Short Shrift For Sonic Youth (An Apology)

First, an admission: I didn’t sell my Sonic Youth tickets. After logging on to Craigslist and starting to write an advertisement, I realized that even though I had my doubts, I should probably go, if only to see The Slits. (They were announced as the opening performer late last week). And, at heart, my beef with the Daydream Nation tour was not with the music itself, but with the cultural phenomenon of the revival concert, the audience’s collective longing, which I of course saw mirrored in myself. And who wouldn’t be sick of such a pathetic longing for the late ’80s, as embodied by a festival in a gentrified swimming pool? (Maybe this is how the Wagner fans of today feel when they witness Katarina Wagner’s raining sneakers and giant phalluses at the Bayreuth festival?)

Despite my pessimism, the concert turned out to be worth going to, if only to witness the spectacle first-hand and not to be an armchair cynic. After a reggae-heavy opening set by The Slits, who thankfully have survived both the 80s and the 90s, Sonic Youth took the stage—and at least according to the crowd, they seemed to be excited about finally performing some of their most acclaimed music before thousands of appreciating listeners. They started right into it, with the first few notes of “Teen Age Riot.” As much as I had hoped the crowd would approach the event as a concert, rather than a “show,” applause started in immediately over the first half-minute of the performance, and erupted sporadically throughout. So much for the high-minded notion that this performance would bring Sonic Youth’s avant-gardism closer to “new music” performance…

Lee Ranaldo, perhaps the band member with the most extensive background in the art scene, seemed to be really enjoying himself. Thurston Moore did not. As he’s commented in a few interviews, he felt the concert was “odd” and that the album didn’t translate well into a live performance. He’s right: “rock shows” are far from the model of “concentrated listening” we usually enjoy in the new music world, and instead act as cathartic events for listeners to commune with artists, to dance and to sing along, to become a part of the music itself. But as much as this model works for rock music, it comes up short for Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation loses its power as a work of art, instead gaining iconic status as a unifier of a crowd, a cultural commodity eagerly eaten up by the thousands who filled McCarren pool.

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