Kim Gordon is interested in telling it like it is. She wants you to know in no uncertain terms that she hated working for one of the most famous men in the art world, that a lot of her most powerful lyrics were just chosen at random, and that Los Angeles is architecturally the most beautiful city in the world. She also has a lot of thoughts about what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.
Her 2015 memoir Girl in a Band actually begins with “The End,” a snapshot of the final concert she played with the No Wave punk pioneer band Sonic Youth in São Paulo. The show also happened to coincide with the end of her nearly thirty-year marriage to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (a self-admitted cliché). And to move forward from the end of one era, we inevitably have to look back to where we started.
Gordon takes us as far as possible from Brazil, back to the Los Angeles of her youth and the shimmering magic of the 1960s. The memoir’s chapters are an average of three pages each, digestible glimpses of a life spent traveling: Hawaii, Hong Kong, Toronto, and finally New York. Only halfway through the book are we privileged to the formation, development, and ultimate collapse of Sonic Youth, and only then through the filter of what Gordon deems most important to her. The short chapters are at that point named for songs that Gordon most vividly remembers recording, made immortal by their connections to major life events: the birth of her daughter – the same year as the death of Kurt Cobain, with whom she shared a deep and admittedly strange kinship – the terrorist attacks on September 11th, and the start and sale of her own clothing line.
Plenty of people have commented on the public fallout of Gordon’s marriage, her inside perspective to the Nirvana years, and the role of her mentally ill brother Keller in shaping her childhood as mentioned in this book – all interesting observations. However, these talking points all orbit the notable men in Gordon’s life. Since the title of the book is Girl in a Band, I’m more interested in putting said girl front and center. As cool as the retrospectives on the recording process are, Gordon’s reflections on femininity and its place in the rock ‘n roll world are arguably the most valuable insights of this book, and ones that deserve more attention.
Everyone wants to know what it’s like to be a “girl in a band,” or rather, THE girl in THE band, an interview question that follows Gordon through her many years of touring. She rarely ever gives a provisional answer for her readers, and eventually this question mutates: what’s it like to be a MOM in a band? The non-linear chronology for Gordon’s book makes sense at these critical junctures: reflections on her own mother intersect with her development as an artist. After all, as she writes, a band is the most dysfunctional form of family. From her complex feelings on her mother’s parenting style (avoidant, hands-off, strained at times by a perceived resentment for home life) to her role as caretaker in the final turbulent years of her mother’s failing health following a severe car wreck, mothers are everywhere in Gordon’s narrative. She sees herself transformed into literal mother to daughter Coco, and into figurative mother to her brooding and secretive husband, an insight that comes heavy with the weight of her childhood relationship to motherhood.
A common experience of Gordon’s mother figure is alienation. In the earlier segments of the memoir Gordon describes her hypersensitivity as a child, overshadowed by her troubled brother and carrying personal burden as a peacemaker. The child that was never difficult, the child that put everyone’s needs before her own and quietly suffered rejection and torment as physical altercations with her brother escalated along with his schizophrenia. She remembers being puzzled by the lack of support that her mother showed her in these times, given that she too was bullied by her own siblings. Once Gordon becomes a mother herself, she describes a brief anecdote reading Elizabeth Debold’s book exploring how feminism fails to address the mother-daughter relationship; though only a few lines of the book, this fixation doesn’t at all feel like an accident, one that leaves readers searching along with Gordon to plug in the holes left by our parents.
Despite her ever-complex relationship with imposed cultural models of girlhood, Gordon reveals that at first, she didn’t really think of herself as a girl in a band – “I wasn’t conscious of being a woman” (125). Her relationship to her own femininity is one that evolves over time, and always with the influence of a colorful cast of characters. Every development, every movement, every piece of art in this book comes back to someone else; Gordon’s utter lack of ego and openness in admitting how others have shaped her into the person she is remains uncommon and refreshing, even when those influences are hardly the “cool” ones. By the late 80s Gordon describes a conscious decision to take more control of her look – to “look more girl” (161). Once caught between the categories of “cool” and “attractive” imposed on her by photographer Michael Lavine, an earlier statement by Destroy All Monsters’ Niagara resonates: “I can’t believe you let yourself by photographed without lipstick” (124). From early taunts of ‘Four Eyes’ to experiments with androgyny, Gordon expresses an ambivalence about presentation familiar to any girl, and her journey of discovering what femininity means separate from the patriarchal worlds she describes remains important and relevant. Left bereft by her mother, she looks to other women in her life for guidance.
One of Gordon’s personal touchstones is Karen Carpenter, and it’s to Karen that she asks the eponymous question first: “Did anyone ever ask you that question – what it’s like being a girl in music?” she pens in an open letter (173).
As Gordon’s presence in the music world grows, other models clash against Gordon’s self-proclaimed outsider position despite sharing the kinship of girlhood. Gordon initially found the scary and frigid persona of Lydia Lunch, for example, too aggressive (“I knew I was never going to be like Lydia Lunch”) (128). She finds Courtney Love overly ambitious and manipulative at the worst of times, and unpredictable at the best. Danielle Dax is as cattily mean and competitive as a high school mean girl, and she debates the radicality of sex-positive Madonna. Gordon credits her articles written for Real Life magazine with giving her a reputation in the downtown New York scene, but the piece that launched her to early fame was about male bonding within music, a secret and alluring world all its own, and even she admits that she was devaluing the work of women by romanticizing dynamics of male performance. Gordon’s unending negotiations of positive female role models directly relates to the domination of men in the rock scene, and she never manages to escape a model of female entirely, no matter how disconnected from the concept of ‘woman’ she feels.
Love and admiration come in just as many forms in this book, especially in Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, whom Gordon openly admires for her tenacity in the Riot Grrl movement. Hanna was part of a total media blackout: a refusal of girls in bands to have their images co-opted and manipulated by white male corporate industry, even as Gordon contemplates her own “selling out” to major labels. In a world where, as Kim writes in her ‘87 tour diary, “the most heightened state of being female is watching people watch you,” Kathleen Hanna remains a girl outside mainstream attention (182). Perhaps this is why she admits to such a “perverse desire” of pulling her into the mainstream with her, featuring her in music videos and having her sidestage at shows. Joining the ranks of Hanna is artist Barbara Kruger, whose ability to cause discomfort through art uniquely appealed to Gordon, Jenny Holtzer, Sofia Coppola, and the sisters Julie and Daisy Cafritz, with whom she started passion side projects. Friendship and collaboration by and for women may not be the star of this show, but they underwrite everything Gordon does as every kind of artist. Song lyrics about sexual assault, trouble making, and the constant threat of violence – girl stuff – go hand in hand with Gordon’s evolving presence.
Still, the pangs of hurt inherited from her mother and comments by chauvinists don’t really fade. Back when “girl power” was all the rage – originating with Riot Grrl, only to be hypersanitized by pop icons like The Spice Girls – considering what it means to be empowered only pushes Gordon to solidify herself as she is over the years, rather than accommodate any more molds or expectations. Still struggling with that childhood hypersensitivity as an adult, she writes quite vulnerably, “Back then, and even now, I wonder: Am I ‘empowered?’ If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a ‘strong woman?’” (132). Her relationship with Moore teaches her well enough the dangers of secrecy, and she even confesses to wondering “whether you can truly love, or be loved back, by someone who hides who they are” (114). In contrast to the child she was at the beginning of the book, Gordon herself never seems interested in doing the hiding as she grows, whether it’s in her home life or in the world of rock and roll that she never felt truly part of. The truth was, she writes, “I never wanted to be a housewife. I never wanted to be anything other than who I was” (234). Liberty comes to her in the form of the stage, and perhaps this is why Sonic Youth prevailed for so long, and why she always keeps coming back to music over the course of nearly forty years. “When you’re onstage,” she confides, “you can’t hide from other people, or from yourself either” (11).
Her place is always center stage, and with that comes a certain kind of pressure: the demand to submit oneself to scrutiny, and to hold firm beneath it. While throughout her life we come to see Gordon’s increasingly experimental sides, pulling between androgynous and hyperfeminine presentation, even as a child the concept of identity itself didn’t seem to bother her: “Why is Who am I? considered a crisis?” she wonders early on (58). By the end of the book, Gordon finally tells us who the girl in a band is: “I know, it sounds like I’m someone else entirely now, and I guess I am” (273).
With Gordon’s powerful final statement, Girl in a Band becomes about embracing the unknowability of the self – trusting the instincts that guide one’s shifting, nebulous identity even as it is questioned and negotiated. This is the backbone of No Wave in the first place: freely releasing dissonance, living in ephemerality, which would later morph into an interest in improvisation in Gordon’s later work. Whenever Gordon talks about her relationship to music in this book, it’s always about losing oneself in the visceral reality of making music, where the performance space negates all previously-conceived social categories like “girl” that only weigh us down and limit our creativity. She writes lyrics from the perspective of invented characters, she plays intuitively and unconscious of the body.
During a reflection on Evol midway through the memoir, Gordon writes, “I had no idea what image I projected onstage or off, but I was willing to let myself be unknown forever. Self-consciousness was the beginning of creative death to me” (150). Escaping consciousness entirely by throwing oneself into creating something personally meaningful – something fun – is Gordon’s own solution to the warring messages about girlhood that we are exposed to throughout the book. “Girl in a band” is as vague and reductive a category as Gordon could possibly muster for her experiences as an artist – in paint, in music, in fashion – and even when baring it all, clearing the air, all she’s willing to give us is a guess at what’s next. She’s already moved on. Take it or leave it.