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April 28, 2013 8:07 AM Happy birthday, Kim Gordon!

By Kathleen Geier

Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon turns 60 today. I admire Kim Gordon for many reasons. First and foremost is the brilliance of the music she created with Sonic Youth, especially the improbable fact that they continued to make great music for three decades (even their most recent album was really, really good!).

But Kim Gordon is also important for the trail she’s blazed for women in rock. People forget how few women were making rock music before the punk era. There were of course some great singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Carole King), but their music was heavy on the pop, jazz, and/or folk, light on the rock and roll. There were also the classic 60s girl groups, but they had little creative control over their material. The later 60s had Janis Joplin and Grace Slick; the 70s had some pop/rock singers like Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt. But the only woman I can think of who was singing, writing, and playing hard-edged rock in the pre-punk period is Suzi Quatro.

With punk, of course, the floodgates opened, and although women rock musicians remained a minority, things were never the same afterwards. But punk and post-punk were not exactly feminist-friendly environments (and even today women musicians still have to deal with overwhelming sexist hostility in the music industry; see this, for example). It’s particularly dismaying that some of the great early female punk/post-punk/new wave icons — I’m thinking particularly of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde here — who inspired so many women openly disavowed feminism and were not especially supportive of other female musicians.

But Kim Gordon was always different. It’s not only that she and Sonic Youth made music that was political and explicitly pro-feminist, but also the fact that she gave crucial support to other female rock musicians, at a time when that kind of support was rare. Here’s what Kathleen Hanna had to say in this recent profile of Gordon from Elle magazine:

“She invited my band to stay at her and Thurston’s apartment,” Hanna says. “As a radical feminist singer, I wasn’t particularly 
well liked. I was in a punk underground scene dominated by hardcore dudes who yelled mean sh** at me every night, and journalists routinely called my voice shrill, unlistenable. Kim made me feel accepted in a way I hadn’t before. F***ing Kim Gordon thought I was on the right track, haters be damned. It made the bull**** easier to take, knowing she was in my corner.”

Right now, Gordon is in an interesting place in her life. Her nearly 30-year marriage to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore broke up two years ago. (The Elle profile goes into the reasons for the split, which are sadly banal. Thurston, how could you?!). Sonic Youth is on hold, and Gordon has a new band, Body/Head. She is also pursuing other art projects.

I love this Gordon quote from the profile (she made it about Pussy Riot, but it has broad applicability):

“Women make natural anarchists and revolutionaries, because they’ve always been second-class citizens, kinda having had to claw their way up. […] I mean, who made up all the rules in the culture? Men—white male corporate society. So why wouldn’t a woman want to rebel against that?”

The YouTube below is SY’s great anti-sexual harrassment song, “Swimsuit Issue” (lyrics can be found here).

Happy birthday, Kim!

UPDATE: Commenter Martin notes that Yoko Ono was an important pre-punk feminist rock pioneer. Agreed: Yoko was essential, and she did some great, groundbreaking work. I shouldn’t have left her out.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • martin on April 28, 2013 9:49 AM:

    Love her or hate her (and hate seems to be the number one reaction) you overlooked Yoko Ono as one of THE pre-punk feminist rock women.

  • c u n d gulag on April 28, 2013 9:49 AM:

    Kim Gordon's 60?

    60!

    Jayzoon H. Keerist on a hospital gurney - SHE CAN'T BE 60!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    That means I'm getting ol...
    Oh, wait, I'm 55.
    I AM getting old.
    -ER.
    Old-ER.

    That's oldER, as in "older" - not like I meant those two letters to stand alone, ER, that two-letter epithet for a place no one my age wants to end up.
    And FU if you thought so!

    Happy Birthday, Ms. Gordon!!!
    Loved your music then.
    Still LOOOOOOVES it today.

  • Cool Bev on April 28, 2013 10:12 AM:

    I want to recommend the 70s rock group Fanny - all women, hard rockers. Not punk, but Charity Ball, Cat Fever, Special Care, etc had a definite edge. Todd Rundgren produced their last (?) album, smoothing them out quite a bit, but still great to listen to. Somewhere between Suzie Quatro and Joan Jett.

    Sadly hard to find and unfairly obscure.

  • Charlie chocks on April 28, 2013 10:44 AM:

    Lydia Lunch.

  • Dr. Squid on April 28, 2013 10:50 AM:

    60?

    Nawwww.

    I should also note that yesterday was the B-52's Kate Pierson's birthday. And she turned 65.

    Yes, really.

  • Nancy Cadet on April 28, 2013 11:33 AM:

    Happy B-day to Kim, a legendary and memorable stalwart of the East Village music scene, who pushed open doors and kept them open for others to enter.

    . I see the Metropolitan Museum , NY, has a fashion exhibit on Punk styles.

    I asked myself and friends of the same generation: how does it feel to be a relic?

  • beb on April 28, 2013 12:42 PM:

    Went to a Neil Young concert where Sonic Youth was one of the opening acts. Lots of boos. My wife and I still regard Sonic Youth as worst.band.ever!

  • biz5th on April 28, 2013 1:09 PM:

    Don't forget Joy of Cooking, a pretty decent late 60's rock band fronted by 2 women.

  • William Burns on April 28, 2013 1:24 PM:

    Thanks for giving Suzi Qatro some credit. How many times have I read that Joan Jett was the first female hard rocker?

  • TomParmenter on April 28, 2013 1:33 PM:

    Yoko Ono was a wannabe.

  • sacman701 on April 28, 2013 2:38 PM:

    Heart's first album came out in 1976 which is pre-punk. Ann and Nancy may have been derivative, but they were definitely writing and performing hard-edged rock.

  • Eric on April 28, 2013 4:03 PM:

    Sacman701 beat me to it, given that they were just inducted into the Rock and Roll HOF pretty big over site to miss Heart

  • Bob on April 28, 2013 6:39 PM:

    Love this posting, though I was never a particular fan of Sonic Youth. I want to offer some recognition to another true pioneer: Carol Kaye. She played bass in the testerone-fueled world of session musicians in the 60s and 70s and beyond. She was on of the musicians Brian Wilson turned to for his more orchestral music. Heck, she just played on a boatload of sessions and I can't imagine it was easy for her, either. While I'm at it, I should also mention the tradition of female bassists in the punk era: Kim Deal, Tina Weymouth, Sara Lee, Aimee Mann. Quite a few. Also, a shout-out to a few of my favorite female rock bands: L7, Pandoras, Girlschool. Rock on!

  • CP on April 28, 2013 7:54 PM:

    How can you leave out Ann and Nancy Wilson, of Heart? Rock and Roll personified-70's! Patti Smith, Joan Jett/The Runaways? Blondie??

  • docdave on April 28, 2013 11:32 PM:

    Gulag,
    I'm with you--I turn 59 next month and oh it stings. I still growl out "My Generation" in the shower most mornings, to remind myself to not take this aging crap gracefully.

    re Fanny: its lineup included Patti Quatro, Suzi's sister.

    Viva Visqueen!