Yoko Ono’s legacy is split in two. There is the reductive, racist, and sexist mythology that she broke up the Beatles, acting like a Lady Macbeth of rock music, sowing seeds of discontent that led to the implosion of the greatest rock band of the 20th century. As an addendum to this narrative is Ono the dilettante, the talentless, rich rock widow who used her connections and nepotism to buy herself a career as a musician.
The other story of Yoko Ono is far more interesting. The story is of a passionate and powerful songwriter and artist. A creative and sensitive musician who worked doggedly to bring her avant-garde aesthetic to pop music and to use her voice to advocate for the rights of women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ people. She is an underrated though hugely influential artist whose reach finds its way to a range of artists as wide as the B-52’s, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna.
The 1984 tribute album to Ono, Every Man Has a Woman has a diverse set of artists, including Rosanne Cash, Roberta Flack, Elvis Costello, and Harry Nilsson – a dizzying array of musicians representing a wide swath of genres in pop music. Another album, Yes, I’m a Witch, released in 2007, saw a new generation of Ono disciples, including Peaches, DJ Spooky, Le Tigre, and the Flaming Lips. Performance artist Ann Magnuson found inspiration in Ono’s feminism, noting, “People joked that her voice could shatter glass, but it was her spirit that shattered many an artistic glass ceiling.”
It’s clear that Yoko Ono is a singularly creative and unique talent.
Still, it’s not enough to talk about Ono’s influence on other artists. To appreciate Yoko Ono, one must look at her output. From her first album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band in 1970, Ono has created a wildly inventive and challenging discography of pop music. She has written songs that challenged the concept of pop music. She pulled, stretched, and splintered conventional song structure. Her silvery, wild voice challenged the notion of ‘good’ singing. Her voice wasn’t the buttery, beautiful instrument of say, Karen Carpenter or Barbra Streisand. But her message – one of indignant and angry feminism – was better delivered by that distinct warble – one that leaped from an anguished yowl to guttural growls, to shaky croons.
During the 1970s, Ono put out a series of experimental, avant-garde records that indulged in and spoke to her performance artwork. John Lennon had left the Beatles to work out his musical muscles. He and his soulmate had graduated into a celebrity power couple, becoming influential figures in the anti-war movement, using their fame to highlight their political and social points of view. The two artists joined to create a niche and esoteric discography of collaborative albums that left mainstream audiences largely nonplussed.
But Yoko Ono’s most important and greatest moment as a solo artist was after John Lennon’s murder. Ono was forced to channel her grief and outrage into her work as she had to wrest away from the expectations of playing the role of a rock ‘n’ roll widow. Along with maintaining her music career, she found herself evolving into a professional celebrity, becoming a fixture on the New York club and art scene, her impassive visage shielded by her trademark aviator shades. Her work in the 1980s also evolved, moving away from her difficult sounds of the 1970s to an attempt to fit her idiosyncratic talent into more traditional, conventional sounds.
Though not at her most prolific, the three records she released in the 1980s: Season of Glass (1981), It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) (1982), and Starpeace (1985) represented a particularly transitional phase in Ono’s musical career in which she attempted to marry her progressive, subversive politics with her gigantic celebrity. Her high profile meant that she had access to top New York session musicians who helped her create a series of records that recast Ono as a New Wave-influenced pop singer with art school pretensions. She followed Andy Warhol’s lead in trying to braid pop commerce with art.
Those three albums were arguably Ono at her best because it was during this period – fresh from her unimaginable trauma – that she sought to speak to the increasingly bleak decade beset by many problems, including the crack epidemic, the tail end of the Cold War, AIDS, Reaganomics, and the existential threat of nuclear war. She always used her music to address societal ills – particularly when wanting to write about sexism – but during the 1980s, she sought to make her message (relatively) accessible to match her growing profile.
1981’s Season of Glass is arguably Yoko Ono’s masterpiece. It’s a stark, grueling reminder of her pain and her sorrow. The album’s cover – taken by Ono herself – sports John Lennon’s spectacles, stained with blood. Akin to Jackie Kennedy’s blood-stained suit, his spectacles work as a testament, as evidence of the gross violation Ono and her family had to endure: he wasn’t just John Lennon, the Beatle, or John Lennon, the icon. He was a human being who actually died. Though his death was greeted with universal grief, the rush to flatten him into an icon meant that most of the people who eulogized him in the streets didn’t know him, nor were they privy to the horror that Ono was. Having the glasses on the record cover was a grim reminder of what violence does.
The songs on Season of Glass run the gamut of emotions – from despair to resignation to wary optimism. Ono’s son, Sean Lennon (someone who would follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a musician himself), appears on the record, happily babbling about stories his father used to tell him. The kid’s presence is a painful and poignant presence underscoring the sheer tragedy of John Lennon’s violent death.
The album’s follow-up, It’s Alright (I See Rainbows), was almost immediate, just a little over a year later. The cover art for the record – by Bob Gruen – features a more recognizable Ono: one staring into the distance, her eyes – and really half of her face – covered by her ubiquitous sunglasses. Those glasses would prove to act as armor or a shield. They were a way for Ono to let people into her physical emotions on her terms – if she wanted to, she would take the shades off. If not, she slipped them on, like the visor of a motorcycle helmet.
Unlike Season of Glass, It’s Alright looks to modern pop sounds to tell its message. The songs are produced with a shinier, glossier, 1980s shine. There are bouncing synthesizers and pulsing drum machines. The story it told was also different because it was a woman who is forced to move on from her grief and continue forging her own artistic identity. The songs were more optimistic and joyful, and she no longer sounded as dangerous. Though she was far from mainstream – that strange voice with its inimitable phrasing and timbre – her music wasn’t as intent on challenging listeners with atonal reaches or clashing sounds.
Instead, she was choosing to express herself by wrapping her strange vision in more palpable coatings. And though some of the rock press was confused by Ono’s shift in sound, her followers understood that she was simply traversing her musical journey. Something is bracing and awe-inspiring about the Yoko Ono of It’s Alright, a woman who can embrace the artifice of pop music as a vehicle for a flaying honesty. Fellow iconoclast Grace Jones, another artist who reshaped the tradition of pop singing, admired Ono for being brave enough to “to have the guts to go in and just, to have that strength to express yourself… she’s not afraid to express her inner self.”
Her final album in the 1980s was the strangely named Starpeace, a direct response to Reagan’s “Star Wars”, an anti-ballistic missile program that was fed into the ’80s fear of nuclear war. With Starpeace, Ono wanted to respond to the turmoil of the ’80s not with the barbed, feral anger but with a shiny, smiling utopist vision. Again, we look to the cover art – again, Ono is wearing her aviators, but she’s looking directly into the camera, this time with a beatific smile on her face. In her hand, she’s gently cupping the earth as if she was handling a fragile baby chick. The songs on Starpeace are some of the most upbeat that she’s recorded. The centerpiece of Starpeace is “Rainbow Revelation”, is a moving ballad in which she generously embraces seemingly negative personality traits like jealously, anger, and greed. But she recognizes these qualities as parts of a complex personality with the potential to change the world or make it better.
In recent years, Ono has remade herself – this time as a dance-club diva. Instead of simply being dismissed as a shrieking banshee, LGBTQ audiences have embraced Ono, an artist who was always interested in dance culture. She has quietly settled into a rock legend and a pop culture institution. Though the ugly, racist and sexist lore still swirls around Ono, there are just as many who revere her brilliance. As Kim Gordon once declared, “Yoko is still one of the most radical musicians today. She is so ahead of her time.”