Monday, March 29, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 52 - Sonic Youth

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

As this project goes on, several of my friends of have pointed out something I suppose could be considered a bit of a problem. I tend to like everything I listen to.

It's true. On any given post, my impression of the group of the week is generally a positive one. There are several reasons for this. The first is that I generally tend to groups that I think that I will enjoy. While I'm doing this to explore new sorts of music, I'm not necessarily looking to torture my ears for a week with a band that I know I won't like. (This is the reason I will never do a week on The Smiths. Or Chicago. Ever.)

Secondly, it's easier to articulate what I like about a band after listening to them for a week, rather than what I dislike. Compliments are easy to dish out, and after a listen or two it's usually apparent as to what these artists do well. Criticizing an act, on the other hand, takes a lot more guts. There may be things about a specific group that I don't like, but I find hard to put into words.

Also, when criticizing an artist, one has to be ready to defend these criticisms and argue why they're not very good, and often times I don't feel prepared to do that after a mere seven days of exposure. Our impressions of art change over time, and this project is no exception. I've been finding myself returning to artists I wasn't completely enthralled with to begin with, like Radiohead, while artists such as Bob Marley, who I initially liked, I've found less interesting after the honeymoon has passed.

Still, if I want to be a music snob, it's probably important that I find some things that I don't like. What makes a snob, after all, is the ability to dismiss entire movements with a single condescending quip. So this week, I decided to try something different and choose a band of which my impressions weren't necessarily the best. The last time I tried this, with Vampire Weekend, the results were fairly positive - though I wasn't a full-fledged convert, I liked them more than I thought I would. This week, unfortunately, my opinions on Sonic Youth did not change nearly as much.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: With the understanding that Daydream Nation was one of the seminal albums of 1980s alternative rock, I checked it out of my public library last fall. I couldn't make it through the entire CD. Other than that aborted attempt, my only exposure to Sonic Youth was the one time they had a cameo appearance on Gossip Girl.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Daydream Nation (1988) every day this week. I also listened to Sister (1987) and Goo (1990) twice, and EVOL (1986) once. I'm currently listening to Dirty (1992) as I write this.


This week wasn't a complete disaster, and there are some things about Sonic Youth that I did like quite a bit. Most of their music tends to be this schizophrenic battle between a laid-back, quiet, section, and an extremely loud, dissonant balls-to-the-wall section of noise and reverb. The loud sections weren't really my thing, but I'll admit that when Sonic Youth was playing their quieter stuff they managed to convince me. Take the beginning of "Teen Age Riot", which is the opening track of Daydream Nation. The song comes in almost hypnotically, with some light guitar strumming and Kim Gordon's voice quietly speaking in the background. The opening to tracks like "Beauty Lies in the Eye" or "Tuff Gnarl" are a little more ominous, but here the band still succeeds at this quietly crescendoing mode of music.

It's just when the whine and reverb come in that they lose me. I'll admit that the group has some really interesting guitar lines, and if I played guitar I might be interested in what sort of experimental things they were doing with the instrument. But as it stands, I think this sort of avant-garde virtuosity is more interesting from a conceptual angle than an aesthetic one.


"I bought another Sonic Youth album and it sucked," gripes the main character of the 2007 movie Juno. "It's just noise."

This sort of statement is not real criticism. It's pithy, provides no real argument, and no real effort to appreciate what the music is trying to achieve. Nonetheless, I think it accurately sums up how I feel about most of the Sonic Youth music I heard this week.

The group is really big on utilizing these experimental guitar sound effects, providing a dense texture of fuzzy reverb for their music. This sort of timbre experimentation just didn't work for me - scordatura tuning and using tricks like jamming a screwdriver in between your guitar strings might impress some teenager who doesn't know jackshit about experimental music, but it just seems desperate and tired to me.

To the band's credit, I don't think they use these dissonant sound effects and technical tricks as a mere gimmick - the music really does mesh with the kind of aesthetic they are trying to achieve. But it's not an aesthetic I necessarily like - after two or three tracks, I always got tired of the incessant buzz and hum. Sonic Youth is using these effects to express angst and alienation in the modern world, and these are often feelings that I find interesting in music. But the use of this dissonance signifies a raw, nihilistic anger that just doesn't connect with me, and I'm annoyed by the notion that I have to buy into a whole emotional package just to appreciate the music.

Using noise to sum up these feelings just seems juvenile and pretentious to boot. Their songs have actual structure and melodic content, and could be good music in other circumstances. But Sonic Youth seems to delight in pouring feedback over everything, ruining any attempt at emotional subtlety. The only time this aesthetic of noise is interesting is when it is contrasted with the softer melodic riffs I talked about above, but this doesn't happen nearly often enough.

Rather, too often, it's just a bunch of angry musicians who think they're too cool for the rest of the world, utilizing noise for something not nearly as groundbreaking or even profound as the group seems to think. The group's lyrics are as opaque and dense as the actual music, and while some clicked with me, too many are akin to angsty teenage poetry or using the opportunity to throw a big middle finger at the world. When Kim Gordon starts shouting "Does 'Fuck You' sound simple enough?" in "The Sprawl", I roll my eyes and cringe, and the sheer noise of "Total Trash" made me want to turn my CD player off. I'm sure their anger and raw power is sincere, but it does nothing for me, the lyrics and loud guitar noises failing to connect on both an emotional and intellectual level.

All the reviews I read of Sonic Youth praised the band for their expression of mid-1980s anger and revolution, I might have pretended to like this music when I was seventeen years old, but at this point in my life I have no qualms with saying that the music doesn't really express anything but its own solipsistic ideology of noise. This sort of rock music is experimental, even ground-breaking, but that doesn't make it less boring.

Finally, Kim Gordon's voice is grating and she can't sing.

WHAT I LEARNED: I learned that not all music necessarily grows on you. I've always been a big proponent of art that doesn't necessarily reach you on the first take - I think some of the best things in this world are things you need to acquire a taste for. Coffee, beer, 20th century classical music - all of these are things that I didn't necessarily appreciate on my first try, but now I consider some of the best things in the world.

So I kept expecting the Sonic Youth to click, hoping that I would reach some sort of profound revelation. But I never reached that stage - Sister was probably my favorite of the albums I listened to (Daydream Nation being far too long), and even that has tracks like "Pacific Coast Highway" that just bore me. At this point I don't feel like wasting more time trying to like Sonic Youth. There's plenty of music out there that I like better. I've learned enough that I can appreciate why others like them, which is probably the important thing.


BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Star Power", which is a beautiful song even with the aforementioned awful vocals by Kim Gordon.