Kill Your Idols

Kill Your Idols

Sonic Youth’s DIY ethic couldn’t sustain itself in the face of a corporate world eager to market youthful anger like any other commodity. But Kim Gordon’s remarkable new book shows that no matter how institutionalized it became, punk offered a radical way of seeing the world.

Kim Gordon playing in 2008 (NRK P3 / Flickr)

Is It My Body? Selected Texts
by Kim Gordon
Sternberg Press, 2014, 182 pp.

It’s hard to remember the sorry state that pop music fell into during the 1980s. Who wants to recall the silky synthesizer sounds of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet that became the musical equivalent of Valium? Or heavy metal bands like Van Halen, who airbrushed technical guitar chops over idiotic machismo and emotional absence. Or the “classic rock” radio stations (before the advent of the internet) that suggested all good things came from the past, from the charmed late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1981 the music critic Lester Bangs asked a young acquaintance what bands she liked. She spat out bands like The Yardbirds, Cream, and The Doors. For Bangs, this indicated how young people of the eighties had “absolutely no culture” of their “own.” Rock felt old and staid, dull and dated. Perhaps this is what connected it safely to an era defined by our oldest president—Ronald Reagan. Here was a man who rode the white horse of backlash from the 1960s into the White House, while pasting a 1940s Hollywood smile over old-fashioned mean-spiritedness.

When Ronald Reagan’s handlers tried to expropriate Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A” for his 1984 campaign, the marriage between rock and the political establishment lit up. In 1974, the producer and journalist Jon Landau pronounced Bruce Springsteen the “future” of rock and roll; now Springsteen seemed to determine the future of Ronald Reagan. Of course, “the Boss”—and, yes, there are disturbing elements to that nickname—was a liberal, so he didn’t support Reagan. But despite Springsteen’s protest against the misappropriation of his song, the potential of rock music to serve conservative ends shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Rock songs no longer conjured protest or rebellion, they had simply become listless background entertainment or worse. The lead singer of the punk band Black Flag, Henry Rollins, heard Springsteen’s song and concluded, “I can see the troops now. Bounding over the fields in a war, singing ‘Born in the USA” while they catch bullets.”

Rollins represents another face of the 1980s—namely, underground rock and its fretful energy. Bubbling below synthed-out pop and corporate rock was music that sometimes blasted protest but more often, visceral anger. It predominantly came out of suburban basements, independent rock venues (sometimes clubs but often rented spaces like community halls), cassette tapings, and numerous zines put together with glue and scissors in kids’ bedrooms. It was a new chapter in the broader history of punk called “hardcore,” named as such because it resisted expropriation by the culture industry—it was so fast and furious that it could never be played on the radio. Hardcore was as much a part of the 1980s as Van Halen, or at least as much a part of what the historian Bradford Martin called “the other 1980s.” But it has since been included in the canon of musical history: the classic documentary, American Hardcore (2006) or Dave Grohl’s show “Sonic Highways” on HBO, which documents the history of the D.C. hardcore scene out of which the former drummer of Nirvana himself emerged. (I too was involved in the D.C. punk scene and now teach a course on the history of cultural rebellion.)

One band that bridged the punk movement of the late 1960s and ’70s and what was labeled “alternative” or “independent” music of the 1980s and ’90s was Sonic Youth, a band that originated in 1981 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and existed until 2011. Throughout the band’s long life, Kim Gordon teamed up with her then husband Thurston Moore, guitarist Lee Ranaldo and a series of different drummers, settling eventually on Steve Shelley (who had previously played with the hilariously radical punk band, The Crucifucks). Sonic Youth became famous for its capacity to unleash “noise” within a traditional rock ‘n’ roll song structure. They pioneered avant-garde techniques—including mistuned guitars, feedback, drum sticks jammed behind guitar strings—while creating pop hits like 1990’s feminist classic “Kool Thing” (featured in Hal Hartley’s marvelous film, Simple Men) and 1992’s “Sugar Kane.” Sonic Youth became rock stars who were diffident about being rock stars.

Moore and Gordon were often asked to describe their relationship to the hardcore scene of the 1980s. While expressing sympathy for the snarl of this young music, Moore explained during an interview in the early 1980s that he couldn’t abide “the fifteen-year-old, assassinate Reagan, thirty-second thrash song.” Gordon and Moore were older than most hardcore participants, and they came from academic families. Gordon herself worked in conceptual art. Her roommate, Jenny Holzer, became famous for her word-art—her series of “truisms” like “it takes a while before you can step over inert bodies and go ahead with what you were trying to do”—that first appeared wheatpasted up throughout New York City in the late 1970s. Gordon was influenced by the conceptual artist Dan Graham who wrote about the politics and history of punk rock. Through Graham, she became introduced to a wider tradition of rock ‘n’ roll intellectualism, a world of literary music journalism often populated by men: the aforementioned Lester Bangs as well as Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau. But there were some women working within this literary music-criticism tradition—American-born Ellen Willis, for instance, who had started her career in the late 1960s and commented on the politics of punk music during the 1970s; in England, Caroline Coon and Julie Burchill contributed to discussions of punk and related ideas. The tradition that Kim Gordon entered took the politics of music and the counterculture accompanying it seriously, while reporting on what often seemed an anti-intellectual revolt led mostly by hormonal young men with loud guitars.

Gordon’s own musical and intellectual roots went back to “no-wave,” which predated hardcore. Many critics called this “noise” music, and some performers certainly justified the label. Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks rejected traditional chords for atonal guitar-banging, creating songs that sometimes clocked in at around thirty seconds; DNA squawked incomprehensibly over repetitive bass-lines and manic, trebly guitar blasts; and James Chance and The Contortions layered discordant free jazz over a jerky, funky beat. Village Voice journalist Steve Anderson called no-wave “New York’s last stylistically cohesive avant-rock movement.” It also reflected the existential despair felt in the then slum of the Lower East Side, where many of these performers lived. Lydia Lunch explained that the scene arose from “the waste product of Taxi Driver, . . . the blackout of ’77, . . . rampant poverty,” and a desire to “rebel against the complacency of a zombie nation dumbed down by sitcoms and disco.” Gordon’s own take on the scene, which she wrote about in her new book of essays Is It My Body?, was that it was “very free and very abstract.”

Is It My Body? was published in early 2014, and is a collection of texts that were mostly written around the time that Sonic Youth transformed from a band in the burgeoning “underground” of the early 1980s (when they released albums on independent labels) to an increasingly famous musical act that heralded the “alternative” music of the 1990s (and began releasing their music on major record labels). Many of Gordon’s essays were originally published in artistic publications like the very small and short-lived Real Life Magazine, as well as better-known ones like Artforum. Gordon’s art has also been published before, but this work shows off her more intellectual side and serves as an important accompaniment to her forthcoming memoir, Girl in A Band (expected out in February 2015). Is It My Body? provides readers with an intellectual history not just of Sonic Youth, but of the entire 1980s underground and its transformation from underground rebellion into something else. You can hear a young woman whose star is rising thinking out loud and on paper about the meaning of avant-rock music. It’s remarkable that so many of the essays published here were written during the early years of the band’s existence (1981–85), when Gordon was balancing playing in a band, working odd jobs, and writing for art journals. In a way, these essays set out the challenges Gordon imagined the band would face, what cultural roadblocks they would encounter to making challenging music in the pale decade of the 1980s.

Gordon dissects a repressive iciness within Reagan-era culture (similar to the moods captured in popular novels of the 1980s like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City). Unlike the swinging nightclubs of the 1970s that once offered “fuck rooms,” she describes the rock clubs of the 1980s as presenting an “atmosphere . . . often designed to be more one of sublimation, to the point of a sterility that has become a new sort of nonsexual eroticism. The notion of resistance—the withholding of contact between people—is a common state in current clubs.” She observed this in the conspicuous “mirrors” and “video monitors” in rock clubs that interrupted audience interaction. An “intensification of nervous stimulation” engendered the “blasé attitude” that Georg Simmel identified as an effect of modern capitalism, and whom Gordon cites. It was difficult for any avant-rock band to “move” a group of “bored young adults” or “put some edge into the atmosphere by using what is now a technologically primitive social tool, the electric guitar.”

Popular culture had made audiences inert and bored during the 1980s. At the national level, this culture was defined by MTV, which got its start in 1981. The pastiche of music videos played alongside one another created a television-screen version of a shopping mall. “Truth passes into fiction and out again,” Gordon writes in 1985, “history is recycled into the present without a context and the present has become a leap of faith, as we sit back and enjoy the ultra fast life of MTV.” Consider that this comment was made before the internet changed the music world. It seems almost quaint to hear such concern about the flattening out and speeding up of content in ’85, given the predominance of YouTube and instant downloading today.

To rebel and seize an audience was no small challenge in the early 1980s. Revolting—Sonic Youth’s 1983 EP was evocatively entitled Kill Yr Idols—within the framework of playing in a rock band often appeared impossible, or at least, contradictory. This might be why Gordon pays so much attention to cultural producers working within other media, even while she charted her own course in music. Gordon kept one foot in rock but, like her mentor Dan Graham, another in the world of the visual arts. She didn’t write about the “neo-expressionism” of East Village artists of the 1980s, painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, or Kenny Scharf. All of these men found commercial success as the art market ballooned during the second half of the 1980s. Instead, Gordon focused her attention on one of the most interesting and compelling artists connected to the American underground—Raymond Pettibon.

Pettibon’s art adorned the albums and show flyers of his brother’s band, Black Flag, and the Minutemen, one of the best bands the American underground ever produced. SST Records also produced Pettibon’s own zine, Tripping Corpse. Pettibon had no formal artistic training; he had studied economics as a young man. But he displayed enormous talent in combining ink drawings with, as Gordon puts it, “one-liner punch lines with a twist.” Words and images worked together but also produced tension, and often, irony. In an interview with novelist and critic Dennis Cooper, Pettibon admitted that his “ideas always came out of reading,” an affinity shared by Gordon, whose own roots are in conceptual art.

Consider three of my own favorite works of Pettibon: an older Elvis Presley strapped to a cross with the line “you didn’t love him enough”; a depiction of cigarette packs labeled Vantage, Kool, and Salem with scraggly shadows running from their bottoms and the words “Which is America’s Best? Our System of Healthy Competition Lets You Decide”; or the feminist drawing of a woman stuck in a bottle screaming to get out and the words “Since You Can’t Get Her Out Anyway, The Thing to Do is to Throw Out the Whole Thing.” Many of these works were pasted onto Los Angeles telephone poles rather than displayed in art galleries. Pettibon drew upon the energies of hardcore’s do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic: if you had something to say, you produced it and distributed it yourself.

Pettibon focused on the seamier side of American cultural history; there’s a noirish quality to his work. One recurring figure in his work is Charles Manson, and as Gordon points out, Pettibon isn’t going for shock-value so much as recognizing a sick truth to Manson’s words. Gordon quotes Manson explaining the reaction to the Family’s murder of Sharon Tate, “I know this: that in your hearts and your own souls, you are as much responsible for the Vietnam war as I am for killing these people.” While this might sound like psychotic justification for murder, it also illustrates how Pettibon conceives of Manson less as a freakish aberration and more a part of the homegrown violence at the heart of American history (Gordon cites the work of cultural critic and historian Richard Slotkin here). While the classic-rock stations of the 1980s were grooving on the sounds of the 1960s, Pettibon reminded viewers of the decade’s bleakness. This wasn’t done for conservative ends but rather to explain why a new generation rejected the “peace and love” rhetoric and complacent nostalgia of baby-boomer retreads.

By 1990 Sonic Youth moved off independent labels—including Black Flag’s own label, SST (with its slogan “Corporate Rock Sucks”), and signed on to a major label. They managed to retain features of no-wave and minimalist music, while, as John Cage famously put it, “giving up control so that sounds can be sounds.” They did all of this within the form and structure of rock songs. And as they recorded their music in more expensive studios, a cleaner polish and sound started to emerge (just listen to their eponymous 1981 EP and their 1990 album, Goo). Still, they retained their energy and noise (and included a Raymond Pettibon artwork on their first corporate release). Much like jazz musicians who translate improvisation and chance into the limits of piano chords and the structure of musical ballads, Sonic Youth fused chaos to form. They managed to remain wedded to an avant-rock ethic while reaching a wider audience. And the wider world of corporate music was then beginning to change and search hungrily for the next “Kool Thing”; this would eventually become the grunge scene of Seattle.

In the end, Kim Gordon’s and Sonic Youth’s career conjures up what Peter Bürger called “the institutionalization of the avant-garde.” In 1991—one year after Sonic Youth’s first major label album came out and more famously, the year when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” raced to the top of the charts—punk “broke” (the term used in the title of Dave Markey’s documentary about both bands). Suddenly there was an above-ground “alternative” music explosion. The airwaves of the 1990s sounded nothing like the airwaves of the 1980s, even though “alternative” music became just as formulaic as the corporate rock of the 1980s. “Nirvana clone bands” blasted non-stop on the airwaves. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden sounded an awful lot like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. History repeated itself.

During one interview with Jutta Koether from 2003, Gordon recollected how she still admired the “lo-fi quality” of punk music. But then Koether let this slip: “We are in a very different era where we have to deal with the fact that the liberating aspects of these DIY modes do not have the same effect anymore. They happened and have been used and cooped [sic] into something that is just one commodity among others.” Gordon seemed to agree with Koether here. The message behind the title of British critic George Melly’s legendary historical account of cultural rebellion is now often repeated to us: Revolt into Style.

Everybody grows up, as the cliché goes. So consider this: Kim Gordon has a book that could be assigned in undergraduate courses on the history of art theory and music; Henry Rollins is now regularly featured in Rolling Stone magazine and has done USO tours (he was already doing ads for the Gap during the early 1990s, for Christ’s sake); and Raymond Pettibon’s work is now shown in the Museum of Modern Art. It’s a very different world from the 1980s. And yet, reading Gordon’s book shows that no matter how institutionalized it became, punk offered a way of seeing the world—angry, unwilling to compromise with adult expectations, dissonant, suspicious, refusing to be contained. But also brimming with ambitions for something beyond just commercial success. There was a desire never to allow rock to become safe. Gordon’s own career and her writing show that the possibility of revolt dimmed when alternative music became the rage of the 1990s, when Nirvana took the style of the underground and turned it into a new version of arena rock with corporate distribution. The DIY ethic couldn’t sustain itself in the face of a hungry corporate world willing to market youthful anger like any other commodity. The underground of the 1980s has passed, but in Gordon’s writing, it is richly remembered.

Kevin Mattson is on the editorial board of Dissent and is working on a book about the history of American punk.