Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon: A Feminist Appreciation

On November 14, 2011, Sonic Youth played what was in all likelihood their last show in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Kim Gordon spun across the stage in a red dress, lost in the sonic joy of the moment and music. In recent years, since Sonic Youth has incorporated sidemen such as Jim O’Rourke and Mark Ibold on second bass, Gordon has had the freedom to drop her bass and sing, dance, and just rock out to songs such as “Drunken Butterfly.” Her performance on November 14 showed the abandonment, sensuality, attitude, and guts that have long characterized Gordon. As the band completes what’s in all probability its final tour, it’s crucial to recognize Gordon’s singular achievement as an original voice who was instrumental in the creation of an underground feminist culture that continues to criticize corporate hegemony.

By examining some of Sonic Youth’s most important music, Gordon’s strong feminist commitment becomes clear. In “The Sprawl,” a song on Sonic Youth’s classic 1988 album Daydream Nation, Gordon discovers the feminist implications of the cyberpunk writer William Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy,” which consists of the novels Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gordon’s first three lines—“To the extent that I wear skirts / And cheap nylon slips / I’ve gone native”—construct a female narrator whose clothing reveals her gender and positions her as a female “native” of the Sprawl, Gibson’s vision of a futuristic but eerily contemporary America dominated by mass media technology and corporations. The next three lines indicate that the narrator has purpose and agency in performing her gender in this way: “I wanted to know the exact dimension of Hell / Does this sound simple? / Fuck you! Are you for sale?” The narrator’s clothing is a disguise that allows her to carry out the complex mission of understanding the corporate objectification of American women. Gordon’s performance is instrumental to this feminist critique. She plays bass on “The Sprawl,” demonstrating that she is not the traditional female rock performer who only fronts a band, but is an active, instrument-playing participant in the writing and performing of the music. She performs her lead vocals in her guttural sing-speak style that is far removed from the vocal styles of traditional female rock singers, offering a feminist rejection of the corporate popular music establishment.

Gordon’s work on “The Sprawl” and Daydream Nation as a whole occurs in the context of more explicitly feminist work of the same period, the best example of which is Sonic Youth’s 1988 cover of Robert Palmer’s mainstream hit “Addicted to Love.” The song is not really a cover of the Palmer song at all because the band does not perform the music itself; rather, the band uses the music that Palmer originally recorded as the sole backing for Gordon, who chants the song’s lyrics in a flat, bored voice. She unenthusiastically delivers lines such as “Your lights are on, but you’re not home / Your mind is not your own.” The irony of a talented, strong feminist figure such as Gordon singing so lifelessly reveals the sexism intrinsic to a song that imagines women as mindless, sex-obsessed drones.

In addition, Gordon’s video for the song criticizes Palmer’s take on women. In Palmer’s video, a suit-clad Palmer lip-syncs the lyrics while a bevy of expressionless, scantily clad women in white face paint gyrate behind him. In her video for Sonic Youth’s cover of the song, Gordon imitates the dance moves of Palmer’s women, but she gyrates above a sexually positioned guitar neck and performs in front of a screen showing soldiers firing machine guns as they maneuver through a wooded training area or combat zone. By including images of men with guns, the video points out the violence and aggression at the heart of Palmer’s view of women. It also condemns an America that condones a corporate, patriarchal, and militaristic mainstream cultural establishment that allows for needless wars and the objectification of women.

The first song on Sonic Youth’s 2004 album Sonic Nurse, “Pattern Recognition,” directly references the Gibson novel of the same title and positions it within the band’s feminist discourse, with Gordon singing the opening two lines—“I’m a cool hunter making you my way / Like a brand name you’ll replay”—in her sing-speak style. These lines not only establish the narrator’s connection to the main character, Cayce Pollard, but they also indicate that corporate capitalism has perverted female sexuality, transforming merely it into a desirable “brand name” object. Gordon’s narrator goes on to compare herself to a “Heat-seeking missile freak,” further eroticizing her as a woman who wants the phallic “missile” of the masculine object of her desire. By the middle of the song, the crucial lines of which are “Can you sell me / Yesterday’s girl / Cuz everyday I feel more like her,” the narrator realizes her own existence in corporate capitalism as a commodity whose sexuality can be objectified, bought, and sold. By the end of the song, when Gordon sings “Pattern recognition / Is kind of slow / Like a cool hunter watch the disarray / Keep your secret foolish head away,” the narrator recognizes the pattern of corporate America’s commodification of female sexuality and demands to be left outside the capitalist system. The recognition of this pattern leads to the “disarray” that derives from the knowledge of capitalism’s objectification of female sexuality.

Another key track on Sonic Nurse, “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” also demonstrates the unimpeded growth of a capitalist system that commodifies and demeans women for profit. Corporate record labels, as the narrator of “Kim Gordon” argues, “remake” the bodies of celebrity women like Mariah Carey, constructing them as “totally perfect” eroticized commodities. By transforming celebrity women into eroticized commodities, corporate record labels acknowledge women as mere objects useful only to the extent that they gratify male sexual desire rather than as dynamic, creative human beings capable of contributing something more to society.

It goes without saying that Sonic Youth have created a legacy of integrity and musical innovation that has influenced important bands from My Bloody Valentine to Nirvana, from Pixies to Sleater-Kinney. With her strong feminist politics, freeform guttural sing-speak, and occasionally off-key vocals, Gordon has also inspired Riot Grrrl vocalists from Courtney Love and Kat Bjelland to Kathleen Hanna, Corin Tucker, and Carrie Brownstein. By challenging the sexism intrinsic to American corporate cultural hegemony through Daydream Nation, Sonic Nurse, and all their other politically charged and formally adventurous work, Gordon and her bandmates have created an admirable and exacting standard for other musicians to follow.

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