Nostalgic for Nothing
The unstoppable Sonic Youth.
Looking backward, it all seems so quaint: four young musicians in various stages of unkemptness, exorcising their ennui—and, by logical extension, the ennui of a generation—with mean, scabrous washes of electric guitar. The narrative is as old as rock music itself, yet when New York's Sonic Youth entered the fray some 20 years ago, something strange happened. It began with that noisome racket, which seemed to signal the end of music. First you heard the guitars, irrational and huge as they slipped toward uncharted tunings; then you felt the spirit that animated those guitars. Despite being one of the most influential bands of the recent past, nobody has really come close to sounding like Sonic Youth. Instead, their appeal has endured as a set of ideas and practices, an object lesson in flouting conventions and picking battles. Now, on their 21st full-length album, Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth has done the unthinkable—they've begun to sound like everyone else.
When Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Kim Gordon meandered to New York City from their respective suburbs in the late 1970s, they were drawn by the dangerous possibilities of the moment. But as punk revealed its simple (if affirming) anarchic conceit and subscenes fractured for less-than-noble reasons, they realized that no zeitgeist was immovable. They pushed toward the fringe, crafting a kitchen-sink assimilation of their strongest influences (their mentor Glenn Branca's all-guitar orchestras and the Stooges, mostly). Their music was the logical conclusion of the punk ethos, even if it sounded nothing like it. They exhausted their cheap instruments and played what they wanted. They fixed on a sound: confusion.
We tend to forget that a lot of thought goes into even the hastiest, coarsest records. After all, one has to have some vague sense of the world in order to negate it. So, while 1980s culture is usually cast as a clash between the overproduced, televisual Goliath and the aggressively underground David, there was more to it than the mere cost of equipment (or shampoo). The primal dirge of Sonic Youth shook you, but it was the irony, darkness, and dread that drew you in. "We're gonna find the meaning/ Of feeling good," Moore wailed over the apocalyptic racket of "Expressway to Yr Skull,"and it made you wonder if such meanings were even possible. Perhaps thrills could be found in the exhilarating, unified din of "Teenage Riot,"but even then Moore proclaimed that nothing short of riot would shake him out of bed. When someone is telling you that it's "morning in America," what better recourse than denying the sun? The titles of Sonic Youth songs and albums—"Kill Yr Idols," the C.C.R.-riffing Bad Moon Rising—were as evocative as the songs themselves, even if the band probably knew, implicitly, that song alone wouldn't turn back Reagan.
Sonic Youth's greatest asset was their perspective. They knew that the blahs were merely contextual: The world always seems like it's at its socio-politico-cultural worst. Avid pack rats, they pieced together alternate histories from record albums (their band name mashed together two touchstones: Sonic referred to MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, while Youth was a tribute to Jamaican DJ Big Youth), fanzines, and casual scans of the nightly news. As a result, the band—which settled into its current configuration with the 1984 addition of drummer Steve Shelley—didn't seem nostalgic for a better time. They knew better. Instead, they reassessed their world's possibilities.
In the mid-1980s, independent rock was still a vast wilderness, with outposts of interesting yet isolated local scenes loosely linked by touring bands and the distribution networks of mail order and fanzines. In 1990, fresh off EVOL (1986), Sister (1987), and Daydream Nation (1988)—dread-and-dream classics that had plumbed the guitar for a new, seemingly impossible, language—the band signed an unusual major-label deal with Geffen. They had been writing songs that gripped and inspired those who heard them, yet they couldn't overcome the poor distribution and handshake agreements of labels that were, in the eyes of the band, too DIY for their own good. The move enabled them to recruit talent—Moore shepherded his friends Nirvana to Geffen—and ensured them creative control. It also allowed them to topple that last fallacious myth of youth: selling out. (To this day, they are still coy about their break from the underground. The fine print on their 2004 DVD collection, Corporate Ghost, distinguishes the "pre-sellout 'independent' " days from the "ongoing corporate swim.")
Sonic Youth—unashamed of their fascination with celebrity culture—indeed used their powers for good. Their initial Geffen releases—Goo (1990) and Dirty (1992)—confirmed their status as the deans of "alternative rock" (as marketers called it). They helped bands get signed and put out true weird side projects; they proselytized on behalf of free-jazz blowers and Japanese noise fiends; they worked with then-unknown fellow travelers Jason Lee, Spike Jonze, and Marc Jacobs; and the iconic Gordon herself is probably responsible for the formation of at least 100 bands. As they themselves joked, their Geffen deal was the beginning and end of something very precious. They released a home video titled 1991: The Year Punk Broke (yet another sacred cow, slaughtered).
A decade later, Sonic Youth have outlasted peers, followers, and even their own name. They have been feted with the ultimate gesture of canonization—the deluxe reissue of half their back catalog. (In particular, the raw, static noise of Sonic Youth, their 1982 debut, and the stripped-down Goo demo illustrate their growth. Also of note is The Whitey Album, a pastiche of noise and hip-hop experiments they recorded in 1988 under the name Ciccone Youth.) Moore continues to trawl the extremes of the noise, improv, and folk scenes, covering them in a column for Arthur magazine and releasing a seemingly infinite stream of albums on his Ecstatic Peace label. Sonic Youth's own label, SYR, has become their clearinghouse for the band's more out-there experiments. And so Rather Ripped, their final record for Geffen, is their simplest yet, a collection of woozy pop songs that drastically streamlines the band's process. Most of the songs are under four minutes, adorned by only the mildest swells of feedback. Catchiness rarely sounds as brave as it does when Gordon—whose intriguing, coquette-scorned voice is rarely described as "pretty"—tries to match the delicate melodies of "Turquoise Boy." The thrilling "Incinerate" features the kind of bare riffs and hooks that a younger Moore would have run from, while "Reena" and the dreamy "Jams Run Free" suggest that the band has been paying attention to the young bands they once inspired.
Last week, Sonic Youth began their umpteenth tour with a sold-out show at CBGB, the Manhattan club as legendary as it is tiny. As the four middle-aged stars took the stage, Gordon told a quick joke about MySpace, which seemed appropriate—what is MySpace but the ultimate example of doing-it-yourself, on a global level? Each song was greeted with the kind of idol worship they had once warned against, but they weren't proper stars back then. They tore through "What a Waste"—which Moore and Gordon had performed on a March episode of the Gilmore Girls—and encored with "Eric's Trip," a thrashed-out favorite from Daydream Nation, an album that was added to the Library of Congress' National Registry of Recordings last year. It was the joyous, unafraid performance of a band delighted with its infiltration of "the establishment"—a terrible thing, if you believe in such terms.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.
Audio excerpts from EVOL © 1986 Geffen; Daydream Nation © 1988 Geffen; Amarillo Ramp © 1997 Starlight Furniture; SYR 6 © 2002 SYR, and Rather Ripped © 2006 Geffen. All rights reserved.