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A couple of years back, Sonic Youth singer-bassist Kim Gordon interviewed L.L. Cool J for Spin magazine in an attempt to get a feminist/hard-core perspective on rap's estimable MC. Early in the interview, it became obvious that the two shared little common ground. Their clashes were sometimes comic, as when Gordon tried to turn L.L. on to the Stooges, while all L.L. could talk about was his love of Bon Jovi. At other points--like when the rapper asserted, "The guy has to have control over his woman"--you could tell Gordon would have loved to deck him with her notepad.
This head-butting interview served as the inspiration for Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing," the star single of the band's major-label debut Goo. Gordon says her Cool J encounter proved that New York's hard-core and rap scenes might as well exist on different planets.
"It was totally ridiculous for me to assume that we had anything in common," she admits in a telephone interview from a tour stop in New Orleans, Louisiana. "That's why I tried to make the article show how elite and small the downtown scene that I come out of is. I was trying to make fun of myself. I don't know if that came across."
Actually Gordon makes a stronger statement with "Kool Thing" than she did with the Spin piece. She injects irony into the pair's culture clash, at one point even making fun of her politics by asking Cool J stand-in Chuck D, "Are you going to liberate us girls from the male, white corporate oppression?"
Boosted by mainstream radio play and medium rotation on MTV, "Kool Thing" has become the band's most successful single to date. Of course, there have been some compromises. Gordon originally wanted to wear a beret and carry an Uzi in the "Kool Thing" video, part of a "poseur-leftist girl lusting after Black Panthers" concept. Her bosses at Geffen Records quickly vetoed that.
Otherwise, Sonic Youth's transition from the indies to the majors hasn't been all that traumatic. There's been no pressure from Geffen to commercialize the band's guitar noise--Thurston Moore still strums with a drumstick on a couple of songs from Goo. All in all, Sonic Youth is in an enviable position. The band's selling more records than ever before, but still maintains its alternative status and hip cachet.
"We're on a major label, but we're not in the middle of the mainstream," says Gordon.
Granted, Goo is poppier and more accessible than Sonic Youth's previous effort, the ambitious double album Daydream Nation. A few bubblegum- punk tunes like "Mary-Christ" and "My Friend Goo" call to mind the stupid fun of the early Ramones. But the lightweight stuff is just there to provide a breather between the record's dark, evocative songs like "Disappearer." To the band's credit, even filler--the sixty blissful seconds of feedback entitled "Scooter and Jinx" for example--earns its spot on the disc.
It's tough to decide whether Goo peaks with the sharp-edged "Kool Thing" or the strangely tender "Tunic (Song for Karen)," a tribute to fresh-scrubbed Seventies pop star Karen Carpenter. "Tunic" throws in a few sick jokes at the expense of the anorexic singer such as, "I feel like I'm disappearing, getting smaller in every way." But mostly the song is sad and genuinely sympathetic--not mocking.
"It was meant to have a note of humor in it," explains Gordon. "But I truly think Karen Carpenter was a wonderful singer. I can look at a video and be completely in awe of her. She emits so much power."
Karen, with her Breck-girl glow, and her brother Richard, looking as blandly well groomed as a TV weatherman, were dismissed as purveyors of parent-sanctioned corporate pop. But Gordon feels the wholesome twosome never got its due. "If their image hadn't been so Establishment they might've been taken more seriously," she reasons. "Now they are judged more fairly because their music has transcended the time. It's not attached to the context of the Seventies Establishment anymore."
"Tunic (Song for Karen)" is an example of Gordon's fascination with tragic pop figures and the dark side of celebrityhood in general. She's a connoisseur of tabloid journalism, especially the Star, which she describes as "not as cheesy as the Enquirer." Gordon herself penned a column of highbrow gossip for Spin recently. Entitled "Media Whore," it dished eloquently about Madonna.
"Growing up in L.A., it becomes a part of you," Gordon says of her celebrity obsession. "I think everyone is fascinated by it--maybe just subconsciously. If somebody gets in the newspaper, people think, `Oh, isn't that wonderful!' It's kind of absurd."
Gordon has become something of an underground celebrity herself lately. Redd Kross immortalizes her on its current album with "Debbie & Kim," a tune about the entirely mythical friendship between Gordon and Debbie Gibson. ("One plays bass, and the other, well, she's the dancer.") Gordon says she knew something was up when the McDonald brothers of Redd Kross called her from the studio wanting her to scream, "Hi, Debbie!" into the phone. "I'm flattered," she says, "but I have to say I don't really understand the lyrics."