Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sound Advice: Yoko Ono’s “Open Your Box”

Yoko Ono gets a bad rep. I think it has something to do with her involvement with the Beatles or something.

Few forget that she was a groundbreaking, madly genius (or genuinely mad?) musical artist who introduced free-associating performance art to pop music. Composed of deconstructive beats and graced by her one-of-a-kind vocal stylistics, the art of yodeling and shrieking was elevated to shocking and sometimes hilarious effect. Although ridiculed and vilified for the greater part of her musical career, she had influential admirers who adopted her style and brought its elements forward. In particular, the Icelandic chanteuse Björk has been most remembered in recent years as the primary advocate of using the primal scream in pop music. Much of her performance art and musical recordings were focused on channeling baser mortal desire and suffering through song. It doesn’t have to be verbalized, she argued, it just has to be communicated.

Perhaps no one single piece of music has so summarily captured the art of Ono’s music as her 1971 single, “Open Your Box”.

This rather cacophonous unadorned performance piece made no attempts to capture melody. It isn’t pretty dance music composed of beats or instrumentation to disguise an otherwise reedy singing voice. Ono is capable of vocal gymnastics and a raw energy that says more than mere words could ever say.

“Open Your Box” was banned from British radio, who refused to play the song on account of its suggestively obscene lyrics:

Open your box!
Open your snatch!
Open your legs!
Open open open …

That being said, the song has become notorious as having a nearly impossible beat to find. Perhaps in appropriately ironic defiance, DJs around the world have risen to the challenge of releasing a number of dance remixes trying to assign the formless, shape-shifting single a beat. No less than Lady Gaga has given her support to Ono, singing “Give Peace a Chance” together in support of gay rights. And Alison Goldfrapp, famous for yodeling and her own iconoclastic vocal style, owes some of her artistic motivation to Ono.

And yet it was featured in Australian retailing giant Myer’s spring / summer 2004 fashion show while models showed off the latest collections.

Additionally, the avant-garde couture house threeASFOUR created their spring 2010 based around Ono’s dot drawings and performance art pieces. It’s no surprise that Björk is a major fan of the label. All this suggests that the lusty primal scream, stripping passion down to its baser elements and devoid of love and affection and leaving behind nothing but carnality, remains one of the finest, most audacious pieces of musical art to ever emerge. Few artists would attempt such brazenness today.

Whatever one thinks of Ono – as professional nut, performance artist, singer, advocate, villain, icon – ultimately we have four minutes of pure musical audacity to forever remember her.