Femininity, Intelligence, and Power: Yoko Ono’s Yes, I’m A Witch

By Daniel Garrett

Yoko Ono
Yes, I’m A Witch
Executive Producers: Yoko Ono and Rob Stevens
Astralwerks, 2007

“Each time we don’t say what we wanna say, we’re dying,
Each time we close our minds to how we feel, we’re dying,
Each time we dared to do what we wanna do, we’re living,
Each time we’re open to what we see and hear, we’re living.”
–Yoko Ono, “Yes, I’m A Witch”

An affirmation of independence and honesty, sweetly voiced, with a shimmering dance rhythm, “Witch Shocktronica” produced by Hank Shocklee, is how Yoko Ono’s collaboration with a group of diverse artists, Yes, I’m A Witch, begins; and it is followed by Ono’s very feminine voice in the Peaches-produced “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” which even includes sounds one might consider erotic, amid music that claps, tinkles, throbs, squeals, and zaps. The album Yes, I’m A Witch, an assemblage of songs written and sung by Yoko Ono and here given new settings, is consistent in its charm, intelligence, and power, a revelation of these qualities. Yoko Ono proves herself not other than one supposed, but more in those songs “Witch Shocktronica” and “Kiss Kiss Kiss” and in “O’Oh” with Shitake Monkey. (Regarding the Shitake Monkey interpretation: “The synth-pop dabblers’ latest reworking shows how Ono’s voice has the needed edge for electronica dance numbers,” wrote Mark Szakonyi, PopMatters.com, February 19, 2007.) To me, Yoko Ono’s voice on “O’Oh” has a playful tone as she goes through a list of city references, creating happiness within the song. Yoko Ono’s voice is less high, more in a middle-range, sturdier, in “Everyman Everywoman,” a song about the dependability of love (a song that, here, affirms same-sex love). A collaboration with Blow Up, the song “Everyman Everywoman” has a clapping, flashing beat and what could be short guitar riffs or a computer programmed to sound like that: and, although the rhythms are not as interesting to me in subsequent listenings as they were on first hearing, the structural changes in the musical arrangement and some of the tonal variations prevent boredom. A call to solidarity among women, with Ono’s diction clear, and authority and warmth in her voice, is “Sisters O Sisters,” produced by Le Tigre. The state of women—and the world—is not such that feminism as a critique of male power and a movement for equality is irrelevant, or will become so in the near future. A ballad featuring a guitar, “Death of Samantha,” produced with a moving simplicity by Porcupine Tree, is about self-perception, about the image of “cool,” about alienation and unspoken despair; and it is one of the most resonant songs in the set. DJ Spooky’s treatment of “Rising” might have been designed to suit his name: the song has a loping, spacey rhythm, with a large drum sound, and effects that call to mind both the jungle and the (post)modern age, with Ono murmuring, then advising one to “respect your intuition” and “have courage.” Her wordless sounds could be cries of pain or nausea. There are more experiences and ideas than I had anticipated in Yes, I’m A Witch, in which musicians retrieved still-fresh vocal performances from Ono’s recordings and made them part of new mixtures.

The production, by the Apples in Stereo, seems sweet and distant in “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do.” (In the actual words of the song in the recording, the phrase used is “No One Can See Me Like You Do.”) On a web site, edited by Sari Gurney, and devoted to Yoko Ono’s music, Robert Schneider of the Apples in Stereo is quoted as saying, “I have always felt that the original, slick instrumental track of ‘No One Can See Me Like You Do’ did not do justice to just how lovely, how soulful and melancholy Yoko’s lyrics and vocal track feel—to me this is Yoko’s most powerful song, and one of her prettiest vocals—I wanted to rework it as a space-age gospel, using a ‘wall of sound’ production to amplify the song’s emotional content.” (The site’s address is a-i-u.net on the world wide web; and I visited it in early March 2007.) However, there is a big rock/dance sound, really anthemic, in the production by the Brother Brothers of the anthology’s title song “Yes, I’m A Witch,” which has wonderful lyrics of courage, individuality, survival, truth. “We attempted then, to treat the track with the same tongue-in-cheek quirkiness and underlying aggression expressed in the carefree, spot-on lyric,” John Palumbo of the Brother Brothers has been quoted as saying. (It would be great if other women were brave enough to record the song.) “Revelations,” guided by Cat Power, who also sings on it, with piano accompaniment, is also worth quoting. “Bless you for your anger. It’s a sign of rising energy,” begins “Revelations,” which equates sorrow with vulnerability and love, greed with the capacity both to take and to give, and jealousy with the possibility of admiration and empathy, and the song offers the possibility of a living wisdom, with the assertion that “the world has all that you need.”

Yoko Ono is both famous and unknown; and to know her, we have to pay attention not to what matters to us but to what matters to her: her ideas, her work. Yoko Ono, born to a wealthy Japanese family, and a music student at a young age, her studies begun in Japan and continued at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, is known for difficult performance art that forced people to think about aesthetics and politics. Ono was part of a dynamic Manhattan scene that involved LaMonte Young, John Cage, Anthony Cox, and a member of the Fluxus art group, whose work focused on ideas, audience interaction, and the challenging of perception and politics. (Her first solo show—at a time when her work often was “a series of instructional pieces suggesting nonsensical activities”—was at the George Maciunas gallery in 1961, according to Steve Huey of the internet’s All Music Guide, in a concise biographical and professional summary I read in early March 2007. Huey also describes Ono’s famous “Cut Piece” of 1965, in which people were allowed to cut off pieces of Ono’s clothes until she had none left. It has been said that the idea behind the art project was a rebuke of materialism, but I see in it an invocation of social—of audience—aggression: how far will people go?) Yoko Ono met John Lennon and both of their lives changed, forever: they became collaborators and lovers, marrying in 1969, and Ono was torn out of the history she had begun to create, and has been seen as an appendage of Lennon’s history. Ono and Lennon, exploring psychology and politics and letting both enter their art-making, seemed to exemplify the connections between the personal and the political, an idea that is now a cliché but which was controversial and strange decades ago. (On their honeymoon, they did a “bed-in” for peace, in which they allowed themselves to be seen in bed.) However, fame makes the personal less an emblem of the inner life than a function of attitude and style, a form of spectacle; and, consequently, one is forced to forever rediscover the work of a famous artist as work, as art objects, as music, film, sculpture, as part of a human experience that is available to all. Yoko Ono’s recordings, some of them thought to anticipate both punk rock and new wave, include an album with the Plastic Ono Band from 1970, and Fly (1971), Approximately Infinite Universe (1973), Season of Glass (1981), Walking on Thin Ice (1992), Rising (1995), andBlueprint for a Sunrise (2001), with a career retrospective collection, the Onobox (1992). I sense, even now, that Yoko Ono welcomes a place to be, though she will not compromise to call anyone friend or to call any place home. I heard a recent radio interview with Yoko Ono and she seemed much pleased by the embrace of younger “independent” musicians.

Yes, I’m A Witch is an opportunity for her work to become known to new generation of listeners and also to those of us whose attention to her work has been inconsistent or superficial. Nick Catucci began his short, early 2007 Blender.com review by declaring, “The world’s most famous cult musician has won the admiration of jazzbos, new wavers, no wavers, riot grrls and dance DJs in her 45-year career, and it’s not just because she can ululate like an orgasmic mental patient. Caught between crystalline emotion and conceptual play, her decades of uneven pop and sometimes-bewildering experiments holds something for every stripe of charismatic weirdo,” before briefly describing Yoko Ono’s art practices and the use associates have made of them, and concluding with “If the students sound like masters, then Yoko’s generous legacy is secure.” The recording Yes, I’m A Witch has received thoughtful comments of approval from Entertainment Weekly, Mojo, and Paste magazines.

There is, on Yes, I’m A Witch, a cheery repetitive beat to “You and I” (with the Polyphonic Spree) and the lyrics evoke something of the 1960s, that kind of cheer and idealism, whereas the lyrics to “Walking on Thin Ice” ask why life lessons must be hard and suggests one day it will all “be just a story,” which may be the hardest lesson of all. The arrangement, by Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, is dramatic, with loud guitar sounds, and that seems just a bit excessive to me (I used to appreciate music that sounded like the noise of industry more in days past). However, Yoko Ono’s voice is breathy and fragile without being weak, as she sings about walking on thin ice, saying “I’m paying the price, for throwing the dice” and “I may cry some day, but the tears will dry whichever way” and I find the song touching.

A dream of release, featuring a toy boat, and a castle, is held within the song handed to Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) and Hahn Rowe, while the mostly instrumental “Cambridge 1969/2007” with the Flaming Lips makes me think of a social party or a private drug scene in which there is a loss of control—the Cambridge song features contrasting sounds, a somewhat eastern (possibly Indian) rhythm, and what might be keening and chanting: what sounds like wailing is deep in the mix of “Cambridge 1969/2007,” with its raucously uptempo, nearly orchestral arrangement. (Yes, I’m A Witch does not give favorable presentations only to Yoko Ono: some of Ono’s colleagues—The Flaming Lips, Cat Power—sound better with her than they do alone.) In “Toyboat,” Ono’s voice is delicate but firm, a story-telling voice, a slightly sugary voice, in a song that may be about simulacra, about things that look like resources but are not, about needing help and only getting a child’s notion of help.

Although there are words of confrontation in “I’m Moving On,” a bohemian break-up song with varied musical textures, the vocal is melodious, and the song is one of the most appealing, one of the strongest. The music gestures towards something funky, soulful, in the Sleepy Jackson production. The Hank Shocklee “Witch Shocktronica” returns, briefly, as an outro, before the collection ends with the Craig Armstrong-produced “Shiranakatta (I Didn’t Know),” a song that acknowledges insecurity and distance, a what-if song, which seems to be sung in a couple of different languages (Japanese, French, and English). “Call it playing safe, but when dealing with collaborations, minimalist approaches have the best shot. Cinematic composer Craig Armstrong seems to know this as his sweeping melody lightly plays under Ono’s English and Japanese vocals on ‘Shiranakatta (I Didn’t Know)’,” wrote PopMatters.com’s Mark Szakonyi in his February 2007 review.

Yes, I’m A Witch is an important addition to anyone’s music library: it is of the past and the present, and infused with ideas about individuality and integrity, and feelings of defiance, community, and love, and the music sounds good!

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House; and his work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, NatCreole.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com