In Praise of Vulgar Feminism

Faced with a choice between the bassist of Sonic Youth and the nihilist nymphet Lana Del Rey and her army of Twitter defenders, the highbrow music fan knows whose side she’s on. And it’s not as if Gordon is wrong about Del Rey, whose embrace of American rock and roll myths, shot through with a cartoonish sense of female desire, really is infantile. The appeal of Kim Gordon is completely different.

On Kim Gordon and Courtney Love

Album art from Hole's Live Through This (detail).

Kim Gordon. Girl in a Band. Dey Street Books, 2015.
Anwen Crawford. Hole’s Live Through This. Bloomsbury Academic (33 1/3 Series), 2014.

Just prior to the publication of Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band, a characteristic controversy broke out on the internet. Among the people disparaged in the book is the young singer Lana Del Rey. “Today we have someone like Lana Del Rey,” Gordon writes, in summing up the fallen state of things (since the ’90s), “who doesn’t even know what feminism is, who believes it means women can do whatever they want, which, in her world, tilts toward self-destruction, whether it’s sleeping with gross older men or being a transient biker queen. . . . Naturally, it’s just a persona. If she really truly believes it’s beautiful when young musicians go out on a hot flame of drugs and depression, why doesn’t she just off herself?” Del Rey’s fans got wind of the insult and duly commenced to trash Gordon on Twitter, whom they had clearly never heard of. Gordon, for her part, retweeted the worst of the abuse.

Faced with a choice between the bassist of Sonic Youth and the nihilist nymphet Lana Del Rey and her army of Twitter defenders, the highbrow music fan knows whose side she’s on. And it’s not as if Gordon is wrong about Del Rey, whose embrace of American rock and roll myths, shot through with a cartoonish sense of female desire, really is infantile. The appeal of Kim Gordon is completely different. She came from the New York art world of the early ’80s, co-founded one of the most admired bands of all time with her boyfriend and eventual husband Thurston Moore, and has now written an honest memoir about the whole thing. She’s one of the most respected personalities in rock music, who somehow obtained a license in the world of male-dominated culture to combine the impossible—to be both sexy and smart, mature and attractive, a mother and an artist, confrontational and political and also eternally “cool.” How many women are able to do this in music or pop culture, or at all? Not many.

Which makes me think: Isn’t Del Rey, precisely through her disturbing, masochistic fantasies of rape, mental abuse, and violent sex, and on top of that her adolescent rejection of feminism (“feminism doesn’t interest me as an idea,” she’s told interviewers on several occasions), a better icon for our time? Don’t her words and lyrics say more about the contemporary position of women than the mature, self-confident, and in the end somewhat commonplace pronouncements of Kim Gordon?

Feminism and class (and taste) are interesting categories through which to approach Gordon’s memoir. The book, which describes in detail her acrimonious breakup with Moore and the disbanding of Sonic Youth, must have been very hard to write. The beginning and the end, especially, are full of details of the brutal breakup, with the band carrying on for several months of touring after the fact. This makes for disturbing reading, and Gordon handles it with a wry sense of humor. But I can’t let go of a feeling that everything falls into place rather too easily, and feminism, class, and taste have a lot to do with it. Again: Gordon’s memoir is compelling—even gripping—and well-written, with atmospheric images and disarming honesty. But throughout something feels not quite right. Gordon writes with an absolute sureness of self that enables her to reminisce with the same confidence about her art and musical output as the artistic circles she has lived in for the last thirty-odd years, and also to rebuke the likes of Del Rey, Courtney Love, and several other women, including Lydia Lunch and Madonna. The women Gordon likes and admires are Kathleen Hanna, Kim Deal, her friend and Free Kitten bandmate and fashion label co-founder Julie Cafritz, Chloe Sevigny, and Sofia Coppola—a classy, laconic bunch.

While I was reading Girl in a Band, I was also reading a new book in the 33 1/3 series on Hole’s 1994 album Live Through This, by an Australian author Anwen Crawford. Crawford hasn’t a negative thing to say about her subject and the album’s creator, Courtney Love. She challenges the persistent public hatred of Love and the accusation that she “killed” her husband and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. She furthermore makes a formidable case for the album itself, presenting it as a manifesto of positive, alternative, grassroots feminism, a feminism that has nothing to do with positive adjustment, good taste, or middle-class-ness, and in which self-confidence is born of exclusion—for being a woman, for being queer, for living on the periphery. Given the mutual history of Gordon and Love, whose paths crossed constantly in the early ’90s, it’s tempting to use the coincidence of these two books’ publication to talk about that specific moment in history, a moment crucial for Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and Hole, and for the whole accession of “alternative” music to the mainstream in the United States.

Courtney Love haunts Girl in a Band: she’s the emotionally demanding and egotistic other to Gordon’s shy self. The contrast is dramatic, and at times feels overblown. Gordon attributes her own shyness to her relationship with her schizophrenic brother Keller, to whom she compares Love more than once: “Having survived a childhood with Keller, I have a low tolerance for such manipulative, egomaniacal behavior, and usually have to remind myself that the person might be mentally ill.” This self-reminder is Gordon at her most generous. Love is almost always mentioned as a negative exemplification of something: selling out, cynicism, manipulation. Love is even cited as the cause of the anti-feminist backlash, which undid the “true” feminism of riot grrrl. “Later on,” Gordon writes of the post-Nirvana period, “Courtney would take up the role that the press was always fishing for: a punk princess, thrilling and dark, refusing to play by the rules. No one ever questions the disorder behind her tarantula L.A. glamour—sociopathy, narcissism—because it’s rock ’n’ roll, good entertainment! ‘Doll Parts’—great lyrics! That isn’t to say you don’t get sucked in, at least at first—and that’s how I came to produce Hole’s first album.” It’s one of the book’s many funny, dismissive put-downs (Gordon produced Hole’s debut album Pretty on the Inside in 1991). Kurt Cobain, by comparison, “was the most intense performers I’ve ever seen,” Gordon writes. “During the show all I could think of was that I want to get the same kind of fearlessness across to the audience.”

It’s men Gordon wants to style herself after, and men’s onstage personae that fascinate her: Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Neil Young. Throughout her book, Gordon describes the decisive role men, often older and more artistically established, had in helping in her career, by encouragement or partnership, by “letting her in.” It was conceptual artist Dan Graham who suggested she write on art (from then on, Gordon was a frequent presence in Artforum), and her first text on art, “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” concerned her fascination with men and with music, overlapping with being a girl in a band and somehow enabling both. At the same time, men are obvious objects of suspicion for Gordon, and figures of betrayal.

But it’s Gordon uneasiness about Love that’s more revealing than she could possibly want. Throughout Girl in a Band, Gordon stresses that the challenge of being the only woman in a band, and a shy person, is becoming “fearless” onstage. For Gordon, “fearlessness” was something she managed to achieve through her shyness—a characteristic she transformed into a posture of remove, or “coolness.” In pondering vulnerability, her own and others’, Gordon eventually comes around to celebrating it; the lack of this quality in others becomes suspicious. Are people who aren’t shy brave, or merely vulgar? In a remarkable passage in which Gordon writes about the need to keep up a front of normality during the last months of the Sonic Youth tour, she mentions a recent episode from Love’s tour, in which Love stormed off the stage after a fan waved a photo of Cobain at her. She refused to come out onstage again unless the crowd agreed to chant “Foo Fighters are gay.” “I have to live with his shit and his ghost and his kid every day and throwing that [photo] up is stupid and rude,” Love said. Gordon relates this episode with something like envy. “It was a typical Courtney shtick,” she writes, “but I would never want to be seen as the car crash she is.” “Car crash” is harsh, and it’s not the only time Love is called that in the book; but the “seen as” is more interesting. Does Gordon fear being a car crash, or just being seen as one?

Linked with Gordon’s apparent distaste for Love is an unease about class, a semi-consciousness of her and her band being identifiably middle-class, and the possible negative implications of this. Gordon grew up middle class in a sunny but slightly boring California, the daughter of a sociologist and a housewife with artistic aspirations. The avant-garde rock band she later joined was perceived as too nerdy for no wave and too theory-ridden for post-hardcore. Gordon relates an anecdote from the beginning of Sonic Youth’s career, during the band’s tour to class-ridden Britain: before one of the gigs, Gordon was approached by new-wave diva Danielle Dax, who had no qualms telling Gordon the attention that night should focus on Dax. Gordon was put off, even terrified, by the confrontation:

Like a lot of English acts, Danielle had a specific look about her, a mask, an almost freakish persona. For the English, rock and roll has a lot to do with climbing over that country’s class structure, kicking out the bars of their birth. They saw us, four New Yorkers, as a bunch of middle class brats who probably lived in lofts above art galleries, who were putting on an act, which wasn’t authentic, wasn’t real, wasn’t earned. This is made all the more ironic by the fact that many British bands, including the Beatles, came right out of art school.

In her defensiveness, Gordon misreads the scene: in Europe art education was still free, and the UK still had a welfare state. Most musicians were on the dole, and this was the financial situation that enabled punk and allowed many people outside of the middle class to think about making art and music. Sonic Youth, famously, did not dress up, did not go onstage in masks or suits—they wore jeans and T-shirts and button-downs. Assuming “freakish personas” by many in (post-) punk was an act of accentuating one’s artificiality and sophistication, or signaling a complex politics of “drag.” Because ordinariness, as we know from queer theory, is never “natural”; it’s just another concept, and for many it’s simply impossible. The plain look Sonic Youth took on wasn’t hiding their class status, but rather signifying their self-confidence. They were beyond treating their musical or art endeavor in career terms, because they didn’t have to.

For Gordon, the oppositions of mainstream/alternative and popular/niche are still deeply felt. There is also, it must be said, a tremendous amount of space devoted in this book to the New York art scene of the early ’80s. For Gordon, this scene remains a model of edginess and rebellion. Her depiction brooks no doubts about the absolute brilliance of everyone in her circle, nor about the possible change in meaning that their art might have under the influence of the art market and aggressive neoliberalism. No thought is given to the fact that the art described in the book has been an example of massive financial success and the final appropriation of anti-establishment art by money.

The differences of perception between Courtney Love and Kim Gordon were, and remain, profoundly a matter of taste, which is to say of class. Courtney Love never said that she came from a working class or poor background, and stressed a few times that she didn’t. (Love’s mother was a psychotherapist and her father was the first manager of the Grateful Dead.) But she was kitschy, exhibitionistic, shameless, and at the same time vulnerable and ready to show it. Love came from a “complicated” family background. She grew up without much attention, and was passed from relative to relative, and traveled as a teenager to the UK to follow around Liverpool bands Echo & the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. In the ’80s she worked as a jobbing actress and a stripper. Side by side, Gordon and Love represent mirror images of the Nineties—of music, femininity, feminism, and politics. If Gordon was tastefully highbrow, Love was lowbrow, “distasteful”: the disgraced widow, widely regarded as someone who was, if not directly responsible for her husband’s death, then at least insufficiently “helpful,” who was too mad, too freakish, too much of a selfish junkie careerist to look after her suffering husband. But that’s not how her fans saw her.

In her book on Live Through This, Crawford gives Love’s fans room to say what she meant to them. (“A long-standing bugbear of mine is the way in which teenage girls are never taken seriously as an audience,” Anwen told an interviewer when describing her research and writing process for the book. “They are the easiest demographic to patronize. Hole were huge with girls and young women, so of course they and their audience can be dismissed as silly and trivial.”) While Love may not have been poor, many of the fans described in Crawford’s book on Hole were, and they found something inspiring in those features which others found most problematic about Love. These fans were mostly Australian and New Zealander women or gay men whose lives were changed by the music. Hole dragged them out of depression, out of being closeted or harassed, and helped them do something positive with their lives. They’re now music journalists, writers, or work in radio. They started groups, often riot grrrl/punk in style, though the relationship between Hole and the riot grrrl scene was far from simple. They courted different scenes, different behaviors.

The feeling that recurs among them is that Hole, and Love in particular, gave them “permission” in their lives. “Hole gave me this permission to feel like it’s OK to want to be heard,” says Dominican-American radio DJ Mariel Reyes. Another interviewee, Nicole Solomon, disputes the notion that Courtney was a terrible role model: “No, she’s not. She’s a great role model! She’s telling you not to be ashamed of yourself and to express yourself, including the parts of yourself that society may deem ugly and inappropriate. Especially in her lyrics, she was so visceral, the amount of times the vomit comes up, or bleeding, ripping your guts out. And to have that made cool?” Around the world, and especially in its less-privileged parts, Love’s version of “visceral,” vulgar feminism resonated because it was all about the lack of shame, about giving yourself permission to be the way you want, no matter what society tells you. Even Gordon admits that Hole’s music had something in it, that it was positively messy. Messy, visceral, distasteful but thrilling—things that were the opposite of Sonic Youth.

If it’s true that ’80s punk was a return to minimalism after the excesses of prog (in America at least), then Sonic Youth, still infatuated with certain elements of prog, made sure guitars were still central. But they were never confrontational, and made understatement their principal aesthetic rule. Gordon always undermined her voice (which wasn’t strong to begin with), and something similar could be said of Moore’s barely audible singing. This was aimed against the over-the-top-ness and kitsch of the music dominating the airwaves at the time.

Within this context, Kim Gordon created a persona in her music. She often ventriloquized other women, often tragic, betrayed, suffering characters: Karen Carpenter, Marilyn Monroe, women molested at work, women exploited, with their bodies and souls appropriated, little trouble girls—just like Love and Del Rey. But she defended herself from becoming them by keeping a safe distance. From reading her book, now I know she wasn’t just assuming their personas, but voicing her own feelings of vulnerability and insecurity, experiences with her brother, her family and partners, of being patronized or misunderstood.

In the end Gordon created a space in her music, where irony toward her own experiences or masks could protect her from her fears. Love confronted her traumas in the opposite way. Her act wasn’t to hide before the menace, it was to become that menace herself. Her voice is not one of beauty, but it’s powerful: she’s giving everything she has, until she can’t speak anymore. It’s funny how Gordon dismisses Courtney as somebody exploiting suffering (like in “Doll Parts,” where Love compares herself to a dismembered, killed doll, yet the one “with the most cake”), as if it was impossible for a woman to fake it and get away with it. But at the same time, Courtney lived through it, through the hate and contempt of the people around her, and still managed to create compelling music. If she often seemed like an attention-craving jackass, it’s because she actually refused to think she should behave any different from the way men in rock behave. As Ellen Willis said about Madonna, she refused to be “tragic.”

Reading the accounts in Crawford’s book of fandom in the periphery, I was relieved to see that even for them, despite coming from another Anglophone area, it mattered a great deal if you were in New York or Melbourne. I have no doubt that for years I held Sonic Youth in the highest esteem because in my peripheral Poland, cut off from any intelligent music press or any sophisticated New York art context, it was something to aspire to. A young writer and art-history student, I appreciated Sonic Youth’s artsy tongue-in-cheek allusions and dismissed somebody like Courtney, who to me was a character from my earliest youth, someone to be ashamed of. I was also growingly aware of my acute middle-class-ness, feeling its limitations on my experience. There were no networks in my depoliticized milieu that would connect my feeling of alienation with a political fight or place it in the context of existing struggles. Reading Live Through This, I envied the women who found a connection to other women and to feminism through Hole’s music. This happened to me much, much later. They wanted to be “grabbed, offended and moved” by the Hole record. They often sounded on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but also so passionate about this music.

Both books reminded me how exciting music used to be, and how those two women, both intelligent, special, unique in their way, were only a part of a much more exciting world of women in rock. But today only one of them reminisces to the applause of everybody, now that she’s achieved everything there was to achieve in music and won the appreciation of a younger generation of “feminist icons” (she recently enjoyed a cameo on Girls). The other remains somewhat disgraced, still on tour, opening, in a potentially humiliating way, for a much younger artist: Lana Del Rey. Meanwhile, discussions on the availability of feminism to women outside of the polite white middle-class spectrum are as vivid and frustrating as ever. Mainstream columns, even in feminist-friendly broadsheets like the Guardian, seem mostly preoccupied with how many concessions one can make while still “counting” as a feminist (“Can you buy Prada bags and still be a feminist?”) Today, Hillary Clinton makes feminism one of her major presidency campaign points, with 250 famous feminists including Gloria Steinem in her think tank, and Kim Gordon posts a photo with Clinton on her twitter. God knows who Courtney will be supporting. Perhaps I’d rather not know. Problematic, unstable, what she did for her disenfranchised fans to help them accept themselves, matters more.

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