“Of the Sublime and Sonic Youth”
While traversing the complicated web of the rhetoric of the sublime, I discovered that nearly every attempted definition of the sublime—from the ancient rhetoricians to the more contemporary philosophers—discusses both the immediacy and aesthetic merit of sublime artifacts, moments or experiences. From poetry to landscapes, from Oscar winning films to architecture, theoreticians discuss each within the context of the breath-taking moment. Yet, these definitions largely ignore Hume’s sense of historical sublimity—a lasting beauty that grows within an artist’s catalog as the artist transforms from game-changer to public presence to icon. This paper will examine the works of the band Sonic Youth within the hermeneutics of sublimity debates and the gaze of contemporary music journalism to show that regardless of a critic’s personal, subjective taste regarding music, this particular band has left an undeniable mark on the aesthetics of popular music, and that their historical impact alone is sublime in nature. Further, this paper will use the band to define three characteristics of what should be considered within the historical sublime: historical notoriety, maturation and growth and, finally, challenging existing notions of art.
Longinus, in his “On the Sublime,” sets up basic criteria for examining the sublimity of ancient Greek writings. His criteria includes: confidence in speaking (which is presumed), strong and inspired emotion, certain kinds of figures (which I interpret to mean metaphors), noble diction and, finally, dignified and elevated word arrangement (350). Much later, George Campbell argues that the sublime, “distend(s) the imagination with some vast conception, and quite ravishes the soul” (903). They, of course, wrote primarily about rhetorical and poetic sublimity, but their rules can easily be applied to other art forms. As notions of the sublime and rhetoric grew, so did its definitions. According to contemporary philosopher Guy Sircello, ideas of the sublime morphed in the nineteenth century to include natural scenes such as waterfalls, mountaintops and other potentially breathtaking natural wonders (1). This paper treats those arguments as a completely separate strand of the sublime that holds very little place in this discussion, taking a page from Kant’s belief that “we express ourselves incorrectly if we call any object of nature sublime” (83-84). Nor does this paper subscribe to Campbell’s and other rhetoricians assertions that the sublime and religion are linked. However, Sircello’s contemporary definition of the sublime, that a “sublime experience often professes to ‘see’ beyond human powers of knowledge and description” and that “the sublime is inaccessible to rational thought” remains relevant to aesthetic studies (1). Throughout Critique of Judgment, Kant sees a correlation between beauty and the sublime, while arguing that beauty is widely accepted by all, but that understanding the sublime takes reason and imagination. Lyotard, in his seminal work, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” discusses the idea of time within the sublime; whether or not there is a “Here and Now” quality to art. Lyotard’s sense of immediacy cemented itself within the sublime, or at least the in-the-moment avant-garde. As he says, human thought, “seeks to determine what has already been thought, written, painted or socialized in order to determine what hasn’t been” (Lyotard 454). Only original artworks that are not simple facsimiles qualify for his sublime, thereby challenging earlier notions of widely-accepted sublime creations, such as the Mona Lisa or even Homer’s Odyssey, which recants mythological tales.
Applied to contemporary studies of the aesthetic merit of popular music, the majority of these criteria remain valid when pop music critics discuss popular songs. However, I argue these criteria lack three important notions regarding the sublimity of an artistic career, including participants in contemporary indie rock, the lexicon of which often challenges preconceived notions of pop music. The first posits that music, as well as any notable artistic pieces, cannot reach the level of the sublime without achieving some form of historical notoriety or import through some form of political motivations behind the music (the music, after all, must be remembered). These political motivations do not need to enter into the governmental realm; social or cultural politics may prove to be more important to the discussion of sublimity of contemporary music, which tends to be incredibly short-lived when compared to artworks such as the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa. Secondly, a musical artist must show some form of mutability or growth from album to album in order to qualify for the contemporary sublime. Unlike literature, where one great book can get an author canonized, in music historical circles, those who engage in a lasting career with successful personality swaps, such as David Bowie, The Beatles and Elton John tend to last longer in people’s minds. Lastly, and most importantly, the music considered must challenge either existing notions of what music “is” or challenge inexperienced ears and take them to another realm of understanding of what music can become. As such, this is not a study of one-hit wonders or a single album. It is a discussion of the sustainability of artistry over time and deconstruction of traditional sublime studies. That is not to say that a one-hit wonder or a hip “flavor of the month” cannot reach sublimity for a single document. Those documents, largely pop songs, tend to fall within the bounds of the established definitions of the immediate, subjective sublime, which this paper aims to amend due to the kitschy nature of and perceived lack of aesthetic worth of much pop music. After all, as Hume argues “a real genius, the longer his works endure, and the more wide they are spread, the more sincere is the admiration which he meets with” (833).
I chose the band Sonic Youth—whose core is comprised of guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore, guitarist/bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon, guitarist/vocalist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley—for a number of reasons. The first emerged as I thought about what band had the most difficult music to understand in contrast with their popularity. In fact, when I first attempted to listen to the band years ago, I did not have the musical grammar yet established to understand the art they created. I hadn’t heard their precursors, such as the more experimental portions of The Beatles’ White Album, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground or the British no wave punk band Wire. Sonic Youth’s music alienated me because of this lack of context. Given more grammatical understanding of the band, I began to understand their position in music history and in particular, how they made hardcore music “hip.” I also chose Sonic Youth because of their intimate ties to the art world due in part to Gordon’s pre-Sonic Youth career in visual art museums and the band’s work with avant-garde composers such as Glenn Branca (who released the band’s first two records). Additionally,
Kant argues that “a judgment of taste is not a cognitive judgment and so is not a logical judgment but an aesthetic one, by which we mean a judgment whose determining basis cannot be other than subjective” (233). If Sonic Youth or any other band cannot be objectively discussed based on their aesthetic merit, then their place in history must be as important as their artistic output. Given the fact they consciously melded the art world to their music and then outlived every one of their contemporaries—The Minutemen, The Talking Heads, Beat Happening, Mission of Burma, Fugazi—their career, should be considered as sublime as any music critic might consider his or her canonically favorite album. Then, if they are a historical document, each of their actual artifacts must be considered as a sublime entity as well. Azerrad discusses those albums, writing that Sonic Youth “made records that were not only artistically respected but popular; they helpfully provided at least the illusion that rock still had some fresh tricks up its sleeve. Sonic Youth was more an inspiration than an influence, which may be why, despite their renown, so few of the bands who have cited them as mentors and heroes have directly copied their sound” (Azerrad 233). Even the language Azerrad employs, calling Sonic Youth an inspiration and an influence, treats them as a document worthy of study both in his ideas and word-usage.
Sonic Youth’s earliest records earned them the genre placement of “no wave,” a response to punk music and a lo-fidelity cousin to hardcore music. Their early work sounded muddy, as though the band was trapped in the sewers of the city from which they originated,
Sonic Youth soon became cultural icons, even landing a semi-hit song with “Bull in the Heather” off 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and landing themselves in the Grunge canon despite the fact they didn’t sound anything like the
Especially “Rain King,” which I had to decode—like, “What the fuck tuning was that and where were my fingers on the guitar?” It sounded like I was playing rotten guitar strings on a piece of wood. And then it would break into this kind of hard-rock riff. But it was just so spastic all through the song. And “The Sprawl” and “‘Cross the Breeze” were two songs that we hadn’t really played since those days. I had to really listen closely to them to figure out what the tunings were. It was just really weird, finding old notations in scrapbooks and on pieces of paper, like these ancient texts. It sounds great, but when you listen to just one element of it, like my guitar, it sounds like I don't know how to play, like I'm playing with gloves on. I would never accept a guitar take like that today. And it sounds crappy, too, the way it’s recorded (Azerrad).
The artists themselves did not know how they made a lot of music, similar to Jacques Derrida’s notion of “author,” where some force overtakes his hand and pours ideas through him (Derrida).
Then, however, they made the radical decision to add experimental guitarist Jim O’Rourke, beginning with 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers. This album, unlike Daydream Nation, earned the band a 0.0 from the Pitchfork.com staff, which is equally as rare as the previous 10.0. They argue:
These 40+ year olds continue to operate under the perception that they matter. However, one of the prerequisites for being “experimental” or “underground” is that, down the road, somebody has to be influenced by the work and appropriate elements into the common collective. The minimal noodling on NYC Ghosts & Flowers merely retreads the rancid corpses of beat poetry and avant-garde noise. (DiCrescenzo)
So, either Sonic Youth hit rock bottom, or this reviewer wanted some infamy. It’s impossible to empirically decide whether or not NYC Ghosts & Flowers was as bad as alleged, but the next two Sonic Youth albums,
Yet, that review, written in 2000, couldn’t anticipate Sonic Youth’s next move: actually making an easy to listen to and catchy pop record, their incredibly straight-forward Rather Ripped. According to
If Longinus and the other critics mentioned above were to exam the music of Sonic Youth, they could easily make a case for the sublimity of their music, but only if they took into account the morphology of rock music, and music in general. They would have to follow music from Beethoven, Mozart and Bach to Bartok and Glass to The Beatles and Pink Floyd to the Velvet Underground and Wire. They would find a band that:
· Exhibits extreme confidence in speaking literally through powerful singing voices and metaphorically through their instruments.
· Pours strong and inspired emotion into their songs.
· Employs metaphorical language to critique society.
· Uses the noble diction of rock music and
· Uses the dignified word arrangement of poetry and elevated song structure.
As exhibited, any critic can easily take the above definitions of sublimity and plug any one Sonic Youth song or album into a particular definition to prove that at least some of their songs—and probably a few albums—have reached the level of the sublime as defined by the everyone from the ancients to the postmodernists. Or should I say the level of the sublime as deemed by music critics and certain types of music fans. A delineation must be made for contemporary society in which people are so bombarded by images in popular culture that it would be impossible to attain Kant’s ideal of beauty. The global culture is too diverse to truly claim that something sublime needs to be appreciated by all. Sonic Youth’s music typically cannot be understood by lay listeners who have no background in music history and that of the avant-garde. There is an aesthetic disconnect in taste between people who immerse themselves within subculture and those whose taste remains cultivated by popular culture. The idea of historical sublimity reduces the amount of personal subjectivity inherent within taste—thereby giving some concrete evidence for what someone can dub “sublime.”
The brief history of the band above touches on my three additions to sublimity theory, but after discussing the band in the context of the sublime debates, I will further cement the band within the context of my ideas. First, the band’s historical import must finalized. Azzerad credits the band’s successes and longevity to the fact they never got famous enough to be taken down by the traps (drugs, debt, etc.) that plague other bands. Additionally, because they pre-dated Grunge music and were so cool looking, they “became more famous for being influential than for their music” (Azerrad 273). Kim Gordon herself argues, “We were influential in showing people you can make any kind of music you want” (Azerrad 273). Throughout the band’s career, they’ve done just that. They only made a “pop” record 15 albums in to their career. They created a concept album about science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (Sister) and use real life events and people to build songs around—their newest album, The Eternal features songs about Beat Generation writer Gregory Corso and French painter Yves Klein. In addition to becoming cultural eulogists and documenters, the band also engages in a fair amount of cultural criticism. The 1992 song “Swimsuit Issue” tackles sexual harassment with Kim Gordon screaming, “I'm just here for dictation / I don't wanna be a sensation Bein' on 60 Minutes / was it worth your fifteen minutes? Don't touch my breast / I'm just working at my desk / Don't put me to the test / I'm just doing my best” before blasting, “I ain’t giving you head.” 1990’s “Kool Thing” featured the band working with rap legend Chuck D on another feminist song. The band, however, are not only cultural commentators. They helped keep CBGB’s alive after punk waned, they stood out in a hardcore crowd that prized dirt over cool and convinced David Geffen to sign Nirvana. In other words, Sonic Youth were a lightning rod in both popular music and the underground.
The band has also decidedly changed and grown over the years. They started out playing extremely primitive, raw music that got them lumped into the “Pigfuck” genre with Big Black and Butthole Surfers, christened by New Yorker critic Robert Christgau (Azerrad 255). The band’s early-middle period found the band digging into their jam band roots. They had previously been afraid of diving into their 1960s influences because, “You didn’t want to be associated with the excesses of hippie music or any of the spiritual yearning side of it,” according to Ranaldo (Azerrad 238). Freed from the dogmatic punk world to some extent as indie rock and college rock grew with the band, Sonic Youth took their influences a step further starting with the aforementioned NYC Ghosts & Flowers which found the band starting to enter the ethereal noise realm perfected on their next two albums, thereby fulfilling the promise Branca saw when he initially signed the band in the early 1980s. Finally, more than 20 years into the band’s career, they made an entirely pop record with 2006’s Rather Ripped, another major evolution for the band.
Lastly, as long as they have played instruments, Sonic Youth has always challenged contemporary notions of music, including the times Thurston Moore has played his guitar with a power drill. They started by deconstructing rock music to its core with minimalist hardcore and noise. They then added layer upon layer until they entered into the realm of contemporary composition with their SYR noise composition pieces. Finally, they made their version of a pop record, which didn’t sell anything, but did land the band a gig on the popular TV show Gilmore Girls. Their songs have rarely been easy to listen to, by design. Their goals are typically loftier than any contemporary pop musician trying to make money. Sonic Youth are part of the avant-garde, even when they write a pop album. They, incidentally, are not done making music.
Sonic Youth is an ideal test subject for a theory positing that sublimity is not simply an archaic methodology that reinforces canonization and archaic notions of taste and beauty. An artist or group of artists who quite literally change the cultural world should be considered sublime as artifacts unto themselves. By considering historicism, mutability and levels of cultural and artistic questioning in addition to, or even separated from, aesthetic merit, a fuller, more complete definition of the sublime will emerge.
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---. Bad Moon Rising.
---. Sister. SST Records, 1987. CD.
---. Daydream Nation. Enigma Records, 1988. CD.
---. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. DGC, 1994. CD.
---. NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Geffen, 2000. CD.
---. Sonic Nurse. Geffen, 2004. CD.
---. Rather Ripped. Geffen, 2006. CD.
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 I’ve elected to use Pitchfork.com as a general representation of public perception, as well as a critical barometer both because of the Web site’s popularity with the kinds of music listeners who would be inclined to consider Sonic Youth’s music as aesthetically and/or historically sublime.
 The band began releasing SYR releases, which compiled the band’s more complex noise composition pieces in the late 1990s.