What Price Sonic Youth? Are You My Angel?

Anybody want tickets to see Sonic Youth at McCarren Park Pool on July 28? I’m selling. Well, I should amend that—anybody want tickets to see Daydream Nation? It almost breaks my heart that I’m selling these tickets—tickets that I bought six months in advance, tickets I’ve been saving in my drawer, reverently, thinking that they would let me in to what surely would be a monumental concert, a liberating event, a show that would validate and re-inspire my love for Sonic Youth.

When I heard that Sonic Youth would be playing their most acclaimed album, Daydream Nation, from start to finish in a live concert setting, I almost couldn’t believe it. For a band that has put out over ten albums since, and for a band that constantly tours playing songs picked from over 26 years of composition, to play an album as a discrete unit was a definite statement. It’s Gestalt theory-lite: proposing that the value of this collection of music, not as individual “songs” but rather as a complete unit, is more valuable than the sum of its parts. I put on my headphones and listened to Daydream Nation once more, listening for the Gestalt, looking for something to hit me, and hit me hard.

It did. Daydream Nation is an album full of wild experimentation, showing strong influences of musique concrete and Cagean aleatorics—an album that combines 20th century experimentalism with the idiom of rock music, mostly with overdriven guitars, Sprechstimme and a screwdriver (stuck into the neck of Lee Ranaldo’s guitar). Now the band wants to present Daydream Nation as a complete work, not broken into “songs.” For any proponent of Sonic Youth’s inclusion within the loose canon of “new music,” this would be seemingly ideal: not songs, but movements; not a collection of movements, but a unified artistic statement.

So why do I want to sell my tickets?

Seeing a performance of Daydream Nation in 2007, for $40 a ticket, is nothing like what Sonic Youth created in the studio in the late ’80s. The two events are radically different, both artistically and politically. This Daydream Nation concert is Walter Benjamin in reverse: the original recording’s aura is stripped away by the mimetic, nostalgic attempt to re-create it 20 years down the line. It’s an unlikely phenomenon, but it’s more wide-spread than one might think. To members of a generation raised on iconic recordings, live performances many times fail to deliver the authenticity of our listening experiences. This even carries over into the classical world: performers take fewer risks in interpretation, relying on tried-and-true replications rather than risk hitting a “wrong note.”

Works that are rarely performed, such as a rock album in its entirety, run this risk as well—except that in this case, the “interpretation” of the “work” is entirely separate from the original album, which exists not as notation but as a record of creative studio work. What was crafted in a studio in 1987 will be inexorably changed in 2007.

Don’t get me wrong—I love Sonic Youth’s post-Daydream Nation work, but I’m just not sure I want to contribute my $40 to Sonic Youth (and their sponsor, a new wireless phone company) in order to attempt an experience that I, and most of the other people of my generation, missed out on. Instead of reifying my impossible nostalgia, I think I’ll just listen to the album, at home, instead.

One thought on “What Price Sonic Youth? Are You My Angel?

  1. gnarlybuttons

    sadly, i was at the performance of daydream nation a few weeks ago in chicago as part of the pitchfork music festival. i arrived at a similar conclusion.

    i’d say “all tomorrow’s parties” and its fleet of resurrection concerts is the current manifestation of an industry-wide attempt to bring back the ghosts of recorded media’s past, on par with “reunion” concerts or blue note record’s reissue program favored over the signing of new artists or the printing of new records.

    in the one respect, the performer lives for interpretation and understands these parameters from show to show. in the (for lack of a better term) industry-driven world, the performer tries to best approximate studio work. this practice of constantly trying to recreate the nostalgia is unhealthy for our art form, denying what is rightfully its organic qualities.

    i’m at least somewhat happy that i didn’t pay for my ticket :)

    Reply

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