As Yoko Ono prepares to take the stage at Fuji Rock Festival on July 26, a BBC video of her performing the 1969 Plastic Ono Band track “Don’t Worry Kyoko” at this year’s Glastonbury festival has racked up nearly 2 million views, largely from people tuning in to see the “worst live performance of all time.”
Comments on the Japanese Twittersphere largely followed the pattern set overseas, garnished with an added frisson of national shame. Some placed her raw performance alongside the mewling antics of disgraced politician Ryutaro Nonomura in the pantheon of “Those Who Have Shamed Japan.”
“I’m so embarrassed as a Japanese,” wrote one concerned citizen. “Sorry, but that old hippy is no good,” contributed another. Others suggested it was “like watching your grandma do karaoke,” while one remarked, “Look at the miserable faces of the backing band!”
And that leads us to the core of a problem that has dogged Ono for most of her career. Her miserable-faced backing band at Glastonbury was none other than U.S. alt-rock legends Yo La Tengo, a band whose unrepentantly dour onstage persona they themselves parodied in the 1997 video for “Sugarcube.”
Likewise with Ono herself: She has been making music for 45 years now and if there is anyone out there who doesn’t know what to expect from one of her performances, they’re choosing a pretty weird time to start getting surprised. A better time might have been just after John Lennon’s death in December 1980, when fans rushed to the stores to buy the single “(Just Like) Starting Over” only to find Ono loudly having an orgasm all over the postpunk-influenced B-side “Kiss Kiss Kiss.”
Ono’s problem is that she is simply far too famous for the kind of music she makes. As many in the online community were quick to point out to the Yokophobes, she is a conceptual artist and the music she makes is in a similar experimental tradition. However, her position as Lennon’s widow ensures that she will always attract the attention of people who would normally run a mile from anything that carried the whiff of the avant-garde upon it.
She has certainly benefited from this attention, and that attention has also benefited music as a whole, with her influence on acts such as the B-52’s, Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth, Cibo Matto and many others who have helped shape the direction of alternative music. It also, inevitably, helps draw hate toward her like few other artists alive.
We might say Ono does little to mitigate this. In the Glastonbury video she performs with the confidence of a superstar, unapologetically inflicting her discordant screed on the listener with a big grin that’s as much Bono as it is Ono. Musically, many of the artists she influenced have surpassed her, and she has happily re-absorbed their talents into her own work. However, this suggests that rather than pure arrogance, Ono has both an awareness of her own limitations and a confidence in her legacy.
The bottom line for this writer at least, is that if I were in a dingy Tokyo club and an 81-year-old woman began screaming at me over chainsaw blues-funk guitars, I’d be in heaven. For those worried about the shame Ono brings on Japan, her very shamelessness is really what makes her special.