It's Me, I'm Alive: A Conversation with Yoko Ono

Thomas Britt

PopMatters sits down with Yoko Ono to discuss her most recent artistic output along with the big ideas of life, death, and the Beatles.

The Plastic Ono Band
Label: Chimera Music
Title: Between My Head and the Sky
US Release Date: 2009-09-21

Yoko Ono began 2010 by participating in "Art Adds," a project that exhibits her artwork on New York City taxicabs. Replacing advertisements that traditionally decorate the rooftops of taxis, Ono's peace-promoting works (along with pieces by Alex Katz and Shirin Neshat) move throughout the city as a kind of public art. In Carol Vogel's New York Times article about the project, Ono likens the experience to a dance, saying, "The message is always in motion."

In a sense, Ono's contribution to "Art Adds" is an extension and distillation of her life's work. Principles of motion and collaboration run throughout her oeuvre, although sometimes these qualities are obscured by other aesthetic or social factors. For instance, while her long-running Wish Tree is an earnest, even prayerful, inspiration for others to (in the artist's words) "keep wishing while you participate," works such as A Hole or the infamous Cut Piece are at first glance more violent and austere.

Yet each of these pieces challenge and shift the spectator's perspective as they invite active involvement. Ono's musical output has gone through several diverse phases throughout the years, yet it, too, shares these qualities. Our discussion about music starts with her most recent activity and moves through the big ideas of life, death, and the Beatles.

Form and Feeling

We talk first about "Give Me Something" (Morel's I Gave You My Heart Mix), Richard Morel's remix of Double Fantasy song "Give Me Something". Repurposing an Ono classic for a dance mix is nothing new. From the 1996 release of Rising Mixes onward, remixes of Ono tracks have been very well received, particularly those that cater to dance music listeners. In January of 2008, Season of Glass track "No No No" (1981) reached #1 on the Billboard Dance/Club Play chart. Perhaps most notably, in December 2009, the song appeared at number four on Billboard's list of top ten Dance/Club Play songs of the 2000s.

Like the various modernizing remixes of "No No No", "Give Me Something" (Morel's I Gave You My Heart Mix) extends the taut, new-wavy original into a fresh dance number that has much in common with live mixes from Daft Punk and Vitalic. Although these mainstream analogs are rather obvious within the mix, Ono says she gives little direction about how the song should sound, particularly with regard to its resemblance to other current dance music. "My principle is to really see what the people do with it -- it's called the audience participation format. If he did do something he was influenced by, then I understand that. It has a very good feeling anyway."

She's equally charitable in handing over a song's component parts. When asked about which compositional elements she tries to preserve when others are remixing her work, she says, "I realize that the best thing to do is to give it all." She admits, however, that the process of collaboration has not always been so carefree. "The first time around, I was in a shock -- 'oh this is new'. But now I know what's happening."

For Yes, I'm a Witch, Ono invited rock and dance music acts to choose and remix songs from her catalogue. The results -- from artists such as Jason Pierce, the Apples in Stereo, and Craig Armstrong -- reveal the versatility and pliability of Ono's unique vocal instrument. Those successful 2007 collaborations have roots in projects that began four decades earlier.

"In 1968, I put out an album called Two Virgins with John [Lennon] and I put in there that it's 'Unfinished Music, No. 1'. And all of the reporters were asking, 'Why is it called unfinished?' Well, because I want to make sure that this is participatory music and that they can put their own things on it, maybe even put a track over it, or extra percussion or whatever they wanted to do. And I thought it was an interesting idea that I came up with. Life with the Lions is the next album of mine and it's called 'Unfinished Music, No. 2'."

Although "Give Me Something" was not technically designated as unfinished music in 1980, dance remixes of the song from the current decade do deliver a certain "snappy" feeling that carries over, despite the change in musical form: "Well, it's a totally different game, you know, because it is dance music. The original "Give Me Something" had this feeling of something that shines and suddenly when you look at it, it's not shining anymore -- an incredibly interesting briefness."

It becomes clear that dance is the foundation of much of Ono's work, even when the song moves the mind more than the body. She sees these remixes as a way of transforming the presence of movement within her catalog from a theoretical notion to a concrete, physical happening. "A side of making these songs -- and I was very hot about this idea, proud about it probably -- I always liked dance and think that you have to incorporate dance in music, whether it's conceptual like "Mind Games" or actual physical dance. And so now this is dance -- it's not some kind of little thing that passes your mind. You relax and dance with it. It's very beautiful."

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