Seeking the Sublime in Sonic Youth
How Their Iconic Sound Brings Us to the Edge of Our Own Mortality
On September 7, 2013, Manhattan’s White Columns gallery opened an exhibition of visual art by Kim Gordon. The first survey of her ongoing practice, it gathered paintings—hand-lettered broken-up band-names (“Weak Sister”) and witticisms (“Why are you making music like that?”)—alongside sculpture (tree-branches encrusted in glitter, denim skirts slathered in acrylic), with selections of video, text, and sound, spanning more than 30 years of songwriting and performance. The unspoken centerpiece of the retrospective was a new work: a canvas crumpled on the floor—a pile resembling a queen-sized comforter kicked off the mattress during sex or sleep—ebony words applied in her dripping, misshapen font, indecipherable because scrunched. A nearby plaque told its title: The Sonic Youth.
I’m a born-again fan of Sonic Youth. I didn’t learn how to admire their music until 2012, a year after the band dissolved. Now, nearly a decade since the release of their final album, The Eternal, my reverence—especially for the complex texture of Kim Gordon’s voice—verges on evangelical.
Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo—all vocal/guitarists—had their inaugural performance as Sonic Youth in June 1981 at White Columns gallery, then located on Spring Street. In 1982, they released a self-titled debut EP with drummer Richard Edson, and two subsequent LPs, Confusion Is Sex (1983) and Bad Moon Rising (1985), with drummer Bob Bert. The third LP, EVOL (1986), premiered drummer Steve Shelley, who became the fourth core member. Their subsquent dozen LPs, numerous side projects and collaborations, are unanimously unclassifiable; Sonic Youth is notorious for vehemently mistreating the instruments to extract unprecedented noise.
Although it took me years to fathom, I’d started listening in 2004. “Unmade Bed”—the second track from their then-latest-album Sonic Nurse—engulfed me at 18. (One of their more palatable songs, Thurston’s singing mellow, fluent, the lengthy instrumental bridge never goes totally over the edge into the freefall of guttural guitars and chaotic drums for which they’re either loved or loathed.) This was the surging flood that Sonic Youth eventually immersed me in: the definitive ideal of the sublime.
Edmund Burke, in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, wrote, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger . . . whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
When you and I say something’s sublime, we often do imply the evocation of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling, but rarely do we also imply the evocation of pain and danger.
Burke recognized that pain and danger are not themselves sublime. The real sublime, he specified, lies in “the sensation which accompanies the removal of pain or danger,” which he called delight. “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful.”
If something’s truly sublime, it must push you flush against mortality—terrifying you through dread of unavoidable death—before pulling you back, into the awful delight of survival.
At its most severe, Sonic Youth’s sound assaults—bashing, screeching. It’s indeed painful to the ears of a sensitive listener. Even at its most serene, critics have repeatedly described this sound as ominous, and it’s true: 99 percent of the songs could background a scene in a horror film (and they did compose and record the score for a French horror film, Simon Werner a Disparu).
But I delight in listening because of that dangerous tenor, their tendency to swerve from tonal optimism to droll nihilism. Sonic Youth soundtracks the sense of doom that constantly haunts me; it helps me embrace uncertainty.
“If something’s truly sublime, it must push you flush against mortality—terrifying you through dread of unavoidable death—before pulling you back, into awful delight of survival.”
You can hear this characteristic in an outtake from the Sonic Nurse sessions, an instrumental tune titled “Kim’s Chords” that recalls how it feels to drive out of LA into Malibu on a blue-sky day for three-minutes-twenty-two seconds, until suddenly the car skids off that cliff-side highway, smacks into the Pacific, combusts, and then sinks for three more minutes.
Kim, born in California, wrote in her memoir Girl in a Band that “California is a place of death, a place people are drawn to because they don’t realize deep down they’re actually afraid of what they want. It’s new, and they’re escaping their histories while at the same time moving headlong toward their own extinctions. Desire and death are all mixed up with the thrill and the risk of the unknown.”
Burke’s sublime feels kindred to what Freud deemed that oceanic feeling—Romain Rollard alluded to it in their 1927 correspondence: la sensation de l’Eternel (qui peut très bien n’être pas éternel, mais simplement sans bornes perceptibles, et comme océanique).* It was elucidated by Julia Kristeva in her book This Incredible Need to Believe: “The intimate union of the ego with the surrounding world, felt as an absolute certainty of satisfaction, security, as well as loss of our self to what surrounds and contains us.”
Though Kristeva maintains that this feeling is “unshareable,” I think it’s vaguely comparable to the wanderlust prompted by seeing an airplane coast across the skyline—it’s an overcast midwinter afternoon in New York, you’re yearning for the sun above Big Sur—and suddenly thrill and risk flow through you, tempting you to go. It’s this kind of homesickness, lacking origin and cure.
Another facet of that oceanic feeling: the desire for “losing the boundaries of the self . . . into the pain-and-joy of becoming fluid, of liquefying oneself to be other.” For me, it’s akin to beholding the Pacific, inundated with the urge to submerge my body in it. You can hear this melancholic longing in “The Diamond Sea”—the 19-minute closing track on Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine (1995)—during its extended, formless, instrumental outro. The guitar overtones conjure sunlight strafing the inmost curl of a breaking tidal wave, a searing sound, shrill as a newborn shrieking to go back inside the womb.
“Positive and negative, joy and extreme pain, together or in alteration. This brew of plenitude and sensory emptying crushes the body and exiles it” (Kristeva). “The psyche is in its turn annihilated, beyond the self.”
I seek that kind of sublime all the time: to merge with the sound by any tangible means (I wear my Washing Machine tee-shirt and play “Washing Machine” on laundry day), to remember the demise that is my only destiny, and feel relieved I’ve eluded it for now. I write this, sublimating my fear into representation, to temporarily exit my anxiety and still exist.
“The Burning Spear”—the opening track on Sonic Youth’s debut EP—is 28 words long, Thurston’s birth-cry:
I’m not afraid to say I’m scared
In my bed I’m deep in prayer.
I trust the speed, I love the fear
The music comes, the burning spear.
The guitars squeal menacingly, the bass and drums sprint, a drug-fueled high-speed police-chase through Alphabet City. From the get-go, Sonic Youth confronted pain and danger head-on: they love the fear. (“Fear being an apprehension of pain or death,” wrote Burke.)
“I Dreamed I Dream” (track two on the EP) launches with the speedy pulse of the bass accompanied by a ticking drum—12 seconds—before the guitars join. Tension upon tension (sneaky, prowling), they’ve outrun the police-chase of “The Burning Spear” and they’re laying low in Tompkins Square Park.
Now, Kim Gordon doesn’t sing—she speaks—her opening lines in Sonic Youth’s catalog.
“Look before you leap, OK,” sparkles her crystalline vocal-cords.
The announcement of a radical, stalwart voice, the voice that’ll ask (in 1990, on Goo, in “Kool Thing”): Are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression?
Kim is capable of conventional singing—Sonic Youth’s penultimate LP, Rather Ripped (2006), presents her voice at its peak approachability—but nevertheless, she usually opts for tones that’re lovely-ugly: phlegmatic, thick-tongued lilts and hoarse, throaty moans. “Talk Normal” implores one of her text paintings, as if mocking potential criticism.
“She has a distinctly physical response to language,” wrote Hilton Als in Kim’s 2009 monograph of impressionistic watercolor portraits, Performing/Guzzling. “Her speech, suffused with pauses and directness, quiet reflection and near novelistic sense of detail and memory for conversation, is the aural corollary to her visual work, which swims in the language and non-language of what she sees [. . .] as though recalled from a collective, half-forgotten dream.”
“Another source of the sublime, is infinity,” wrote Burke. “Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and the truest test of the sublime.”
I’ve always been drawn to the mathematical symbol for infinity, the lemniscate: ∞
That oceanic feeling encompasses the ongoingness of this figure: the past as immeasurable as the future, nonbeing endlessly extending behind us, and ahead. We float, dead-center in these roiling high seas.
“I seek that kind of sublime all the time: to merge with the sound by any tangible means, to remember the demise that is my only destiny, and feel relieved I’ve eluded it for now.”
Burke noted that madmen, in thrall to infinitude, “remain whole days and nights, sometimes whole years, in the constant repetition of some remark, some complaint, or song; which having struck powerfully on their disordered imagination [. . .] every repetition reinforces it with new strength.”
1982’s “I Dreamed I Dream” contains a phrase that recurs in 2009’s “Massage the History”—all the money’s gone. In the former, at age 29, Kim reiterates: all the money’s gone—in the latter, 27 years later, she goes on to warble: but it was never here.
I keep a playlist on my phone—only “I Dreamed I Dream” and “Massage the History”—set to shuffle, so as one stops the other starts. Listening to the two on loop, I make this little infinity; holding a beginning in my left hand and an ending in my right, I massage their history.
The swansong of The Eternal commences with ambient glistening for six seconds; the bass and drums cruise in, flirting for sixteen seconds; Thurston enters with a toothsome lick on acoustic guitar, mimicking Kim’s melody. She croons:
Oil dripping on my head
Let’s go back to bed.
Back to the unmade bed of “The Burning Spear”—in youth—in prayer, in love with fear?
She proceeds in hushed head-voice. When her vocals fade out, the instruments stall, slipping onto a suspenseful plateau, inclining so gradually they almost imperceptibly build back into a tempestuous pitch—then shattering guitars and slamming drums. It sounds like heavy metal, like the cellar-door of the subconscious blasted open.
“Something’s really at stake in this performance,” Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times in 2009. “[Kim sings] ‘Come with me to the other side / Not everyone makes it out alive.’ There’s some trick emotion here, in the singing and the music, something unsettled and uncertain.”
It’s that oceanic feeling crashing down again, needing to reach its source, wanting to take you home.
“Massage the History” ends on the word “neck”—its last line:
I want you to suck my neck.
According to liner notes, it technically ends on “suck”—
I want you to suck my neck.
To my ear, Kim utters half of suck—“suh”—making the final (full) word, neck.
After Sonic Youth’s dispersal, Kim’s next album was under new band Body/Head, a guitar-only duo with Bill Nace. Recorded December 2012, released by Matador September 10, 2013, their debut LP Coming Apart comprises 68 minutes of distorted strumming and gaunt vocal riffs repeated, reinterpreted in trancelike stupor.
Through Body/Head, Kim’s voice—visceral mixture of rapture and torture—approaches a primal scream. In Girl in A Band, she recounts that when coming of age, she visited the home of Arthur Janov, who was (in her words) “the creator of the primal scream, a therapy technique that was supposed to return you to your birth trauma experience and release you by encouraging screaming and other vocal disinhibitions.”
Ten miniscule films correspond to the pieces of Coming Apart; in each, one slight gesture loops in slow-motion for the song’s entirety. The film for “Can’t Help You”—the album’s most amicable track—features model (and nurse) Louise Erdman miming Kim’s noise-band name-painting technique: a pair of pantyhose soaked in paint is lashed against the canvas to create the lines of every letter.
“Since paintings are silent, a painting of a noise band’s name would still fail to represent it in full. The solidity of rock has vanished: all that’s left is noise,” wrote Frank Guan in Kim’s monograph, Noise Name Paintings and Sculptures of Rock Bands That Are Broken Up. “Even that noise, sealed away in written language, is temporarily inactive, more absent than present and more potential than real.”
Over the last few years, Kim’s music has consistently infused more commercial channels with the (life-affirming) essence of pain and danger.
June 8, 2015: Her track from the Converse sneaker-company’s compilation CONS EP VOL. III starts streaming “Slow Boy”—a collaboration with Dinosaur Jr. guitar-prodigy J Mascis—where, at one-minute-thirty-six-seconds, and again at two-minutes-fifty-seconds, Kim’s horrific wail trails off on an identical note by J’s guitar which then propels the phrase faster, higher than any human range. A kind of sublimation.
August 18 of that year: Peaches premieres a video for a single featuring Kim—“Close Up”—and in it, Kim rasps, Look to the right / Lemme get a close-up, her timbre intimidating, macabre.
“Kim’s voice—visceral mixture of rapture and torture—approaches a primal scream.”
March 18, 2016: She and surf-pro Alex Knost put out a self-titled EP as Glitterbust—52 minutes of libidinous droning, austere guitar, the seldom drum, and intermittent poetic recitation—five hyper-erotic angst-ridden tracks, drowning in distressed disillusionment.
September 12, same year: Matador releases a chilling single—“Murdered Out”—the first-ever track credited to Kim Gordon by name, alone. Cloaked in reverb, her speak-singing thrusts the hook—black matte spray—to grungy dance-club drumming. Interviewed on NPR, Kim said, to murder out a car, to coat it in matte-black spray-paint, is to murder out corporate identity, the logo. “It’s almost like a peaceful resistance. It’s denying that we’re part of the culture, that we’re not going to fit in. We’re making our own kind of anti-status symbol, in our own language that’s kind of subliminal.”
For now, though, Body/Head seems to be Kim’s preferred musical outlet. Two months after “Murdered Out” debuted, Body/Head released a live recording of their 40-minute set from the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. Adorned with a seascape by Raymond Pettibon, the album’s named No Waves.
“Even though Sonic Youth is associated with it, it would be wrong to call us No Wave. We just built something out of it,” Kim writes in Girl in a Band. “When I saw and heard No Wave bands, some equation in my head and body pieced together instantly. A phantom thing had been missing from my life and here it was, finally, unconventional, personal but at the same time not, and confrontational. What’s more, every No Wave gig felt precarious, a rush, a cheek-burn, since you knew the band onstage could break up at any moment.”
And so, November 14, 2011, on an outdoor stage in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sonic Youth played their final show. You can see low-resolution professional video footage on YouTube, imbued with this threat of imminent termination that Kim described. Go, hear her quaver the first verse of the set-opener, “Brave Men Run (In My Family)”—here, her voice is sibylline, her intonations diamond-cut, excavated from the diaphragm, scraping the throat on the way through gritted teeth. Listening, I’m awash in that oceanic feeling, the pain and joy of approaching danger. It’s astonishing. “Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (Burke). “The effect of the sublime in the highest degree.”
“Teen Age Riot”—their hymn to youth, their anthem for anarchy—closes the set (nostalgic, euphoric) followed by seven minutes of apocalyptic noise improvisation, concluding shortly after Kim starts whipping the electrical cords from the outlets, striding offstage.
* “The sensation of the Eternal (which may very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible bounds, oceanic).”