Blind Man with a Pistol


Happy 90th, Pete
3 May 2009, 9:13 pm
Filed under: Music | Tags:

pete-seeger



Middle-Aged Riot

It better work out.
I hope it works out my way.
‘Cause its getting kind of quiet in my city’s head.
Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now.

Sonic Youth, the band that crystallized the meaning of a decade of slackerdom with their legendary record Daydream Nation (1988), is releasing their next album through Starbucks. What do we want from a band called Sonic Youth led by a man who turns fifty this year? And what’s the difference between Starbucks and Universal Records anyway? Besides, a slick veneer over the hardest of core was always Sonic Youth’s shtick. After all, they galvanized a generation by hiding lovely pop melodies under a layer of filthy noise and feedback. They were the epitome of suburban revolution: Dick Clark dressed up like The Stooges. And they were f’n brilliant.

In 1988, Punk music’s anti-establishment message was over the hill. New Wave’s subversive critique had lost its edge; it became a euphemism for “synthesizer.” Enter Sonic Youth’s pleasing, melodic rage. Their music appealed because it justified an equivocal reaction to the paralyzing frustration that typified the end of Reaganism and Thatcherism. At the same time, it offered the utopian bribe of revolution and social change with avant garde coarseness and abrasion in the musical form. We could do nothing and still feel like we were fucking over corporate America. As Kim Gordon asks us in “The Sprawl”: “Does ‘Fuck you!’ sound simple enough?” And it did, Kim.  It did.

Punk music petered out because it advocated a nostalgic return to one of the founding lies of capitalism: hard-work, rustic simplicity and self-determination can change the world. Essentially, punk bought into the American dream, as if to rescue it from the mainstream that perpetuates it.  New Age disappeared because it was always too complicit in the society it hoped to critique: it mirrored the minimalism and moral void of capitalism with its sparse music and corporate costumes, while critiquing the culture with its lyrics.

Bands like Sonic Youth, mired in the malaise of the last days of the Cold War, were economically and socially prohibited from launching any kind of serious social critique so they hid their revolutionary impulses. The Western world saw unprecedented growth in multinational corporations and escalating takeovers of independent businesses by big interests; and the recording industry was no exception.  Sonic Youth made the leap, mostly due to perfectly understandable economic concerns, from indie label SST Records to Capitol and EMI in time for the release of Daydream Nation. How could they be expected to effect social change from within the corporate structure? Their response was the key to their brilliance: mass culture content that expressed its discontent through form. Their art was a tacit acknowledgment of the vacuity of mass culture, a shift from politically inspired content to interrogation of identity and form.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The Kids in the Hall and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble were comparable, contemporary efforts to achieve the same shift. But now we have Sonic Youth performing their classic album live, in full. Besides the irony mentioned above about aging rockers performing “Teenage Riot,” such a concert continues to institutionalize an act of social change. We go to this concert not to change our minds, but knowing exactly what to expect, as if to package our radicalism as essentially youthful, of a bygone era, of something no longer needed. And of course, what is most troubling about this kind of nostalgia, is the sobering thought that perhaps our daydreams were only ever leading us to Starbucks in the first place.

Say it ain’t so, Thurston.