Happy birthday, Kim Gordon!

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

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