How Sonic Youth Unfucked World
As far as I was concerned, Sonic Youth was Kim Gordon and a bunch of guys. She was a California girl in a band in New York City. I was a black kid in the Valley. She was the first white musician that made sense to me. She delivered lyrics in a way that was constantly bursting at the seams with some kind of unnamed, unknowable, disaffected frenzy. The way her breath interrupted her mid-note and crackled through the flesh of her words called to my mind a body pierced with violent wounds from which an ethereal light glowed outward.
I didn’t understand Sonic Youth when I first heard them. They were messy, and I had only just learned that music could be messy. This month marks the 30-year anniversary of Evol , their third full-length studio album. It fell into my hands after I started hanging out with white kids in earnest. Evol was one of the first of many things that began to slowly but irreversibly gnaw the rope that moored me to my family of origin. Until then, the music I heard had been neat, sharp, beautifully contained. I squealed at my uncle dancing with comedic solemnity to James Brown. I twirled around an unfurnished living room with my mother while she scratched out the lyrics to Diana Ross’s Upside Down on a steno pad. I jumped on beds with my cousins, dangling our aunt’s jewelry from our necks like phat gold chains, tinfoil platinum bracelets on our wrists, grabbing our crotches and screaming LL Cool J lyrics at each other. Our music — black music — had polish and glitter, swagger and control. It was taut and invulnerable. Massive emotions of longing, love, and heartache were set in vivid relief against displays of expert musicianship. Then Evol found me. Then Evol disconnected me and set me adrift.
If Sonic Youth were outsiders, then I was an outsider to the outsiders. By the time I discovered them, their music was well guarded by a brigade of insecure white boys who didn’t think you were cool enough if you didn’t know all of the secret shit and subterranean releases and U.K. 12-inch B sides. Kids with bandannas tied around their wrists and dog tags on their throats, puffing on hand-rolled cigarettes and skeptically testing your knowledge as soon as they heard you were a fan. This was the state of indie music at the time. In the hands of men, it was treated as gear, a bunch of esoteric scene names and movements collected and traded for value like so many baseball cards. I didn’t like it. I felt awkward and isolated. So I kept it to myself. Sonic Youth was a secret between me and my Walkman and the vast empty boulevards, the seas of scorching San Fernando Valley concrete that I walked while Kim’s voice and Thurston’s guitar scratched disconsolate marks in my head like ancient runes.
Evol , like many third albums by legitimate greats, was a culmination of sorts. The band's debut LP, Confusion Is Sex , had burst onto the scene three years earlier like an accident, a mangled, noisy, dark series of paint splatters. It was youthfully nihilistic, unrestrained, and unfocused. 1985's Bad Moon Rising followed that with an improbable take on the Reagan-era, blue-jean Americana that was creeping up to help reassemble the myth of American exceptionalism that had been handily dismantled by the ’60s and ’70s. Both albums were more noise than rock, more texture than song. Evol was the first Sonic Youth album recorded with former Crucifucks drummer Steve Shelley, who brought hardcore’s blistering speed and precision to structure the noise.
You have to know that 1986 was a fucked-up time. Every time is a fucked-up time, but 1986 was especially so, because if you were young and sufficiently woke, it had become very hard to believe anything. Ever since the Manson family murders, right-wing rhetoric about ruined, godless heathens and drugs and 'law and order' had steadily gained purchase. The ensuing crackdown forced anger and rebellion on the left, while advertisers and mainstream pop culture both softened up and whitened up in order to meet middle-of-the-road America’s desire to just kind of have everything be all right again. By 1986, pop stardom had emerged as a new default, with Madonna as a consummate symbol of the era for the simple fact that she lacked the supreme musical talent of Prince and Michael Jackson. Getting famous and staying famous were her art.
By the time they made Evol , Sonic Youth, like every band in America, were in awe of the Madonna phenomenon. The album cover lists the final track, otherwise known as 'Expressway to Yr. Skull,' as Madonna, Sean, and Me. The same year, they covered her hit 'Into the Groove' for a single with their side project Ciccone Youth, an explicit reference to her last name. Pop was calling. Artists, including Sonic Youth themselves, had pushed inaccessibility as far as it would go, and the arc of rebellion was beginning to bend back toward choruses and sing-alongs. Kurt Cobain may have been the most famous person to try to split the difference between disaffectation and stardom, but Sonic Youth laid the groundwork.
Evol contained what is by far the closest Sonic Youth got to anything we might consider a single. The CD version contains a cover of Kim Fowley’s creepy song Bubblegum. Fowley, a music impresario and psychotic cancer who crawled out from the seedy underbelly of L.A’s 1960s Sunset scene, is in many ways the perfect bad grandpa to Sonic Youth’s adolescent insurgency. His own solo recordings are dire and ghastly distortions of the three-minute pop hits he wrote for bands like The Runaways and Paul Revere and The Raiders, on which he siphons up and drools out the sexualized horror that underlies so many ’60s love songs. Their twisted and unbalanced bent found a new context in Sonic Youth.
Gordon sings the lead on Bubblegum, and, in her mouth, lyrics like Here comes baby / Are you ready for her? are spit out with syrupy disdain. She is imitating and skewering the male voice, sarcastically leering at and coming on to the listener, vomiting up the impact of a lifetime of gross and dehumanizing behavior on the part of men. Gordon’s acrid delivery suggests that she knew Fowley’s reputation as a notorious Svengali (months after his death last year, Fowley was accused of having raped Runaways bassist Jackie Fuchs when she was 16). The furious deconstruction of idols is the essence of Sonic Youth’s power; they were the poisoned canaries of popular culture. Their work felt like ransom notes from someone trapped in a beautiful, apocalyptic TV show. Come quick. We’re in hell and nothing makes sense. Never mind. Fuck you.
As legitimate children of the ’60s, they de-tuned and distorted the aggressive toms and snaky guitars of surf and garage rock, peeling back their layers to expose something rusted and collapsing or bloody and beating underneath, depending on the song. Even the name Sonic Youth evokes the kind of lurking emotional terrorism with which the young threaten the old. Oh shit, the kids have guitars and they’ve seen through everything. Run. The rebel nature of Evol linked it more closely to hip-hop than to much of the rock of the time, which in its mainstream form consisted mostly of dudes with feathered hair whose lone skill was creating corny entendres about women’s bodies. Evol , by contrast, abutted and even paralleled the brewing aesthetic of New York hip-hop: urban, layered, complex, real, and lyrical.
To a teenage kid listening alone in a stucco Van Nuys apartment, it was a passage to a darker, more unhinged place than most music allowed. It would be years before I fully grasped the poetry of the lyrics, but the lawlessness of the sound made sense right away. I already knew everything was fucked. I just didn’t know the true energy and life you could get from artfully saying it.
Thirty years after Evol , America is again in the midst of a Reagan-romancing conservative beatdown. The forces that Madonna expertly played with in the 1980s have unleashed themselves and traveled in a straight, bleak line. Music and late-stage capitalism are no longer intertwined — they are indistinguishable. Who can make music now that legitimately makes us question the lie? Sonic Youth’s intrinsic critique helped us doubt media lies, but it couldn't stop their consolidation and growth. We now enjoy easy levels of emotional distraction that are far shiftier and more consuming than anyone in 1986 imagined could be possible. No matter how hideous any part of reality shows itself to be, we can, with our fingertips, find something else equally compelling but infinitely more amusing, more horrifying. It’s an instant power that leaves us entirely exposed. We should have listened more carefully to Evol . When, on Expressway to Yr. Skull,' Thurston Moore moans over a waterfall of clashing guitars, We’re gonna find the meaning of feeling good / And we’re gonna stay there as long as we think we should, it’s a warning of the shape of things to come.