Yoko Ono's 'Plastic Ono Band' Made Me Rethink What It Means To Be An Expert
NPR Music's Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it's personal. For 2021, we're digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn't just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.
The first time I listened to Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band, I was intimidated. The 1970 release, a counterpart to John Lennon's celebrated debut solo record of the same name, does not lend itself to easy listening. The album opens with an immediate shock of energy: an insistent bass line, a thudding drumbeat, squealing guitar. Then you hear Ono's voice wailing the song's title, "Why," over and over — frenzied, intense and often nearly indistinguishable in tone from the guitar. Over the five tracks of avant-garde rock that follow, all centered on Ono's unique and powerful voice, it doesn't let up.
I didn't just feel intimidated by the music, but also by Ono herself. I came to the record without much knowledge that would have contextualized her music beyond a rudimentary pop-culture sketch (her relationship to The Beatles; her pioneering performance art) and a vague sense that decades of sexist and racist reaction to her work had impacted her legacy. Listening that first time, I felt intrigued and surprised, but also overwhelmed and slightly alienated, not entirely sure what to take from the music — a little worried, perhaps, that I wasn't getting it and never would.
That pressure came, in part, because I had been assigned to write about the record for Turning the Tables' list of the150 Greatest Albums Made By Women. I had agreed to take the assignment even though I figured it deserved to be given to someone else, someone qualified, to write about it. And though I didn't feel worthy, I had a clear idea of what I thought worthiness would feel like. It'd be a sense of legitimate authority, granted by expertise; like the record felt legible and comprehensible to me in a way I could easily explain. But I didn't feel any of those things — legitimate, authoritative, knowledgeable — the first time I listened to the record. Or the second, or the third.
So I made an effort to legitimize myself, and got to work researching. I looked for context where I could — in descriptions of her most famous performance pieces; in excerpts of reviews of her music across several decades; in lists of artists, from The B-52s to Sonic Youth to RZA, who cited her as an influence. While reading, I listened to Plastic Ono Band on repeat, from its electrifying opening to Ono's sweet command — "don't worry" — at the album's close. Learning about Ono's place in the cosmos of avant-garde artists, and within a lineage of musicians whose work I knew well and admired, helped me hone in on the incredible range of expression in Ono's voice, the way the songs feel both confrontational and intimate, the magic in the relationship between her voice and the rest of the instrumentation. (The band was, I realized, expectedly phenomenal: John Lennon on guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, Ringo Starr on drums; on "AOS," she plays with the Ornette Coleman Quartet.) Eventually, my intimidation started to give way to astonishment at the fearlessness I heard across every track and by how cutting-edge the record still sounded, decades after its release.
After all that, I wrote my blurb. Later, as I read through the final list, my fear about the assignment started to seem foolish. In context, my writeup was more or less indistinguishable from many of the others. It dawned on me that some of the other writers had probably engaged in the exact same process as I had in the past few weeks (and, if not then, at some time — likely multiple times! — in their careers). Something that in hindsight seems obvious struck me then: Of course my writeup looked like other people's; everyone, at some point, has to do their homework.
Months later, I found myself at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., watching Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon alone on an outdoor stage, screaming into a microphone. I was amazed. She was performing a work called "Voice Piece for Soprano" included in Ono's conceptual art book Grapefruit.
The performance was part of the museum's "Concert for Yoko Ono, Washington and the World," a "one-night-only celebration of the artist's pioneering experimental sound and performance art." Joining Gordon on the bill were Gang Gang Dance's Lizzi Bougatsos, whose wild, forceful singing, including on a cover of Plastic Ono Band's "Why," channeled Ono's majestically, and Moor Mother, whose electronic soundscapes and interpretations of Ono's work felt visceral and dazzling. But it was Gordon's performance, and that piece in particular, that stuck with me the most.
"Voice Piece for Soprano" has these instructions:
1. against the wind
2. against the wall
3. against the sky
Gordon followed the checklist, moving purposefully across the stage and howling into the mic, and the crowd watched silently, enraptured. I recalled my first few listens to Plastic Ono Band, the way Ono's wordless singing had at first felt indecipherable to me but, upon repeat listens, how her articulations of pain, fear and desperation had come to feel unambiguous. Here, too, Gordon's scream felt profoundly moving, even without a particular stated meaning. It seemed like it pushed at the limits of her physical body, like it came from both years of practice and from gut instinct at once (a binary that, as any improvisational artist will tell you, is actually not so binary at all). And it pushed us, too, as listeners, into a situation that felt intense but delicate. Maybe in a different crowd, where everyone wasn't so willing to follow Gordon, uneasy laughter might have broken out. I couldn't help wondering what passers-by within earshot on the National Mall must have thought. But those of us in that audience trusted her, and she trusted us, and the distance between performer and listener collapsed into a shared experience. (It collapsed further, too, when Gordon, performing an Ono-inspired piece of her own, walked into the crowd and brushed her guitar against members of the crowd.) The instructions may have been simple, but as Ono knew, they were sufficient. The scream alone made something powerful and unique happen for anyone who witnessed it.
In some ways, watching that performance felt like the opposite of my weekend cram session. That experience, of trying to get to know Plastic Ono Band, had asked me to be open to putting some work in, with the promise of feeling better equipped to understand the record, its impact and its legacy on the other side. I came at it with straightforward questions, the same that I might have asked in any research project: What do I need to know to understand this? What's the best way to bridge the gap between ignorance and expertise (or, put another way, between intimidation and confidence)? My nervousness about the assignment made me feel isolated, and maybe it would be enough to say Plastic Ono Band changed my life with the confidence-boosting reminder that everyone has to start somewhere; no one is born an expert.
But then, the experience at the Hirshhorn asked for a different kind of openness — to hear unfamiliar things, to be the audience the artist sought, to follow along to an unexpected place. In return, it offered me a different kind of knowledge, too — not just about the music itself, but about how to approach it. After that performance, I didn't feel intimidated by Ono's music, or like an expert on it; my relationship to it didn't really fit along that axis. I felt like I deserved to be in that crowd simply because I was there with everyone else, and I was able to ascribe meaning to that experience because I had been open to it. It changed the questions I wanted to ask. Maybe it would be better for me, that concert suggested, to approach something that seemed overwhelming or foreign or intriguing by asking: What kind of experiences can I have with this? What kind of knowledge might result? What is it asking of me?
Revisiting Plastic Ono Band since has given me an opportunity to ask those questions of this record again. Listening now, I recognize the aspects of this record that initially intimidated me, and those that I came to love with time and study, and the parts of Ono's music that came alive at that performance. The record has started to feel familiar to me — and that's a kind of knowledge, too. Familiarity might even have been what I was aiming for when I was first asked to write about Plastic Ono Band, but spending so much time thinking about this record has changed the meaning of that concept to me, or maybe just moved it out of the center of my definition of legitimate knowledge. Really, it's a reminder that all these different ways of knowing a record can rely on each other; doing your homework is a form of expertise, and so is a practiced willingness to be open to something new and unexpected. Rather than trying to assign a fixed meaning to a record, it feels more true for me to admit that meaning can grow and expand and shift depending on context. The next time I revisit it, I'll hopefully have a new set of questions to ask. I don't think I'll be an expert on it then; I don't think that's really my goal. It's just good to keep in mind that the answers you get depend on which questions you're asking.
Of course, it's possible I could have realized all this much earlier, from reading Lester Bangs' original review of the album from 1971. "This one will grow on you," he wrote in Rolling Stone. "Give it a try, and at least a handful of listenings before your verdict. There's something happening here."
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