Kim Gordon Is Staging an Intervention

The former Sonic Youth member discusses the pitfalls of political music and why new album 'The Collective' is "not music"

Photo: Danielle Neu

BY Kaelen BellPublished Mar 8, 2024

"I don't really know anything about music," Kim Gordon says from her home in Los Angeles, laughing. "I was never trained in it or anything. But there's a kind of weird three-dimensionality to the music on this record that was unexpected, I guess."

The record she's talking about is The Collective, Gordon's second solo album and perhaps the most caustic, confrontational music of her decades-long career. That strange three-dimensionality is what makes the record — a digital melange of corrosive trap beats and Gordon's unwieldy, lacerating, improvised guitar — such a destabilizing listen. What the titular collective is actually made up of becomes difficult to nail down the longer you spend with it; it's a series of Lament Configurations more than a traditional record.

"I don't feel like I'm working within a music context — like, what's going on in music today. I kind of feel free to do what I want, which is basically what art-making is," she says slowly, letting the idea expand in real time. "It just feels like little stories, stories that are somehow… not music."

She continues, "I think it's kinda like an intervention or something. I like music, and I like sound. It's very visceral, physical, and I like that about it. It just kind of transforms the environment, wherever you are."

When I ask what she means when she calls The Collective an intervention, she answers with an immediacy that mimics the idea's blade-like force: "Something that cuts through a situation."

If there's one thing The Collective can do, it's interrupt. The record is the furthest thing from background music, the kind of brain-scrambling sound that engenders sea-sickness as often as it does joyous rage. It's not music for putting away the dishes, but for smashing them against the wall.

Though Gordon is no stranger to abrasion — her legacy is built on a mountain of noise — the synthetic schism torn open by The Collective feels partially spurred by a particular pain; our obsessions with the mind-numbing torture devices that we pay for the pleasure of monthly.

"I'm completely addicted to [my phone], I can't stand it," she says. "And when you're making something or listening to something [like The Collective], it removes you from that kind of situation."

It's not exactly a radical or unexplored notion, that our reliance on phones and information is degrading our quality of life. But on The Collective, Gordon tackles the idea in form more than in dogmatic lyricism; the record, in its wild-eyed physicality, sounds like the internet, like angry texts and cracked screens. Its information overload is intentionally overbearing, a form of immersion therapy — dive headfirst into the digital quagmire and you might just come out on the other side wiped clean.

The one time that The Collective does hit the nail on the head is on the corrugated "I'm a Man," a direct shot to the sweaty, thrashing heart of American masculinity. Gordon has been interrogating white, male, corporate oppression for decades, but on "I'm a Man," her anger feels perhaps more urgent, less afraid of a clarified stance.

"It was sort of inspired by Republican conservatives like Josh Hawley, going around saying that feminism destroyed masculinity, that it's not fair and feeling like victims," she says. "And sometimes I think it's easier just to say these things out loud. Like, okay, let's hear what it is."

She goes, "There obviously are issues, with women and men, but it's kind of hilarious to me that he feels like a victim, or that men are being victimized. Everything's dominated by white male power. But up through the '50s and into the '60s, when men still had the masculine role of protector and saviour — you know, the John Wayne, Ronald Reagan era masculinity — when that sort of faded and the culture changed, more women went to work, whatever, they became lost, and they became consumers like women, they were marketed to. So it's really capitalism that's spinning things this way."

Gordon says embodying that sort of male entitlement and fear was at once enticing and disturbing, an emotional push and pull that only reinforced the complexity of the song's subject matter.

"There was, I guess, sort of a weird power. And then I was sort of afraid of it. When I first did the vocals, I was kind of freaked out. But it was fun, it was just really so fun. And then I felt like, it is possible to do pretty much anything," she says.

"Everything is so black and white now, and people can only deal with seeing things in black and white. And these are very complicated issues, with lots of grey area," she continues. "And so there must be other ways to talk about them — and one way is to say, 'Okay, what if you're right? What if this is how you feel? Let's explore it.'"

It's that emboldened, free-wheeling mindset that begets a record like The Collective, a spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to modern cataclysm that manages to reflect the reality of its time. It's a radical approach to art-making that feels political without sacrificing feeling-first tactility. The medium is the message — tear it all to shreds and sort through what remains.

Gordon seems keenly aware of the pitfalls that come with "political" music — so often, songs that tell us about our times fail to tell us anything about the people who are singing them. The Collective feels engaged with the wider world, but it retains a detached smallness, a skewed perspective that could only belong to Gordon.

"I think that's very difficult to do and make good music," she says of the capital P political anthems that try too baldly to speak to the zeitgeist. "I grew up listening to those early Dylan records, and I felt they were political, but they were also coming at it sideways. I mean, maybe a couple of them are, but he didn't really even want to own up to that… Well, who knows anything about Dylan?"

And there's the escape hatch again — sometimes interrogating anything too directly only muddies the waters. The Collective isn't about interrogation but disruption, an opportunity to stop looking for answers and instead find better questions.

Politics, sounds, gender and text messages, genres, grocery lists and bowling trophies — as Gordon says, "They're all just materials to me."

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