Girl in a Band, by Kim Gordon

Sonic Youth split up in 2011, after having been together for an astonishing 30 years. The reason behind the band calling it quits was because band-members Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore recently had announced that they would be separating, after 27 years of marriage (it later became known that the reason behind their separation was because Moore had an affair with another woman). This caused somewhat of shock among fans that had grown up listening to their music and idolized their marriage as living proof that it is possible to stay together in the crazy world of rock and roll. This is probably part of the reason for why Gordon was approached to write a memoir – which came out in 2015 and that I recently read as part of researching Sonic Youth for an essay – but the book is obviously much more than a mere attempt at getting back at Moore. Rather, it is a beautifully written account of Gordon’s life – from growing up in Los Angeles and eventually moving to New York where she met Moore and formed Sonic Youth with him, Lee Ranaldo, and (eventually) Steven Shelley, to their long and successful career and ends both to her marriage and band – interspersed with personal reflections on topics such as femininity, fame, music, and art.

It is consequently not a book about Sonic Youth, but about Gordon, and even though Sonic Youth obviously played a big part in her life, the book remains locked to Gordon’s own perspective. Sonic Youth does not really come up at all until about halfway into the book, and both Shelley and Ranaldo are mentioned only in passing. And when she discusses the band, it is mostly through moments and tracks that are important to her: such as touring with Neil Young and playing a set in the Mojave Desert, and the lyrics to Sonic Youth-classics such as ‘Tunic’, ‘Swimsuit Issue’, ‘Little Trouble Girl’, ‘The Sprawl’, and (of course) ‘Kool Thing’. Central to the book, rather, is the topic of womanhood, and what it is like to be a female ‘rock-star’ (the title of the book comes from the question that Gordon has been asked the most throughout her career – ‘What is it like to be a girl in a band?’ – although since the late 90s it tended to change into ‘What is it like to be a mother in a band?’). Gordon has indeed become known as somewhat of a feminist icon that has influenced everyone from Kathleen Hannah and Roisin Murphy to Pussy Riot and Sofia Coppola, and the book offers a number of memorable passages on Spice Girls, Madonna, and Lana Del Rey – but also reflections on her complicated relationships to men – from her brother to her ex-husband – and her own role as a female musician in an otherwise male band. This passage on Sonic Youth’s final performance from the opening chapter is particularly stunning:

 I took my place in the center of the stage. It didn’t start out that way and I’m not sure when it changed. It was a choreography that dated back twenty years, to when Sonic Youth first signed with Geffen Records. It was then that we learned that for high-end music labels, the music matters, but a lot comes down to how the girl looks. The girl anchors the stage, sucks in the male gaze, and depending on who she is, throws her own gaze back out into the audience. Since our music can be weird and dissonant, having me center stage also makes it that much easier to sell the band. Look, it’s a girl, she’s wearing a dress, and she’s with those guys, so things must be okay.

The experience of reading a memoir of an artist who you admire is often a mixture of surprises and familiarity. Previously unknown things that stood out for me while reading Gordon’s were that she lived in Asia for a year when she was young, that she dated the film-score composer Danny Elfman in high-school, and that she has an older brother who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia (although the famous Sonic Youth-track ‘Schizophrenia’ is apparently not about him). Then there are other things that I was familiar with from before, but which I was reminded about when going through the book – such as her background in the art world. Gordon indeed often points out that she does not consider herself to be a musician – since she lacks formal training and came into music only after having moved to New York as a young woman and encountering No Wave at the end of the 70s – but rather an artist who also works with installations and visual art. This is very prevalent throughout the book, which indeed may be read as an attempt by Gordon to get rid of the image of her as a rock-star – partly by unmasking the unglamorous life while on the road (which includes everything from jet-lag to dirty bathrooms), and how her somewhat iconic marriage ended in the same mid-life crisis as many others (because of a younger woman) – but also by spending a lot of time discussing her involvement in the art world. Then there is of course also the fashion-line X-Girl, which she co-founded in the early 90s and that also produced a ‘Godardesque’ short-film directed by Phil Morrison (mostly known for the film Junebug from 2005) and starring Chloë Sevigny (who made her first onscreen-appearance in the video to Sonic Youth’s track ‘Sugar Kane’).

Elfman, Morrison, and Sevigny are only some examples of by now well-known artists who crossed paths with Gordon throughout her career, and other famous individuals from underground and popular culture who appear in the book include Dan Graham, Henry Rollins, William Burroughs, Lydia Lunch, Julia Cafritz, Kathleen Hanna, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Courtney Love, Jim O’Rourke, Neil Young, and, of course, Kurt Cobain. Her friendship with Cobain is only touched upon quite briefly, although she admits that the two had a very particular connection (not a romantic one, though). The book also appropriately ends with her appearance at Nirvana’s 2014 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where she was invited – along with a number of other female singers – to perform vocals for some of Nirvana’s songs at the event, which turned out to be a kind of reunion for several key figures of the 90s alt-rock scene. The list of people above also reflects what perhaps interests me most about figures such as Kim Gordon – and bands such as Sonic Youth – namely, their ability to move seamlessly between underground and popular culture. Sonic Youth has often been characterized as such a band, partly because of their sound – which ranges from experimental noise-outbursts to relatively conventional rock songs – and because of their moving between performing improvised noise-sets with underground cultural icons such as Merzbow and Yamatsuka Eye (of Boredoms and Naked City), to making multiple appearances on Letterman and having cameos on the most popular of popular TV-shows, such as Gilmore Girls, The Simpsons, and Gossip Girl.

Of course, SY’s appearances in more popular contexts prompted comments about them having ‘sold out’. I am wary of those sentiments, however, since it seems to me that the accusations against artists with backgrounds in the underground who suddenly appear in the mainstream sometimes tend to come off as a kind of default reaction against the ‘toxicity’ of popular culture – as if blatantly distancing itself from it is the only way to maintain one’s integrity. But I think that we need cultural icons such as Sonic Youth and Kim Gordon, who are able to take on the popular without losing their cultural identities (which clearly never happened to neither Gordon nor the band). Indeed, whereas the music scene of the 90s was populated by such artists, the past one-and-a-half decade has seen a glaring absence of what should be their cultural successors. There are a few exceptions of course – such as FKA Twigs, who creates interesting popular music with experimental influences – but mostly it seems to me that the most subversive popular artists are still those who were around in the 90s or earlier (be it Björk or Radiohead). This is indeed one of the things that stood out the most for me while reading Gordon’s memoir and following her amazing career for over several decades in and outside of Sonic Youth: the cultural significance of such figures, and how bland popular culture – but also the underground – tends to become without them.

To access the Sonic Youth-playlist in the video archive, click here.

Image Copyright Notice: Carlo Cravero