PRINT March 1995


Alec Foege's Confusion is Next: The Sonic Youth Story

IF EVER A BAND deserved an expansive approach that bursts the limits of the rock-biography format, it’s Sonic Youth—one of the most pretentious (a compliment in my book) rock bands of the last decade. Sonic Youth have always consciously aimed to refract the zeitgeist in their noise swirl; they’re culture-vultures who ransack both avant-garde and trash for morsels of inspiration. Despite SY’s puerile admiration for the thoughtlessness of teen delinquents and psychopaths, this is not a dumb band; this is a learned band. Bassist/singer Kim Gordon used to write art and music criticism for Artforum and The Village Voice; the band’s record sleeves have consistently used work by artists like Raymond Pettibon and Mike Kelley.

Nonetheless, Alec Foege shies away from using SY as a launching pad for highfalutin’ speculation. Confusion Is Next conforms to the pedestrian, fact-bound norms of the rock biog. Foege is able enough at untangling the band’s roots in the late-’70s downtown No Wave and avant-garde scenes, and like most fan-biogs his book is a treasury of fanzine-y data, like the fascinating nitty-gritty of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s use of weird tunings and their mammoth collection of fucked-up, unique-sounding guitars. But anything more ambitious— i.e., what Sonic Youth “means”—and Foege’s prose starts to seize up. His account of how and why the Sister LP was influenced by Philip K. Dick’s paranoiac sci-fi is hopelessly befuddled, and his attempt to sketch the political backdrop to Goo lapses into bombastic sociocultural generalizations that reek of an over-caffeinated brain at 5:30 A.M. the day before final deadline.

Foege casually uses the phrase “revolutionary rock band” to describe Sonic Youth, but he never really suggests why they might be revolutionary, nor indeed what such a phrase could mean in the ’90s. Actually, SY’s journey from Lower East Side noisenik cult to Geffen-indentured art-grunge semistars raises a host of questions about the rival strategies of avant-garde purism versus entryist populism. The band has lived on both sides of this dilemma, making brilliant avant-rock with Sister and Daydream Nation, then trying to bring a tidied-up version of that extremism to the MTV masses (with the botched Goo and the merely solid Dirty). As Greil Marcus argues in Foege’s book, SY is bohemian at heart; they have always lacked the pop instincts “that animated Kurt Cobain at his best.” They’re most inspired musically, most true to themselves, as margin-walkers forever searching for the new cool, always staying ahead of the herd. Cooler-than-thou is why they’re always interesting, but also why they’re a band that’s hard to love.

With their most recent LP, the willfully anti-commercial Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star, SY’s frame of reference has shifted from the “alternative mainstream” (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, bands they influenced but could never match in the marketplace) back to the indie scene: lo-fi bands like Sebadoh and Royal Trux, improv-squall artists like Keiji Haino and Rudolph Grey, a world of seven-inch singles, one-off collaborations, and bands who choose antiquated, valve-driven studios over state-of-the-art digital recording. After Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” perhaps Sonic Youth realized how quickly disruption is smoothed back into business as usual. Perhaps they realized their true voice was not outspoken (the quasi-anthemic “Youth Against Fascism,” on the election-year Dirty) but cryptic, cloudy, and, yes, confusing. A book about Sonic Youth that tries to make “sense” out of that sensual chaos is missing the point, surely; it should aggravate the confusion, be as hallucinated as the band’s best work.

Simon Reynolds’ next book, cowritten with Joy Press, will be The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ’n’ Roll, to be published shortly by Harvard University Press.