With the triumph of the streaming economy, a paradigm of total access is now in ascent. Gone are the material obstacles of a previous era’s mode of listening. Gone too is the material urgency that underpinned listening’s stylistic, generic, even critical boundaries—boundaries that, once interpreted and reinscribed by the individual consumer, we recognized as taste. Instead, streaming platforms have in mind a single, undivided audio culture, one that (theoretically, anyway) spans the entire history of recorded sound. Where the previous era produced discrete cultures and subcultures with their own aesthetic horizons, streaming culture has only algorithmic peripheries and curatorial folds. Under streaming, the notion of oppositional music—that is, music produced and consumed in contrast to prevailing cultural and political forces—is besides the point. Oppositionality is reabsorbed as another product feature. Resistance isn’t just futile; it’s incomprehensible.
The arrival of Sonic Youth’s Battery Park NYC comes as an opportunity, then, to consider a moment when that previous era was still visible in its twilight—a recent past nevertheless obscured by its break with the present—and to consider what, if any, possibilities remain for a future of music in opposition. In 2008, the constantly evolving, militantly independent project that was Sonic Youth was in its late stages. A quarter century in motion had seen them morph from dissonant vanguardists to torchbearers of a sound, finally, at that very moment, in the midst of something like fruition. The previous year, in overt acknowledgement of their newfound status as critical éminence grises, the band made a rare gesture towards retrospection, playing 1988’s Daydream Nation live and in full for a generation of fans too young to have seen-them-when. The retrospective mood is still in place the following year—at a Fourth of July concert on the southern tip of Manhattan—along with no small amount of melancholy. The band that once proclaimed the screaming futurity of “Kill Yr Idols,” here, is mostly playing material originally released before 1990.
Melancholy, sure, but resistance as well. The songs from Daydream here retain all of the originals’ incendiary power, executed with a confidence of balance between discipline and chaos honed across years of
More than any of their contemporaries, Sonic Youth lend themselves to reflection on the history of rock ‘n roll in general, and in particular on that ne plus ultra of oppositional music, punk. While their immediate antecedents cut ties with the psychedelia of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Sonic Youth conceived of themselves as agents in a plastic continuum where the free play of signifiers yielded increasingly ironic torsions of musical and textual collage. For the band, beatboxing and bubblegum took their rightful places beside atonal improvisation and extended technique. Breaking through modernism’s obsession with history, and rock’s fascination with expression, Sonic Youth followed in the footsteps of Joseph Cornell and William Burroughs, proclaiming re-discovery as the new discovery, tapping into the immediacy of rock’s earliest explosion by selecting for the noise between signals.
Battery Park, then, finds the group careening down the mirrored corridor of a double-past: one in which, after a career spent decomposing the traditions of rock and the avant-garde, they turn to find themselves part of the tradition themselves. The result is the sound of wasted vengeance, a refinement through decay made all the more poignant when glimpsed through the lens of nearly a decade since the band fell silent. One notable exception to the hit parade: a nearly-new lovecharm from 2006’s effortless Rather Ripped, “Jams Run Free.”
Otherwise, the zeitgeist is in full effect. “Indie,” with its variable attendant significations, was undergoing a transformation, one similar to the watershed around the “alternative” discourse in the previous generation. The appetite for a counter-programming to a certain strain of official culture under the waning years of the Bush Administration (evinced by the success of the likes of the Arcade Fire and Little Miss Sunshine) had become impossible for the culture industry to ignore. The chief aesthetic virtue among the young, internet-savvy consumers driving this shift—consumers who trusted the opinions of their hyper-connected peers over those of A&R men and the entertainment press, to say nothing of a mendacious political class—was authenticity. What the mainstream failed to realize, at least at first, was that the popularity of independent music was reinforced all the more by the ease with which it could be shared online without fear of reprisal from those same corporate bureaucrats that had crushed Napster and threatened its users with litigation. Beyond the typically unadorned, unconventional, individually expressive qualities that staked indie music out as authentic, there was an economic dimension as well: much as in the nineties, being authentic meant not caring about getting rich. Or, as Thurston snarls on “100%,” “All I know is you’ve got no money, / But that’s got nothing to do with a good time.” After twenty-five years jamming econo on the edges of the wilderness, Sonic Youth had once again found their tribe.
In 2008, the tribe was referred to as “hipsters.” Today we just call them millennials. Whoever they were, we can see them out in full force in the photographs of the concert’s rainy dusk, free to the public, streamed live by the Jersey City free-form radio station WFMU, and opened by the recently-reformed Feelies. The Feelies were only the latest in a long line of musicians, writers, and artists that Sonic Youth had helped, in some way, to contextualize for their fans; fans who investigated the origins of every song the band covered, who sought out the work of their myriad famous album designers, who studied the discography of every expertly selected collaborator, who read Thurston’s column with Byron Coley in the neo-psychedelic Arthur magazine, all to gain a sense of the world beyond their bedrooms and basements, a world even one iota as multifarious, as dreamlike, as intense as the one alluded to in their music, a world like New York City.
I ventured out into this world myself a little over a month later, to see the band in Williamsburg, the epicenter of the new authenticity economy. Living in suburban New Jersey, I’d made it to a few shows at McCarren Park Pool throughout high school and college, but the announcement this time around was that this would be the last ever. It was a foretaste of what was to befall DIY hubs Death by Audio, Glasslands, 285 Kent, Shea Stadium, Silent Barn, and others in the years to come. The effects of Mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning initiative were already visible to the untrained eye (scaffolds for luxury condominiums blotting out the summer sky) but I was oblivious. Live long enough and you’re sure to remember the feeling, unexamined despite all the strangeness, that the seas had parted, the static had died down, and that now and forever you would be living in a world designed especially for you. Noise stalwarts Wolf Eyes rounded out the bill with two young, loud pop bands—Times New Viking and Vivian Girls—and it was them I wanted to see most. I knew they were part of the scene building itself up from out of the reconverted lofts of Brooklyn, a scene that held all of the same fearsome promise of terror and obscurity as its direct antecedent: the late-seventies no wave scene from which Sonic Youth first crawled.
Truthfully, I don’t remember many specifics from that night, except for an aptly menacing “Expressway to Yr Skull.” My friends and I arrived too late to see Vivian Girls. To this day, I have trouble getting to shows on time. Battery Park paints a clearer picture of the band’s own variation on nostalgia, one anguished by hostility and tumult, probing for self-effacement and beckoning sabotage. “World Looks Red,” here, sounds more robust than the skeletal version on 1983’s Confusion Is Sex; more dynamically massaged into juxtaposition with other, newer material in the set. Guitars slash with unrepentant violence, all the more menacing for feeling part of a larger, more ominous program. Likewise the opener “She Is Not Alone” sheds the minimalist funk pretensions of the band’s debut EP, sounding instead like an unabashed invitation to a ritual sacrifice. A lightly reordered set list closes with another cut from Confusion, “Making the Nature Scene,” largely unaltered from the original, aside from a mock-English accent from Kim. A direct current runs from such bursts of id to the ear-scraping antisociality of Abe Vigoda or Psychedelic Horseshit from around the same time.
This fact might explain another reason why Battery Park feels like the end of something, rather than the beginning. More than ten years later, bands like these are largely forgotten. It should come as no surprise, after all, that the secret to immortality did not lie through imitation. The micro-movement they coalesced—no-fi, shitgaze, call it what you will—was perhaps, for all its mock splendor, predicated more on replication than on recombination. Looking back, it’s easy to read disappointment into the moment. How could Kim not look out into those faces, into the skyline across the river, and see anything other than the nightmare in her greatest song come true before her eyes? The downtown scene bulldozed, CBGB’s sold, the real estate moguls turning its scalpels on Brooklyn. And there, beside the craters of the yet-unrestored World Trade Center, at the edge of the center, at the center of the edge, how would it feel to realize that the Sprawl was everywhere the eye could see? “Come on down to the store, / You can buy some more, more, / More, more…”
History’s repetitions, too, are often unfaithful. Eight days after Battery Park was recorded, a plan by the U.S. Treasury to take control of failing federal mortgage bundlers appeared in The New York Times. The financial crisis that followed would dwarf the one that hit New York City in 1975, when the conditions for federal bailout were arguably the economic preconditions for the birth of punk itself. The most defiant sounds of punk’s second wave—of which Sonic Youth were second only to the Minutemen in America—was often directed as Reaganomics, a political program that placed austerity policies hand-in-glove with a weaponized evangelical morality. It’s this spirit that runs through songs like the pro-Anita Hill “Youth Against Fascism;” the same that gave an alternate title to “Teen Age Riot” : “J Mascis For President.”
But this new crisis did not inaugurate a meaningful cultural reaction; any new punk phase of its own. Instead, a new president arrived, one who espoused the younger generation’s cultural values, while doing little of substance to alleviate that same generation’s economic precarity. As others have pointed out, the vanguardist aesthetics of the day smeared into the tapestry of the mainstream without complaint. In one sense, the revolutionary consequences of the 2008 financial crisis—be they cultural or otherwise—were short-circuited by the absorptive power of neoliberal aesthetics, a precondition for the leveling of contrasts and the neutralizing of oppositional culture that streaming now advances as a function of its very existence. Where all is permitted, even the most maladjusted music must, in the end, still embrace the economy where it circulates.
What sustained Sonic Youth, through times both fertile and fallow, was an underground network of labels, bookers, venues, and zines; a counter-force which survived 1984, 1991, 2001, 2008; a community imagined around the very opposition this paradigm denies. Set aside that Spotify’s libraries are glaringly incomplete, that its artists are undercompensated, that its financials are unsustainable: this independent network, and the possibilities it represents, is still streaming’s greatest threat.
Another quantum leap into history, eleven years after Battery Park and the foreclosure of utopia (such as it was) in Brooklyn, one wonders whether we aren’t farther from the futurity that punk rock once offered than we have ever been. At one time it had been this sense—of a past no longer intelligible, of the weight of tradition finally removed by the likes of Coleman, Ono, Eno, and Cage—that had so invigorated Sonic Youth. But we’ve become unmoored in history, dazzled by variety, aloof to the weight of difference. A return to the politics of opposition—organically this time, not through imitation—is in order.
One place where we might begin: an acknowledgement that Sonic Youth’s true legacy is not their aesthetic, but their ethic. At their best, Sonic Youth was a true collaboration, a democratic collective decomposing society along the axis of culture, a matrix of energy in which political authority and economic hegemony was disassembled and recombined into ready-mades of rebellious potentiality. But their true subversive power was to insist on extending this vision to every level possible, proposing not just an independent sound but an independent mode of production. Battery Park throws the gauntlet down to a new generation: Occupy the Sprawl. Extend the Technique. words / r meehan
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