For most of my childhood Yoko Ono was kind of an abstraction—the evil force that somehow broke up the Beatles. Later, she was simply the wife of John Lennon—mainstream America in the 70s didn’t hear much about her involvement in Fluxus. Come to think of it, we didn’t hear much about Fluxus, period. I think I first encountered “Why,” from her brilliant 1970 album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band—which famously included one piece featuring Ornette Coleman—when I was in high school in the early 80s. It unsettled me in much the same way “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force did the first time I heard it (which was around the same time). I was confused, irritated, and compelled. I didn’t “get” either song, but they burned themselves into my brain instantly.
Time, of course, has been very good to both of them. Ono’s manic, shrieking vocals on “Why”—a piercing, sirenlike wail derived from hetai, a technique used in Kabuki theater—presaged all sorts of extreme female singing that would emerge during the postpunk era. It’s hard to think of a single female new-wave singer, from Lene Lovich to Kate Pierson to the vocalist in just about every early Rough Trade band, who didn’t sound like she was swiping from Ono—albeit with relatively palatable and pop-friendly results.