The Music Box Theatre hosted music royalty as part of the spring Chicago Humanities Festival: Sonic Youth’s frontwoman Kim Gordon, her co-author, music journalist Sinead Gleeson, along with feminist electronica pioneer Laurie Anderson, held an hour-long conversation in front of an appreciative crowd.
Already a prolific author, Gordon compiled and edited This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music with Irish journalist Sinead Gleeson. Named after the Kate Bush song, the collection “seeks to confront the male dominance and sexism that have been hard-coded in the canons of music, literature and film and has forced women to fight pigeonholing or being sidelined by carving out their own space.” Gordon named her 2015 New York Times-bestselling memoir Girl in a Band after being endlessly asked “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” She responded that “the often-repeated question throughout my career as a musician made me feel disrupted, a freak or that we are all the same. I once asked my boyfriend what it was like to have a penis. To me they are sort of equivalent questions. If it was born out of pure curiosity it’s understandable. Hopefully this book begins an unravelling of the myth that if you’re a female musician you are ready-made, easily digestible.”
The new book’s first essay “Fan Girl” features reflections on Anderson by Anne Enright, and the event was moderated by another acolyte, Pitchfork’s editor-in-chief Puja Patel. Anderson, who recently narrated the documentary Sisters with Transistors, commented that she loves the essay form, and found the book generous with its different approaches. She talked about her own long career, and how she never thought she would make a living composing and performing music, making stage and sound installations around spoken word, violin and much more. She’s not a fan of the current “hypermediated culture,” and finds seeking “likes” exhausting. When asked how she maintains her sanity in a culture constantly assessing her work, she responded “I have not.” She added that she hasn’t read anything about herself over the past ten years, which helps.
Patel asked the panel about their early female influences. Anderson recalled her early life being ruled by school bells, and by her kindergarten art teacher. That female influencer entered the classroom after the beginning bell, and left before the ending one, which left a huge impression on Anderson. “My teacher didn’t follow the rules at all,” Anderson said. “She wore crazy clothes, and just came in and painted big things.” Currently, she’s impressed by the tactics of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter activists, from whom she’s learned a lot.
Gleeson recounted fighting leukemia as a teenager, and the female caretakers who helped her recover. She also remembered liking the “sadness” when seeing a Kraftwerk exhibit. Gordon said she rediscovered singer Karen Carpenter in the ’80s, and she said that Carpenter’s music makes her well up because the songs are so soulful.
Gordon has been prioritizing the feminist gaze throughout her career, asking, in her 1990s feminist anthem “Kool Thing,” the question: “are you going to liberate us girls from male, white corporate oppression?” She then sings her own response, inspired by the Public Enemy song (and Kool Thing guest vocalist Chuck D): “fear of a female planet.”
This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music is available from your favorite bookseller or from the publisher. The CHF Public-themed spring series continues conversations and performances with afro-punk creator James Spooner on May 18, Bonnie “Prince” Billy on May 22, KAINA and Ben LaMar Gay on June 1, plus Marvel franchise actor Simu Liu on superheroes, stardom and writing a memoir on June 2.
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