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Jill's OCTOBER Dotters Pick

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

I've admired Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth since I was a pre-teen, when all I wanted was to be a girl in a band, too.  Now that I am one, I'm even more interested in the perspective and life of one of my heroes.  I didn't know a ton of backstory on Kim before reading, other than that she's a badass.  I was fascinated to learn about her multi-faceted identity as a visual artist, performance artist (although she hates that term), dancer, writer, fashion designer, and mother.

My favorite overall aspect of this memoir is her unique feminist perspective -- surprising, deep, and one I hadn't ever considered.  Kim takes us all the way back through her childhood and describes in-depth her relationship with her family, largely circling around her relationship with her brother, whose yet-to-be identified mental illness negatively impacted and shaped who she later became. She cites her upbringing as--whether intentionally or not--"devaluing what women did," and sought answers. 

So, in her twenties, while working in art galleries and before Sonic Youth, she decided to take the advice of a friend and start writing about her female experience in the New York art scene as "a way to get [her] brain out into the larger New York art community."  She decided to focus her project on how men interact with one another and bond onstage while playing music, and thus, her whole feminist experiment -- which would unexpectedly turn into the next 30 years of her career in Sonic Youth -- began to evolve:

"Guys playing music.  I loved music.  I wanted to push up close to whatever it was men felt when they were together onstage -- to try to ink that invisible thing. It wasn't sexual, but it wasn't unsexual either.  Distance mattered in male friendships.  One on one, men often had little to say to one another.  They found some closeness by focusing on a third thing that wasn't them: music, video games, golf, women.  Male friendships were triangular in shape, and that allowed two men some version of intimacy.  In retrospect, that's why I joined a band, so I could be inside that male dynamic, not staring in through a closed window but looking out." 

The feminist experiment (my label, not hers), a piece called Trash Drugs and Male Bonding, "unlocked the next thirty years of my life. By writing about men locking into one another onstage, I indirectly pushed myself inside the triangle.... It was also my way of rebelling -- writing about men when it would be more natural to write about women.... The next clear-cut step was to actually begin playing music."

Kim's formal background is in visual art, and her identity as a musician was more happenstance than planned. After a brief stint in an all-girl band that began as a performance art piece, Kim met Thurston Moore, and they began playing together as their romantic relationship developed.  Their band Sonic Youth began as an amalgamation of no wave, punk, and art rock, and consisted of lots of droning, improvisation, and dissonance.  Somehow, she never really explains how she magically learned to play music, and since I'm approaching this book as a trained musician, it's hard for me to take the perspective of a non-musician who is a brilliant artist otherwise just plugging in and going for it.  Alas, she is a successful bassist and vocalist whom I admire, and their catalog grew and grew, changing to bigger and bigger labels and garnering loads of credibility and acclaim along the way.  

While rising in popularity, Kim still dealt with sexist issues, such as the "What's it like to be a girl in a band?" common question from press.  She continually "refused to play the game.... That just wasn't who I was," meaning that she never played into the stereotypical role.  "I had no idea what image I projected onstage or off.... Self-consciousness was the beginning of creative death to me."  Her battle continued when, in their music video for "100%" she wore a shirt that said "Eat Me" and MTV was reluctant to play the video.  In her song "Little Trouble Girl," Kim writes about wanting to be seen for who you are, without focus on being the perfect wife, mother, and woman.  She explores the mother-daughter relationship and feminism after the birth of her daughter, Coco, in a backlash against  "the pressure to please and be perfect that every woman falls into and then projects onto her daughter....  Nothing is ever good enough.  No woman can ever outrun what she has to do.  No one can be all things -- a mother, a good partner, a lover, as well as a competitor in the workplace."

While I was mostly impressed with her feminist insights, she also dishes some really great Courtney Love gossip, chronicles her involvement in her woman-owned and led clothing company called X-Girl, and spends a lot of time focusing on the unraveling of her marriage with Thurston.  I came away from this well-written and very enjoyable book feeling incredibly proud and inspired by this Girl in a Band, and I hope others will find inspiration in her story as well.