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Even if you aren't a diehard fan of the seminal band Sonic Youth, which Kim Gordon created with her now-ex husband Thurston Moore, you still might be familiar with her work—or at least her eye. She began her career as a visual multimedia artist, forging influential friendships with artists like Mike Kelley and Dan Graham during her California-based college years. After forming Sonic Youth, she helped direct the band's visual aesthetic, collaborating with artists and video directors to create some of the most iconic album packaging and music videos of the 90s.
And in 1993 she co-created X-Girl, a short-lived but wildly influential clothing line that combined influences from grunge and skater culture with a closer-fitting, seventies-inspired aesthetic. With guerilla-style fashion shows run by then-nascent talents Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze and a teenaged Chloë Sevigny modeling the clothes, X-Girl represented an apotheosis of early-90s cool that designers rip off to this day. "In a way, X-Girl gave me far more notoriety than Sonic Youth ever did," Gordon writes in her new memoir, Girl In A Band.
Gordon's own personal style has also been consistently imitated; photos generously strewn throughout the book belie her attempts to downplay the importance of her singular, iconic look. "I felt frumpy and nerdy a lot of the time," she writes. But in the photos, she invariably looks fierce, with lioness eyes and an onstage wardrobe that epitomizes tomboyish glamour.
With her naturally skinny frame and eye for silhouettes that are sexy but never overtly seductive, Gordon gave several generations' worth of girls in bands their uniform: vintage tees, oversized sunglasses, stripey minidresses, smudged eyeliner and stick-straight choppy hair, accessorized with a bass guitar. Without ever seeming to try, or ever letting her look calcify into a shtick, Gordon set a template for what girls in bands could look like—apparently, without much conscious effort.
Like the title of Lena Dunham's recent book Not That Kind of Girl, Girl In A Band seems chosen with almost parodic intent. "What's it like to be a girl in a band?" is, after all, the question interviewers have been asking Gordon throughout her 30+ year career, to her annoyance. "I'd never really thought about it, to be honest," she writes of getting this question throughout Sonic Youth's UK tour for Evol, going on to describe interviewers who were non-confrontational in person but sexist and cruel in print. "I refused to play the game." Left to hash out the question in book form and on her own terms, though, Gordon remains somewhat coy about her answer.
While she reports matter-of-factly on the who, what, and where of her participation in some of the coolest moments in art, music and fashion from the last few decades, the why and how are more elusive. The reader who comes to Girl in A Band already worshipping Gordon might find these elisions deliberate or poetic, and might appreciate the book's rough-hewn, slightly tossed-off feel (paragraphs that begin "As I wrote earlier," appear somewhat often, thanks to a loose approach to structure that often finds Gordon doubling back to provide more detail about events she's already covered.) A reader who admires Gordon but doesn't feel a strong personal connection to her work might wish that a tighter narrative had emerged from these reams of excellent raw material. Still, Gordon's generosity with those details goes a long way towards making up for any lack of synthesis.
Maybe it's unrealistic to expect an icon to explain her iconic status, or to help us understand what it was like to be a woman in an all-male band in the deeply sexist music industry, but Gordon's feminism sometimes seems stuck in a second-wave mode where only women who are doing feminism exactly correctly can be allowed into its exclusive club. This is especially frustrating because she is also often incisive and thoughtful about gender and art.
In writing about the evolution of her own vocal style, she describes the ways that women are associated with "craft"—"control, and polish"—and men are associated with "wildness, and pushing the edges."
"Culturally we don't allow women to be as free as they would like, because that is frightening. We either shun those women or deem them crazy," she writes. But in the same paragraph, after praising Kathleen Hanna, she laments the co-optation of the phrase "girl power" by the Spice Girls, who she deems "male-created."
She often can't seem to avoid bashing other women, especially women who "use their sexuality to sell their art," or who are "narcissists" or "car wrecks" or "hookers with fake breasts." Courtney Love, as you might expect, comes in for a thorough drubbing throughout the book. So does the woman, who Gordon refers to only as "her," with whom Moore carried on the long-term affair that eventually broke up their marriage and Sonic Youth. I admired Gordon's honesty there: not for her the decorous sidestepping of gory divorce detail that Amy Poehler recently employed in her funny but self-revelation-free memoir. But I did wish she'd saved her vitriol more for Moore than for the other woman.
Gordon ends the book on a positive note: She's in LA, making out with cute guys in her car, working on new visual and musical art projects. "I know, it sounds like I'm someone else entirely now, and I guess I am," she ends the book, and it's tantalizing to imagine what that her next incarnation might look like, now that Gordon has shaken free of anyone's expectations of what being a "girl in a band" might be like.