News that Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss left the band this July was unfortunate enough to fans, but the timing raised eyebrows about the reason why. It seems fans decided Weiss was driven out by the band’s newest producer on The Center Won’t Hold, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), who they say Yoko’d the band, all but muting the hard-hitting drums Weiss was known for, and even shifting once boisterous guitars toward a more “hauntingly beautiful electronic” sound.
To Yoko a band means to space-invade a male musical endeavor and ruin it, a la when Yoko Ono allegedly broke up the Beatles back in 1969/1970 with her witchy meddling. She didn’t. Even Paul McCartney has publicly said so. But it’s always been a highly ironic assertion that ignores the giant male elephant in the recording studio: Men have fucked up great bands aplenty, and we don’t toss their verbed-up names around like art-killing grenades.
“The thing is, all people in bands have people in their lives (handlers, managers, etc.) that get in their ear about the band, which often does come to bear when a band is splitting up or there is heavy tension between members, but only in the case of women as romantic partners is it this ‘Yoko’ cliché,” explains music critic Adam Gold, who writes for Rolling Stone and Vice.
“I mean, Clash manager Bernie Rhodes convinced Joe Strummer to kick Mick Jones out of the band [in 1983] in an effort to gain control of the band from the outside, ultimately causing the band’s downfall, but no one ever says a band got Bernie’d when something like that ends a band, which happens more often.”
Rhodes, he notes, “went on to co-produce and even helped co-write the Mick Jones-less Cut the Crap album, which was later disavowed by the band, is one of the most maligned albums in rock history and is generally not even considered by fans to be part of the band’s canon.”
He also notes that no one says Metallica got Rock’d by Bob Rock, their notoriously controlling producer (and one-time bass player) who either ruined them or catapulted them to fame (or both) with his hijacking of 1991’s Metallica, known as the Black Album, a heavy-handedness well-documented in Some Kind of Monster. I’d add that James Murphy tweaked Arcade Fire’s fourth record, Reflektor, toward an eerily LCD Soundsystem dance electronica that had less of the depth and craft of troubadour storytelling of previous albums, but we don’t say they got Murphy’d either.
While we trust men to shepherd their own career or the careers of others — and give them more space to make mistakes or try out new weird stuff (whether successful or not) — we’ve largely limited women’s roles in men’s musical careers. Muses, of course, are welcome. But collaborators who tell you what to do and invade the sacred space of the studio? That won’t do.
I know that from personal experience. I’ve allegedly Yoko’d two bands in my life, both in spite of the fact that I also made a living writing about bands at the time.
Yoko No. 1: My boyfriend decided to end his already dated-sounding grunge band (this was 2007, people) and focus on the more pop-driven stuff he’d always loved. In spite of supporting the band for a decade as a girlfriend working merch booths and helping load gear in and out of clubs, including literally funding many of their tours, this news was met with one assumption only: I’d forced him to do it. It didn’t matter what he told them, or that it was his idea. They couldn’t accept that he’d end the band and couldn’t express anger toward him for doing so. The only rational explanation was I’d Svengali’d it. For what reason? No idea.
Yoko No. 2: In 2010, newly pregnant with my daughter, my husband, in a glorious nerd-rock band that toured to throngs of die-hard fans but never made the kind of bank it takes to raise a child, realized he needed to get full-time work (just like I had!) to support his spawn, so he dropped out to earn more than what they were paying him — burritos. Their response: I’d made him do it! I’d gotten pregnant just to ruin the band!
What was clear in both scenarios is that my support was greatly appreciated and endlessly welcome. My opinion? Enemy fire.
I should have known from the mockumentary Spinal Tap, which demonstrated with Yoko stand-in Jeanine, girlfriend of singer/guitarist David St. Hubbins, that an overbearing girlfriend/manager was Kryptonite to male creative morale. (For the record, I think her designing the band’s costumes around their zodiac sign would likely play very differently today.)
Not to mention, the not-so-subtle reminder I received every time I reached for a beer in the fridge at the nearby band house we used to hang out at for frequent parties. The magnet right at eye level made it crystal clear: Still Pissed At Yoko.
I also could have just asked other women to remind me.
“No one’s ever said it to my face,” singer/songwriter Caitlin Rose, daughter of Taylor Swift co-writer Liz Rose, writes over Facebook Messenger. “But it’s not my fault — their bands needed to break up anyway.”
Designer Amanda Valentine, who appeared on multiple seasons of Project Runway, tells me she’s been told she Yoko’d her brother guitarist James Valentine’s band by dating another guy in the band. In her brother’s case, it was a positive thing. “It led him to eventually join Maroon 5,” she explains. “Well, that’s the story we tell each other at least to forget about how awkward it actually was and find purpose in it!” (Of note, Valentine noticed that when she tried to type Yoko on her phone, it autocorrected to “Took.”)
Sometimes it’s not a direct taunt, but an overheard label women in male-dominated music scenes grow accustomed to hearing bandied about. For example, guitarist Buick Audra from Nashville band Friendship Commanders recounts a story about being outside after a show in Atlanta recently when she heard a male show-goer counsel another man through his divorce.
“Man, next time, find your Linda McCartney, not your Yoko Ono,” the guy told his friend proudly to cheer him up. Translation: Find the supportive musical sidekick to your creative endeavor, not the demanding nutjob who will fuck it all up.
Audra tried to press him on the statement’s rigid characterization, but he was too flustered to explain.
In her mind, it’s simple: “The women seemed to exist solely to support or destroy/distract the men in their music and life pursuits. Their own lives, careers and personhood were immaterial.”
Which brings us to Yoko herself, about whom we rarely discuss that she was already an established artist in her own right in the late 1960s, or how much she’s a part of the great solo work Lennon did, including her pacifism influencing “Imagine,” as well as the golden glow of Double Fantasy, a testament to the comforts of domesticity.
“Her book Grapefruit was published in 1964 [two years before she met Lennon], and there’s all sorts of brilliant shit in there,” says Nashville Scene art critic Laura Hutson Hunter. “She’s among the most successful artists alive, and a lot of that is despite John Lennon, not because of him.” Her performance pieces like 1964’s Cut Piece were certainly cool enough to lure regular attendance from people like Philip Glass and Jasper Johns.
To that end, we should probably come to terms with the fact that women influence musical greats in ways that go far beyond muse, and are often equal collaborators. That bands disagree on musical direction all the time. That Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss are adults who can decide to go in a new direction, disagree, breakup and/or all agree to hire a producer like Annie Clark — also a grownup! That men have feared the idea that their favorite acts might not go on forever, but also the very idea of female influence and input, because their identities are so ordered around isolation from and separation from women as a matter of course.
That’s unfortunate, but it’s not women’s cross to bear. And it doesn’t make anyone a Yoko except Yoko, no matter how strong the wishful thinking.
Well aside from the way her work encourages all of us to be Yoko, as it’s often re-created and revisited all the time by other artists. In fact, just this year, Annie Clark read one of Ono’s poems as a tribute:
The poem is called “Cleaning Piece IV,” which, come to think of it, might include some pretty good advice for men still slinging around the term Yoko in 2019:
Write down everything you fear in life.