It's obvious why the video below, of Yoko Ono singing a cover of Katy Perry's "Firework," keeps coming back. It is, in a word, amazing.
It's also too good to be true. If only Ono were actually scream-hiccuping over a schmaltzy instrumental pop track in an official looking gallery somewhere, as witnesses look on, both game and alarmed.
But as internet sleuths pointed out two years ago when the "cover" first went viral, 'tis but a beautiful dream. What we have here is actually just altered footage of Ono at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, reviving her 1961 installation "Voice Piece for Soprano." Katy Perry got involved via a nifty bit of editing by YouTube user Kroiker McGuire, who has built something of a cottage industry out of the concept. (Our favorite, for sheer incongruity: Ono's "'cover" of LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem.)
The original footage of Ono at the MoMA in 2010, pre-'Firework'-ification.
There's so much to unpack in this weird, comical mashup. Online opinion is of course split. Among those who believe the cover to be genuine, some are tweeting out links alongside ironic promises of a "beautiful rendition," and others are hailing Ono for her don't-give-a-damn attitude. Still others are insulting the artist for completely unrelated reasons, because, Internet.
Now let us, Ono style, unrelentingly sing some praises. Wherever you stand on the woman, there's no denying the genius of the video she made possible. Somehow, the genre of cover song isn't often parodied, though it should be. It's one of the least imaginative ways to make money as a musician, and here is the ultimate subversion of it: a cover that sounds absolutely nothing like the original, or really like anything at all.
But the bigger subversion lies in toppling the exclusivity of anything avant-garde. Any time a random meeting of worlds can turn a new audience onto an offering that tends to get hoarded by those with access to museums and fashion shows (see: Jay Z meeting Ellen Grossman, or Beyoncé's appropriation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's work), we should celebrate. These are the moments when art feels relevant. A work might pass the Chelsea gallerist's litmus test, but isn't it more interesting to watch how it fares in the big bad world?
Our favorite of YouTube user Kroiker McGuire's faux covers, set to a genteel, instrumental version of LMFAO's "Party Rock."
As it happens, "Voice Piece For Soprano" was itself divisive when MoMA unveiled it in 2010, as part of a retrospective exhibit titled "Contemporary Art From The Collection." An interactive installation, it featured a microphone, speakers, and these instructions to visitors: “Scream against the wind/ against the wall/ against the sky."
Not everyone has the lung capacity or artistic commitment of Ono, whose screams are getting their due. Reports soon surfaced of disgruntled staff and patrons, unnerved by the random shouts of participants. The museum eventually took action, turning down the volume on the speakers despite Ono's instructions. An Observer article detailing the decision ended with one of the paper's more memorable kickers, a quote from a MoMA book specialist working near to the installation who quipped when asked if the quieter version was still popular: "Unfortunately, yes."
Praise came after the fact, presumably once reviewers' ears stopped ringing. A piece in The New York Times, published three summers after the MoMA retrospective, lauded "Voice Piece" for the very reasons the installation had turned so many potential supporters off. Here, after all, was an installation designed to alienate even the most diehard fans. Such gaucheness rarely attends modern art, which exists in a world built on sycophancy (indeed, an unidentified MoMA staffer told the Observer the museum would likely turn the volume temporarily up when Ono dropped by, simply to appease her.)
One of a few Ono 'cover' videos not attributed to the master of the genre, Kroiker McGuire. "This heartfelt rendition of our national anthem confirms Yoko Ono as one of the greatest vocalists alive today," reads the video's clearly facetious description on YouTube.
The installation, The Times concluded, was "very un-MoMA." Which, the article clarified, was a good thing. It was "unpredictable, uncontrolled, anarchic, all that the institution is not." More importantly, it accomplished "what sound art was historically meant to do: to give sound -- variously referred to as noise, or music or silence -- the assertive presence of any other art medium, make it fill space, claim attention and time."
An earlier version of the installation proved much the same point. In 2001, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis presented "Voice Piece," and broadened the invitation to participate to anyone with a phone. Interested parties could call into a voicemail system and yell to their hearts' content. The sounds were then compiled into an online timeline. One man wrote to the museum to describe what sounded like a joyful cross-species contribution, involving himself, his 80-year-old friend Helen, and his parakeet. He rigged up a few portable and stationary phones to accommodate all three beings in his L-shaped home, and the trio started "jamming," the bird rapping "his head along the side of the cage, & improving [sic] w/us," the man wrote. Another woman took the opportunity to record human noise in the English wild.
14:40, 14:48 and 15:55 are all the screams of crazy drunk people
roaming towards the bigg market down high bridge st in newcastle, as
heard from the third floor window of the office of locus+ (there's a six
hour time difference between minneapolis and england, so if it's 4pm at
the Walker's answering machine, it's 10pm, an hour til last orders, here
in the northeast UK).
The charm of the idea, to document every shade of human noise, is undeniable, even if the experience of it isn't. And even in its viral form, "Voice Piece" is challenging our standards for what we consider appropriate to hear. Ok, Ono didn't have "Firework" in her head when she took to the mic at MoMA. But she still managed to inspire the most popular -- and unexpected -- cover of the song there is.