Yoko Ono: Living in the Eighties

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono turned 82 today. It’s probably not fair to point out that by now she’s recorded several more hours of indispensable music under her own name than her late husband did under his — John is, after all, operating at a significant disadvantage in this contest. Yoko, nearing 50, was just honing her craft around the time of his murder; John was belatedly regaining command of his. With its workaday ‘70s session-rock layered over with tenderly ironic ‘80s new-wave gloss, Double Fantasy is a masterpiece of publicly performed coupledom, simulated yet sincere and a challenge to anyone who thinks those qualities can’t coexist.

Why stop there? Yoko’s three solo high points — the gutsy, polished, cathartic Season of Glass (1981), the alternately stormy and calm Rising (1995), the reckless no-feet-in-the-grave, try-anything-twice Take Me to the Land of Hell (2013) — eclipse the solo work of John’s former bandmates as well. Let McCartney’s defenders object, but a side-by-side comparison is telling: An amateur experimenting as a means of molding her quirks and quips into a fittingly idiosyncratic shape is simply more exciting than a master experimenting as a way to escape the confines of a craft that comes to him all too easily.

For more than a century now, recorded pop has increased the range of sounds that we’ll allow humans to make with their mouths and still consider music. Like many men before her and many women after her, Yoko demonstrated early on that your throat’s connection to your brain is as important as its connection to your diaphragm. Yet for all its apparent freedom, her art is held in place by a taut balance between pretension and simplicity, each pulling against the other to create as counterintuitive an architectural wonder as the suspension bridge. (And for the past two decades, it’s also been nurtured by the most fruitful mother-son musical collaboration I can think of.)

Yoko-hate sadly lingers, true, but it’s increasingly a badge of dated dimness — like all sexism, I suppose, except even more so, like being freaked out when women wear pants or something. Yoko-love only grows, though, and in her old age, she could have simply become a mascot for young feminists and avant-gardists, cherished as a benign figure in the way so many female artists are once they’re no longer seen as sexual or aesthetic threats. But Take Me to the Land of Hell is flat-out the the best rock album ever recorded by anyone her age. (Genre qualifier imposed out of respect to Alberta Hunter and whoever else I’m forgetting, and with an eye to whatever Willie’s working on next.) To hear someone sing “Let’s throw that past in the biggest trashcan” when she can’t have too much present left to take its place makes the youthful bravado of the wildest rockers or rappers sound tame.

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