The joy of Girl in a Band is in witnessing an artist unpack and interpret the experiences of her life as she looks back on them.
Any fan of Kim Gordon’s work in or outside of Sonic Youth might hope that her memoir Girl in a Band retains some of the characteristics of her art — notably, a dislike for tradition and the same subversiveness that most early alternative rock musicians hold. At the same time, readers probably expect some juicy details on her recent divorce from bandmate Thurston Moore, or her short friendship with Kurt Cobain, or other gossip about cameo players in her life, from Courtney Love to Danny Elfman to Chloe Sevigny. Basically, there will be a lot of people (unfortunately) reading Girl in a Band in pursuit of knowledge regarding people who aren’t Kim Gordon, but, predictably, they will be disappointed. While Gordon mentions all of the above and occasionally succumbs to the gossipy/name-dropping tendencies that all celebrity biographies seem to wallow in at some point (note the way the music press hungrily publicized her negative comments about Lana Del Rey and Billy Corgan, for example), the book is unconditionally her story, and, as she so humbly says in the book’s passionate introduction, hers is “probably the most conventional story ever.”
As a writer, Gordon is contemplative and keenly analytical, always investigating the stray memories of her life for their greater values and implications — this unlike so many autobiographers who merely relate their objective history and hope against hope that it adds up to something meaningful in the end. She often reflects on her relationship with her schizophrenic brother, Keller, and how it determined so much of her later behavior, or how her upbringing in Los Angeles gave her a unique perspective on life in New York City when she later relocated there. She describes the many inspirations in her life, particularly the visual artists and mentors that informed her early artistic outlook, and how this translated into specific Sonic Youth songs over the band’s tenure. She describes her relationship with Moore with the warmth of nostalgia early on, but doesn’t shy away from analyzing a stray detail in their life together that takes on new meaning when reflected upon with the knowledge of their later domestic turmoil. Mostly, though, her insights into the world of Sonic Youth are surprisingly shallow and murky, much less revealing than the personal anecdotes she shares.
Still, Sonic Youth factors heavily into the book, with certain chapters dedicated to the songs and albums that Gordon has “the most to say about,” but there’s just as much on her various sporadic collegiate experiences, her dealings with the New York art world, and her early life in L.A. — essentially exactly what you would expect from a conventional memoir. It’s not a book meant to feed the vicious curiosity of rock fans as much as one meant to allow Gordon to re-contextualize her life and, in some respects, set the record straight. The book’s title is tongue-in-cheek in its reductiveness, not only bringing the ugly paternal tendencies of music culture to light, but also serving as a sort of warning to Sonic Youth fans that this isn’t the definitive telling of the band’s history; it’s the record of one person’s story from start to finish — a person who just so happened to be in a popular, influential and critically-acclaimed band, but is in no way defined by that fact alone. In that way, Girl in a Band almost revels in the conventions of the memoir.
The joy of Girl in a Band is not in the revealing, personal details about Gordon’s marriage (again, largely absent), nor is it even in observing the shifting dynamics of one of the most influential rock bands ever from an inside perspective, and anyone misguidedly expecting either will likely come away disappointed. The joy of Girl in a Band is in witnessing an artist unpack and interpret the experiences of her life as she looks back on them — how people interacted with or took advantage of her in ways that would go on to unintentionally influence her personality and, eventually, her art; or how certain random events in her life now reveal details about the type of person she is or the type of society she was raised in. Gordon seems to have written her memoir as a way to take stock and reflect after her divorce and the dissolving of Sonic Youth, two sharp swerves in her life’s narrative — a way to almost mentally reconstruct her identity. As a result, the book is stark in its honest and straightforward tone. Sonic Youth and Gordon herself never had much use for any kind of posturing, and that hasn’t changed, even now that the band is gone.