Kim Gordon, The Death of Bohemia and the Price of Fame
Last night, I saw a conservation between Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The talk was part of a book tour for Kim Gordon’s new memoir, A Girl in a Band.
I’ve mentioned this event before and how it was kind of amusing to me to have to of the most famous women in rock n’ roll speaking at one of the least rock n’ roll venues humanly possible. I love places like JCCSF and the 92nd Street Y in New York but they are rather establishment in their nature. There will be more on this later.
The crowd was interestingly mixed. Sonic Youth formed in 1981 and Kim Gordon is in her 60s. There were some people who looked like they very well could have seen Sonic Youth during the early 1980s, certainly before they got slightly big in the early 1990s during the Geffen Years. Other people in the crowd were obviously in their 20s. I suspect that the majority of the crowd was people in their mid-30s-40s who discovered Sonic Youth sometime during their middle school years to early college years and during the Geffen era of the early 90s. I ended up sitting next to two women in their 40s who looked like perfectly respectable upper-middle class Bay Area moms. They also seemed to used the night as a ladies night out and were very drunk and/or very high. This turned them into inadvertent hecklers who responded like they were the ones being interviewed. At one point, Carrie Brownstein called them out for their behavior.
Kim Gordon did not seem like she wanted to do the event. She often gave very terse answers to questions and would often send the questions back to Carrie Brownstein. I don’t think much of this was rehearsed but maybe it was. Kim Gordon is just like the rest of us and she could have had serious stuff on her mind and was potentially really not up to this event. Or it could be just that it is very unnatural for someone primarily known as an underground rock star and artist to give highly bourgeois conversations at the JCCSF. Still she wrote a memoir and part of the whole wanting to sell books thing is meeting your fans. I suppose it is a little awkward when a woman said “I am a fan but my girlfriend is a superfan. Can you give her a high-five?” but it also done out of love and admiration and was kind of sweet.
Carrie Brownstein was more game for the event but I suspect that is partially because of personality and character. Carrie Brownstein strikes me as being more social and charming in a very earnest way. She also knows how to be funny on purpose as we can see on Portlandia. Carrie Brownstein stuck me as basically being a nice and kind of goofy Jewish kid who ended up becoming a rock star where Kim Gordon might have a more bohemian and anti-establishment attitude based on when and where their bands started.
There were still some interesting discussions. A person in the audience asked for advice during question time because of rising rents and it being a rather hard time for artists. Kim Gordon said she was never interested in having a job like a graphic designer that gave you a career and she always took menial jobs during the early days of Sonic Youth. This is more proof for my theory that one of the types of people who can be artist are those who are just too misfit to ever survive in an office environment. I also suspect that Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth were kind of lucky in being in the right place at the right time (kind of like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs). NYC was much more dangerous and much more affordable in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Kim Gordon could survive on menial jobs because the rents were low enough because people were fleeing instead of entering cities and it was also before condos were really a big deal. Bohemia was a possibility then basically.
Kim ended this advice with saying if you find something you love and stick to it, something will work out. I am not so sure that this is true. I can’t help but wondering if there were other Kim Gordons and Sonic Youths that started at the same time and either never got an audience or remained much more obscure. Maybe these would-be Kim Gordons forced themselves into graphic design or office work or are currently destitute and anonymous. At one point, Kim Gordon mentioned that Geffen records never really knew what to do with them but Carrie Brownstein responded that no one would drop Sonic Youth because you can use Sonic Youth to attract other bands that could sell more records. This reminded me of the old observation on the Velvet Underground, the Velvet Underground did not sell many records but everyone who bought a Velvet Underground record went on to form their own band. Sonic Youth got lucky and became a kind of cultural capital.
There was also an interesting observation by Carrie Brownstein that selling out was seen as a majorly wrong thing to do in the 1980s and 90s but now no one about it seemingly. I suspect that there are two reasons for this. One is that technological changes have really led to the demise of anything like mainstream culture. There are still big pop acts like Jay-Z, Katy Perry, and Beyonce but there are no real gatekeepers anymore. MTV does not play much music (this lament seemingly started when I started watching MTV around 1992-1993. I probably discovered Sonic Youth via 120 Minutes or some such show.) Itunes, Pandora, and other things just allow us to stay within our own taste tribes. Do you still score rebellion and cool points for being the kid who discovers a band like Sonic Youth? Or is this dead because rock is now 6 decades old and you have Aunts in their late 30s asking Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein for recommendations for “three albums to give to my niece for her 12th Birthday.” The other reason that selling out is not an issue is because artists and musicians are just struggling to survive. Henry Rollins did not sound wealthy during his Black Flag years but I imagine that rent was easier to make.
The big conclusion I got from the event and the location is that the rebellious spirit of rock n’ roll is largely dead. At one point both Kim and Carrie talked about how rock was liberating because you could wear the same thing to each gig and did not need to do 5 or 6 costume changes like Katty Perry but rock n’ roll also destroyed the concept of accepting age and getting old. Everyone wants to keep up with what is new and current. People want to show that they can be a parent and still be cool by putting their babies and toddlers in Nirvana onesies and open Flannel shirts. They want to introduce their 12-year old nieces and nephews to Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney and X-Ray Spex. Rock might not have anything to rebel against anymore.