December 23, 2008
Deep as the sea of Yoko
Over at the Curvature, Cara is in the midst of an exceptional series about Yoko Ono, feminism, and the Beatles. Here are a couple of brief excerpts from what she’s written so far:
Yoko Ono’s name is tossed around as an insult, sometimes “jokingly,” sometimes really and truly hatefully. Any woman who dates a male band member and expects to be treated like a person, or any woman who is seen to in some way cause a change in a male artist of any kind, is particularly at risk of being called “Yoko.” To a lesser extent, so is any woman who expects to be given equal consideration as her partner and her partner’s friends friends. Why is it an insult, exactly? Well, because “everyone” hates Yoko Ono. She’s a mentally unbalanced, scheming, money-grubbing, castrating bitch. Oh, and she broke up the Beatles. Or so they say.
. . . If you actually take the time to read Beatles history, you’ll see pretty clearly that the cracks in the band were showing for some time before John Lennon even met Yoko. John was growing away from the Beatles musically, struggling with drug addiction and with the insecurity he seemed to feel in varying degrees throughout most of his life, and was therefore lashing out and pulling away from the group. Paul McCartney was making a power grab for control of the band, one that he was winning and John felt powerless to stop — and while John had a tendency to be nasty to the people closest to him, Paul had a tendency to be extremely condescending and controlling. George Harrison was resentful of John and (especially) Paul’s refusal to take his songwriting and musicianship seriously — even though despite being neither the greatest songwriter or vocalist in the group, he was absolutely fucking brilliant. Ringo Starr never had a serious problem with any of the other Beatles, but was feeling incredibly marginalized within the band and distraught over the disharmony.
The other thing that changed my mind was John himself, and his persistent, repeated earnestness in professing that he wanted out of the Beatles long before Yoko and she only gave him the strength to do it; not to mention his proclamations of happiness and rightful insistence that anyone who hated Yoko and didn’t respect their relationship certainly didn’t love him or have his best interests at heart.
And realizing that Yoko wasn’t to blame for the Beatles breakup makes you ask a question. Why does the myth persist?
John saw Yoko as a similar musical talent who he wanted to work with and who he thought could do the Beatles some good. Of course, whether or not this was a reasonable belief is another story. Though a big fan of Yoko as a person, a thinker and an artist, I do not enjoy her music. I also don’t pretend that I am a great arbitrator in taste — and Pop Feminist has a good feminist defense of her music. But in the end, it’s really not the point. The Beatles didn’t reject Yoko because they thought she was a crap musician — the thought of Yoko as a legitimate musician never actually seemed to cross their minds — but because she was a woman, and because the role of a Beatles woman was at home waiting for you all dolled up, not sitting by your side.
John asserted more than once, and entirely correctly, that they never would have treated any other musician like that. He said that he brought Yoko in and expected that she would be treated with the same respect that their other musical buddies got, and would play with the band just like they did. Instead, the Beatles didn’t even have the decency to say that they didn’t like Yoko’s music, to argue with her when they disagreed, or to discuss the situation with John. They just ignored her. And I’d say that gave John and Yoko both the right to be pissed the fuck off.
. . . Now, I’m not saying that Yoko was never an asshole to the Beatles. I’m sure that she was. I’m saying that she was hardly the only or the worst asshole in the room. They were all acting like assholes — but as the history gets told, Yoko’s the one who bears the blame. The truly amazing thing is that in order to actually believe this, you have to totally erase the fact that John wanted her there. She wasn’t showing up in her own car, throwing hissy fits or tracking them down at secret locations. No, sadly for her detractors this misogynistic stereotype didn’t fit Yoko at all. When Yoko showed up at a meeting that everyone seemed to think that she had no right to attend — even when it was to discuss major decisions that would, as John’s wife, affect her own financial future — it was because John brought her. She didn’t infiltrate, she was invited.
Now, I love the Beatles, but Cara loves them even more. And I think her clear appreciation of the band and her vast familiarity with all the little details of the band’s lives and day-to-day experiences — the sort of familiarity only a die-hard fan is likely to have — is a big part of what makes this series so excellent. While I don’t know as much about Yoko Ono as I’d like, I find her fascinating (and I actually love a lot of her art, at least the pieces I’ve heard about), and I’ve never been comfortable with the vitriol directed at her in pop culture. Cara’s series is a brilliant counterpoint to that vitriol. If you’re at all interested in the Beatles, Yoko Ono, and/or intersections of popular music and feminism, I highly recommend checking out the series (just the two posts so far, but more are coming).