So, I finally saw last week’s episode of Gossip Girl. For my money, there is nothing surprising about Sonic Youth performing “Starpower” and bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon marrying Rufus Humphrey and Lily van der Woodsen-Bass-etc. The reason, as I will outline chronologically below, is that flirtations with mainstream popular culture is completely in keeping with their career. This cameo isn’t an isolated incident. If anything this network-savvy band pioneered how indie does synergy.
March 1, 1988: Ciccone Youth, a side project formed in 1986 between the band and Minutemen bassist/co-founder Mike Watt releases The Whitey Album. In this configuration, they took part of their name from Madonna’s surname. They also covered some of her songs, including “Into the Groovey” and “Burnin’ Up.” For good measure, they also covered Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Were they taking the piss or celebrating 80s blockbuster pop? Maybe both? You decide.
June 26, 1990: Goo is released on DGC, marking their major label debut.
In 1991, the Goo video album is released, a clip accompanying each song on the album. Among them are “Mildred Pierce” which features Sofia Coppola dressed as Joan Crawford, who starred in the 1945 film noir of same name, “Disappearer,” which was directed by Todd Haynes, and a few clips directed by Tamra Davis, including “Dirty Boots” and “Kool Thing,” which also featured Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
September 17, 1991: Kim Gordon co-produces Pretty on the Inside, Hole’s debut album, released on Caroline, a subsidiary of Virgin.
July 21, 1992: Dirty is released. Two noteworthy music videos come along with it. Actor Jason Lee, then unknown, is featured as a tragic skateboarder in “100%. The clip was co-directed by Davis and Spike Jonze, who just made some movie about kids and monsters based on a children’s book. Chloë Sevigny, once a Sassy intern, stars in “Sugar Kane,” which also showcases Marc Jacobs’ Perry Ellis grunge collection.
August 9, 1993: “Cannonball” is released as the lead single to The Breeders way-ruling Last Splash. Kim Gordon co-directs the music video with Jonze.
September 14, 1993: Judgment Night is released, along with a successful soundtrack from Epic that pairs alternative/metal acts with rap groups. Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill collaborate on “I Love You Mary Jane.”
1994: Kim Gordon creates X-Girl with Daisy von Furth, a sister clothing line to Beastie Boys Mike D’s X-Large collection. I see DJ Tanner wear an X-Girl blue jumper on Full House and want one.
August 25, 1994: Sonic Youth contributes “Genetic” to the My So-Called Life soundtrack. Released on Atlantic, the compilation features other Juliana Hatfield, Afghan Whigs, Daniel Johnston, and (of course) Buffalo Tom, who every fan remembers played a show on Pike Street.
September 13, 1994: If I Were A Carpenter, a Carpenters tribute album, is released on A&M. An alternafest, acts like American Music Club, Shonen Knife, Babes and Toyland, and Matthew Sweet share time with SY, who cover “Superstar.” In late 2007, the song would make an appearance in the movie Juno.
October 27, 1995: CBS airs “The State’s 43rd Annual All-Star Halloween Special,” marking the MTV sketch comedy troupe’s network television debut. Sonic Youth is the musical guest. Few people watch (I am one of them), and CBS decides to pull the plug.
May 19, 1996: Fox airs “Homerpalooza,” The Simpsons‘ penultimate episode of its seventh season. In it, Homer goes on tour with Hullabalooza (re: Lollapalooza), taking canons to the gut to the bemusement of thousands of jaded slackers. Several acts made guests appearances, including Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, Peter Frampton, and Sonic Youth. The band also provides an “alternative” version to Danny Elfman’s iconic theme song, perhaps getting closer in tone to what creator Matt Groening had originally envisioned when suggesting that avant-jazz composer John Zorn write the show’s theme song. The song is later featured on Rhino’s Go Simpsonic With The Simpsons: Original Music From The Television Series compilation.
June 5, 1996: James Mangold’s debut feature, Heavy, is released in the states. Moore composes the score.
June 1998: I watch the “Kool Thing” video at a Gadzooks in the Mall of America during a trip to Young Life camp in Minnesota.
July 13, 2001: Larry Clark’s Bully is released in theaters. Moore composes the score.
July 25, 2005: Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, the director’s take on Kurt Cobain’s final days, is released in the states. Gordon appears as a record executive based on Danny Goldberg trying to turn the main character’s life around. Moore also served as a music consultant.
May 2006: Former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold joins the band. This has nothing to do with matters of synergy or cross-promotion; I just happen to think he’s kinda cute. He was also featured in a comic strip, but the name escapes me. His catchphrase is something to the effect of “I’m Mark, the bassist from Pavement” but I’m butchering it. My friend Susan told me about it, so maybe she’ll share in the comments section.
June 15, 2007: Pitchfork reports that SY will be contributing a new track to an SY retrospective distributed by Starbucks.
November 21, 2007: Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There is released. Gordon’s makes a cameo as folkie Carla Hendricks, who is based on Judy Collins. The casting furthers my suspicion that SY friend Todd Haynes must have been influenced by the band’s fandom of The Carpenters and preoccupation with Karen Carpenter’s tragic struggle with anorexia. They cover “Superstar.” He makes a biopic about Carpenter called Superstar. Coincidence?
September 8, 2008: Choosing not to renew their contract with Geffen, SY sign with indie stalwart Matador.
November 3, 2008: Moore and former Be Your Own Pet frontwoman Jemina Pearl cover The Ramones’ “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” specifically for “There Might Be Blood,” a season two episode of Gossip Girl.
February 16, 2009: Gordon debuts a clothing collection called Mirror/Dash for Urban Outfitters.
Is this bad? Hmm, maybe. I suppose it depends on your outlook. I’d say it’s no worse than The Flaming Lips performing on Beverly Hills, 90210 (although, maybe for it to be equal, Wayne Coyne would have to play a short-order cook at the Peach Pit). Beyond paying the bills and circulating their brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fair amount of post-modern, art-school, post-Warholian why-the-hell-not? factoring into all of Sonic Youth’s above-ground forays. Or maybe they (gasp!) like many of these texts and ventures.
Perhaps the band knows that dabbling with the mainstream is tricky business. Maybe this explains why Moore (and, to a lesser extent Gordon and guitarist Lee Ranaldo, though not media-shy drummer Steve Shelley) cultivated an authoritative presence in recent music documentaries like Punk: Attitude, Kill Yr Idols, and I Need That Record! It may also have fueled a need for an outlet through which to channel more experimental projects, resulting in the band releasing more challenging work through the Sonic Youth Recordings collection, along with Shelley’s Smells Like label and Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label. In addition, Ranaldo has done a considerable amount of writing, creates installation projects with his wife Leah Singer, has an extensive solo career, and has performed improvisatory film scores as a member of Text of Light.
And, you know. The band is still really good. Even as folks mine their discography or weave them into above-ground mainstream corporate media culture enterprising, they’re still challenging themselves and making great music. Earlier this year, the band released The Eternal, their 16th album. Peaking at #18 on the Billboard charts, it also boasts a consistently great set of songs and a painting by late guitarist John Fahey for its cover. This blurring of art and commerce, for good or for bad, is in keeping with the band and their contributions to music culture.