Music & Gender: Kim Gordon, a punk revolutionary

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 - 6:29pm

Kim Gordon

Kim Gordon Buy this photo
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When you think about punk rock, what do you see?

It may be a young, shirtless Iggy Pop thrashing about on stage. Or a snarling Sid Vicious picking away at his bass guitar. Or maybe it’s something more recent — Protomartyr or Wavves. Though all fantastic and important in the development of the genre, there is a pernicious undercurrent beneath all of these images — none of them include women.

It’s no secret that punk, and rock more generally, has a history of being fronted and run almost exclusively by men. Whether consciously or not, women have been seen as groupies, mere objects for the male gaze and rarely beings with their own talent, agency or ideas.

This characterization is not to undermine the importance of the women of punk rock, but to highlight the gusto of those who broke down barriers. Kim Gordon is one such maverick. Most known for her role in Sonic Youth, Gordon has slowly but surely dismembered the patriarchal domination of punk rock for the past three decades.

Called to action by the no wave genre, Gordon dove head-first into the music scene. Tackling no wave was like taking on everything dominant gender ideology tells women not to be — dissonant, avant-garde and nihilistic. And she did so with aggressive grace. The unfiltered, raw nature of no wave, which sprung from a rejection of commercialized new wave, attracted Gordon with its performative artistry, as well as its accessibility. Like punk, anyone can do it. It’s a genre built on a paradox; the artists don’t care, but they care enough to create. This kind of indifferent, brash attitude is especially jarring when carried out by a woman. And that just makes it all the better. Women are told they are built to be caring, to dote and be soft. Through no wave and punk, Gordon breaks down the mutual exclusivity of rock and the female experience.

Though not the prolific frontman (Gordon was a bassist and occasional vocalist), her hand was ever-present in Sonic Youth’s work and performative style. Plucking her thumping, throbbing bass, she was no sideshow to the main, male act of Sonic Youth. Gordon, both in Sonic Youth and in side projects like Free Kitten, was and is integral to the act. She views music holistically — as something that is meant to be seen as well as heard. Music, especially live music, is meant to be an immersive sensory experience. With the help of husband and fellow bandmate Thurston Moore, Gordon and Sonic Youth pounded and rocked their way into new DIY, noise rock territory. In making this kind of creative decision, along with the help of her bandmates, Gordon is a true artist. She didn’t, and still doesn’t, fit any definable mold.

Further distancing herself from any distinguishable pattern, Gordon aimed to rid herself of her pretty, middle class shell. She wanted to be uglier, to be cool. She was once asked by a photographer, “Do you want to be cool or do you want to look attractive?” This convoluted universe in which beauty and coolness are mutually exclusive is the one in which a female musician must reside, especially in punk. Dealing with this question, Gordon chose to embrace the edge rather than bend to the power of commercialized beauty.

Years ago, Gordon was photographed wearing a shirt proclaiming, “Girls invented punk rock, not England.” And that pretty much sums her up. Women in punk must face obstacles that men cannot imagine; the scrutinization of every facet of their being hardens them. In rejecting a society that puts so much pressure on them to conform — in their demeanor, looks, intimate relationships — women of punk rock challenge problematic ideologies many of their male counterparts have never had to face and likely never will. Gordon, who is vocal about challenging these societal prescriptions, epitomizes the punk persona: she identifies what she is told to be and then proceeds to do the exact opposite.