It is strange, but fitting, that the most visible work Yoko Ono has been part of in the last decade or so hasn’t been a large-scale retrospective or an album, but a meme. If you’ve spent any significant amount of time on the internet, you’ve probably seen it: a three-minute clip of Ono, clad in all black, standing in front of a microphone at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and screaming a series of violent, guttural noises while a crowd of perplexed museum-goers look on. The piece itself is typical Ono; violent and weird, ultimately concerned with the way the human voice can convey harm, beauty and catharsis.
But as a meme––reuploaded, recontextualised in tweets and videos, cut up and slowed down and appropriated throughout the internet––it becomes, somehow, even more Ono: an unfinished work that anyone with a tiny bit of creativity and an internet connection can contribute to. It's the natural extension of the 85-year-old Ono's conceptual works like Grapefruit and "Cut Piece", an unfinished project that's never fully done.
But then again, all Ono's work is a bit like that––take, for example, WARZONE, her upcoming 14th album, out in late-October on Chimera Music. Comprised of 13 Ono tracks spanning 1973-2009 that have been re-recorded and re-produced, WARZONE makes the case that many of Ono's best-known tracks weren't fully fit for their original contexts. "Warzone", a 1995 punk thrasher, becomes a harrowing shriek of a track, Ono's screams ringing out against a clatter of piano and gunfire. "Woman Power", once a murky psych freak-out, refocuses with Ono's still-potent political manifesto at the fore. "Now Or Never", taken from 1973's Approximately Infinite Universe, becomes as much a meditation on Ono's experiences living through wars in the 20th century as much as it is a warning to future generations. And "Imagine", a track Ono was only given credit for last year, is reborn as the album's final song with Ono at the centre of it. And each track arrives accompanied by a carefully designed lyric video featuring text that feels like an extension of Ono's text art more than any traditional lyric video.
All the tracks on WARZONE speak to today's political climate in one way or another––gender and war, while themes that carry through Ono's entire body of work, are particularly present here––and there's a general sense of dread on the record that wasn't necessarily present on the original tracks. But Ono hasn't given up yet. She spoke to Noisey via email (she doesn't do phoners) about feminism, art, and WARZONE. Read our interview, and watch the video for "Now or Never", below.
NOISEY: Your essay “The Feminisation of Society” is reprinted in the WARZONE liner notes. How do you think the essay can be applied to modern society?
Yoko Ono: It is getting to be more like I hoped. Men and women are changing their characters. Women are getting stronger and men are becoming more kind and sympathetic. It's been a BIG change in my lifetime.
It's really interesting that so many men are actually interested in cooking. "We'll teach you how to knit, we'll teach you how to cook!" [quotes from Yoko's song "Woman Power"] It's all happening.
“Warzone”, “Now Or Never” and a few other songs on the album criticise the military industrial complex. These songs were written a long time ago, but feel very prescient now; how does it feel to revisit your catalogue decades after you made it and find that a lot of the songs still ring true?
Well, you see, they're good songs I think! I changed the accompaniment, but the message is still very relevant. In "Woman Power", written in 1973, I mention "the President"––I'm not naming anyone but it's still spot-on, isn't it?
In 2015, the writer Lindsay Zoladz wrote an essay about your vilification in the sixties and seventies, and the way you’ve been embraced by the public in the last decade or so. Towards the end of the essay, she asks: “Is Yoko Ono’s art less subversive when we’re living in a world that loves her?” –– What do you think?
No––I think it's happening and they agree with me now! "Feminization of Society"––it's happening!
Pre-order Yoko Ono's WARZONE here.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian editor. Follow him on Twitter.