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UNFOLDING RAGE:
YOKO ONO AND EMINEM
by Kazim Ali


Eminem adopts an unpleasant strategy: using Marshall Mathers as a character in the album by Slim Shady--he can hide behind several different faces. Who is the artist? Who is the created persona? And who is it who goes home at the end of the day and has a tunafish sandwich? Particularly in the song "Kim" in which Kim Mathers--also supposedly a "character," and not the real-life wife of Mr. Shady--also, coincidentally, named Kim--is killed and placed in the trunk of Marshall's car. She's depicted verbally by--presumably--an actress.

Unpleasant, because a listening public is meant to decide, apparently, to take the work as fiction, an expression of the true emotions--put perhaps not literal actions--of the artist, or, lastly, a real life threat of violence to come. The artist becomes a more complicated figure as he recedes from easy figuring. He becomes a threat as he unwinds.

It may be equally impossible to divorce Yoko Ono from her context. Ono is generally immediately dismissed on one of two counts: for those who've not heard her music she exists primarily as an incarnation of the Sinister Asian Woman, this one significant because She Broke Up the Beatles; for those who actually have heard some of Ono's music she's generally considered spooky--known for bizarre atonal compositions employing radically shifting time signatures, instruments constructed according to John Cage's theories (they generally play themselves) of automatic composition, and for her frequently brutal and distressing vocal attack (John once said she had a "sixteen-track voice.")

Her two-part song "I Want You to Remember Me" opens her latest album Blueprint for a Sunrise, and adopts a similar surface approach to the Eminem song: Ono depicts a male-female couple engaged in profound violence. However, here (and as usual with Ono) the unpleasant strategy isn't the subject matter--after an initial threatening dialogue, the male rage and the attempted (though finally unsuccessful) destruction of the female is enacted nearly without words or even syllables.

Ono's chants, grunts, moans, and wails created a fiercely internal drama in which the male energy of destruction seeks to murder, maim, otherwise suppress the female energy of creation. It becomes possible in Ono's aural dissonance to imagine oneself as Marshall and Kim at once. The immediately physical act of an individual man murdering his wife transforms itself into a social problem connected not to the individual moment of passion, but to a masculine need to control by means of violence.

"Kim" enacts a linear narrative depicting the argument between the husband and the wife, the growing and finally insurmountable rage of the husband, the murder of the wife, and the fruitless getaway attempt of the husband, complete with police sirens. We are meant to be witnesses to the act beginning to end, and left with a knot in our stomach, unclear as to how the artist intended to affect his audience. The dissonance and completion of the song with the listeners perhaps disturbs in ways that move beyond a purely theoretical consideration of "the role of art in society," but I would bet that neither Ono nor Eminem are particularly interested in making art that does not "disturb."

Ono's song layers that beginning verbal explosions of male and female into a musical dialogue. Once words vanish and primal sounds take over, we as listeners are dropped into the musical reality without guide. As a listening experience it becomes what we call "pleasant" only because the turmoil that is created becomes a sort of guided meditation. Ono's song is as remarkable for its visceral content, as it is for the trust it enacts in us to accept that male rage as a part of us that is constantly in dialogue with the generative source-which implies of course, that we all have this generative source.

The human voice spreads itself past the constraints of "speech" and of "music," moves even beyond "word" and "phrase."

Eminem's "Kim" takes its place among many of his song-pieces dealing with his rage--painting a picture that is often disturbing and unpleasant, all while the artist himself claims and claims to be attempting to depict his own emotions, struggles, and background as truthfully as possible. He challenges us in that way to accept a reality we might rather pretend doesn't exist.

The horror of the wake-up call given by the school massacre in Colorado in 1998 was perhaps only matched in its capacity to horrify by President Clinton that same night ordering the bombing of Yugoslavia. Acts of personal rage and state rage do travel along the same axis.

Ono's piece takes a subjective context from the political nature of her earlier work, and takes its formal context from her large body of sound-work and "non-verbal" sound-poems, however in its immediate context, it is the very first piece in an entire album, all of which continues to grapple with the same issue: how has this rage played a part in our own oppression of others, and self-oppression? How can one surmount it, use it even, to become a creative, actualized self?

For Ono and Eminem both, it seems that the actual making is the answer to this question. Ono's "freestyling" is without, for the most part, words and syllables, and the sampling she does is mainly from earlier compositions. In the end, finally, despite Eminem's blustering profanity and graphic depictions, Ono's is a scarier, more unpleasant, more threatening music. While Eminem gives us characters (Marshall, Kim) and linearity, Ono gives us only the distressing voice working against musical expectation. We cannot stand outside the music and feel safe in the pretense that we are not the subject.


Kazim Ali is a poet and performance artist whose recent poems and essays have appeared in Cross-cultural Poetics, Washington Square, and Hayden's Ferry Review. He teaches at the Culinary Institute of America.