Sonic Youth came into my life on a Sunday night in summer of 1990—the summer preceding my senior year of high school in Janesville, Wisconsin: The summer of Goo.1 I was gathered with friends watching 120 Minutes on MTV, which had become a Sunday night ritual. No drinking, no smoking, no drugs to speak of with this crew—not even sex: We were a smart, nerdy, and distinctly undangerous bunch—all editors of the school newspaper, The Odin. But we liked alternative music.
Maybe the first thing I’d say about Goo is that it, more than any album2 I can think of, and perhaps through no fault of the band who made it, marks the exact transition from “college rock” or “indy rock” to “alternative”—all terrible terms, though the last of these is clearly the most insidious. Alternative to what, exactly? Whatever most people in my high school were listening to. I still remember the sting of one classmate’s suggestion, when I had reviewed Red Hot Chili Peppers’s Mother’s Milk for the school paper, that I should write about music the people at school actually listened to. Irritated and stubborn, I followed with considerations of Faith No More, Skinny Puppy, Soundgarden, Public Enemy—all things the vast majority of people at my school were apparently not listening to. It turns out Goo was just the beginning of my interest in music many would find un-easy listening. (Well, there was a lot of heavy metal before Sonic Youth.) Its dissonance was its appeal—or a big part of the appeal at the time. Now, after 20-some years of more-or-less adventurous listening across the noisier end of the spectrum, Goo goes down sweet as candy.
A treatise could be written on the shift from “college rock” to “alternative,” and even the more-ancient notion of “underground” (or, more narrowly, “art rock”), but instead of writing that exact treatise perhaps one (meaning me, too) should just watch (anew) Dave Markey’s super-8 concert film, 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which chronicles Sonic Youth’s tour with Nirvana as the opening act.3 It’s helpful to remember that Goo was SY’s first big label release and therefore capable of being perceived as something of a sellout move for its fans who knew the band before Geffen—i.e., knew SY when Bob Bert was the drummer, or even Richard Edson before him, or remember when Kim Gordon was still a brunette with those crazy flip-up glasses. For better and worse, I was late to that party. And I wish I were being hyperbolic when I admit that, from the vantage of the present, Goo also marks the last moment in our culture when selling out was still possible. SY not only signed with David Geffen, and inaugurated the DGC subsidiary—the imprint is synonymous with “alternative”—but are primarily responsible for getting Nirvana signed to Geffen. The rest is history sliding downhill.
Think of the “Dirty Boots” video, directed by Tamra Davis, with the baby-faced teens exchanging flirty glances in the pit before climbing on stage with Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve, before diving back into the throng, now in unison—shot in slow-motion, the eternal moment. The boy is dressed in a flannel; the girl in a white, Bleach-era Nirvana t-shirt.4 Even when it became obvious that everything special about the grunge revolution was about to devolve into something painfully awful, it was impossible to avoid getting lost in the warm embrace of the swirling feedback and Thurston Moore’s sensitive sotto voce.
A satellite wish will make it just enough
You’ll be making out with a witch in a coffee truck
Yes, it’s cheesy, but it’s a moment. Especially if you fell in love with a witch in high school, which I did.
But, I’m getting too far ahead of where I started: Sunday night, 120 Minutes, Heather Bray’s basement, the insistent, strutting riffage of Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” video blasting into my teenage consciousness.
I think it’s fair to say that SY wasn’t really an MTV band—or wasn’t until “Kool Thing” hit the tube. It’s a goofy, hammy spectacle to behold now—is that Lee Ranaldo wearing a fucking boa?—but that was surely half the point. At least half. There was, in the video as well as the song—an explicit camp sensibility playing out. And by camp sensibility I mean SY made a video aimed squarely at kids taking semiotics classes who had actually read “Notes on Camp.” That wasn’t me quite yet, but Lee’s amplifier painted to look like a Jasper Johns target and the icy Warholian shimmer of the silver foil backdrop were signifiers that landed easily in my high school art nerd wheelhouse. (And admittedly I wasn’t hip to the Olympia nod, with Kim petting that black kitty, until much later, but you really didn’t need to take semiotics or art history to absorb the bristling sexual tension of the mise-en-scène.)
The video’s inclusion of Chuck D., baseball cap playfully flipped up Suicidal Tendencies-style, seemingly delivered piles of street cred to the event, even though parts of the guest spot easily represent the dumbest piece of rap (“Yeah / Tell ‘em ‘bout / Hit ‘em where it hurts”) to ever come out his mouth. One wonders if Kim Gordon actually invited the “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” rabblerouser to perform as LL Cool J (as in “Ladies Love Cool James,” remember?) when that icon—and titular subject, or object, of the song’s title—proved unavailable. It’s entirely possible.5
“Kool Thing” is, above all, Kim’s song—and beyond that, I’d argue, her moment of becoming. Not that there weren’t plenty of hints of thisKim Gordon, by which I suppose I mean a critically sexy Kim Gordon, as paradoxical as that could sound. Witness the cutting edge of “Flower” on Bad Moon Rising, some seven years earlier (“Support the power of women / Support the flower of women / Use the word FUCK / The word is love”), or “Pacific Coast Highway” on 1987’s Sister (“Come on get in the car / Let’s go for a ride somewhere / I won’t hurt you / As much as you hurt me”). Kim, as “Kool Thing” makes wholly evident, knew everything a film studies student would need to learn about the ins and outs of the phallocentric logic of the male gaze. Much like her bored-sultry cover of Robert Palmer’s ridiculous pop hit “Addicted to Love” on Ciccione Youth’s The Whitey Album before it, her approach to “Kool Thing” is at once come hither and a parody of come hither, slicing through the trashy glam sheen of the video with a sharp doubled edge.
Kool Thing let me play with your radio
Move me, turn me on baby, oh
I’ll be your slave
Give you a shave6
The video’s visual doubling of the lyrics—the boombox, the kitty, the shaving, and so on—seems so stupid upon reflection, but of course that’s the trap. There is no shortage of videos that employ a similarly illustrative strategy (see nearly any ’80s hair metal video for example), but Kim’s conflicted lyrics—“I don’t wanna / I don’t think so”—quickly negate the exact thing depicted in the video. I guess that’s irony exactly as Ethan Hawke defined it in Reality Bites.
I think it’s fair to say Kim Gordon emerged as a pop star and—dare I say, yes, I dare say—a feminist icon with the arrival of “Kool Thing.” In retrospect, it’s impossible to imagine the Riot Grrl revolution that would follow—one coinciding with my undergraduate years—without the Kim Gordon revolution as a trigger. Kim clearly inspired an entire generation of young, female post-punks and pop divas alike, from Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, who eventually appears, pigtailed, in SY’s video for “Bull in the Heather,” to Courtney Love, who eventually became the subject of innumerable cultural studies theses—and deservedly so—but made her rather shy debut under Kim’s wing.7 For better and, of course, worse.8
I don’t remember where or exactly when I bought Goo—on the other hand, I vividly remember purchasing the subsequent Dirty at Musicland at the Janesville Mall, during my last summer living at home, probably the day it was released—but what matters most is that I bought it. Whatever had yet to convince me to purchase the CD when I first saw the “Kool Thing” video was swept to oblivion when I saw Raymond Pettibon’s annotated drawing on the cover.
I STOLE MY SISTER’S BOYFRIEND. IT WAS ALL WHIRLWIND, HEAT, AND FLASH. WITHIN A WEEK WE KILLED MY PARENTS AND HIT THE ROAD.
Admittedly, I wasn’t a punk or an SST fan at the time, so I was a latecomer to Pettibon’s noir drawings. But I was immediately taken by the cover’s languid mod couple in matching sunglasses and inky black bobs, with the chill (and chilling) patricidal transgression of Pettibon’s accompanying, all-caps narration sealing the deal.
Pettibon’s cover is the first signal—a blazing road flare—that the music contained within is the stuff of pure Pop. Depending on your cultural mindset, the term “pop” might set off another set of road flares, but compared to the lush, majestic grandeur of Daydream Nation, which was, by comparison, epic, stoned-out Valhalla rock built for the ages, Goo was a chaotic, spunky blast into the immediate present, occasionally preening but also willfully uneven and rough around the edges. In some ways, EVOL, four years earlier, was also an attempt to make a Pop record—see “Star Power” and the cover of Kim Fowley’s “Bubblegum,” for example. Coincidentally or not, EVOL was their first album for SST, which is to say what must have seemed like a major label at the time. But Goo was an explicit rethinking of the category Pop, with a capital “P,” and what that might mean, circa 1990.
Its protagonists are a motley crew: Karen Carpenter (“Tunic: Song for Karen”), LL Cool J (“Kool Thing”), Joan Crawford (“Mildred Pierce”9), and, well, Gumby’s friend Goo (“My Friend Goo”). Come to think of it, there’s a palpable entertainment industry thematic going on here, and one with a particularly Californian vibe. (And it’s not the first time these perennial LES/NY cultural diplomats would go back, back to Cali, Cali: See, for example, “Death Valley ’69” on Bad Moon Rising, or “Pacific Coast Highway” on Sister, or “Madonna, Sean, and Me” on EVOL.) A song about Karen Carpenter should provide a clue there’s a deep and pointed ambivalence about the trappings of pop stardom, especially coming from an “indy” band that just signed a pact with David Geffen, if not exactly the devil.
Dreaming, dreaming of how it’s supposed to be
But now this tunic’s spinning, around my arms and knees
I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day
But when I open my mouth to sing, I’m bigger in every way
If, as I noted near the outset, Goo marks the last moment in our culture when selling out was still possible, SY is seemingly aware of the plot point, and the threshold being crossed. Whatever was gained in the transition to the big leagues also meant losing some hallowed ground as reigning exemplars of indy cred. Things changed too for Pettibon, king of the punk flyer, when his work appeared in galleries and museums and fancy clothbound monographs.10
But for all of this talk of Pop and Faustian bargains, Goo wasn’t born to go down easy. Not entirely. The album is wound tight with the dissonant chainsaw guitar scrawl synonymous with Sonic Youth: If the latter half of the band’s name was already heading toward obsolescence (and would continue down that increasingly geriatric path for another two decades!), the “Sonic” part was beyond reproach. Take “Mildred Pierce,” which urgently builds toward a piercing climax that recalls some of the more blood-curdling moments on Confusion is Sex. Dig the amp popping, swelling engine rev of “Scooter + Jinx,” a song that remains intent on not becoming a song. And witness the dense, oceanic churl of “Mote,” somehow hammered in place by the depth charge of Kim’s bass and the shimmer of what might be Steve Shelley’s most open-ended percussion work committed to tape, all crushing onward long after Lee Ranaldo’s vocals have ended. None of these examples speak to “pop” or “selling out”—obviously not. But such anti-heroic guitar heroics more than hint at cataclysm, with Lee’s lyrics giving way to dispossession, surrender—an electric howl from the precipice.
When the seasons circle sideways out of turn
And words don’t speak just fall across the carpet
You’re just in time to watch the fires burn
It seems a crime but yr. face is bright you love it
I could be reading too much into all of this. Then again, legend has it that the album’s working title was Blowjob? Perhaps the question mark begs the question.
Surely there is humor in titling your first album for David Geffen Goo. Named for a minor but recurring character on Art Clokey’s seminal claymation series Gumby, Goo is a blue mermaid with a knack—as her name implies—for shapeshifting. Undoubtedly, some if not all of SY watched Gumby in its heyday, but Goo arrives to Sonic Youth circa 1990 through the perverse filter of Pettibon, who frequently cast the denizens of Clokey’s show—Gumby, Pokey, Goo, Prickle—in his own absurd-sublime narratives, often mining the cultural gap between the last gasp of the utopian hippie ’60s and the deepest paranoia of Nixon’s America.11
I know a secret or two about Goo
She won’t mind if I tell you
She likes to wear green underwear
And lays down almost anywhere
Goo is ambivalent, pliant, mischievous, impossible to nail down: I’m speaking about the character, but also the record named for her. (Was the well-read Pettibon also working a Bataille angle here, given Goo’s startling morphological proximity to the “gob of spit” of that writer’s l’informe? This resurrection of Goo, by Pettibon and Sonic Youth, just precedes the major reconsideration of Bataille’s concept in the tonier precincts of art’s ivory tower.12)
SY’s repurposing of Goo, ostensibly as a kind of insouciant groupie embodied by Kim (or at least her voice), follows from Pettibon’s rescripting of Clokey but further advances—and, in fact, centralizes—the Hollywood dream-turned-nightmare narrative, placing the protoplasmic protagonist alongside Karen and Joan in the desperate plot. (“Are you gonna liberate us girls / from male, white corporate oppression?” Hello? Anybody?)
To name the album (for) Goo seems to suggest a SY open to adaptation—a band less committed to a position (e.g. reliable indy rock demigods) than the possibility of striking an array of available postures, personae: Grunge Youth (Dirty), Doo-Wop Youth (Kim Gordon and Deal la la la-ing on “Little Trouble Girl”), Beat Poet Youth (Thurston on “Hits of Sunshine,” and well, ceaselessly). In our Darwinian world, I should hardly begrudge any band or artist the necessity of evolution. (Or was it merely change?)
Wasn’t it around this time SY covered the Dolls’s “Personality Crisis”? (Yes, it was.)
I had hoped to articulate my understanding of Goo as an act of memory writing, without recourse to any official version of its inception, its gospel. How much could I say without re-viewing the videos, without listening to the album again? Such an act proved impossible, or at least too easily thwarted by the temptation of the Internet (YouTube, Wikipedia, SY’s own archaeologically-rich, if entropic site)—and to the very moment of writing this I had resisted listening to the 2005 deluxe re-release of the CD with the inclusion of the album’s 8-track demos, produced by J. Mascis and Don Fleming—but the scary truth is I remembered more about Goo and its corresponding visuals “correctly” than I didn’t, more than two decades after it entered the bloodstream. As if it really matters how it actually went down.
Perhaps it’s enough to remember that Goo existed, at least in its first incarnation, well ahead of the Information Superhighway, when total recall was only a semi-bad movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and not yet a way of life.13 Culture—pop culture at least—was fleeting: Unless you happened to record it on VHS there was a good chance you may never see it again—or so you thought. (How many videos got played exactly once on 120 Minutes? More than the bands who made them—or the labels who signed them—care to remember.) Now you can retrieve any and all of those videos at will, and it’s a bigger surprise if you can’t find something once imagined forgotten than when you do.
According to the wizards at Wikipedia, Goo hit number 96 on the Billboard 200 the year it was released. Not exactly with a bullet. Not exactly Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. But definitely not Daydream Nation either. Nobody really expected an album about the complications of selling out to go platinum, did they? Not even David Geffen.
[Written February 2013, slightly revised September 2014.]
- Goo was released (pardon the pun) on June 26, 1990.
- When I say album I really mean compact disc. I got my first CD player, a CD boombox, in 1988. The last cassette I remember buying for many years was Nirvana’s Bleach, which I found at Commander Salamander in Georgetown and first listened to on my 18th birthday. (Which is to say about nine months after encountering Sonic Youth.)
- I first saw the film as part of the Starlight Cinema series at Union South, UW-Madison. I want to say it was the Midwest premiere, but perhaps I’m imagining things. Madison, home of Butch Vig and Smart Studios, had become a kind of subsidiary holy land in the grunge lore after Vig recorded Nirvana’s “Polly” and Smashing Pumpkin’s Gish there. It was no Seattle, but Grunge was thick in the air.
- The illustration under the band’s name depicts Dante’s circles of Hell. I had the black version of the same t-shirt—well, still have it somewhere in my closet. The back reads “Fudge Packin’ / Crack Smokin’ / Satan Worshippin’ / Motherfucker.”
- Then again, Chuck’s appearance could simply be a marriage of convenience, as Goo was recorded, in part, at New York’s Greene St. Studios at the same time Public Enemy was laying down a masterpiece called Fear of a Black Planet. Another treatise could (should) be written on the connections between these albums—SY and PE even toured together—but suffice it to say for the moment that both are significant touchstones in my own cultural development.
- I’m floored by the invocation of slavery in song that guest stars Chuck D., but maybe it’s there to overload the circuits of meaning. Shall I mention here that LL was perhaps not the only “target” of KG’s analysis, if that’s indeed the right word. Chuck had some misogyny problems, too, despite the presence of Sister Souljah in his administration. Remember “Sophisticated Bitch”?
- Kim Gordon, along with Don Fleming, produced Hole’s debut album Pretty on the Inside, which was released a few months after Goo. See also Courtney’s rather prophetic entrance scene in 1991: The Year Punk Broke. I also remember her appearing with Kim on 120 Minutes shortly after punk broke.
- Which isn’t to say Kim didn’t also inspire a legion of men, too! But maybe it’s Dirty-era, slighty-more-tomboy Kim, who wears a vintage Stones “EAT ME” t-shirt in the publicity shots. Maybe I’m speaking for myself and my own fondness for X-Girl t-shirts.
- Dave Markey’s video for “Mildred Pierce” stars Sophia Coppola as Joan Crawford, and was shot on Hollywood Boulevard and under the Hollywood sign.
- In other words, long before Benjamin H. D. Buchloh gave a shit.
- Clokey accounts for arriving at the name Goo (and her companion Prickle) after attending a psychologist’s convention in San Jose moderated by Zen authority Alan Watts. “At one of these little humorous intermissions, [Watts] said there were two kinds of people in the world, the prickly and the gooey. The prickly are rigid and uptight, analytical, and critical. The gooey are easygoing, flowing in the here and now, friendly and jolly. I said I have got to make two characters to symbolize those two types of people. Then people all over the world will be able to identify with them. So we created the little yellow dinosaur/dragon with his spines, and named him Prickle. Goo is a very gooey, blue, flying mermaid.” See www.gumbyworld.com/gumby-characters/prickle-goo/
- See Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (Cambridge: Zone/MIT Press, 1997).
- Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale,” released less than a month before Goo. Worth name checking here if only because SY’s Sister (1987) is partially inspired by Dick’s writing.
ContributorMichael Ned Holte
Michael Ned Holte is a Los Angeles-based curator, writer, and co-director of the Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. His texts on contemporary art have appeared in publications such as Afterall, Artforum, East of Borneo, Frieze, and Pin-Up, as well as in numerous exhibition catalogues. He recently served as co-curator (with Connie Butler) of “Made in L.A. 2014” at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.