Tuesday, November 5, 2013

God is Gay and You Were Right: Thoughts on Sonic Youth

(This is a collaborative post. The first half is by regular spook Max Bowen, the second half is by guest contributor Sophie Durbin. The title is a lyric from "Androgynous Mind")
Sonic Youth has been my favorite band for a long time. They broke up 2 years ago, and it is getting easier and easier for rock critics and fans to call them “rock legends” instead of engaging with their body of work. Sonic Youth are not rock legends. Rock legends have touring, costumed tribute bands (Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Elvis impersonators, for instance) that allow 60 year olds to relive their glory years. The idea of a touring Sonic Youth tribute band is absurd, partially because of how untheatrical of a band they were, and partially because of where they emerged from, namely New York’s No Wave scene.  No Wave is a catch-all term used to describe the downtown art scene in the late 70s and early 80s. It is difficult to find objective common features (like jangly guitars or vocal multi-tracking) among No Wave bands and artists, but they all conveyed a sense of stylistic homelessness and claustrophobic urgency. For instance, James Chance and the Contortions featured front man James Chance raving like a more-deranged James Brown  (when I get in the place/ there won’t be nothin left of the human race!) over noisy funk guitars and taking, ahem, “atonal” alto sax solos. Composer Glenn Branca initially gained notoriety doing experimental theater in Boston before relocating to New York and deciding to write symphonies featuring hordes of distorted guitars. Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo played in Branca’s groups, which were an important antecedent to Sonic Youth’s sound.
Thurston Moore

Even though there is zero puerile lore surrounding SY, they are nonetheless influenced by the classic rock sounds that came before them. 80’s hard rock and hair metal baldly embraced the most misogynistic elements of classic rock (case in point, Poison’s “I Hate Every Bone in Your Body But Mine”) and insulted Jimi Hendrix’s experiments with feedback and entropy by turning noise into a calculated cross-eyed spectacle (Van Halen’s “Eruption”, or Yngwie Malmsteen). SY made noise and experimentation a cornerstone of their approach. On tracks like Silver Rocket, the catchy power chord riff that churns the song eventually drops out entirely and is replaced by layers of feedback and guitar tinkering. Whereas previous rock music mostly used noise to add electrified pathos to clichéd blues licks (I’m ignoring Metal Machine Music, but that was a middle finger pointed directly at Robert Christgau anyway), SY makes noise for its own sake. Songs like “100%” feature skewering, flickering feedback alongside sullen, dumb guitar riffs. The idiotically idiomatic coexists with the completely non-idiomatic for a totally uncanny and addictive effect.
In addition to effacing genre conventions and seeking out new approaches instrumentally, SY’s lyrical content presents a radical departure from normal rock and roll subject matter. No idealistic, pugnacious sing-a-longs here. Instead, the lyrics are often cryptic- even if you find yourself singing along with one of their more apparently catchy choruses, you’ll soon be wondering what the fuck you are saying:

Kim Gordon
Inhuman off of Confusion is Sex: “My body is a pastime/ my mind is a simple joy/ I learned my lesson/ the hardest way/ but you don’t know me/ a complete inhuman”

Doctor’s Orders off of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star: “Mother’s such a mess/ she forgets how to dress/ but she’s no longer depressed/ she thinks she’s looking her best”

The Neutral off of Rather Ripped: “you won’t seduce me/ or attract me/ just ‘caus you’re a stray… he’s neutral/ yeah he’s weary/ and he’s so in love with you”

Disconnection Notice off of Murray Street: “Did you get your disconnection notice/ mine came in the mail today/ they seem to think I’m disconnected… everything’s right here inside your file/ you're not so free to be unprotected/ a secret Mona Lisa hides behind her smile”

These lyrics describe people at the fringes of society, but their angst isn’t directed at republicans or cops; it’s aimed directly at the relentless mechanisms of normalcy. Liberation and self-discovery, the by-words of rock and roll’s Woodstock forebears, are absent here. SY’s “self-discovery” is self loss. The acid rockers of the Woodstock era thought love and camaraderie could be found on off-the-grid farmland and behind closed tour bus doors.  When a genre tries to be openly subversive or “alternative”, it ends up sealing its own fate. Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo’s lyrics convey the persistence of love and curiosity in the face of the neutralizing effects of time and power- they are opaque yet honest, horny yet ghostly. Similarly, "Disconnection Notice" describes a sense of being unsynchronized with the obscure bureaucratic processes that, through their effects, constitute our individuality.  What makes Sonic Youth so radical is that they affirm the status quo within the “alternative” genre of independent rock, thereby showing how perverse the status quo really is.
“Liberation and self-discovery”—those buzzwords, those cornerstones of so-called “free love” of the late 60s, when millennials who weren’t there like to imagine rock music was at its purest and human sexuality at its freest—those terms that in fact symbolize to me an aesthetic that is/was predicated upon the availability of female bodies as muses and sex objects. Inextricable from this aesthetic is formal phallogocentrism, which has been argued to enforce the standard format in so-called “great art” that gradually rises, climaxes and returns slowly to “normalcy” à la the male sex response. This structure so thoroughly permeates the way “Western culture” formulates narrative that to destroy it or find alternatives at first looks like an attempt to destroy art itself, to tear fairy tales and soaring choruses out of the hands of the masses. I do not pretend that my forthcoming analysis will put a dent in, let alone destroy, how anyone conceptualizes art, but it is my hope that my exploration of non-phallogocentric form (or gynocentric form, to center the feminine) in the work of Sonic Youth may cause others to reflect on musical structure’s impact to uphold or subvert cultural constructions of gender.

(One important caveat before I begin: it is indeed essentialist to posit that a gynocentric form is inherently different from a phallogocentric one; that is, some women do experience a sex response process thought of as “male” and some men experience a “female” one. However, our culture’s folk wisdom about who gets erections, who has the capacity for multiple orgasms and who penetrates/is penetrated is highly dependent upon a clear-cut gender binary, and in order to analyze how this binary affects Sonic Youth’s music I will be using the binary itself. In summary: some women have penises and some men have vaginas. That does not negate phallogocentrism as a systemically applied, deeply embedded tradition in art.)

Drawing upon French post-structuralist feminists’ (Hélène Cixous in particular, for the purposes of this thought experiment) ideas of l’écriture féminine—writing centered in non-linearity, the pre-Oedipal/pre-language bodily being and a general rejection of phallogocentric structure-- I argue that much of Sonic Youth’s music may qualify as “musique féminine.” Obvious complications arise here: literature and music are different animals entirely and Sonic Youth does not have a spotless past in terms of—at risk of sounding quaint--privileging the phallus (see: Thurston Moore’s tongue-in-cheek-but-not-totally renaming of “Kill Yr Idols” to “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick” in response to the aforementioned Robert Christgau’s negative review of an SY show). Even so, bear with me and take a look at EVOL, commonly cited as the key “transition album” for the band as it floated from No Wave chaos toward a (slightly) more melodic, ordered sound.

As Max said, for Sonic Youth self-discovery is self-loss. There is no unique essence to the band’s musical philosophy—it is created through the bodily act of music-making and performing. This is a stark contrast from bands whose aim has always been to strip away layers of artifice until the truth appears: EVOL layers on the artifice with glee, spinning it and inverting it and cycling it through itself until no truth can be grasped at and no phallogocentric narrative structure privileging linearity and singular climaxes remains.
Richard Kern

The artifice and slippage begins with EVOL as a physical object. The album art itself makes the listener question linear aesthetics: everything is slightly askew, from a photograph of Moore’s hands with eyes drawn on covering his face to a black-and-white image of the band framed by a sugary pink-red heart to the presence of Lung Leg, a model/actress known for her unnerving appearances in the films of transgressive filmmaker Richard Kern (I recommend “You Killed Me First,” which is her best role and also showcases the legendary performance artist Karen Finley). The copy I listened to while preparing this piece was a later issue on candy-pink vinyl, making the listening experience also a compelling visual one as the pastel record spun. Film stills from “Friday the 13th Part II” and “Children of the Corn” also adorn the jacket—what to make of this Easter-egg colored record encased in such a sleeve? The track listing is out of order, there are no specifics as to who is playing what instrument, Lisa Crystal Carver’s liner notes are disjunctive and pasted together like a premonition of the riot grrrl zine craze—is the album’s sound equally disjointed, cyclical, intricate?

Like I said before, EVOL is aural evidence of Sonic Youth’s journey through the world of chaotic noise toward a lusher sound more accepting of melody and pattern. The melody and pattern present, however, does not reify previously conceived notions of verse-chorus-verse-key change-climax-fade. Such structure does not apply here musically or textually. I will conclude with notes from a listen to “Shadow of a Doubt”, where the lyrics—some of the most eerie on the album—imply an intimacy with a stranger that, for whatever reason, causes the song’s protagonist—if there is one, as protagonists themselves are evidence of the all-pervasive patriarchally defined narrative of the individual/hero—to explicate as if in a confession booth: “I swear it wasn't meant to be/From the bottom of my heart/He was looking all over me /Together ever after/He said/"You take me & I'll be you"/"You kill him & I'll kill her.” Kim Gordon’s voice—a paradox, a whisper and scream simultaneously—weaves in and out of the instrumentation, rising and falling repeatedly without giving way to any singular climactic moment or musical peak. One could also conceptualize these pulsations as a multitude of peaks—of orgasms, if you will—multiple ones, at that, which bear the possibility of infinite unique pleasures experienced through a female (or at least androgynous) bodily construction of artistic narrative.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent write. It truly highlights male dominated song structure prevalent in alternative music (like nirvana). I would only explain phallogocentrism more simply. One last thought it seems that the lyrics point to a fusion of male and female identity. .. and a murder if the female archtype and the male archtype.