Kim Gordon: The Godmother of Grunge on Feminism in Rock

'The whole do-it-yourself thing took a lot of ideas from feminism'

Kim Gordon
Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Kim Gordon
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Although she's been called the godmother of grunge for her role as co-founder (with her husband, Thurston Moore) of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon insists she's not really a musician. "I don't think in terms of the same things musicians do," she says, with no false humility. "I was raised as a visual artist." Her father was a dean at UCLA, and her mother, she says, "made all these crazy clothes and sold them out of the house." (Kim herself recently sold her own funky fashion line, X-Girl, to a Japanese interest.) An anti-California girl, she fled the West after art school in pursuit of weirder streets, i.e., New York. Sonic Youth were formed there in 1981 and have since become arguably the world's most influential avant-rock foursome, inspiring musicians from Nirvana and Pavement to Neil Young. Gordon has also been known as an unapologetic critic of male hegemony, making fierce yet nondidactic feminist statements with diverse talents such as Lydia Lunch, Public Enemy's Chuck D and Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna. Gordon's latest album, Sentimental Education, with Free Kitten, the group she began with former Pussy Galore guitarist Julia Cafritz, is anything but safe.     

Photos: Sonic Youth: Three Decades of Dissonance

Gordon currently splits her time between a loft in downtown Manhattan and a new retreat in central Massachusetts. We meet near there at a friend's home, discreetly tucked in a woody grove. Further enhancing the bucolic atmosphere is Gordon and Moore's daughter, Coco, 3, who occasionally comes to play at our feet before embarking on a yard-sale hop with her dad.

How did you learn to play?
I never learned to play.

Why did you want to be in rock & roll?
I don't think I ever wanted to be in rock & roll. I played in a band in college for an art project. There is something about the excitement and that power and energy that was incomparable to anything else. When I finally figured out that I could do it too, it was like . . . this awakening. I'm a relatively shy person, but I love being challenged and putting myself in positions that are scary.

How does gender function in that realm?
It's androgynous in that you can go back and forth genderwise. It's obviously active, but at the same time you kind of feel the power in being passive. Iggy Pop used to talk about it, the power of electricity. There's nothing else like that, and it's aggressive but it's also very pure in a way. It is fun to smash guitars [laughs].

During your high school years, did you have any sort of feminist awareness?
I was aware that my brother got to do things that I didn't get to do.

How do you feel about the word "feminist"? Do you use it for yourself?
I'm kind of a sloppy feminist. Any ideology makes me a little nervous because there's some point where it doesn't allow for the complexity of things. I think feminism is really interesting historically. It is a term for me that does belong in the '70s.

How do you think it intersects with women in rock?
Well, the whole riot-grrrl thing obviously came right out of that. The whole do-it-yourself thing took a lot of ideas from feminism. But there are all different levels of it: women who are talking about the male[-dominated] society to girls who just want to have a band.

You've said that Neil Young's Ragged Glory tour in 1991 was your first real experience of sexism in the rock context.
Actually, England [in the early '80s] was the first experience with it. I felt really invisible in England. They didn't know how to deal with you unless you were an outrageous character or persona like a Siouxsie Sioux. But, yeah, [the Neil Young crew] thought we were freaks, mainly because I was a woman onstage and they always thought I was going to get hurt. It just aligned me with the whole rock thing – they'd throw a birthday party for somebody, and there'd be a stripper on the side of the stage. I remember the stage manager yelled at me once because I was over there: "You're distracting Neil." Ugh.

They didn't know how to treat you.
It was weird. It made me think about Joni Mitchell and what a boy's world she existed in. She didn't know any different. To her, it was not a big deal, but you can understand why she wrote all those songs [laughs].

What do you make of the Spice Girls invoking Princess Diana's "girl power" at the MTV Video Music Awards?
I think they're totally ridiculous. Something out of Disneyland. Diana's power in part was how she went from girl to woman and kept her vulnerability. No one talks about woman power. The Spice Girls – they're masquerading as little girls. It's repulsive.

How do you feel about the emphasis that rock puts on youth and beauty?
I would put it on marketers. I think everyone likes eye candy – you just don't want to be it. You know, we're not really a commercial band. We don't make commercial music, and maybe there is a reason for that. Maybe we don't want to have to deal with that much baggage that surrounds all the creativity.

What's behind the song "Tunic (Song for Karen)," from Sonic Youth's 1990 album, "Goo"?
I wanted to put Karen Carpenter [who died of anorexia] up in heaven playing drums and being happy. This whole thing about teenage girls cutting themselves and that being associated with anorexia and girls being conditioned to having such a big desire to please – I'm just curious, because of Coco, at what point do girls start getting their sense of self-worth and [need to please] people, and why don't they have anything else?

What do you think of Madonna?
She's one of the most influential figures of the '80s, certainly. What she did for pop music still is resonating with all these singers. I think that she changed the way that people write about women in rock. They never would write about women again without writing about their sexuality. And she seems smart. I'm happy for her – she had a baby. I don't think she did it to help her career or anything; she just wanted a baby and went for it, and I think she is kind of having it all.

What music did you listen to when you were little?
My dad had a lot of jazz records: Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck. I had an older brother who used to play stuff that I got into, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all that stuff.

What does Mick Jagger mean to you?
[Long pause] It makes me think of Anita Pallenberg. She's somebody that I actually met recently who I used to think was so cool, and she influenced our style. It's great to see that she's sober and she still dresses pretty cool. I'm looking forward to reading her book.

What do you think of the notion of being a role model?
I think that when you get to a certain point in your life, maybe you should be a role model or feel like that's part of your responsibility. But I see it in more of a personal way, like if there's somebody I could give advice or something.

Any advice that you think is appropriate to give?
Don't let your crushes become obsessions.

Who told you that?
No one. I just made it up myself [laughs].

How has your daughter changed your relationship to your work?
I don't know; I have less time, but on the other hand I often feel more relaxed about certain things. You know what your priorities are, what your battles are. But at the same time I really feel like I'm still doing stuff that's my most interesting work.

Would you say that you and your husband share the child rearing?
I have to say that it's not equal.

Would you describe him as a feminist?
I think he wants to be, but I don't think he entirely gets it. But he's very open. I probably should give him some books [laughs]. Some classic book I've never read myself.

What to you is the perfect pop song?
The perfect pot song?

Pop song.
Oh, sorry. There's this song that, actually, Free Kitten covers called "Teenie Weenie Boppie" that I really love. It's about this girl who takes LSD and hallucinates about seeing a man with flowers, and he turns into Mick Jagger, but then Mick Jagger's floating down the Thames and he's dead, and there's all these flowers, but you don't know what it means. It's in French – you'd never know that it had these morbid undertones.

What's the future of women in rock?
All these young singer/songwriters who are being successful now ... I'm just not interested in mainstream music unless it's amazing, groundbreaking. And the Liz Phairs and PJ Harveys – they didn't sell a lot of records. Even they're still not exactly interesting to me. Women have not really explored experimental music. I don't see the need to have my songs played on every radio station.

What is the mainstream good for?
Some TV shows, I guess. Larry Sanders – is that a mainstream show?

This story is from the November 27th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 774: November 27, 1997