What's so bad about Sonic Youth again, Steve?
If you haven't heard (or don't check Pitchfork like its your Twitter account), Steve Albini is pissed off -- again. In a Q&A with GQ.com published this week, everyone's favorite producer/indie curmudgeon decided to attempt to assassinate Sonic Youth's impenetrable DIY credibility. Serving up some deep cuts -- mostly in regard to the band signing to a major label in the '90s -- he also accused the band of having the ability to cultivate counterculture-looking, ambitionless bands.
Since this latest outburst (has and) will continue to warrant plenty of Albini-bashing elsewhere on the Internet, we've decided to focus on the positive -- like the stuff Sonic Youth has done that might look like "selling out" but is actually valid, smart and less integrity-compromising than you'd think.
Sonic Youth crawls in bed with Starbucks
Buying music (in a tangible sense) from a place other than a record store has never seemed like a good idea -- remember when Pottery Barn sold "lifestyle" CDs? Starbucks isn't far from such un-coolness, and when Sonic Youth decided to ask a bunch of famous people to pick their favorite Sonic Youth songs for a compilation in 2008, the resulting Hits Are for Squares album concept came across like a collective loss of the band's mind/integrity. But (luckily) the record hardly sold any copies at all -- and Lee Ronaldo declared it "the rarest record we ever released," because not many were even pressed. Even in the face of a massive corporation's attempt at culture homogenization through a trusted DIY source, the band's true ethos prevailed, and the joke was on Starbucks. Sonic Youth 1, Elitist naysayers 0. Kim Gordon makes clothes for Urban Outfitters
In the '90s, Gordon launched a casual T-shirt and dress line called X-Girl (along with men's partner line X-Large, with Mike D of the Beastie Boys), so her 2009 step into the world of fashion wasn't a surprise. But coming together with Urban Outfitters -- the store that markets the idea of empowerment through music over actual empowerment -- seems counterintuitive to the group's experimental art roots. But much like selling a Sonic Youth shirt (which Urban does) to someone who may not know what Sonic Youth is, Gordon's Mirror/Dash line will most likely be bought by people who will never buy Sonic Youth's records, or know that the woman behind their hip clothes is the age of their mom, effectively keeping the band's music from becoming "popular" with anyone under the age of 25. Like Gordon's shirt once proclaimed, Girls Invented Punk rock, not England. And Urban Outfitters invented purchasable counterculture, not Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth cover "Superstar" in 1994 for If I Were A Carpenter
Cover songs should go one of two ways: A band should either create a better version of the original or create a track so different, it is virtually unrecognizable. Sonic Youth managed both of these things with its 1994 reformatting of The Carpenters' "Superstar" -- a once flat and whiny Karen Carpenter story transformed into a haunting, deathly declaration of obsession channeled through Thurston Moore. Less than a decade after this collection was released, it was almost impossible to find, until a little movie called Juno shot "Superstar" into relevancy. A whole new generation of kids was introduced to Sonic Youth, hopefully altering the course of a Fergie-listening future as we know it. But probably not. Sonic Youth makes art cool--and gets it sold for a lot of money
Yes, Sonic Youth has an unwavering fan base, and yes, the band has seen moderately successful record and ticket sales over the last three decades. But when Gerhard Richter's "Kerze" went on the auction block in 2008, the painting -- which was also the cover art for the act's celebrated 1988 release, Daydream Nation -- it sold for over two million dollars. Though Richter's own merit as an artist is a factor in the sale, there is no doubt that New York's noise royalty was partly to thank for the hefty price tag. The sale isn't really "selling out" in the traditional sense, but it is an interesting look at Sonic Youth's effect on popular culture (even in the art world) and the band's inability to capitalize on its own success--or even be affected by it.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.