1988 was a rotten time to be a teenager.
During the Reagan-Bush era, you had to put in a lot of work to hear something other than Bon Jovi. There was no internet, and the indie revolution in film and music and fashion and new media was still years away. A girl interested in alternatives had no choice but to haunt record stores, which are a male-dominated environment. I was willing to be teased and ogled for the slim chance that there’d be another girl in there — and to buy the new Morrissey album.
But in 1988, the Sonic Youth album Daydream Nation spewed out of New York City and surged through the college radio channels, including KSYM in my hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Daydream Nation became my West Side Story, my Back in Black, my Harvest Moon, my Blood on the Tracks and myBorn to Run. (Not my Thriller, though. Thriller was my Thriller.)
Loose and rumbly, searing and anthemic, guitar-driven, semi-abstracted, and deliberately, scratchily handmade, reeking of distortion, festooned with feedback, Sonic Youth was no hair band. I’d never heard anything like their thunderous, scrabbling use of guitar noise set to logical rhythms. Their sound was far more complex than the first-generation punk my friends worshipped. And the band had a girl in it.
I loved the whole album, but the song that really got me from Daydream Nation is called “The Sprawl.” Kim Gordon wrote the lyrics and performs the vocals.
“The Sprawl” opens with a forward thrust of chord progression with a jerky, rumbling understructure and a fizz of percussion. It’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore on rhythm and lead guitar, respectively, with Gordon on bass and Steve Shelley on drums. Interrupting this cantering intro is the opening verse of “Sprawl,” in her unmistakeable husky alto, more spoken than sung, but minutely attuned to rhythm. These are the opening lines:
To the extent that I wear skirts
and cheap nylon slips
I’ve gone native
I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell
Does this sound simple? Fuck you!
Are you for sale?
Does “fuck you” sound simple enough?
This was the only part that turned me on
But he was candy all over.
I read in a contemporaneous interview that Gordon had written the song based in part on informal interviews she did with sex workers on New York’s Lower East Side. Your ears had to have balls to even listen to the stuff! I once left my cassette of Daydeam Nation in my mom’s Suburban. I smirkingly played “The Sprawl” for her, hoping she’d hate it, that in my love for the song and for Gordon that I’d set myself apart from the aesthetic of my mother. To her great credit, Mom tried to listen. But the naked aggression of Sonic Youth’s musical eruption and the unselfconscious pique with which Gordon addresses the listener left her baffled.
“Why are you so angry?” she asked of me.
She knew why. I was mad at the same stuff she’d been angry about for roughly twenty years — hell, I’d been schooled by her to object to economic injustice, sexual assault, the pandering in the media, the oversexualization everywhere. In Texas at that time, it was decidedly not cool to be a smart girl. Some of my childhood schoolteachers had been around since segregation, and their gender attitudes were no more evolved than their racial ones. And these teachers were women! Thankfully, my mother and my father taught me not to kowtow to men. Not to fear them, and not to manipulate them, but to befriend and challenge and compete with them as well as love them.
Kim Gordon, though Mom may have agreed with her politically, was uncouth. Female angst had taken an aesthetic turn from the singers of Mom’s generation. Barbra and Bette and Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell were crucial women artists, but they didn’t say “fuck” in their songs. I was thrilled exactly at Gordon’s use of profanity; her propensity to say “fuck you” and mean it. It liberated me. I’d heard women swear before, but to take the word “fuck” and fling it around in a “girl song” had a real frisson, a potency. Her writing and her performance in “The Sprawl” generated a wild supposition in my mind; that women artists had the same right as men to use any verbal gesture, including the crude. That the exclamation mark fricative of the f word can be part of our arsenal. And how different it sounds — feels — coming from the mouth of a woman, especially one who isn’t using the term to refer to sex.
After she begins her monologue, “The Sprawl” shifts into a more disconnected and generally accompanying mode, seemingly to accommodate her. When Gordon comes back in for the chorus, she coaxes, “come on down to the store, you can buy some more and more and more and more.” Moore’s and Ranaldo’s guitar work evolves from rock chord progression to a musical language of unease, a series of repetitive riffs, and red-herring intros, and tensions gone undischarged. The music suits the words as sure as any wistful Simon and Garfunkel number or silly show tune.
Gordon’s song made me feel I had a wise older sister who’d examined all the vagaries of the world, and made it not just a cautionary tale, but a rallying cry. You don’t have to croon, or be nice, Gordon told me. You don’t have to smile and nod and keep it clean.
I can listen to “The Sprawl” over and over again, swooning at the offhand poetics of the verses, the incantation of the chorus, the sinuous locomotive of the guitar sound. I think of pissed-off teenaged me. Now, “The Sprawl” acts on me as an existential complaint, using character-driven lyrics which remind me of Adrienne Rich and Akhmatova and Sharon Olds. And there’s a hurt in Gordon’s voice, too, some vulnerability behind the sneer of “more and more and more”, and she knows it. As an older listener, I recognize that there’s power in the right kind of shock, but depth in an admission of vulnerability.
It’s still Gordon’s directness that makes my spine tingle, though.
Does “fuck you” sound simple enough?