Tag Archive: Kim Gordon

25 May 2015
The World Needs Female Rock Critics
by Anwen Crawford

Reposted from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-world-needs-female-rock-critics


Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t own any albums by the Rolling Stones. They’re just so archetypal, so very rock and roll—and that, I find, can be a difficult thing to admire. Rock music has rarely offered women the same tangible promise of social rebellion and sexual freedom that it has given men—though plenty of women, myself included, have tried all the same to find those liberties in it. “Boy guitarists notwithstanding,” the journalist Lillian Roxon wrote to a friend, in 1966, “I don’t think I can stand the sight of another bloody electric guitar.” I know just how she felt.

In 1969, Roxon—Italian-born, Australian-raised, an experienced journalist and a star of Warhol’s back room at Max’s Kansas City—would publish “Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia,” the first of its kind, a marvel of research and critical acumen. Within six months of publication, the book had entered its third hardcover print run, and Roxon was profiled in the Times. The book has now been out of print for decades. (Roxon died in 1973, at the age of forty-one.) Ellen Willis, a contemporary of Roxon’s, was The New Yorker’s first popular-music critic, beginning in 1968, but a collection of her music writing, “Out of the Vinyl Deeps,” was not published until 2011, five years after her death. This month, the American writer Jessica Hopper, a senior editor at the music Web site Pitchfork, publishes a book called “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.” The title is more provocation than statement of fact, but it is not entirely untrue. Books by living female rock critics (or jazz, hip-hop, and dance-music critics, for that matter) are scant. In an introductory note to her book, Hopper names Roxon, Willis, the English journalist Caroline Coon, and the anthology “Rock She Wrote,” edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, as precedents for her own work. “The title is not meant to erase our history but rather to help mark the path,” Hopper writes.

That path is not an easy one to discern. The most famous rock-music critics—Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Nick Kent—are all male. Bangs, who died in 1982, at the age of thirty-three, remains the most iconic of them all. Why? Because his hard-living, drug-taking, sunglasses-after-dark-wearing gonzo schtick made him as much of a masculine anti-hero as his rock-star subjects were. The pose doesn’t work as well for female critics, from whom displays of bad attitude are seldom tolerated, let alone celebrated. Rock’s rebel women, including its writers, are rarely assumed to be geniuses; often, they are assumed to be whores. In a 2002 biography of Lillian Roxon, “Mother of Rock,” by Robert Milliken, Roxon’s young protégé, Kathy Miller, recalls being challenged by a male editor who assigned her to write about The Who and then asked for a blow job in return, saying, “What’s the big deal? You’re a groupie.” She replied, “I’m a woman who writes about rock and roll.” His answer: “Same difference.” Groupies have proved an enduring stereotype of women’s participation in rock: worshipful, gorgeous, and despised.

Earlier this year, Hopper interviewed Björk for Pitchfork. In the interview, which is not included in the book, Björk reflected at length upon the ways in which women’s labor and expertise—inside and outside of the music industry—go unnoticed. “It’s invisible, what women do,” she said. “It’s not rewarded as much.” She observed that her male collaborators are typically credited for the sound of her records; because on stage she mainly sings, there is a widespread assumption that she neither produces nor plays an instrument. “I want to support young girls who are in their twenties now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things,” she said.

When I was about fourteen, I stood outside science class holding a folder that was decorated with an array of faces which I had carefully cut out from the pages of music magazines. Pointing to a photo of Björk on my folder, a passing boy sneered at me, “I bet you don’t even know who she is.” (This would have been around 1995, when the music press was having one of its periodic crushes on Women in Rock.) I did know who Björk was, because my mother, who was young and groovy, had raised me on the Sugarcubes, the Icelandic band that Björk was a member of before she launched her solo career. I don’t remember raising this point with my accuser, but if I had I doubt he would have believed me. The record store, the guitar shop, and now social media: when it comes to popular music, these places become stages for the display of male prowess. Female expertise, when it appears, is repeatedly dismissed as fraudulent. Every woman who has ever ventured an opinion on popular music could give you some variation (or a hundred) on my school corridor run-in, and becoming a recognized “expert” (a musician, a critic) will not save you from accusations of fakery.

The problem for women is that our role in popular music was codified long ago. And it was codified, in part, by the early music press. In the effort to prove the burgeoning rock scene of the sixties a worthy subject of critical inquiry, rock needed to be established as both serious and authentic. One result of these arguments—the Rolling Stones vs. Muddy Waters, Motown vs. Stax, Bob Dylan vs. the world—was that women came out on the losing side, as frivolous and phony. Whether a teen-age fan or a member of a girl group, women lacked genuine grit—even female critics thought so. “The Supremes epitomize the machine-like precision of the Motown sound,” wrote Lillian Roxon in her rock encyclopedia. “Everything is worked out for them and they don’t buck the system.” Judgments like that are still routinely applied to female artists today. In Hopper’s book, under the chapter heading “Real/Fake,” appears a 2012 essay on Lana Del Ray, an artist whose look harks back to those big-haired, mascaraed sixties singers, and whose career has unfolded beneath a cloud of suspicion as to her credentials, musical and otherwise. “As an audience, we make a big stink about wanting the truth, but we’re only really interested in the old myths,” Hopper writes. The myth of women’s deceitfulness is one of the oldest.

For early female music critics like Roxon and Willis, the flashpoint was Janis Joplin. Joplin, like the Rolling Stones, borrowed heavily from the blues; her ragged style seemed to mark her as the real thing. But her lonely position as, in Willis’s words, “the only sixties culture hero to make visible and public women’s experience of the quest for individual liberation,” also left her open to attack. Joplin’s sexual daring, and the contempt she faced for it, revealed the limits and the hypocrisies of the counterculture. “Writers rape her with words as if there weren’t any other way to deal with her,” Roxon wrote. The frustration that many of Joplin’s female fans felt at her treatment, and their sadness at her premature death, was something these women carried over, shortly afterwards, into the first stirrings of women’s liberation. Both Roxon and Willis became involved in the feminist movement; Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch,” published in 1970, was dedicated to Roxon, whom Greer described in the dedication as “Lillian the abundant, the golden, the eloquent, the well and badly loved; Lillian the beautiful who thinks she is ugly.”

Academia, a step or two removed from the machismo of the newspaper room, has proved a more accommodating realm for women writing about popular music. In that sphere, essays and books by writers such as Tricia Rose, Daphne Brooks, Aisha Durham, Alice Echols, Gayle Wald, and Angela McRobbie contribute to a rich and ongoing feminist analysis. Writing by these women appears only intermittently in the mainstream press, but forty years of critical feminist theory on popular music has slowly filtered into the outlook of younger critics; as Hopper noted in a recent interview with the Hairpin, online publishing has given rise to “this ferocious crop of really opinionated young writers writing about race, gender, queerness, the body—people coming in with a pretty immaculately formed critical framework.” Hopper, who started publishing her criticism as a teen-ager in the midst of the early-nineties punk-feminist upsurge known as riot grrrl, mentioned in the same interview that when she began writing she did not have “anything more than a high school education.” Her autodidact tendencies and her energetic, conversational writing style form part of another long music-press tradition, the looser and more playful side of that sixties push for seriousness—though Hopper’s stylistic immediacy does not preclude her from covering difficult subjects, like the endemic sexism of punk rock, or the “banal and pernicious” contrivance of Miley Cyrus.

The often neglected path blazed by female music critics intersects with other related writing traditions. Memoir has long been used by female performers to reflect upon the pressures and contradictions of their roles. Kim Gordon’s “Girl in a Band,” Tracey Thorn’s “Bedsit Disco Queen,” and Viv Albertine’s “Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.” have lately joined earlier classics like Mary Wilson’s “Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme” and Tina Turner’s “I, Tina” to provide female perspectives on popular music. There is also a small but noteworthy strand of contemporary fiction by women that takes popular music as a primary subject, from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit from the Goon Squad” (2010), with its sleazy music-biz manager, to Eleanor Henderson’s impassioned treatment of eighties New York hardcore, “Ten Thousand Saints” (2011), and Dana Spiotta’s mysterious “Stone Arabia” (2012), in which the brother of the narrator chronicles his strictly imaginary success as a rock star.

Perhaps fiction and memoir, more than criticism, provide space for female writers to dissect all that is maddening and wonderful about popular music: the spectacle, the chicanery, the beautiful lies it tells us. But there is plenty of need for female music critics yet. “Take it easy, babe,” Mick Jagger sang in “Under My Thumb,” still as glistering a slice of unrepentant misogyny as ever it was, unredeemed by time or by the million screaming girls who wriggled beneath Jagger’s commands. In a 1971 essay, Ellen Willis argued that Jagger’s “crude exhibitions of virility” were less sexist than the “condescending” pose of a bohemian like Cat Stevens; insofar as rock, she wrote, “pitted teenage girls’ inchoate energies against all their conscious and unconscious frustrations, it spoke implicitly for female liberation.” I don’t entirely agree with Willis’s defense of the Stones, but I do recognize the difficult trade-off she describes, between the freedom that rock can feel like, for a woman, and the subjugation that it might celebrate. It’s between these boundaries that the female critic works, hoping to clear a path.

February 23, 2015

Reposted from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/books/kim-gordon-of-sonic-youth-writes-about-her-band-and-breakups.html

Kim Gordon, pictured in Los Angeles, said her new memoir is the most conventional thing I’ve done. Credit Sam Comen for The New York Times

Kim Gordon, pictured in Los Angeles, said her new memoir is "the most conventional thing I’ve done." Credit Sam Comen for The New York Times

by Joe Coscarelli

Kim Gordon knows her reputation well. “Detached, impassive or remote,” she ticks off in her new memoir, “opaque or mysterious or enigmatic or even cold.”

But rather than dispel the persona she built up over 30 years as the antifrontwoman for Sonic Youth, Ms. Gordon hoped to make it three-dimensional in her book, “Girl in a Band,” to be published on Tuesday by the HarperCollins imprint Dey Street Books.

“People just project stuff onto you, mostly — they don’t really know me,” she said recently at breakfast in Brooklyn. “I just felt like I was saving it. I was being very withholding for the right time.”

Not that the book is a typical tell-all. “I thought of putting a disclaimer in the beginning: No sex, drugs or rock ’n’ roll,” she continued, her sentences trailing off or becoming barely audible, even when her ideas were confidently held and complete. “I’m a read-between-the-lines kind of person.”

“Girl in a Band” does begin and end with a breakup, two, actually: the simultaneous 2011 demise of Sonic Youth and her 27-year marriage to Thurston Moore, who founded the band with her in 1981. But that may be the extent of the fresh dirt. The rest of the memoir, in line with Ms. Gordon’s indecipherable feline stare and flat affect, can be minimal and bare, even stilted, revealing in its brief moments of reverie but careful to stop short of saying too much. It is never embarrassing.

Once the epitome of ’90s cool, Ms. Gordon could be accused of name-dropping in her writing if the connections cited weren’t so natural: Danny Elfman, the composer, was a high school boyfriend; Kurt Cobain was a fan and close friend; and she describes plainly the time her daughter met William S. Burroughs while on tour as a baby with Sonic Youth.

Ms. Gordon’s relationships have also transcended music: After Sonic Youth signed with a major label — joined soon after by Nirvana — she helped start the careers of Chloë Sevigny, who made her debut in the music video for “Sugar Kane” (along with Marc Jacobs’s infamous “grunge” collection) and Sofia Coppola, who staged a show for Ms. Gordon’s fashion line, X-Girl. Just last year, Ms. Gordon played a rehab patient on HBO’s “Girls.”

The decision to write it all down, however, was more practical than artistic. Single at 61, with a daughter in college and a generation of fans presumably ready to follow her into the next phase of life, Ms. Gordon said the book was a way “to open up other opportunities for finding ways to support myself, to be quite honest.” After decades of exploring discordant indie-rock and experimental visual art, she added, “Girl in a Band” is “the most conventional thing I’ve done.”

It was also an attempt at defining her legacy outside of Sonic Youth. Dave Kendall, the former host of MTV’s “120 Minutes,” which championed the band, said Ms. Gordon “didn’t need to project any strong persona or marketing message” and “could just be herself.” As a rock star with acceptance in the art world, she showed women that “there’s no need to sell yourself as a sex object,” he said, or “to hide in the background.”

But with Ms. Gordon’s defining work linked so closely with Mr. Moore, Carrie Thornton, the executive editor at Dey Street Books, said she pitched her on the project this way: “Better to tell the story yourself than to let someone else tell it for you and tell it poorly.”

One possible model was “Just Kids” by Patti Smith, which became a best seller and won a National Book Award for nonfiction. Rock memoirs by women, Ms. Thornton said, “tend to be more relational — certainly in the case of Kim and Patti, there’s a sense of relationship to place and time.”

But for Ms. Gordon, “Just Kids” — a love letter to boho New York and the artist Robert Mapplethorpe — was a much different story from her own. In any case, she said, “I didn’t read it.” And of her own memoir, she said, “I didn’t want it to be romantic.”

That applied to both place and person. “Writing about New York is hard,” begins the chapter in which she meets Mr. Moore. “It is because knowing what I know now, it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart.”

Yet the book would not exist without Ms. Gordon’s divorce, which she said was caused by Mr. Moore’s affair with a younger woman, a story both sides have aired out in the news media. “When something like that happens, you start going back and examining your whole life,” she said. “How did I get here?”

The answer starts in Los Angeles, where Ms. Gordon was raised and wrote much of the book. She lovingly describes her beatnik-adjacent parents and childhood, but her relationship with her brother, Keller, who has schizophrenia, is the specter that looms over the memoir.

Her shyness, for instance, “comes from years of being teased” by Keller “ for every feeling I ever expressed,” Ms. Gordon writes. The broken brother-sister relationship caused her to seek out “big personalities” in male mentors, she said, and eventually in Mr. Moore.

Neither of the most imposing men in her life has read the book. “For obvious reasons, I didn’t share it with Thurston,” Ms. Gordon said. “I’m now officially divorced — only recently. So it doesn’t matter.”

She added: “Maybe he’ll write his own book. I’m not really interested.” (Through his representatives, Mr. Moore declined to comment for this article.)

And Keller, who is in an assisted-living home for the mentally ill, is more concerned with “conventional” things, Ms. Gordon said. “I think he likes my teeth,” she said through tears. “He told me I have a great smile.”

In the memoir, Sonic Youth seems almost like an afterthought. An essential band for a generation in which the avant-garde rubbed sometimes uncomfortably with the mainstream, the group “did inform my life and who I am, so it was silly not to write about it,” Ms. Gordon said.

But the book’s middle section, in which she decodes her lyrics and life as a touring musician, feels almost perfunctory. “I could have done more of that, but I kind of got bored,” she said. “I didn’t want it to become a Sonic Youth book.”

Now, in addition to writing and playing with a new band, the guttural Body/Head, Ms. Gordon has renewed focus on her visual art: A forthcoming show at 303 Gallery in Manhattan will explore the way New York has, she said, “become so beautified for foreign investors to buy condominiums.”

Beyond work, there is personal rebuilding. Ms. Gordon can be fanatical about television — she watches “The Good Wife,” “Scandal” and “The Affair,” although she said that all the cheating was a coincidence — and she is dating again. “I think it’s easier to meet single guys in L.A.,” she said.

She also plans to sell the home in Northampton, Mass., where she, Mr. Moore and their daughter, Coco, lived starting in 1999. She may split her time between the West Coast and New York — possibly in a Brooklyn studio apartment with her two dogs.

“For a while, I was concerned about being alone,” Ms. Gordon said. “Now I’m really enjoying my freedom.”

A version of this article appears in print on February 19, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Making Another Kind of Noise.

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