more importantly, I appreciate that she's sticking her ass out on the line to try to say something. Maybe it doesn't always work, but she's brave as hell for taking a shot at it.

So the SXSW interview with Ono was something I very much wanted to attend. Her and Jody Denburg from KUT Austin, Denburg asking some good questions and (better yet) stepping back to just let Ono muse and talk.

At 78, Ono has just scored her sixth consecutive number one single on the Billboard dance charts; when Denburg starts pointing out some of the folks who don't have the number one single our such a streak (e.g. Lady Gaga--and honestly, I don't get Gaga's success, but whatever), Ono is charmingly self-effacing--those performers Denburg is mentioning are friends of hers. This its a recurring thing in the interview: Ono is generous, humble. It's not false humility: she acknowledges credit where she's due, but she's also quick to point out when she was inspired and by who, or when someone else preceded her.

The thing with credit, though, its that it's a sticky point in the context of Ono's career; it's not just that she's so widely misperceived as riding John Lennon's coattails, there's also the fact that she came up in an era and culture in which a woman's domain was limited. She recounts, for instance, how, early in her career, she was approached by an animator who wanted her to compose a vocal composition for a film; she did, and when the film came out, it was "voice by Yoko Ono" where any man would have received a composer credit. And later, when questions of credit came up, she says she considered not worrying about it, until she realized she had a duty to other women to stick up for her rights (this line earns warranted applause).

She talks about her childhood in wartime Japan, wondering if the roots of her early conceptual pieces like Grapefruit can be found in composing imaginary menus with her little brother (children were sent into the country, away from the cities, and good was scarce), and Denburg asks if her childhood influenced her antiwar attitudes (it's likely).

There are moments when Ono is, unsurprisingly, a bit mystic for my tastes--she suggests, for instance, that many of the world's problems may be the Earth striking back at us because there's not enough love. Then again, she also suggests many of the world's problems come from not using the strengths of half the population (women) and expresses a surprising technological utopianism with her faith that scientists who aren't motivated by greed will rally to make the world better.

Going in, I sort of felt that a lot of what gets Ono harsh treatment from the general public is that her art is antagonistic; but that's the exactly wrong word. Confrontational, maybe. Challenging in the sense of demanding engagement, not in the sense of attacking. A theme in the interview was how much Ono's work has been about building community, and that's really the objective in Ono setting up installations that require the audience to physically do something or making films that are odd or singing in a way that is consciously primal and in opposition to her childhood classical training (she describes her singing voice as "infamous" with a coy smile)--she wants the audience to respond, to force a response, to deny the option of passivity. It doesn't always work from an aesthetic perspective. But bless Yoko Ono for refusing to stand down, for insisting that we can and should be a part of something bigger than ourselves. She's a hell of a woman.

Thank you, Yoko.


Warner (aka ntsc) Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 12:32:00 PM EDT  

A number of us bought the first Yoko album because of John Lennon, she was dreadful.

I've never bothered to go back to recheck my initial opinion.

Eric Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 1:28:00 PM EDT  

I suppose I might have clarified that first paragraph to say "listen to her talk, but I'll leave it be. This its the difference between a blog and something you revise for print, I think.

Her art--including her music--doesn't always work. I don't think, though, that her music was ever meant as a cruel joke, as I suspect Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music was. Indeed, Ono explained it yesterday as being a conscious effort to break with the styles of singing she was trained in as a child.

Here's the thing about that, the danger of it: the forms of music Yoko was trying to break away from became established because they worked. So doing something with a radically different aesthetic doesn't mean you're going to end up with a better aesthetic--in fact, you almost certainly won't, because the established aesthetics are so fundamental, so universal, that they appealed to people hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart.

But that doesn't mean you're not gutsy for trying.

I'm hoping to see Ono play tonight--tomorrow morning, actually. No idea if I'll like it, but I'll continue to adore her for her commitment. What can I say? I'm a sucker for the quixotic artistic temperment.

John the Scientist Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 4:24:00 PM EDT  

I think that one of the reasons that Ono's work doesn't ... er ... work, is something I've noticed about other Japanese who dare to break with tradition.

Japanese adults are put in a little box made up of the expectations of their station that have been formed since kindergarten. Your parents get you into the right kindergarten, the right schools, the right juku (non-governmental after school cram schools for the state exams) and you get into the right major at Todai or one of the other major universities, you’re made for life. Just follow the rules and you can count on a good, if boring life if you are not that aggressive, and a life at the top of Japanese society if you are.

As a result of this, Japanese adolescents are given a pass to act like idiots for a few years in late high school and early college, because their parents know just how small that box is that they are about to get stuffed into. Hence the Harajuku girls. They may look like pink punk rockers in Little Bo Peep fetish outfits, but in 5 years, they’ll be OLs in business suits getting felt up by their kacho in the third level of salaryman hell. Same for the guys, minus the future of sexual harassment. It’s remarkably similar to the Rumspringa.

So when some young adult Japanese break from that box and with all the expectations that go with it, like many Amish who never return from Rumspringa, they tend to torch everything from the past and go a little nuts. It reminds me of the news kiosks in the later stages of the USSR. Since freedom to those who had never tasted it meant freedom to do anything the CPSU had frowned upon, you’d find the newly independent little businesses pasting a graphic photo from “Yugoslavian Sluts Unleashed” right next to a Catholic pamphlet featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary. People who have been kept in a box all their lives don’t spend a lot of time developing self-reflection and self-discipline, and often abuse their freedom once it is given to them.

Artistically, this tends, as it did in my opinion with Ms. Ono, to be akin to the awful type of amateur science fiction /fantasy that tries to sever ties to everything in this reality, leaving one with no touchpoints with which to relate to the story. As you noted, traditional forms work and before one tries to break them, one should understand why they work, in order to more intelligently break them. I get the impression Ms. Ono breaks tradition in an accelerated evolutionary manner- she seems to introduce lots of mutations mostly at random, and just waits to see what sticks, forgetting that most of the great tradition breakers picked and chose one, possibly two traditions to break, and left the rest intact as touchpoints and onramps for their audience to follow their path, as it were.

Eric Monday, March 21, 2011 at 7:48:00 AM EDT  

Some good points, John, and excellent perspective. I think you're right that Ono's approach involves a lot of random mutation and seeing what sticks; where I possibly disagree would be that that approach, for better or worse, isn't or wasn't necessarily unusual in the postwar art world and isn't necessarily tied to Yoko's wild years (though that may have been how she got to that threshold): you see a lot of that random mutation in jazz (esp. beebop), the work of the Beats, the conceptual artists like Ono, etc. I think the fact Ono represented that world is what drew John to her. I also would add that I think Ono's appreciation of traditional art and history gets underestimated.

And now I have to board a plane!

John the Scientist Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 7:22:00 AM EDT  

Thought you might like to see the Asahi News article on the concert she gave at Colombia U. with Sonic Youth and a few others to benefit the Japan Society Earthquake society.

Eric Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 9:24:00 AM EDT  

John, thanks for bringing that to my attention! Though it appears the link you tried to post is broken (argh!). I couldn't find the specific article you linked to with a superhasty Google search, but for those interested, here's Rolling Stone's review. RS says the gig raised $33,000, all of which appears to be straight-up charity money (expenses--gear, venue, etc.--were donated by the participants). And it sounds like it was a pretty damn good show.

John the Scientist Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 4:11:00 PM EDT  

Why so it is. Sorry about that. Let's see if this one works.

Eric Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 5:20:00 PM EDT  

It does, but (sadly) I never learned Japanese. :)

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