“I hope that it still retains a certain wrongness.”
Sonic Youth, of course, created a legacy of musical innovation. Thriving on the playgrounds of noise music for more than three decades, they stoically pursued their own particularly dirty blend of noise-punk experimental rock music, building along the way not only a league of dedicated followers, but also miraculously achieving mainstream success without ever ceding ground to mediocrity. If anything, Sonic Youth became a household name for integrity and that specific kind of cool in a genre where cool is firmly attached to youth – which certainly had a lot to do with the unfailing detached charisma of Kim Gordon, who brought a certain glamour to her male counterparts, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore.
While Sonic Youth’s influence on past and current generations of experimental and punk music is undisputed, Kim Gordon’s role as a female figurehead in music and also in the visual arts might be a more complex one. The phenomenon of Lady Gaga demonstrated once again how the commercial music industry constantly attempts to establish the female performer within a contemporary pop cultural discourse: Creating an artificial personality, confronting the audience with provocation and omnipresence paired with a perfectly calculated performance on stage is still the working formula for explosive and mostly short-lived success, with ultimately little impact beyond next week’s sales sheets.
Interestingly and contrary to the perception we have of current pop figures, the quieter, subtler voices might be the ones heard most clearly in the long term, slowly subverting mainstream culture from the edges. Very few female key figures in music, such as Laurie Anderson, Lydia Lunch and, of course, Kim Gordon, have managed to resist mass media and remain nonconformist without employing overt provocation as a tool to attract attention. They remained within a subculture and still managed to influence generations to come. Lines such as, ‘I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?’ from Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing in 1990 led directly all the way to the Russian girls of Pussy Riot, for example, who recently caused an international stir for their unjust indictment, proving that punk music still remains relevant with an undertone of (gender) politics.
In a way, neglecting or outright refusing the demand for professionalism led artists such as Gordon to just ‘make stuff’ without following a specific strategy, tapping into an undiluted personal curiosity or interest to work with friends. With dozens of collaborative projects across all genres to her name, it is actually quite impossible to attribute a specified field of interest to her. Attracted to the emerging art and music scene in New York of the 1980s, Gordon moved from Los Angeles to the East Coast, where she started playing in different bands before forming Sonic Youth with Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo in 1981. Simultaneously, Gordon participated in countless projects, from interior design to partly producing the seminal first album Pretty on the Inside by the band Hole; from working with Spike Jonze on directing the music video Cannonball by The Breeders to appearing in Gus van Sant’s hommage to Kurt Cobain, Last Days, to name but a few.
An essential and recurring part of Gordon’s creative practice, however, has been her fine art, which has been shown in several galleries and institutions, most recently in Berlin and New York. Her pieces mostly consist of text-based gestural paintings referring to the female body. In her performance work, Gordon experiments with noise and sound created through body movement and the combination of film and live music.
Visual presentation has also played a large part in Sonic Youth’s history. Gordon in particular had a close relationship with the contemporary art community, both as an artist and as a musician. Having studied at an art school in Los Angeles, she had worked previously with a wide range of contemporary artists such as Dan Graham, Richard Prince, and Mike Kelley. The latter, for instance, integrated Sonic Youth into his performance piece Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile in 1985, while also providing the album art for Sonic Youth’s Dirty in 1992. Other record covers came courtesy of Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince, and Gerhard Richter – who provided the artwork for the seminal Daydream Nation in 1988 – creating a pop cultural universe that was steeped just as much in the mythical US art scene of the 1980s and 90s as it was in punk rock. In a unique way, the covers seemed to be both merchandising and, in the broader sense, artist’s editions.
The impact over time of the record covers and general output of Sonic Youth became most evident when they were presented as whole body of work in the exhibition Sensational Fix in Düsseldorf in 2009. While the idea of presenting the ephemera of a punk rock band in an institutional art context might have raised some eyebrows at first, the show in fact told the story of the contemporary culture of an era, touching upon topics such as the search for identity, gender roles, fame, subculture, rebellion, and restlessness. It defined how music shaped our cultural identity in the second half of the 20th century, a role that might now slowly be disintegrating as our relationship to music is changing in the digital era.
Arguably, the digital era might also not be the right context for a determinedly DIY gang like Sonic Youth: Having completed their recent and possibly final tour, the future of the band remains uncertain after last year’s breakup of the marriage between Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore.
Nonetheless, we can count on Kim Gordon to keep ‘making stuff’ and, in fact, it will be interesting to see what she will do next. In an essay for Artforum in 1983, she wrote, ‘People pay to see others believe in themselves.’ And maybe legacy can really be spelled out as simply as that.