No Context: Zach Baron on Yoko Ono at Pitchfork


Yoko Ono at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Photo by Mark C. Austin

No Context

By Zach Baron

Pitchfork’s booking of Yoko Ono last on Saturday night of their festival was a kind of wink-and-nod, a nominal gesture of respect to a venerable con artist. It was also a cover story, an invitation to the crowd to head to the exits, guilt free; the night was almost over anyway and Cat Power, or whoever, had already played. Stay for a few songs, see Lennon’s wife before she dies, and then hit the after parties.

In the crowd earlier, waiting for Clipse to get going, plastic flashlights started raining down, more useless sponsored objects, e.g. the lanyards and cozies and XXL sized t-shirts, free energy drinks, branded chillout tents, stickers and buttons and keychains. The flashlights said Onochord on them, and for all I know they were doing this out in the crowd all day, lacing thousands of kids with tiny flashlights.

This was deliberate play on the gift-bag bonanza, “free” items that actually cost you something. When Ono started playing, if you had one in hand, you’d have to play along. “Send the ONOCHORD message ‘I LOVE YOU’ by repeatedly blinking the light in the frequencies and the durations required for the message.” Video screens, jumbotrons had Ono on pre-recorded video, flashing her own tiny light in time with her own tiny incantation, cuing those in the crowd to do the same. This is her famous single-plum-a-derby routine, maddening idealism by way of broken English. And if you stayed, you participated.

And for what? To watch Ono do her Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, “Why”-jazz thing, howling over what was essentially bar rock, played grindingly tentative by the young and intimidated band she brought along. That she’s been doing this for over forty years didn’t make it any less of a prank. On the same stage as the sterile ATP concision of the night before, limp Spiderland into most of Liquid Swords, capped by Daydream Nation, Ono was singling out the whole reverential concept as part of the problem. It also sounded awful.

Plus it all built to the billboard Christmas event that launched a thousand more jokes, Ono leading Thurston Moore and a crowd in the high thousands to chant “War is over! If you want it” while critics all around me giggled and speculated as to ongoing death counts in Iraq, Darfur, and Afghanistan. Maybe even some of them realized this was in part the point.

Ono provides plenty confirmation for the smug assumption that she’s more curio than working artist. But her apparent naivete is in fact the opposite, a deliberate trap for her audience. It’s only later that we realize how far ahead of our own ongoing reactions — and I’m still laughing thinking about her half-Kravitz, half-witch doctor performance, even now — she is. As a friend said halfway through, “I want to see what people write about this on Monday.”