Femme Fridays: Kim Gordon Is More Than Some “Kool Thing”

Femme Fridays: Kim Gordon Is More Than Some “Kool Thing” Photography by By jaswooduk [CC BY 2.0]

Welcome to AdHoc’s Femme Fridays, a weekly column highlighting the work of trailblazing femmes throughout music history. In this week’s edition, we’re featuring Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, whose incisive album, Dirty, was released this week in 1992.

“What’s it like to be a girl in a band?”

It was a question that followed Kim Gordon everywhere. Stunning in its ignorance, it’s the kind of inquiry that seems to answer itself: To be a girl in a band is to be immediately Othered.

Gordon, at first, “never really thought about it,” she admitted in her 2015 memoir, Girl In a Band. But as her work with ‘90s rock outfit Sonic Youth developed, the vocalist and bassist would answer this question with her rebellious performances. On Dirty, released this week in 1992, Gordon would dedicate the song “Swimsuit Issue” to exposing sexual harassment. “Don’t touch my breast, I’m just working at my desk,” she fiercely insists early on the track. Much of her work with Sonic Youth would feel similarly confrontational, her snarling voice and raging lyrics acting as feminist manifestos in themselves.

Just over a week after the release of Dirty, Gordon would put these frustrations on show at a live MTV studio recording, captured in the video below. It’s an amazing clip; on “Kool Thing,” we see Gordon grabbing the mic and growling through the lyrics: “I just wanna know, what are you gonna do for me? / I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls / From male white corporate oppression?”

Originally written in response to an uncomfortable 1989 interview Gordon conducted with rapper LL Cool J, “Kool Thing,” like many of Gordon’s songs, can be read in a variety of ways. On the one hand, her lyrics mock LL Cool J: “Kool Thing let me play it with your radio / Move me, turn me on, baby-o,” mimicking his sexist comments during the interview. But one might also read these lyrics as self-mocking. Essayist Elissa Schappell suggests that Gordon’s ranting is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of her own relative privilege as a white woman:

"Kool Thing’ is more than Kim’s assault on LL Cool J’s ego, but a self-mocking jibe at her own liberal politics. The sarcasm in her voice when she addresses ‘Kool Thing’ in the breakdown is self-mocking— the female voice inflated by privilege and naïveté."

Whatever her intentions may have been, Gordon was never afraid to be blunt. To anyone who expected otherwise: I don’t think so.

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