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.
Last week, I was bestowed with a treasure. My friend Curran made me a two-volume mix CD, one of my favorite things to give and receive. I especially love Internal/External’s “Stepping Up to the Mic,” Yoko Ono and Cat Power’s “Revelations,” and Takaka Minekawa’s “Fantastic Cat,” which he selected specifically for my cat, Kozy. And he also reminded me that I should have been listening to Crass this whole time.
His mix came with a 20-page set of liner notes with lyrics, observations, and personal meanings for each song. Curran is a very thorough, thoughtful person who values homemade things and resistive, non-normative modes of expression. I had a dream that he wrote a 30-page essay on Shonen Knife for this blog’s “Records That Made Me a Feminist” section and have no doubt that he might. You should read it.
The week before that, I was bestowed with another treasure. My neighbor-friend Rosa-María left a clipping from Entertainment Weekly in my door, with the blurb for Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls circled. So I picked up a copy (actually, Kristen got me a copy from the UT Library, as I hadn’t replaced my UT student ID yet). I had never heard of the author before and know very little about who she is as an author or what she means to her native England (I guess she’s a writer and teaches writing classes at the university level; thanks, Wikipedia). I wasn’t even sure what era this book was going to cover (luckily for me, she comes of age during the 1970s, a very interesting time for England and to me). Just as you do with a mix CD, you take your friend’s recommendations on faith and dive in.
Let me share with you now one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the power of making mixes for people. Greenlaw’s words:
The greatest act of love was to make a tape for someone. It was the only way we could share music and it was also a way of advertising yourself. Selection, order, the lettering you used for the track list, how much technical detail you went into, whether or not you added artwork and no tracklist at all, these choices were as codified as a Victorian bouquet.
Yes, exactly. This quote has new resonance for me after making mix CDs for 50 GRCA campers. I hope they take the blank, one-color paper sleeves and make something completely their own out of them.
Now, the task of writing a review for the book poses a challenge. Its use-value is a little hard to determine. It’s a memoir. So, if you know about Greenlaw and care about her artfully written recollections of coming of age, then this is a good book. But if you don’t know Greenlaw, or have much invested in the place and time in which she comes of age, you might feel like you’re grasping for straws.
But I appreciated Greenlaw’s willingness to recollect events, political movements, personal activities, rituals, and practices as means of identification. She erects collages clipped and ripped and taped and pasted from magazines that constantly shift and mutate her bedroom’s landscape. She laquers her flipped hair and eyelids and straps on platform shoes to go to discos with girlfriends. She recounts the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols antics from the safe distance of her neighborhood and television. She starts listening to “hippie” records (ex: Santana, Genesis) because of a boy, who later accidentally leaves a crate of records for her on the tube when they meet up again as adults (with her partner and child in tow). She goes to concerts with friends. She visits a friend in the hospital after a suicide attempt. She makes and unmakes girl friendships. She renounces punk for new wave because she thinks the subgenre mirrors her affinity for Russian literature and Gauloises. She loves reading and writing, but hates school. She roadtrips to Ohio because she loves Devo. She thinks about Thatcherism and the National Front alongside the Pop Group’s second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, though didn’t put them together at the time (which, seriously, a book that reminds me to throw that record on is a good book by my definition). She cuts her girlfriend’s hair at a party. She constantly dyes and cuts and grows out and re-dyes her own hair.
In short, she constantly changes and renegotiates who she is, configuring herself always in a state of becoming, even after she’s transitioned out of her teenage years.
Putting all of this into a broader context, she’s very easily the type of girl British cultural theorists like Angela McRobbie were later devoting books and articles to, helping to build girls studies programs in the process. McRobbie’s girls tended to be bookish, middle-class in an increasingly impoverished country, rebellious but well-behaved, mercurial and fidgety and looking for their place in music culture and their piece of the street. But this girl, Lavinia, wasn’t theoretical. She was real, and, as an adult, created a document as filled with history and reference and memory and meaning as any good homemade mix. Her book is worth a look and a listen.