It is possible that none of us are ever going to see Sonic Youth play live again. The king and queen of the ‘Alternative Nation’, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, are separating after 27 years of marriage. It is hard to imagine that even a band with the longevity of Sonic Youth could survive that level of upheaval.
Sonic Youth are my favourite band and I’ve been lucky enough to see them live on several occasions. There are very few things I enjoy more than SY gigs, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to write about those things in a public arena. They’ve been a continuous influence on me since my early teens – I firmly believe I’d be a wildly different person if I hadn’t seen the video for100% on MTV2 when I was 14. The song was (is) incredible, and the video was full of hot boys in plaid shirts (yes please), but it was their bass player who left the biggest impression on me. Who was that sassy blonde chick in the sunglasses?
I did some investigative work, and discovered that the sassy lady in question was Kim Gordon. She is a self-taught bass player, a feminist, an artist and an all-round badass. Gordon was singing about what it’s like to be a girl in a band before riot grrl made it cool.
In the roll-call of feminist musicians, she is often over-looked in favour of riot grrl heroes like Kathleen Hanna and Alison Woolfe. She has never scrawled ‘Slut’ on her belly in Magic Marker, or refused to hand out lyric sheets to boys. She’s an inspiration to me precisely because she never retreated into grrl land – a magical place where all musicians are feminists, and your audiences are all radical ladies. She has stuck it out in the real world – fearlessly herself, unafraid to stand out and confront people who aren’t used to being confronted.
Gordon’s lyrical contributions have been the most memorable of Sonic Youth’s catalogue. Political, creepy, heartbreaking, funny, but always clever and brave. Although a good proportion of her lyrical output has dealt with her experiences as a woman, she has never alienated the men in her audience. (Not that a few men feeling unwelcome at shows is a terrible thing. Lord knows women have few spaces to call their own.) It’s not that she’s pandering to them. I mean, it’s pretty chuffing gutsy to ask Chuck D on a record (Kool Thing) ‘…are you going to liberate us girls from male, white, corporate, oppression? Gordon manages to make gendered experiences seem universal, and in doing so has transmitted feminist messages to men who happily sing them back at her.
Maria Raha describes Sonic Youth as ‘…provocative, intelligent, and dogma-free…’ (Cinderella’s Big Score – Women of the punk and indie underground, pg. 133) Gordon’s lyrics are exactly that. She poses uncomfortable questions rather than pretending she has all the answers.
In many ways though, I do see Kim Gordon as a proto-riot grrl. She’s no separatist, and she isn’t in an explicitly feminist band. But she also doesn’t pretend that it’s no big deal that she’s a woman in a hugely successful noise-rock band. She doesn’t feel that just because she’s managed it, it’s easy for other women to do something similar. Throughout her career, she has supported other creative women. She produced Hole‘s Pretty On The Inside, and has collaborated with icons like Lydia Lunch and Julie Cafritz. Earlier this year, she was part of the Kathleen Hanna Project event in NYC where she read the Riot Grrl Manifesto. Her willingness to be part of an event celebrating the riot grrl legacy is proof of her ongoing political engagement.
She is fifty-eight now, and still wearing mini-dresses and heels that show off her fabulous pins. She hasn’t shut up, or retired gracefully. She’s refused to accept that women ever get too old to be vital performers while their male counterparts have careers that continue for many years longer. I’m certain that none of this will change, even if Sonic Youth are no more. More than any other woman in music, Kim Gordon has inspired me to be myself. To be noisy, a bit grumpy, and to live firmly in the here and now because that’s where you can make the biggest difference.
Kool Thing? Kim Gordon is the Koolest Thing.
Portrait by Richard Kern