When I began listening to Yoko Ono’s music and learned that it wasn’t at all what I’d been led to believe, one of the first songs I was strongly drawn to was a track from the second side of her landmark 1973 double album Approximately Infinite Universe, titled What A Bastard The World Is. Her later 1973 album Feeling The Space would contain so many songs explicitly dealing with the lives and rights of women — from Woman Power to Men, Men, Men, from Angry Young Woman to Yellow Girl, from She Hits Back to Woman of Salem — that it is regularly referred to as a feminist concept album. (Intriguingly, despite being remarkably quiet for a Yoko Ono album and also rather even-tempered, one male reviewer — who was apparently so intimidated that he misplaced a couple of stars — could barely think of any adjective to describe it other than “angry.”)
Yet, I’ve always found What A Bastard The World Is, a sparse, furious, and melancholy ballad about a woman being treated poorly by her partner and a relationship falling apart, to be not only one of Yoko’s most moving compositions, but also one of her most complex and insightful feminist songs. Not coincidentally, it also comes across as one of her most personal and honest.
What A Bastard The World Is seems to be a personal story, but there’s a reason the lyric becomes “what a bastard the world is” from the original “what a bastard you are.” The story is personal, but it is also a political examination of male-female romantic/sexual relationships and has much larger implications outside a single woman’s life. (For that reason, I will leave aside in this post the more personal and less relevant question of whether John Lennon is the “you” being addressed in the lyrics.) In the end, it’s not her partner alone who is the problem, but the society both he and the narrator have been raised in.
The song begins as a sad and then angry lament about a male partner who didn’t come home the night before. The situation is so common, it verges on stereotypical. Without so much as a phone call, the man has casually shed his responsibilities and commitments to his partner for the night, leaving her alone to uphold her end of the relationship. A certain sexist disregard for her experiences, reasonable expectations, and the ways in which she may have been depending on him is necessary here. (One might also argue that while he makes himself free to do as she pleases, she is confined. One might even call her dependent, or lacking in her own life.)
The man’s inability to see his female partner as a full person with an inner life and needs of her own rather than an obligation he must answer to is stifling and dehumanizing. And most importantly of all, along with his greater social standing, it gives him the upper hand in the relationship and the quarrel. Upon his eventual return, the woman provokes an argument, expressing her often-heard feelings of resentment and neglect. This has, after all, happened before. “I’m sick and tired of listening to the same old crap.”
But he merely has to argue his case — she has to argue for her humanity. Left otherwise powerless, she is reduced — as women so often are in heterosexual relationships, only to then be mocked for it — to screaming a litany of frustrations at her partner, who still does not seem to bother to hear them.
But during this tirade, something unexpected happens:
You know half the world is occupied with you pigs;
I can always get another pig like you
You’ve heard of Female Liberation,
Well that’s for me
You’ll see me walk out one day
And then where will you be?
Here, Yoko/the narrator unexpectedly makes the explicit connection between her partner’s poor behavior towards her and gender oppression. Dreamily, she sings of what her life will be like outside of the relationship — relaxed, and in community with those who truly respect and understand her. But while contrasting this feminist fantasy with her restricted and stifled sense of self within the relationship, it suddenly becomes clear that she is at least in part using theory of liberation as something of a performance intended to score points — something many of us will admit to doing if we are honest with ourselves — when she bursts into a screaming, heart-wrenching rage at the realization that her partner might not be taking her words to heart:
Are you listening, you jerk, you pig, you bastard,
You scum of the earth, you good for nothing
Are you listening?
But just as quickly as the anger erupted, the pounding of the piano immediately quiets as the man turns to leave. The narrator swiftly crumples under the weight of emotional need she feels towards her partner, half sobbing, half whispering, and fully self-effacing:
Oh, don’t go
Please, don’t go
I didn’t mean it, I’m just in pain
I’m sorry, I’m sorry
The narrator finds herself forced to make a choice. On one side are theory, respect, and self-confidence. On the other side is the man she loves, the person she has built a life with, who is nonetheless treating her with a certain sexist indifference and derision.
But does that necessarily make it as simple as a choice between feminism and patriarchy? Or is it a choice between what one ideally wants and what ones knows they can realistically have? A choice between something one desperately needs and something else one desperately needs just as badly? Or a complicated choice, involving pieces of each?
Almost all would agree that it is possible for women to love men while also strongly opposing sexism and the domination of women by men. But What A Bastard The World Is asks: what happens when these two acts collide? Can’t it at certain points become impossible to do both at once? And what, then, when it does?
The song uneasily leaves these questions unanswered, while making it clear that the dilemma is systemic:
What a bastards the world is
Taking my man away from me
Taking the world away from me
While one could easily read these lines as a passing of blame, I read them as a structural critique as much as they are a means of lashing out. What a bastard the world is, confining male-female romantic relationships within the inescapable structure of patriarchy. What a bastard the world is, teaching us nothing but oppression and subjugation. What a bastard the world is, not teaching men and women to see each other as more than objects of power, not teaching men and women to love each other wholly as equals.
Female Lib is nice for Joan of Arc
But it’s a long, long way for Terry and Jill
Most of us were taught not to shout our will
Few of us were encouraged to get a job for skill
And all of us live under the mercy of male society
Thinking that their want is our need
Those last bolded lines are, in my view, some of the best lyrics Yoko has ever written. Such a succinct, poetic, and cutting description of how women are socialized to engage with men in romantic and sexual relationships, how men are socialized to believe that women should engage. Thinking that their want is our need. It is devastating, and it is true. Within this framework, how can male-female relationships not be destined to fail? Indeed, even women who do not partner with men are taught these same messages and often act them out in other relationships. So how can women not be destined to fail?
But as these lyrics somewhat bitterly note, the feminism of the classroom and the rally is a long way from the feminism of our everyday, home lives. Sure, we need liberation — but too often we don’t know where to begin. And too often, feminism has failed to take the daily choices that women must make into account. Choices centered on survival, and yes, choices centered on love. When feminist liberation is pitted against love, not by right-wing columnists out to say that feminists hate men, but by the unfortunate realities of the lives this world has given us, the choice is not in any way simple.
How can men and women form loving relationships when they are not equal? How can these relationships be created outside of gendered power dynamics when those dynamics are so socially pervasive? When women are taught to believe that men’s wants are actually our needs, how can women who partner with men manage to separate love from obligation and duty, to love in ways that are healthy and self-affirming? With men taught to expect the same from women, how can men who partner with women separate love from expectation and dominance and learn to love in ways that are not oppressive?
What does it mean for men and women to need each other when men cannot fully respect and women cannot wholly trust? What does it mean for women to love those who were never taught to see them as fully human? And what does it mean, too, for women who are oriented towards partnering with men to leave them behind, when these dynamics keep perpetuating themselves? Is that liberation? What can liberation mean in this context? Can there be true liberation if it is absent of love? Can there be true love if it is absent of liberation?
These are questions that women who partner with men certainly did not leave behind in the 70s, that feminists still struggle to answer and must clumsily, imperfectly continue to work through. I certainly cannot prescribe the solutions any better than Yoko could. But for raising these issues with such emotional authenticity, passion, skill, and nuance, for acknowledging that finding the right questions is just as important as finding the right answers, and for refusing to concede or degrade either her need for romantic companionship with men or her political vision of gender liberation, Yoko Ono’s What A Bastard The World Is should be considered a feminist masterpiece.