Sonic Youth, like fellow New York legend Andy Warhol before them, have always walked the tightrope between commerce and art, and that knotted lifeline splits its strands the more time passes and the band is rightfully canonized. Their perseverance as musical purists in the age of the Internet’s mess consumption is nothing short of extraordinary; same goes for their enduring support for what’s left of the underground in the age of YouTube (property of Google) and MySpace (property of Fox News prick Rupert Murdoch). From their championing of left-field workhorses like Glenn Branca, Lydia Lunch, DJ Spooky and others to Thurston Moore’s indie label Ecstatic Peace! and up into the mainstream, Sonic Youth’s double consciousness has allowed them a startling degree of latitude for a band still at home on a major label like Geffen, whether on the experimental poetry of NYC Ghosts & Flowers, the post-9/11 confessionalism of Murray Street, or the crossover noise of Goo, Washing Machine and Dirty. Then, of course, there is the resounding triumph of Daydream Nation, which was given the de rigueur deluxe 20th-anniversary reissue treatment on June 12 from Geffen, who Sonic Youth have been with ever since Nation captivated either side of the mainstream.
Of course, Geffen’s marketing department is mining that rich past for all it is worth, opening the vaults, mounting momentum, giving props, cashing in. Kim Gordon perfectly explained that sort of commodification with breathless urgency in “The Sprawl,” one of Daydream Nation’s many gifts of detuned cacophony and slacker revolution. “Come on down to the store,” she suggested. “You can buy some more, more, more, more.” That is, after she asked, rhetorically now it seems, “Are you for sale?”
Well are you, punk?
What 20 years ago felt like a sparkling commentary on consumerism and trash aesthetics has evolved quite nicely into Geffen’s deluxe reissue, a stacked mash of covers, live tracks, demos and other shit that labels stash away in hopes of raising their stock price with the passage of time. Of course, also included is the original double album that, along with the Pixies’ immortal Surfer Rosa and My Bloody Valentine’s astounding Isn’t Anything, made 1988 a year for the musical history books.
It was, as the cliché goes, an amazing time to be alive. So much incredible music spiraling everywhere, so few posers screwing it up. So few people willing to give up their Milli Vanilli and Poison records, or their addiction to MTV’s dunderheaded metaverse. It was Nirvana, in spiritual terms, before Sonic Youth helped break a band with the same name which, in turn, did its best to make rock totally boring again.
This is not to say that Geffen’s reissue is a nostalgic relic rather than a reminder of pure greatness, of what can be accomplished when this commodification achieves escape velocity and sticks like Philip K. Dick’s phantom twin, serving as the thematic center of Sonic Youth’s pre-Daydream classic, Sister. No, Daydream Nation’s status as sonic icon is as secure as the synthetic sun.
In fact, Sonic Youth are testing that record’s status as you read this, performing Daydream Nation–only sets across our exponentially warming globe, from Moscow to Berlin to Rome to L.A.’s Greek Theatre on July 20, and back out again to Glasgow, Prague, Paris and London before settling back down into New York and history itself. There may not be a better chance on Earth to watch the band funnel Nation’s noisy narratives into practice, almost two decades later, after so much has happened.
But the greatness of Daydream Nation, of art at all, is that it can laugh at time. Who would argue that the jaded lyrics of “Teenage Riot” won’t hit home with kids at the show? Sure, it may have been partially about Dinosaur Jr.’s guitar god J. Mascis, but what angst-ridden teenager isn’t going to smash his head against the stage to an anthem that promises to “fight and tear it up in a hypernation,” one still awash in the type of corporate simulations that informed William Gibson’s canonical Neuromancer, which in turn served as an inspiration for “The Sprawl”? Which with-it youth activist isn’t going to hear the lyrics “Everyone’s talking about the stormy weather, but what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true” and not think of his or her own catastrophic future, wondering when that teenage riot is going to come along and get everyone else out of bed before the ice shelves melt for good?
So fuck nostalgia. Go and see Sonic Youth, grandparents of rawk, shred your eardrums and laugh at the abyss across which their tightrope stretches to safety. Like we who were there in 1988 to see it all unfold, you are here now and you will be gone tomorrow. But our collective Nation and its tattered daydreams will live forever.
Sonic Youth plays Daydream Nation at the Greek Theatre on July 20, and an in-store benefit for KXLU 88.9 FM at Urban Outfitters on the Third Street Promenade, July 21 at 7 p.m.