Kim Gordon and the power of female rage

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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.

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In case you missed it: A fantastic new episode of the ’77 Music Club podcast is now live. It’s a special one — we interviewed iconic punk baddie Viv Albertine about an album that’s influenced her (Dionne Warwick’s Golden Hits Pt 1) and learned so, so much in the process. It’s a great one. Tune in here.

Check out episode 4 of the ’77 Music Club podcast on Tom Tom Club

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The year is 1981 and pop culture is exploding around the world — Raiders of the Lost Ark premieres, the wreckage of the Titanic is found, and Lady Diana Spencer marries Charles, Prince of Wales. The music industry is coming out of one of its worst slumps in decades, dealing with the backlash against disco music, and tucked away at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads record their first album as Tom Tom Club.

The album will become one of the most popular post-disco dance records of the ’80s and gross more than any of the four albums Talking Heads had released to that point. It incorporates international musical techniques and influences, giving the songs a flavor that expands the post-punk art rock sound Tina and Chris had established with Talking Heads, and sets the tone for the new directions that they would take in their musical careers.

While this album can definitely be dated to the early ’80s, we are in love with how it simultaneously sounds fresh and exciting to millennial ears. In this episode, we explore the sound combinations that make this album the joyous thing that it is, discuss its legacy and relevance, and speak about why Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz are two artists who inspire us big time.

(I try to love all of our episodes equally, but I think this one might be my absolute favorite and our best one yet, so check it out.)

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For Carrie, who drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra

This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.

This past week has felt like some kind of bad dream.

I have nightmares like this sometimes. In them, I wake up to a text message or a Google alert that one of my biggest heroes, those few rare, celestial, magic people in my life, has died. Just as I’m about to lose it, I wake up for real. Sometimes a little sweaty and breathless, usually a bit disoriented, always frantically checking that it really was just a dream.

But this time, it was real.

Carrie Fisher was gone. It was real, and I didn’t get the news while in the safe cocoon of my own bed. It was a phone call from my best friend, followed by several texts from a slew of others, late in the morning on the Tuesday after Christmas. I tried to ignore them and keep running, but I just knew. I just knew, as I pulled my phone out of my pocket with shaky hands.

I crumpled to the ground and sat on the curb in the town I grew up in, a block from my high school, and began to sob uncontrollably.

I called my friend back. I don’t think I was coherent. I can’t remember what I even said. All I can remember is her calm, soothing voice on the other end as I blubbered and felt my nose begin to run. All I can remember is eventually standing back up and staggering home in a daze, gasping for breath, gulping at the cold air like I was drowning, trying desperately to swim to the edge of my sorrow.

Every time I think I’m there, I fall back under.

I’m trying to figure out why this hurts so much, why my heart physically aches sometimes, why I haven’t gone a day without crying. Mourning someone you never really knew in real life — as much as it feels like you did — feels strange. It makes me feel so different from everyone else. Why do I care so much? Is it because I had come to feel like Carrie was almost like some beloved aunt who I never got to see, but was always there with the right words to inspire me, to advise me, or just make me laugh, whether it was through a book or her Twitter account? Is it because Carrie helped me know myself better?

Maybe it’s because I saw so much of myself in Carrie, so much of her in myself: She was so self-aware, so self-deprecating and sometimes self-loathing, even when everyone around her was heaping on praise. She knew what it was like to be so inside your head that you can’t escape sometimes, how frustrating and exhausting and sometimes terrifying that can feel. I would underline passages in her books and send photos to friends. “See! This is me! This is exactly how I feel!”

She was irritated by so many things in this hostile world and made her opinion known at all times, without filter, without thinking about the consequences. It never failed to remind me of my tendency to do the same, how my mother has to constantly ask,“Carrie, is this the hill you want to die on?”

Carrie learned how to take everything that happened to her — being the child of two celebrities, reaching unexpected and perhaps overwhelming superstardom at 19, drug addiction, bipolar disorder, failed public relationships, aging, body image, and more — and spin it in her own favor. She learned how to draw upon her insecurities for inspiration, learned how to take Nora Ephron’s “everything is copy” motto and twist it. Everything is copy if you can make it funny, and trust — there is laughter to be found in even the most brutal situations.

She was bold and loud and even when she wasn’t actually confident, God, she did such a great job at faking it. She called bullshit as she saw it. She stopped apologizing for who she was. She took all of the punches and hit back, even when she was hurt. We owe her so much for that.

Of course, this hurts so deeply because it just seems so unjust. “Fuck a world that allows Carrie Fisher to die prematurely and for Donald Trump to be the fucking president,” one friend said the other day, and I sympathized. She had so much left to give, so many more one woman shows and memoirs and novels and emoji-laden tweets. It was too soon for her to leave. When I think about it like this, I get so angry that my heart races, that I want to yell at God or whoever it is that makes these decisions — Why her? Why now? What kind of cruel punishment is this? What did we do to deserve this?

But part of it hurts because I am very selfish. The world still needs Carrie Fisher, yes, but I still need Carrie Fisher. When I met her in November, we joked about having the same name and she signed my copy of The Princess Diarist dedicated to the “other, newer Carrie.” I may be the younger, newer Carrie, but she was the older, wiser, fewer-fucks-to-be-had Carrie. I’m nowhere near that, so I lived vicariously through her. I learned through her. Now she’s gone and I feel like I need her more than ever, more than I would typically care to admit.

“Our heroes are our lighthouses; they guide us safely home,” my friend Whitney wrote in an eloquent tribute. Carrie was one of my lighthouses, and over the past week, the world has felt a little bit darker and I have felt a little bit lost.

I’m sure that, in time, I’ll get better. It just might take me longer than others. I’ve been here once before, and the last time, I didn’t have friends like I have now, friends who understood, who felt the same way. I wasn’t confident enough to write my feelings and share them as raw as they were. But I still got better.

Carrie Fisher will always be in my life. I will continue to learn new things from her, to find new lines in books or interviews that resonate with me. A little bit of her will always live in my soul and come out every time I write, every time I call bullshit on something, every time I refuse to care what someone thinks. I can’t thank her anymore, but instead, I’ll be more critical of myself. Am I making Carrie proud?

I hope the answer will be ✌️📧💲.

“Bend down,” she said. “Bend down so I can get over you.”

About a month ago, I found myself, by complete chance, at a book signing for Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist at the Strand. It was 30º and they made us wait outside for two hours. “The things I do for my heroes,” I complained.

We only spoke for a few minutes, but it was worth it. I told her Surrender the Pink was underrated, and one of my all time favorites. “It’s about Paul!” she whispered, but it came out as more of a shout and I laughed and nodded. I said all the things you want to tell your heroes: how I was a writer, too, how her style has influenced mine, especially her novels, even though I write non-fiction, how I just wanted to thank her for everything.

She stopped signing, looked up at me, and did this thing that not every older writer who I say that to does — because how many girls like me say they’re writers, but they just *aren’t*, you know? — and she may not have realized it, but it meant the world to me. She looked me dead in the eye, almost like how an animal can smell one of its own. She was a little amused, but mostly serious. She said a thousand pieces of advice in that one look before she earnestly told me to keep at it, to write what I want to write, and to never let anybody get in the way.

This loss hurts a lot. This hurts deeply, to the point where I haven’t said all I’d like to say, but I just can’t form the thoughts. Carrie Fisher is one of my few heroes. She made me laugh. She made me cry. She taught me to be brave and unapologetic. She taught me to tell anyone who didn’t like what I did to fuck off. She taught me how to write. She taught me so much more. To say I am devastated would be an understatement. Rest in piece, Carrie. Your influence will not be forgotten.