Pop Avant-Garde:
A Critical Inquiry into the Various Performances of Sonic Youth

Christopher Robe

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999

About the Author
Table of Contents

For the past twenty years a prolific amount of scholarship has been written analyzing the techniques, the contexts, and the effects of the historical avant-garde movement founded in Zurich 1916. Many texts have traced the genealogical development of dadaism to lettrism to surrealism to situationism by showing how each group appropriated useful techniques from their precursors. Although there is much to be gained from many of the aforementioned studies, a recurrent oversight in most of them is that they tend to nostalgically investigate past avant-garde groups and contexts rather than observe how certain past techniques are appropriated by the present in both progressive and limiting ways. Even when attempts are made to show how avant-garde techniques are employed in the present, the current techniques are either viewed as hopeless failures or weak vestiges of the past.

The difficulty with many scholarly texts is that popular culture and the avant-garde have long been respectively associated with a low brow/high brow dichotomy. Popular culture is usually considered as hopelessly commodified and devoid of intellectualism, whereas the avant-garde is portrayed as overly theoretical and inapplicable to everyday experiences. But I am suggesting that popular culture, contrary to the aforementioned bias, is one area worth investigating precisely because it does serve as a predominant site where avant-garde techniques are synthesized with more traditional and accessible aesthetic forms. Sonic Youth is one such band that fuses these two seemingly mutually exclusive discourses together to synthesize more complex understandings of art, society, and themselves. Yet, one must observe how the discourses of the record industry attempt to limit the implications of Sonic Youth’s techniques so that the processes of capitalism may remain secure. Regardless, because Sonic Youth’s creates various tensions between the popular and avant-garde in the highly visible terrain of popular culture, many fans are exposed to a questioning of assumptions that might have remained unknown to them. Scholar Bradley Macdonald makes the similar point that “[t]he ubiquitous character of popular culture is more closely connected to the experiences of individuals and thus potentially provides a wider terrain of political action” (106).

This paper’s intent is to investigate how Sonic Youth itself and commentators of popular music produce multiple meanings about the band, their music, and their shows by articulating the band and its various aspects within (highly visible) differential but related discourses. Hopefully, by juxtaposing my own conception of the band and popular magazine’s conception of the band, I will show how Sonic Youth provides the opportunity for more complex understanding of high and low art, the praxis of art and life, and the artist's creative process to develop.

Finally, before analyzing Sonic Youth, I want to state that I am not asserting that the avant-garde techniques used by the band are inherently subversive and will remain so for all time to come. It must be undestood that the specific context in which avant-garde techniques are being performed in and how they are performed determine their success. Most likely the techniques used by Sonic Youth now will become part of the cliché rock repertoire of later generations. Walter Benjamin’s warning, “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it,” (255) must not be forgotten.

One of the most recurrent avant-garde techniques used by Sonic Youth is the method of détournement-- popularized by the situationists in the 1960's as they applied it to mostly visual materials. For example, the situationists edited popular comic strips by effacing the characters’ words with revolutionary language and buildings served as the easels for revolutionary graffiti. The situationists, in effect, were showing how the dominant ideology that limits society's understanding of itself could be resignified through a montage of its very own signifiers in order to produce a critique of itself and provide for a more progressive direction in which society may develop. Similarly, Sonic Youth musically removes pre-existing elements from their traditional contexts and reassembles them into an unfamiliar ensemble to produce new musical avenues of development.

One of the best examples of Sonic Youth’s use of détournement is found on their 1987 album Sister, which is considered by most fans the band’s first album to successfully fuse pop and avant-garde elements into well organized musical structures. Many of the band’s past works relied on discordant sounds that shied away from any identifiable pop characteristics whatsoever. Sister has been aptly described by Alec Foege as sounding “like tomorrow’s music recorded yesterday. A time capsule filled to the brim with the detritus of fifties pulp science fiction, sixties acid rock, seventies punk obscura . . . Sister effortlessly flits back and forth between the archaic and revolutionary” (160).

In the song “Pacific Coast Highway” Sonic Youth uses a musical détournement that not only problematizes the dichotomy of the popular versus the experimental but also the notion of pop as non-politicized entertainment. The song begins with a traditional 4/4 rhythm while the guitars and bass play a non-standard structure. One guitar and bass play in synch a two chord riff (although the term “chord” is somewhat misapplied since the two strings the guitar is playing are identically tuned creating Sonic Youth’s familiar “beat tones”). Additionally, the bass plays in an extremely low register, making its notes difficult to discern and adding to the out-of-tune feel. The other guitar plays muted chords that create a scratching metal sound with distorted harmonics over them. The three instruments’ interaction produces a rhythm that appears haphazardly in tune but about to disintegrate at any given moment.

The lyrics, on the other hand, are a pastiche of the generic and mindless lyrics found in songs on most top 40 stations. Kim Gordon sings various lines as “Come on give me your love,” “I wanna take your breath away,” and “You make me feel so crazy.” Gordon, though, sings the lyrics in a completely non-melodic timbre, almost monotone, that connotes a certain malaise she has towards these lifeless lyrics. Furthermore, since many of the lyrics are associated with an aggressive male perspective, an unsettling dynamic arises as Gordon sings the lyrics. It is unclear if she is showing how ridiculous the lyrics are when stated from the female perspective, or if her timbre is exposing the impotence that underlies the symbolic masculine control implied by the lyrics. But by placing the lyrics in a discordant rhythm and voiced by an unmelodic female voice, the words are associated with a dysfunctional (typically male) role within what are normally considered non-ideological, purely entertainment, pop lyrics. The song reveals the misogyny within the song by exaggerating these usually unnoticed elements of a typical pop song.

The bridge of “Pacific Coast Highway” specifically exemplifies how the song disrupts the dichotomy of high versus low art. The bridge, unlike the verse sections, is reminiscent of a bridge traditionally played by ‘70s rock groups: One guitar, undistorted, strums various chords as the other distorted guitar plays a long, melodic solo. The solo guitar exaggerates the high notes it plays by sustaining them for many measures, parodying the mediocre "virtuosity" displayed traditionally in such songs. But as the bridge progresses, it gradually transforms into the original discordant rhythm of the verse section. The solo guitar strums one note erratically while the rhythm guitar alters into the strident, scratching metal chords of the verse as the other guitar and bass play in synch again so that the verse’s rhythm resumes in the next chord change. What interests me, though, is the chord located between the bridge and the verse where it is unclear how the music fits in the song as a whole. The chord represents an “in-between” moment in the song where both the experimental and popular co-exist. The band is exhibiting the control within their noise as well as in the solo since they smoothly transition from the cliché bridge to noisy verse section without the listener being aware of the transition until after it occurred. The band’s transition from experimental-pop-experimental is a refutation of prioritizing one as better than the other-- a banal discussion that still plagues the editorial pages of many music magazines. Overlooked by many music critics is how the experimental and the popular both use the same instruments, require the same skill, and compose the same song as "Pacific Coast Highway" exemplifies.

Furthermore, by having the traditional sounding bridge located between the more experimental verses, the band is revealing musically Thurston Moore’s claim, “The more traditional elements we throw in, the more experimental it is for us” (Fricke, “Better” 115). It is unclear how the bridge is related to the song since traditionally the bridge represents a deviation from the song’s structure. But the bridge in “Pacific Coast Highway” deviates in that it is the most familiar sounding aspect of the entire song. The rest of the song deviates from the bridge, rather than vice-versa, yet both the bridge and verses smoothly transition from one another. By placing the experimental structures into the verses and the traditional structures in the bridge (in effect, reversing the usual structure of pop music), “Pacific Coast Highway” reveals how the entire notion of the experimental/traditional dichotomy is dependent upon a discourse that misleadingly keeps them mutually exclusive. But through détournement, once both elements are considered equivalent and engage with (rather than against) each other, the traditional categories of experimental and traditional are disrupted.

Sonic Youth’s use of the traditional as experimental is even more apparent in the song “Providence” off of their 1988 album Daydream Nation. “Providence” is a pastiche of answering machine messages, the sound of rain, “a melancholic piano part that Thurston recorded at his mother’s house and a warm hum accidentally elicited from a Peavy tube amplifier that began heaving when its exhaust fan was blocked” (Foege 176). But because the piano part was badly recorded, the music is only vaguely heard over the foreground answering machine messages. It is unclear what constitutes the recording as music except that its various sounds were, in fact, recorded for the album.

Similar to John Cage’s “4’33”, “Providence” questions the entire notion of what constitutes music and asserts that music is none other than everything. The song shows how music is not related to life but is life. The listener realizes that it is not the different elements themselves that make “Providence” into music, but the recording that legitimizes the noises as music . Furthermore, it is not difficult to conclude that anything one deems as music meets the criteria, regardless if it is recorded or not. Basically, “Providence” is showing how art is indistinguishable from life. To demarcate art from life is an injustice to both since the dichotomy refuses to show the aesthetic in the everyday and ignores the social relevancy that all art exhibits.

An avant-garde technique that Sonic Youth appropriated from Cage was the use of random and chance elements within their music. The technique, though, should not be mistaken for improvisation. As Lee Ranaldo states, “To me, ‘improvised’ means a studied type of playing . . . we definitely don’t do that. It’s just spontaneous interaction [within certain musical parameters]” (Gore, “Sonic” 30). The situationists referred to a similar technique as the dérive: the ‘technique of locomotion without a goal’, in which ‘one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. (Plant 58-9)

The purpose of the dérive, as Brad Macdonald notes, is “the unmooring of urban experiences by developing transient passages that were unexpected or new, in the process creating new desires and passions not generally associated with these areas of urban life . . .” (101). Similarly, Sonic Youth uses the dérive in regards to sound geography. Lee Ranaldo playfully describes the experience as “it’s like allowing enough room for the rock spirit to enter you and move you around and not be tied to a structure at every point . . .” (Gore, “Sonic” 30). Like the situationists, the band works within a certain musical structure in order to dérive within it, producing alternative musical avenues that the original structure is unable to contain. Sonic Youth shows how the original, defined and restricted, musical structure provides its own weakness for the band to launch its sounds in alternative ways that disrupts the hegemony of the initial structure. The two most typical ways the band dérives within a song is by either isolating the dérive within a bridge section or by beginning the dérive in the transition from verse to bridge and allowing the dérive to predominate so that the song alters into an entirely new musical structure.

The song “Silver Rocket”, again from Daydream Nation, exemplifies how Sonic Youth limits the dérive to a bridge section in an otherwise fairly standard song. The verse section consists of a four-chord riff. Although Moore and Ranaldo are not playing the same chords, Ranaldo’s riff accents Moore’s chords so that both seem to be playing near-identical chords. The bass plays in a low register accenting the rhythm of the guitar parts. For the most part, “Silver Rocket’s” verses sound like a typical rock song. But the bridge begins with all three instruments sustaining the last chord of the verse. One guitar plays erratically, only partially applying pressure to the strings to maintain a chord so that its notes bleed together forming metallic noise. The other guitar maintains strumming the chord and then slides down the fret as the chord dissolves into peripheral noises of scratching strings and chirping noises. The bass holds the same note throughout the bridge. The music remains suspended in time as the instruments explore the musical resonance of this specific chord. No longer concerned with maintaining a rhythm (the drums have stopped and only cymbals accent the discord), the instruments are free to musically branch-out in undirected ways, creating sounds that are unfamiliar to the ear. Also noteworthy is the method in which the dérive drifts back into the verse. The guitar that was producing peripheral noises faintly plays a variation of the two chords that introduce the song, but the guitar’s part is mostly masked by the other guitar’s sharp and erratic chords. Similar to “Pacific Coast Highway,” the bridge provides an interesting “in-between” section where the song simultaneously montages the popular (the riff) with the experimental (guitar noise). By sharing the same musical space, the song reveals how both the avant-garde and popular are a part of one and the same musical discourse. Matter of fact, the erratic guitar begins strumming its chords more rapidly and gradually slides up the neck producing a high pitched chord that accents the other guitar’s rhythm while the drums start to role. What was previously discordant has shifted into a more familiar sound by simply increased strumming on higher frets. Because there is no clear line of demarcation from bridge and chorus, from music and noise, from popular to experimental, the song exposes how both music and noise not only are dependent upon each other but help define each other.

On the other hand, one of Sonic Youth’s newer songs “Washing Machine”, off their 1995 album of the same name, allows the dérive to overcome the original musical structure and reshape the song altogether. The beginning of the song uses a quick riff. But after repeating the verse twice, one guitar strums a stray chord as the bass and drums lower in sound. Then another guitar strums a similar chord sporadically accenting with and against the original rhythm. The guitars slow down their strumming into a steady rhythm that the bass and drums join. A new section forms using the bass rhythm and drums as a foundation. Ranaldo plays an alternating blues lick that he describes as a “Creedency sound.” Moore plays stray notes with an echo device that accent specific tones of the rhythm. Ranaldo’s guitar eventually plays in synch with the bass as Moore accents heavier power chords over the rhythm. Ranaldo then follows Moore’s lead and also plays power chords. But Ranaldo then filters his guitar through a ring modulator that phases the guitar’s sound to increase in noise so that it begins to sound like a flying saucer taking off. Meanwhile, Moore sustains his chords so that they build into dense feedback, but the bass and drums still hold the rhythm together. Moore then cycles his feedback through an echoer and by raising and lowering his volume makes the feedback accent the rhythm. Much more occurs within the song, but I want to show how the guitarists are using the dérive in order to explore newer sounds that change the texture of the overall song.

Throughout “Washing Machine” the listener not only hears the song being played but being (re)constructed before him/her. The guitarists experiment with feedback, effects, licks, and riffs to see how each new discovery might fit into the bass’ rhythm. But as the rhythm begins to sound too orderly, one or both guitars deviate to explore other sounds that they may play-off of each other.

“Washing Machine” shows the collaborative process between the musicians with their sounds more blatantly than most other bands. Lee Ranaldo states, “My parts usually come out of the tuning” (Obrecht 51)-- - a taboo topic in commercial music since record companies portray artists as unique innovators who master their instruments-not vice-versa-- so that their “virtuosity” over their instruments is a commodity worth buying. But "Washing Machine” shows the artists being manipulated by the new sounds created by the dérive. Sometimes the dérive in “Washing Machine” has the guitars making impressive, complementary noises, whereas other times the sounds are horrendous. Nonetheless, the song shows the normally effaced production of working sounds into a semi-organized structure.

It is a willingness to dérive from the original structure, to allow themselves to be led by the new sound geography, that Sonic Youth creates their unique style by prioritizing recording their musical processes rather than products. Lee Ranaldo claims when recording the album Washing Machine, “We found [the previous album’s recording] was getting to be too much about the perfectionist kind of record-making mentality . . .I like the idea that the record can be closer to an actual document of something” (Obrecht 51). The dérive is a useful technique for the band to avoid the over-produced “homogenized rock sound” that makes other bands sound more professional but distances the performers from their work. Rather than reify their music, Sonic Youth records their musical dérives that reveal both mistakes and successes but nonetheless make it clear that there are not only people actually working within the various musical sounds, but that these sounds help the musicians take their music in unthought of directions.

As can be inferred, though, Sonic Youth receives no airtime on commercial radio since their techniques of dérive and détournement make their music unable to fit any specific format (except college radio, which for the sake of room cannot be discussed within this essay). When playing live, on the other hand, the band has a relatively captive audience. Of course, people can temporarily leave the concert arena to buy food or whatnot while they wait for the other band to play that they came to see, but there are others who remain within the auditorium and are exposed to a new form of music that they would not have been capable of hearing any other way.

A particular example of Sonic Youth’s live show having some positive affects is when the band opened for the Neil Young tour. Kim Gordon remarks, “The Neil Young tour was the first time I really felt like we were suddenly confronting the mainstream” (Foege 214) since before that tour the band’s live shows were limited to clubs and bars where the audience was already familiar with the band’s underground sounds. Although most audience members of the major tours rejected the band, some did appreciate the music. Even Young himself who largely did not understand the band’s musical techniques eventually describes the band’s song “Expressway to Yr. Skull”, from their 1986 album EVOL, as the greatest guitar song ever written and their music as a “fantastic voyage inside a power chord” (Foege 213).

Regardless of the audience, the live setting allows the band to extend their dérives tremendously beyond their album recordings. Sonic Youth’s trademark ending of their shows is when everyone walks off stage except for the two guitarists who then dérive. A February 1989 article in Guitar Player aptly describes the guitarists’ dérive:

Bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelly exit stage right, leaving Thurston and Lee in feedback heaven. Thurston crams a drumstick under his guitar’s strings. He slides it back and forth with his left hand as he beats the strings with a second drumstick held in his right hand. Meanwhile, Lee performs roughly the same operation with a screwdriver . . . The show concludes as the guitarists ‘play’ their amplifiers, using the EQ knobs to sculpt the thunderous guitarsquawk. (Gore 22)

It must be admitted that the dérive live does not carry the same significance as the recorded dérive since the CD is supposedly the space of musical perfection whereas the stage, especially during the ‘70s with rock performers, is accepted more as an experimental space for performers. But the significance of the stage is that the audience literally feels the dérive due to the extremely loud sound system. Performance artist Mike Kelley notes what he felt when once seeing the band:

They had these huge, long walls of sound, but it was very complex. It wasn’t like you took it as one sound: You had to listen to it . . . It wasn’t like seeing a Throbbing Gristle show, where it was a big, huge wall of noise, but you didn’t go into it . . . With Sonic Youth, it was this big veil of sound that you could kind of penetrate (Foege 157-8).

The dérive is more personalized, more alluring, live since it actually penetrates the audience physically and forcibly draws them into this veil. The live dérive unites both performers and audience into the same exploratory sound geography in such a heightened state that regardless if it is considered good or bad, audience members cannot help but be a part of it.

Despite my own observations about how the band’s musical dérives and détournement rework traditional musical and artistic discourses, the writers for popular music magazines largely attempt to reappropriate Sonic Youth’s music and image into a capitalistic discourse by classifying the band into various cliché categories so that they can be marketed easier. Two methods of categorization typically used on Sonic Youth are: 1) portraying the band as a serious art band, and 2) prioritizing one member as the “true” leader of the group.

Popular music magazines have resisted Sonic Youth’s attempt to merge pop and experimental within their music. When the band’s Whitey Album was released in 1988, which featured two Madonna songs and one Robert Palmer karaoke song, Rolling Stone claimed, “There’s no better testament to Ciccone Youth’s [the band’s alias name] contempt for cheap sentiment than the album’s two Madonna covers” (Fricke, “Review” 80). But Kim Gordon notes during an interview, “We’re interested in songs. We like songs,” (Foege 183), regardless if they are part of the pop genre or not. In another interview Gordon asserts, “Everybody applauds Laurie Anderson because she made it out of the art-world ghetto, but she’s not interesting to me . . . I would much rather go see Ratt [a popular glam-metal band of the '80s]” (Foege 118). Pop constantly finds its way inside Sonic Youth’s music, interviews, and even the photo shoots where band members wear various T-shirts promoting Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and so on. But interviewers ignore the band’s pop interests or portray the band’s interest in pop as more facetious than genuine.

Magazines must encourage the pop/experimental dichotomy since musical consumption is driven largely by the balkanization of similar musical styles. If Sonic Youth’s music is considered nothing more than a derivation of pop, consumers are less likely to purchase it since another pop band will satiate this overall desire for pop music. On the other hand, since Sonic Youth is considered as distinct from the pop genre, the consumer must purchase a Sonic Youth album itself since, symbolically, no other band or genre can satiate the desire for the band’s unique music. Guy Debord in the Society of the Spectacle notes how this false choice “develops into a struggle of vaporous qualities meant to stimulate loyalty to quantitative triviality” (62). Each band presented by popular music magazines is portrayed as unique so that listeners are led to believe that there are an infinite amount of choices and purchases to be made since no one band is related to another.

Likewise, music magazines promote the individual performers of the band to establish an easily identifiable figure that categorizes the band, making consumers more likely to purchase the group’s product. Usually, one member of Sonic Youth is prioritized over the three others. Depending upon the magazine, the focus will either be on Kim Gordon as the business savvy feminist who runs the band, Lee Ranaldo as the true musical genius, or Thurston Moore as “the walking, talking embodiment of Sonic Youth’s free-rock aesthetic, catholic passion for music and workaholic spirit” (Fricke, “Better” 54).

Overlooked, though, is the band’s egalitarian belief that all its members provide mutual influence. As Ranaldo states, “There are four people involved in the [musical] process, and there’s never a conscious effort to write a specific kind of song” (Gore, “Sonic” 30). Rather than prioritizing any one member as the catalyst for the music, Sonic Youth relies on spontaneous composition whereby each member derives his/her part by playing off the other instruments’ rhythms. Despite the band’s assertion of spontaneous composition during interviews, articles ignore this aspect of the band since the music industry needs celebrities to make the consumer feel that the celebrity has achieved a level of freedom and creativity that the consumer will never be able to experience except vicariously by purchasing this supra-individual’s product.

Because Sonic Youth realizes how music critics and writers classify the group into certain traditional categories, the members counter this appropriation by giving ambiguous answers to interviewers’ questions. Thurston Moore is the most notorious member for offering confusing or completely inaccurate information to interviewers. Moore plays on interviewers’ desire to elicit cliché answers. For example, when Moore was asked by Guitar Player magazine how he learned his guitar techniques, he claimed that he attended Berkeley and studied under Bill Frisell, one of the greatest jazz guitarists of contemporary music (Gore, “Kill” 108). Moore, knowing that the interviewer and readers of the magazine emphasize formalized training and name throwing, portrayed himself as the desired stereotype rather than explain that he had no training whatsoever. Moore’s consistent deception of interviewers has made it difficult to determine when he is offering credible answers. Overall, Moore’s technique makes it difficult for any interviewer to appropriate his answers as the definitive stance of Sonic Youth since Moore most likely might contradict himself in his next answer.

Nonetheless, interviewers either take the members’ answers out of context to assert the band’s “essence” or superimpose their own beliefs in their articles about the band. And since most music interviewers and writers are considered objective professionals rather than the sales people that many are, their observations about Sonic Youth are considered credible by an audience that is not as formally learned in music. Because Sonic Youth is so difficult to categorize in the first place, any answer offered by music writers appears adequate to the reader since it is better than no answer at all. And if the reader cannot see the connection that the writer is making with the band, the reader is more likely to consider it his/her own intellectual inability to see the connection rather than the writer’s manipulation of the band into an unsuitable category.

The difficulty of utilizing avant-garde techniques in the present is not in their application in the musical medium but in their interpretations provided by mass-media music magazines. The magazines efface more complex understandings of Sonic Youth's use of the dérive and détournement so that the articles can oversimplify the band and its music into the banal and cliché categories of the autonomous artist and the high-art group to maximize Sonic Youth's potential marketing value. The situationists claimed in 1964, “We cannot claim to be unexploitable in the present conditions; we must simply work to make any such exploitation entail the greatest possible risk for the exploiters” (qtd. in Plant 187). Sonic Youth’s music shows the ways in which avant-garde techniques in popular music partially succeed in destabilizing the very categorical foundations of both popular and experimental music along with the “great divide” between art and life found in the discourses of music magazines. In essence, it depends upon the fans themselves to decide if they are going to listen more to the band's music or the magazines' interpretation of it to decide upon the degree of success the musical dérive and détournement that Sonic Youth provides.

Works Cited

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