“Most of my heroes don’t appear in no stamps..” – Public Enemy, “Fight The Power”
This quote is a driving phrase and one that often pops up in my head when I think of female superheroes. Women are everywhere in media and in the entertainment world but it’s disappointing that in music I’m often given descriptions of the way female musicians look rather than explorations of their talent. It’s disconcerting because, generally, I’d rather know more about the force and drive within instead of what a woman carries in her make up case.
Kim Gordon is an enigmatic figure. Her unique bass stance in Sonic Youth and vocals have always felt like a strong, sardonic response to the world. Banging my head in my room to Goo, I’d put my hair in front on my face and air bass, trying to copy Gordon’s oh so cool Gordon pose. I wouldn’t even dance. Just stand there bobbing my head as if I was in a trance.
Is It My Body? is a collection of Gordon’s art, art critiques, music writing, and interviews and, with the glitz, glare and noise of rock and roll clouding most of what is known of Gordon, it’s a fascinating insight into her art school roots as well as her keen critical mind.
The book starts off with “Proposal for A Story,” texts written in 1977 that are reproduced from 35mm slides as part of an installation. Each of the texts mentions a setting and plot for a story, much like summaries you might find in a television guide. Gordon, crucially, though, fuses each line with a dry wit.
“…Teenagers caught up in a sexual assault
Intense adult relationship
Steamy soap opera including a strong abortion scene
Grisly, shocking effects
Reminiscent of Sol LeWitt visual art recipes, Proposal is both conceptual as well as a parody of the conceptual. There is a real beauty in these stories. Through Gordon’s use of contrasts you can almost imagine her comedic intentions in her prose and her writing makes you want to flesh them out.
* - Gordon, Kim, and Branden Wayne Joseph. "Proposal For A Story." Is it my body?: selected texts. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014. . Print.
“Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” on the other hand, showcases Gordon’s illuminating views of the way a male musician expresses himself on stage:
“For a minute Jules seems overwhelmed by the density as he watches Rhys [Rhys Chatham] intently rocking rocking back and forth towards the audience, and Robert, who seems to have taken Wharton on as a partner in crime. Jules starts his playing where you least expect it, it becomes asymmetrical. airy; rhythmic forms uncompleted.”- Gordon, Kim, and Branden Wayne Joseph. “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding.” Is it my body?: selected texts. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014. . Print.
Gordon is attuned to the spectacle of the moment and adeptly captures the sparks that fly off the stage during Chatham’s performance. Similarly, in “I’m Really Scared When I Kill My Dreams,” Gordon analyses the continually evolving club atmosphere and the artistic and proprietary appropriation of those spaces. While, for example, Public Image Limited reduces itself to projected shadows on the screen, Laurie Anderson controls the club space, a space that, traditionally as a woman, would try to control her.
“Anderson’s androgynous appearance and mechanical voice create an impression of organized perfection, expressing the ideal as non-sexual. She has created her own atmosphere of mastering and mimicking a technology that is usually mystifying.” – Gordon, Kim, and Branden Wayne Joseph. “I’m Really Scared When I Kill My Dreams.” Is it my body?: selected texts. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014. . Print.
This speaks to the music industry’s tenuous hold on the art within the musician. Magical talent can be harnessed, and yet it continues to thrive in its persistent rebellion and, ultimately, leads instead of following its constructed brand and script. The club space is a place to perform, excite, sell, to fuck (or to give the allusion of the dirty fuck), to express, and play out. Ingenious live sets utilize all of these elements, subverting them to create a universe of endless possibilities—sometimes breaking the mirrors of the ego and the id to reveal a greater and even more basic magic.
Gordon notes, also, that high art becomes a conscious button that can be pushed in the music club. It is one that is outside the studio industry’s grasp. And she further explores these concepts with more architecturally minded views, most particularly in the Los Angeles art spaces in “Turning The Conversation.”
Among her writings on Raymond Pettibon (as well as Charles Manson as a big influence on Southern California art), she segues into artists and musicians that intrigue her on a physical level. For example, Gordon includes a bit of a Sonic Youth tour diary in “Boys Are Smelly:”
“When Iggy Pop came on stage in Naugatuck (or was it London?) to sing “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” Lee and Thurston were ready to rock. I was amazed that he was so professional. He expressed the freakiness of being a woman and an entertainer. I felt like such a cream puff next to him. I didn’t know what to do, so I just sort of watched.” – Gordon, Kim, and Branden Wayne Joseph. “Boys Are Smelly.” Is it my body?: selected texts. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014. . Print.
Her honest reaction to watching Iggy Pop perform will strike a cord with many and her feelings and cognizance of the contrasts (and the ability to blur those contrasts) of gender and performance are sharply refreshing. I highly recommend the final interviews included towards the end of the book and like how they relate to Gordon’s insights regarding celebrity. Gordon is not only fully conscious of how people view her, but is also able to empower herself by constructing a skin that she can easily shed.
If you’re looking for a rock and roll tale, there is some of that in here, but it’s more than that. Reading Is It My Body? explores Kim Gordon as the conceptual artist who continues to critically poke at the rock and roll exterior with a skilled poetic sword.
Jacqueline Valencia is a Toronto-based poet and critic. She the author of The Octopus Complex(Lyrical Myrical 2013), the senior staff film critic at Next Projection, and the founding editor of These Girls On Film.