Robert Christgau, Double Fantasy, and the Night They Applauded Yoko Ono
On February 24, 1982 the 24th Annual Grammy Awards were held in Los Angeles. The album of the year went to Double Fantasy, the joint John Lennon-Yoko Ono endeavor released towards the tail end of 1980, mere weeks before Lennon’s murder. The record beat out Kim Carnes’ Mistaken Identity, Al Jarreau’s Breakin’ Away, Quincy Jones’ The Dude and Steely Dan’s Gaucho for the top honor. Ono and six-year-old Sean Lennon took the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. The Grammy looking tiny in her hands, Ono said few words in their brief time on stage, though she appears to ask her son if he wanted to say anything. Peering with curiosity over the podium, the young boy apparently didn’t.
In January of 1981, roughly a month and a half after Lennon’s death, Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau penned a review of Double Fantasy with the headline “Symbolic Comrades.” In it he reveals his colleague at the paper Geoffrey Stokes had written a critique with the unsubtle title “The Infantilization of John Lennon,” a piece that went unpublished at the author’s behest. Despite the courtesy of withholding a negative essay that apparently assailed not only the record but the Lennon-Ono marital coupling itself, Christgau’s take culled from Stokes’ position and pulled few punches:
Many post-moderns reject the whole notion of passionate monogamy — it’s said to be reactionary, or dishonest, or corny (never, hmmm, threatening). But Stokes, I happen to know, is passionately monogamous himself — what bothers him about John-and-Yoko is their, or its, absoluteness. The marriage seems as self-contained as a tautology, and as useless; it trivializes a great artist and deifies a dubious one. I use the present tense to refer to the relationship as art, as music and pop event, and in fact I think there’s more tension, eccentricity, and humor in this art than might first appear. Nevertheless, Stokes is right in many ways. As a victim of separation anxiety myself, I regard the modern practice in which husbands and wives sleep apart, for sexual or professional (i.e. travel) reasons, as one of the barbarisms of our age, but if I felt myself “wilt just like a faded flower” after an hour alone, I’d tell it to my shrink, not my muse. When John croons about “the little child inside the man,” he’s articulating a bedrock assumption of the marriage, and while I’d call his matrifying mythicization of Yoko “basically sexist” rather than “basically misogynist,” I’m no less suspicious of what it suggests — the Earth Mother twaddle that has deradicalized so much left-wing feminism.
There’s something undeniably impolite about Christgau’s prose here, something that runs counter to Stokes’ initial impulse to hold his tongue following Lennon’s murder. Drawing a great deal from the pre-mortem position held by his fellow rock critic, the Dean is critical, as per the demands of his job, of their “love album” and of their love in a time of incredible mourning — not just Ono’s, which should’ve been quite enough to give him pause, but of Lennon’s fanbase and the institution of rock n’ roll itself. Many people (including Christgau) referred to Lennon’s death then and still now as an assassination, and it was a rare time when Ono was given at least a partial reprieve from the Beatles breakup stigmatization which she still suffers from decades later.
It‘s hard to imagine any of today’s active critics or their outlets publishing a review like Christgau’s so soon after a tragedy. The comparative speed of publishing digital content versus the traditions and constraints of print produces microwave news and next-day-air eulogies. Hagiography seems the primary contemporary mode for a writer approaching an artist’s death. Surviving family members are spoken of, if not to, in tremendously respectful tones. A funny or fond anecdote is nice to include, as is the mention of their final work. But Christgau and the absentee Stokes were having none of that.
To be clear, the Dean didn’t write a condemnation of Double Fantasy. At several junctures, Christgau defends the duo’s record from the critics who panned it prior to Lennon’s death. He also faces down the civility and politeness around the withdrawing, retracting, and regretting of those harsh takes, calling out the record’s subsequent uptick in sales following the murder and Ono’s status as “a cynosure, a focus of public empathy.” His review even ends on mostly positive notes to boot.
Still, who now would dare review a hypothetical 2015 equivalent to Double Fantasy the way Christgau did, poking such personal holes in the couple’s monogamist mystique so soon after their forcible fatal separation? As pointed out in his review of Season Of Glass, Ono’s solo record released in June of 1981, this “widow’s concept album” and the circumstances surrounding the preceding shared LP were uncharted waters for the profession. Perhaps Christgau recognized then that the form of music criticism demands honesty over sympathy, or at least a fairer ratio of the two.
Though at times a difficult read, his pointed words seem to contain far more truth than an auditorium of well-dressed well-wishers applauding Ono, an artist for whom they’d assuredly not had kind words or thoughts for previously. Only as a widow did she come to matter to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the attendees of its gala. One wonders if they were clapping that night for the living or for the dead.