In the annals of rock there are many bands that people pretend to like, bands with fandoms consisting entirely of people desperately wanting to appear interesting by proxy. Royal Trux is a good example, as are Ween. Basically any Burzum fan who isn't a corpse paint-wearing, basement-dwelling Nazi from the hinter regions of Norway fits neatly in this category. King among bands that no one actually likes, however, is Sonic Youth.
I remember the first time I heard Sonic Youth. I was about 13 and somehow acquired a copy of the tape on SST that runs backward on one side and forward on another. I know, right? How creative. After about 10 minutes of atonal moaning and swirling noise, I went back to my Black Flag and Black Sabbath records. How pedestrian of me, right?
But back to Sonic Youth: Snooze time. I'll grant that their first sellout effort, 1990's Goo isn't bad. Not so with the follow up, 1992's Dirty, such a naked attempt at commercial success that Entertainment Weekly named it album of the year. The next album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is mostly noteworthy for igniting puberty in teenage alt rockers via a video featuring Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna bouncing around in an approximation of irreverence.
But 1994 only happens once and while Sonic Youth might be boring as hell, they're also very shrewd. In 1995, the band cashed out while the cashing was good. Screaming Fields of Sonic Love recapped the band's 1982-1988 catalog, revisiting their penchant for doing things backwards. Made in USA unearthed material recorded in 1986 that was probably best left earthed. Washing Machine followed, with a cover featuring the infamous Sonic Youth washing machine shirts so popular among the high school football players and husky boys in bucket hats who populated 1995's Lollapalooza, which the band headlined.
After the alt rock bubble burst, the band increasingly became the musical equivalent of a senior thesis at an art college. And not the cool video collage of people puking after drinking too much malort, the really stupid one with liquid concrete in a blender running until it breaks. The band became known for foreign language liner notes and a new release of indie rock guitar heroics approximately every other week. Sonic Youth were no longer a band — they were a cottage industry.
By 2008, the act reached a level of self-parody with the release of Hits Are For Squares. A “greatest hits” effort of sorts, the songs were picked by fans of the band for release on (wait for it) Starbucks' record label. Artistic luminaries contributing to the selection include Eddie Vedder (groan), Chloe Sevigny (double groan) and Diablo Cody (vomit).
And through it all, there's no shortage of punters who fancy themselves special for liking difficult music buying whatever platter of chaotic “art rock” the band drop, pretending that they're getting something the rest of us are missing.
While the band is on hiatus, Lee Ranaldo assures (threatens?) that there is tons of archival material in the pipeline. Great. When it comes down to it, there's just one question fans should ask themselves: Is there any greater sign that your favorite band exists solely for the pleasure of art school students and “rock” critics than being an inspiration for nearly everything on Pitchfork's best of year end list?