Kim Gordon and the power of female rage


This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.

A friend of mine recently told me the story of his one and only encounter with Kim Gordon. A few summers ago, he was playing with a band on a small European tour; their dates dovetailed around ones Gordon was playing with her then-new band Body/Head. The experimental noise guitar duo had yet to release a full album, but their EP and few shows — combined with the curiosity of seeing what Kim Gordon would do post-Sonic Youth — had people talking. One hot night on a rooftop in Germany, he and his bandmates finally got a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

He watched Gordon drone intermittently over the dissonance coming from the guitars she and bandmate Bill Nace played. It was slow, but built to a furor, Gordon desperately choking out random words and phrases like “the last mistress” as she wailed away on her guitar. When all was said and done, she was spent, barely able to leave the stage without some assistance.

“Wow,” my friend said, slightly confused by what he just watched. “Was she on drugs?”
“No,” one of his bandmates — a woman not much older than Gordon herself — shushed him. “She’s just very, very sad.”

I think about this story a lot. I think about how our anguish can be unleashed in music, and how an emotional release is easily expressed in a melody or a verse, but harder to comprehend in abstract noise.

I think about how Gordon’s feelings were so much easier for a woman to see and understand, while my friend later dismissed it as “college shit.” Of course Gordon was expressing pain, an intricate sort of pain and anger that many women, particularly as they age, could empathize with deeply in their bones. Gordon and her husband of more than 25 years, Thurston Moore, had officially divorced just months earlier. Their split had been messy, humiliating, and disappointing for many who had seen their lasting union as a beacon of hope, leaving them instead with a feeling that their idols had failed them. Her identity had morphed into one half of a couple, and here she was figuring out who she was on her own again.

Of course she was sad. Of course she was angry. And of course her complex grief continued to pour out in a furious manner on stage over the following years.

In 2014, Gordon performed with the surviving members of Nirvana (Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear) at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The band had framed their set around different women standing in for Kurt Cobain — Joan Jett, St. Vincent, and Lorde — and while their takes on Nirvana classics had each been stirring and unique, they all seemed a little safe. I get it.  A dead icon’s shoes are immeasurably large ones to fill; it’s a lot of scrutiny to set yourself up for. But on that night, Gordon didn’t play it safe. She decided to forgo the well-known hits, instead choosing the Nevermind B-side “Aneurysm.” And she let everything go. She transcended.

There’s a video of her performance on YouTube, and it’s one I find myself coming back to, rewatching it time and time again. What I felt at 23, experiencing it for the very first time, feels so simple now. I felt pride and astonishment and admiration. I rejoiced in seeing these women get recognition for holding their own with the boys. But over time, I’ve found myself looking more closely at Gordon’s performance with an entirely different perspective.

In her 2015 memoir Girl In A Band, Gordon revealed that the performance was one of her first highly public events since formally splitting from Thurston Moore. She called it “a four-minute-long explosion of grief,” one that brought out all of her “own rage and hurt from the last few years” in a purge of “furious sadness.” Later that night, she recalled, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe told her it was “the most punk-rock thing to ever happen, or that probably ever will happen, at this event.”

Watching it is like watching an exorcism. Wearing a striped mini dress not so different from the ones that became her early-90s uniform, she swoops and staggers her way around the stage, though she’s no longer the carefree thirty-something on tour in 1991: The Year Punk Broke, dancing upon train tracks in Europe with Kurt Cobain while Moore freestyles. The grunge idol died. The happy marriage collapsed. The band split up. It happened, all of it, and now she’s a 60-year-old woman reeling in the aftermath, reckoning with the damage seemingly for the very first time, growling the words “beat me out of me” over and over again, each one feeling more urgent than the last. Maybe if she yells loud enough, she can defuse the bomb of anger growing inside her. Maybe she can shake off the ghosts of her past once and for all.

It’s not without complication, though. Expressing anger hardly ever is. The words never seem to come out clearly. They stay trapped in her throat, muted, mutilated, and mangled, like the wires of communication within her body got mixed up somewhere. It’s as if there is a force in her head yelling “Danger! Don’t go there” while her heart tries to overrule it, forcing the emotions out of her like vomit, like there’s no other way to get rid of them. The result is one of both immense power and vulnerability.

She moves aggressively, getting up in people’s faces, lost in a defiant dance with herself and against anyone who would dare tell her to soften her approach. There are no wheels to be seen turning. She possesses a spirit of true freedom that I envy. Haven’t you ever felt anger mounting an enormous pressure within you? Haven’t you ever wished you could just scream out in order to relieve it?

Near the end, Gordon throws herself to the ground and lets out a spectacularly raw and guttural howl. It’s the kind of sound that you can only make unconsciously, the kind born from vast fury and pain, a sound that you didn’t know your body was capable of making until it happened. It’s the sound of letting go.

I find myself thinking about that a lot this year, this year of “angry women,” and feeling seen, empowered, and even oddly comforted by this performance of rage.Because I’m angry. Women are angry. And how could we not be? Women have been living with unjust aggressions to their own livelihoods practically since the dawn of our existence, but the past few years have felt like the blows started coming harder and faster, with less time in between to recover.

Women’s anger has been a taboo subject of demonization and ridicule for centuries (even more so for women of color). Men speak out and they are passionate leaders. Women speak out and they are hysterical bitches. Because we aren’t supposed to get angry. We are, as Gordon once wrote, expected to hold up the world, not annihilate it. We’ve been taught this since we were children. Anger is unbecoming. It is unladylike. It is threatening. When we dare give that feeling a voice, we are told we are bad. And so many of us learn to smother it and swallow it, its acid eating away at our insides little by little until it turns the tables and nearly nearly swallows us whole.

Maybe this is why watching another woman like Kim Gordon being so aware and expressive of her anger feels so monumental to me. Maybe it’s why something so small as a one-off performance can feel like a thesis statement, one that reaches out and grabs hold of you and gives you a wordless permission that it’s okay to feel the way you do.

In a recent “Ask Polly” column for the Cut, writer Heather Havrilesky addressed female anger, our own complicated relationship with it, and our desires to control or dampen it:

“I don’t like ladies who try to be beautiful inside and out, personally. I like ladies who cling to broken things in spite of themselves. Show me your messy heart, for fuck’s sake. What are we doing here otherwise?”

I watched Kim Gordon perform for the first time on Thursday night with Body/Head at a club in Brooklyn. It was hypnotically beautiful in the way only ugly things making no attempt to become more easily palatable can be. There are no real lyrics to hide behind, no full band, no slick melodies or structured riffs. It’s just two people on stage improvising and making noise together, and it is enthrallingly messy, raw, and vulnerable.

The anger is still there, the broken pieces still held onto, but it’s different now. She lets her guitar do the screaming for her, frenetic energy rippling through her body. She strums with such an intense vigor that I could see the veins that snake their way from the backs of her hands up her forearms emerge one by one, forming their own new terrain from the sheer force of it all. All that came out was noise. Structured, cathartic noise. The kind you make when you know how you feel, but you just don’t know how to say it with words.

What Gordon and Nace are doing with Body/Head is experimental and anxious and heavy. It’s transfixing, music that pulls you out of yourself to get lost within it. Throughout the set, Gordon would occasionally look towards Nace, or towards her amp, or one of the myriad effect pedals she had laid out in front of her. But mostly, her gaze stayed fixed downwards on her guitar and the efforts she was putting into it, what it was giving her in return. Her blunt blonde layers hung down and covered her face. Maybe she was lost somewhere in the music with the rest of us.