Kim Gordon, The Death of Bohemia and the Price of Fame

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33 Responses

  1. aaron david says:

    There were hundreds of bands like Sonic Youth. REM. Butthole Surfers. Black Flag was even earlier. They did it ’cause they had to. That burning need to be and make music. Carrie Brownstein is the same way. It really is an art thing, it doesn’t matter if they are from NYC, Texus or the deep south. They just have to do it, and will just do it. Artists will end up in places that allow them to make the art they need to make, and will not worry about needing to live in a famous bohemian place.

    I would suggest reading Our Band Could Be Your Life.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to aaron david says:


      All those bands and people you mentioned made it to varying degrees of fame and wealth. I am wondering about the people who didn’t make it. The people who tried and maybe had some gigs, maybe had one or two tours, maybe had some albums but ultimately faded into obscurity or less than obscurity.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to aaron david says:

      There are still interesting questions about the nature of cool and rebellion

      Can your uncle, aunt, or parent make you cool by giving you Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfer albums? Or does it become cool to listen to Katy Perry because you are rejecting what an adult figure is trying to tell you to listen to?Report

      • j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Part of it is that the whole rejecting what the adults in your life try to give you may have lost some of the cache that it once had. I’m no expert, but the kids these days don’t seem all that preoccupied with striking rebellious poses.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        This is mainly because boomer parents largely kept their tastes as they grew older. They kept trying to be cool like they were in their twenties or at least informal in behaviro. Boomers continued to listen to rock, dress in jeans and other casual clothing, and didn’t entirely do a reactionary freak out when their kids experimented with sex and drugs. I mean they did to an extent but much more limited than previous generations. Rebelling against boomer parents would mean being a square and an uncool, responsible person for the most part. That probably isn’t so interesting.Report

      • Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I find anyone who manages to hold an adult job as a 12 year old, particularly in a creative field, to be quite interesting.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “I’m no expert, but the kids these days don’t seem all that preoccupied with striking rebellious poses.”

        Occupy? Ferguson?

        I’m feeling we’re defining rebellion in the current generation too narrowly, and pitching too big a tent around the rebellion of some previous generations.

        I’m thinking it’s a pretty constant percentage of ‘rebellion’ over the last century, but a variation in perception on what lasted and what didn’t (and who was right and who was wrong).Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        kolohe, Occupy and Fergusson are political protests. Those are types of rebellion but not quite what we are talking about. During the 1980s, dying your hair green, getting a noise ring while living in a grubby, gritty city and doing minimal wage jobs while playing in a band was certainly was a rebellious act against the mainstream expectations of the time. Listening to Black Flag or Sonic Youth rather than Madonna or Van Halen if you were a high school student was also weird back than.Report

      • j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        There’s a reason why I phrased it as “rebellious poses.”

        Political activism is of a different nature than the sort of punk rebellion that was going on in the late 70s and ealry 80s. If anything, it was partly a rebellion to the self-righteousness that grew out of the political movements of the 60s and early 70s. These were kids who likely grew up being told that they missed out in this special, incredibly important, historical moment and reacted by saying, “fine, i’m going to make myself purposefully irrelevant in the most extreme way possible.”Report

      • j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        The people today who are most carrying on the punk ethos are probably hipsters, who, unfortunately, may have succeeded in making themselves purposefully irrelevant.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I’ve seen evidence in books that kids and teenagers in the 1930s and 40s liked to wear jeans but at somepoint you stopped wearing jeans because jeans on adults meant that you were a convict, in the navy, or very working class.

        This changed with the boomers and was probably really not noticeable until the 1970s and 80s when the first boomers began entering their 30s.

        I wonder why the boomers decided to reject the idea that it was not-adult to wear jeans after a while.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        When you’re a teenager to about 25 years old, a cultural pose is a political pose, and vice versa.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @j-r , the punk movement was a reaction against the hippies but even more importantly; it was a reaction against the growing arena rock bands. The attempt was to return rock to its less than reputable and non-commercialized roots.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    I have several observations:

    1. Kim Gordon’s terseness might stem from a realization that doing an interview at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco is about the biggest form of selling out possible and she just did it. Basically, she recognizes the ridiculousness of a famous punk/hard core rocker doing an interview at a Jewish Community Center.

    2. Rock and its various sub-genres is not a type of music that ages terribly well. It rests too much on the intensity and passion of youth even in its most commercial form. Frank Sinatra’s music worked just as well for me as an old man as it did as a young man. The Rolling Stones, not so much. It just looks like a bunch of men that can not accept the fact that they are growing old.

    3. I don’t think you can have an indie rock scene like you did during the 1980s and early 1990s in the present. Like you said, the economics really don’t work out. The first indie rock scene depended on artists and fans being able to take advantage of the terrible situations in American cities during the time for cheap rent and the bohemian life. Things are much too expensive for that sort of thing these days. The alternative life isn’t so alternative anymore also. Things like piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair in unusual designs weren’t common in the early 1980s. From what I can tell, the average youth culture was more mainstream in tastes and behavior. This was a time before hipsters. I think people got married and had kids earlier as well. These days, late marriage and child birth is becoming the norm. Tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair are more common and mainstream. The alternative kids aren’t so out of place or looked down upon anymore.

    The modern music scene also works against having a true indie music scene like the one that existed in the 1980s. The punk and hardcore scenes developed in reaction to what look liked the over commercialization of rock music during the 1970s. It required that there be gate keepers in the recording industry and more really big artists and bands like Van Halen or Bon Jovi filling stadiums with hundreds or thousands of mainstream teenagers and twenty-somethings and dominating the air waves. The modern music scene is much more fragmented because of changes in technology and some other factors like you mentioned above. Besides a few big pop or R&B artists, there aren’t as many mega-famous rock musicians besides some old timers doing tours. Its much easier for artists or bands to release their stuff and for fans to find them.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I agree and disagree on #2 but maybe there is a way of doing it somewhat gracefully. X sounds as good now as they did in the 1980s and they are largely in their 50s and 60s. The Boss and Tom Petty lack the indignity of the Rolling Stones and seem to do the elder rocket thing okay to well.

      40s does not seem too old to be a rock musician anymore like Sleater-Kinney or Mary Timony.

      #3 is a really good point though and broader trends that are making the work place more casual in many ways. Offices that let people wear jeans, expensive restaurants that have servers in jeans. The old air of formality is dying if not largely dead in many to most quarters. Tattoos and piercings have become commonplace.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I see your point about #2 and it might be based a lot on the artist. Tom Petty was never really known for jumping around on stage. Bruce Springsteen changed his music style a lot as he grew older. His songs and style fit his age. The problem is for the artists that don’t adjust their music or stage presence as they age like the Rolling Stones. People probably thought that jazz wouldn’t age well when it first appeared and became big either but jazz was a bit less youth dependent than rock from the get go.

        On point 3, during the hey day of the indie rock scene, you could still talk about their being a unified youth culture. There were some divisions but these were traditional race-based ones that kind of always existed in American culture. There were things that were big with large numbers of teenagers during the 1980s and 1990s though; bands that were really mass phenomenon that sold out big stadiums and did massive tours. Katty Perry and Lady Gaga are the remnants of this. These days, you can’t really talk about their being a unified youth culture. Its more like there are a plethora of youth cultures. The indie rock subculture required a mainstream to rebel against. Without a mainstream, you have nothing.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I just rewatched the video for Bull in the Heather from 1994. The video features Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. She was 26 at the time and spent the video prancing around in a pair of panty hose, polka dot panties, and a t-shirt.

        Maybe it was radical or new to see her give Kim Gordon a peck on the cheek in 1994 but what is really interesting is how that look is kind of frozen in amber. Indie rock types look the same as they did back then.Report

  3. Kim says:

    I now totally want to do a piece on the subversive graphic designer.
    What has been seen cannot be unseen.
    (and… that’s why I’m not going to do it.)Report

    • Lizzy B. in reply to Kim says:

      Saul and and all who have commented, in particular “Kim” you are cracking me up. I hope this is actually YOU commenting. In this day and age it seems that the depth of communication is a bit shallow in the fact that everything is so rapid. Ideas and thoughts can be discussed over the internet without actually seeing and hearing one another. I so wanted to hear and see Kim and Carrie in discussion but, the high ticket price put me off and I am glad I didn’t hear the chattering ladies who wanted to get close and take a facebook picture. I appreciate Kim and her life. She is an original. I want to hear a feminist discussion with artistic, musical feminists. Kim let’s tour the world with our bands… what else is there to do?Report

  4. j r says:

    One observation from me on the whole JCC thing.

    I’m from New York. I grew up right next to the Five Towns. I went to a SUNY. In other words, I’m not unfamiliar with this world. You guys keep saying that the JCC is an obvious sign of selling out to the bourgeoisie, but it’s not particularly obvious to me how that is.

    For one thing, rock and roll has always been about the bourgeois. All those kids who moved to NY in the 70s and 80s, where do you think they were coming from? Most were coming from middle class homes. And yes, their choice to be musicians or artists or professional scenesters represents somewhat of a choice to throw off their middle class upbringing, but not that much. It’s not like they became teamsters.

    Here’s a good example of what I mean. One of the places that you are most likely to encounter indie rock music right now is on TV, during commercials. Why? Because a bunch of those kids who grew up listening to indie music and wanting to pursue artistic careers ended up going into advertising when those artistic careers didn’t pan out.

    You are assuming an alienation between rock and roll and the bourgeois that doesn’t exist. Tension, yes, but not alienation.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

      This is true enough for Kim Gordon, according to wikipedia she was born in Rochester and grew up in LA. Her father was a professor and her mom a housewife. You don’t get more bourgeoisie than this. The other members of Sonic Youth also come from middle class backgrounds as best can be gauged by their wikipedia pages. Henry Rollins was raised by his mother but in an affluent Washington, DC neighborhood rather than in a poor or working class neighborhood.

      So you seem to be right, a lot of the people involved the indie rock scene in the early 1980s and 1990s did grow up in rather affluent households. They probably had parents who exposed them to music, got them lessons, and were willing to at least somewhat indulge them in any artistic endeavors they had. The first bohemians in 19th century also came from backgrounds of at least relative affluence rather than poverty or working class backgrounds according to Jerry Segal’s history Bohemian Paris, which is fittingly subtitled “the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life.”

      I’m still not sure that this observation entirely negates Saul’s observations. Bohemia might spring from the bourgeois but it still requires a rejection of bourgeois ideas and at least a certain amount of schock from the mainstream. The indie rock lifestyle of both the artists and fans during the early 1980s was not mainstream. It isn’t exactly mainstream these days but its a lot less schocking for young people to get tattoos, piercings, and drop out of trying to build a career to live as a hipster for a few or even several years in the present. The cultural changes of the 1960s were still working things out during the 1980s, so the punk life was kind of weird back than.Report

  5. Rufus F. says:

    I remember Jack White recently said something like “What can ‘selling out’ possibly mean in a time in which everyone steals music?” I know some bands on major labels doing tours and some on basement labels playing bars and they live about the same. None of them can make rent easily. What I miss from the time she’s talking about, however, is how weird the music was. “Alternative” could mean all flavors of weird and discordant as hell, not “indie rock” which sounds to me like a cross between adult contemporary and 70s mellow AM gold. Sonic Youth wasn’t my thing, but they definitely had some fished up music on some of those albums.

    Didn’t Henry Rollins live in the shed behind someone’s house though? I also remember him talking about wheatpasting posters and the band eating the wheatpaste afterwards for the calories.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F. says:

      The concept of selling out requires that their be a music industry where some people make a lot of money by selling albums and doing sold out tours like the one that existed during the 1980s and 1990s. We don’t have many artistis that can boast of this sort of success anymore besides a handful of them.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Rufus F. says:


      Part of the conversation involved Kim and Carrie talking about how indie (and also alternative) is a vague and useless umbrella term. They did talk about how in the late 80s/early 90s college rock was distinct from Sonic Youth. College Rock was stuff like Buffalo Tom, The Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield. They seemed to have a bit of mock in their tone.

      Then sometime around 1991-1993, big labels began paying attention and it all got jumbled together as “alternative” and then “alternative” became “indie” and at some point more with it NPR and Community Radio Stations began playing indie rock type stuff.

      I find it hard to listen to the real stuff now at 34. But that was a good zing.

      The story I remember from Get in the Van was that Rollins spent the day pasting up posters and then went to a buffet place and used his try as a plate and his general look to make sure that management did not give him heat.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Yeah, I think the “college rock” stuff that I found too bland then is about the same as the “indie rock” stuff I find too bland now. Maybe the problem is with the punks- that music has gotten extremely generic and I guess back then you could lump in Sonic Youth, Alice Donut, the Cramps, Butthole Surfers, and Dead Kennedys as “Punk”, even though none of them sound much alike.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Kim Gordon mentioned that everyone was surprised how long the Butthole Surfers lasted as a band.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’m sure if the acid ever wears off, they’ll break up.Report

  6. dhex says:

    swans? swans. hatefully – that’s how you age gracefully.Report