Music Matters: Kool Thing

This summer, I went to see Sonic Youth in Prospect Park. My friends and I sat on the grass drinking box wine out of paper cups and blissing out on the music. We were joined by a friend-of-a-friend, who seemed to want to mansplain Sonic Youth to us. After I had to use Wikipedia to prove he was wrong about Kim Gordon’s age, I sat back in rock’n’roll-induced euphoria to talk about Kim Gordon as an influence in my teenage years.

See, Sonic Youth was a little too weird for me to actually sit down and listen to very often when I was young. But Kim Gordon? I wanted to BE Kim Gordon. Hell, the fact that her music sort of scared me was a plus. I wanted to make myself scary.

And at the same time as Kim’s music was this unwieldy, beautiful-monstrous thing, she had a style that was both easy and difficult to aspire to.

Imitating Courtney Love was easy: buy ever-present babydoll dress, rip, repeat. Kim was a different model of punk-rock femininity, an icon who actually designed clothes in her spare time. I would take the commuter rail to the Red Line into Boston and search the shops in Harvard Square for X-Girl things I could afford.

I only ever bought one T-shirt but it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, age fifteen. I wore it with a short black skirt or dress and tights and Doc Martens and imagined having the guts to be a punk rock star. I knew who I wanted to be like.

Kim was older, she’d been through the rock’n’roll life for a while and she wasn’t falling apart in public. She was a model for a rock star who could still be functional, someone who could dabble in other careers without selling out, who had a clothing line well before it became a cliche, who found a way to be both femme and badass.

And her very career longevity has become another thing to aspire to. 2010, 16 years after I discovered her, I got to see her play and she rocked as hard as she ever could’ve in her twenties. That argument about her age? She’s 57. She’s still designing clothes, making art, making music, and still an icon.

by Sarah Jaffe
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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Don't need no mansplanation to love Kim Gordon!

<p>I second the love for Kim Gordon. One of my first memories of her was watching the video for "Kool Thing" at a Gadzooks, which seems appropriate given the band's love of blurring art with commerce. Later I saw some footage of her performing while pregnant with her daughter (who she gave birth to at 41) and that is also powerful.

But I wanted to bring up some detractors' claims that Gordon isn't a good instrumentalist and thus doesn't contribute anything valuable to a band with (male) members so universally praised for their technical and creative innovations. As this is often a gendered criticism, it seems useful to address it here. I've always thought that assessment was ridiculous because 1) she is the genius behind their Warholian image and always has been, 2) she is their best vocalist and might possess one of rock's most evocative voices, 3) she's written some of my fave SY songs, and 4) she continues to improve as a bassist and develop as a guitar player. I think this fourth point is especially interesting because the band is so revered for Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore's ax work. To have her chug alongside them this far into her career makes me smile.</p>

<3's for K.G.


Thanks so much for mentioning those gendered criticisms of Kim Gordon. I'm so sick of hearing 'em! As a an elaboration of point #1, I wanted to add that her early art criticism seems to me a sort of road map for Sonic Youth's early explorations. It drives me crazy when people ignore her conceptual influence when touting Moore's and Ranaldo's genius guitar playing. Of course they're brilliant, but I'll be damned if their seminal recordings don't aspire to translate Gerhard Richter and Mark Rothko into sound. And we all know who was responsible for putting Kerze on the cover of Daydream Nation.

Sonic Youth was a little too

<i>Sonic Youth was a little too weird for me to actually sit down and listen to very often when I was young. But Kim Gordon? I wanted to BE Kim Gordon. Hell, the fact that her music sort of scared me was a plus. I wanted to make myself scary.</i>

There was a post on Tiger Beatdown a few moths ago about how women, as artists, are dissuaded from making an ugly or a weird sound. I love that Kim wasn't afraid to sound ugly. I had kind of the same reaction to Sonic Youth's music: it was weird and dissonant and I couldn't wrap my head around it, but whatever it was, I wanted to be it. I wanted to be her.

Loving Sonic Youth & Kim Gordon

I LOVE Sonic Youth. It took a very long time but I finally "got" all their albums; and it turns out my favorite songs are almost all Kim's! (short list: Sweet Shine, Sympathy for the Strawberry, Jams Run Free, I Love You Golden Blue, her two epics on Daydream Nation, Orange Rolls & Angel Wings, &c. &c.)

I didn't realize she was responsible for SY's artsy image... nor was I ever sure how much she wrote, mostly because no two bands write in the same way and it's silly to guess or pretend to know without the artists actually describing the process to you. For that matter, all SY songs are credited to "SY." So while Lee & Thurston's guitars ARE very very interesting indeed, there is no doubt in my mind that the music would be entirely different without Kim. And consider this final point: there came a time when Thurston was all about some pseudo-macho/ZZ-top style (these are not good songs...), which is also around the time when Kim started penning a whole slew of lovely ambient downers & uppers (these largely are). So her input can NOT be ignored, period. (And of course on similar grounds neither can the other three members')

On women making "weird" music: yes, Kim even talked about this. You know she started out in some kind of avant-garde hardcore metal band? Hehe. But she points out how there are not many women willing to create abrasive rock and even fewer women willing to make very avant-garde "out there" stuff.

Final note: an opening lyric to the lead track off "The Eternal" goes: "What's it like to be a girl in a band? That's a question I just don't understand." I LOOOOVE it. Obviously Kim DOES understand the question--this isn't an ideal world, and being a woman in a male-dominated field must surely affect you, even if all that affect amounts to is "Wow there sure are a lot of men at these shows... oh well let's start playing." But it points out how in a better world, it won't really matter whether it's a guy or a gal making the music, insofar as the music itself doesn't deal with gender. And it also points out how surely she gets that question a lot, which must be frustrating, but also revealing, in how pervasive the men-rock symbiosis is.

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