By: Alicia Montellanos
If you were born in the 90s (or later), as I was, it can be hard to understand the importance of Sonic Youth in music. It can also be hard to appreciate the impact Kim Gordon had, and still has, for women in the music industry. However, Gordon’s new memoir, Girl in a Band, facilitates understanding the latter, offering insight not only about what the book title states, but also about the art and music scene of New York in the 80s, being “a California girl” in New York, as well as being a wife and a rock-and-roll mother.
Sonic Youth was a rock band from New York formed in 1981. The founding members are guitarists and vocalists, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, and bassist and vocalist, Kim Gordon. Sonic Youth has been known as a no wave band, though Gordon states in her memoir they don’t see themselves that way. The band came to an unfortunate end after Moore and Gordon’s separation. Both ends were devastating fans that not only enjoyed Sonic Youth’s music, but also idealized the rock-and-roll marriage.
It is very easy to expect Gordon’s memoir to narrate the story of—and thus be a book about—Sonic Youth. After all, a good portion of the book is devoted to describing the writing and recording process, as well as explaining the meaning behind some of their songs. But—fans and intriguers, be warned—this is ultimately a book about Gordon’s life.
All fifty–three chapters are no more than a few pages. Some of them include pictures at various stages of Gordon’s life and career. The book unconventionally opens with a first chapter titled “The End,” in which Gordon narrates the behind-the-scenes of Sonic Youth’s last concert in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The following chapters are more or less chronologically structured, focusing on Gordon’s parents, her brother, and all the connections and people Gordon met throughout her life, such as artist Mike Kelley, artist and writer Dan Graham, musician Julie Cafritz, and Nirvana’s singer Kurt Cobain.
The themes of the memoir center around identification and expectations, specifically in the context of womanhood. Gordon makes several reflective but powerful statements about the pressures of being a woman, and how it can limit and shape the image of a musician. That is, of course, if you let it, which Gordon most certainly did not.
“I also felt limited as a singer… In general, though, women aren’t really allowed to be kick-ass. It’s like the famous distinction between art and craft: Art, and wildness, and pushing against the edges, is a male thing. Craft and control, and polish, is for women.”
After being asked for many years, “What is it like to be a girl in a band?” A question that later turned to, “What is like to be a rock-and-roll mother?” Gordon gives us answers in the form of narration and reflection, telling us insightful stories about the struggles of finding babysitters while being on tour and how other parents from her daughter’s school perceived Gordon, and sharing her thoughts about motherhood.
“Like most new moms, I found that no matter how just and shared you expect the experience to be, or how equal the man thinks parenting should be, it isn’t. It can’t be. Most child-raising falls on women’s shoulders… This doesn’t make men bad parents, though it can make women feel alone in what they’d hope would be an equal division of labor.”
Gordon sheds light on the paradoxical nature of her normal yet extraordinary rock-and-roll lifestyle. She also gives the account of her separation from Thurston Moore that, I think is safe to say, fans were heartbrokenly looking forward to. Gordon devotes a third of the book to naming influential and important (in general, and for her) people who she has met throughout her life. This part seems to be disconnected from a general plot. It can be hard to keep up with so many names, unless you are familiar with some of the artists she mentioned.
The most valuable part and the reason I would recommend this memoir to female artists and musicians, is Gordon’s reflective statements about women in music, and the past and future of the music industry. Another important thing to take away from this book is learning about Gordon’s experience about fitting in in a new city, understanding oneself, and establishing an identity while growing as a person. This is something, I think, everyone can relate to.
Girl in a Band is more than a statement, it is a confirmation of Kim Gordon’s impact to the intersection between women and art.