Why the Sonic Youth news isn’t as bad as we fear
So, combining some of the ideas from my past two posts, I want to write a little about the news that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth—who have been married for 27 years—are throwing in the towel. Well, not the news itself, because even though they're public figures, this is obviously a private matter and none of us are privy to the particulars of their situation. In fact, I'm a little uneasy discussing it at all, because I worry there's no way to comment on the public reaction to the news without somehow commenting on the event of the separation itself, which again, is a private matter between two people and doesn't involve any of the rest of us. But I'm going to try, because I think the public reaction is fascinating, including my reaction.
A lot of writers have commented in recent years, to varying degress of success, on the seeming paradox of Generation X. We're a generation known predominantly for our sense of humor and our cynicism, but it's also becoming increasingly clear that X-ers, as a group, are tremendously devoted to an idealized view of family life. The tension is relieved in a couple of ways. One major way is by having a rowdy sense of humor about it, which is on full display in the explosion of blogs and memoirs of Gen X parenting, and in the trend for "hipster baby" stuff like baby clothes referencing popular musicians. The ugly side of it is the trend towards acting like it's you and your family versus the world, which is why the anti-vaccination movement built around inability to believe that something good for the world could be good for your kids is a Gen X phenomenon. But that we're family-oriented as a group is hard to deny. Boomers basically went through the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, and the divorce boom, but my generation's signature civil rights movement was expanding marriage rights to same sex couples. That is pretty symbolic, I think, of the general hope that we can preserve traditional institutions but remake them with progressive values. Personally speaking, I've long thought of myself as a dissenter from this emphasis on home and hearth that's developed in my generation; I'm glad that a lot of the family-oriented X-ers out there are trying really hard to create a sustainable, egalitarian view of devoted family life, but I'm suspicious of how possible it is. I think it's true that a lot of X-ers grew up in a divorce-heavy society and we've made it a priority not to repeat that pattern of marrying young, divorcing, and remarrying. My approach has been to avoid marriage at all, but for a lot of X-ers, the approach has been to marry later and convince themselves they can avoid divorce. To a large extent, that strategy has been successful; the divorce rate has declined. Still, I remain skeptical of this utopian vision.
Which is all prelude to explain why, for the subsection of X-ers who are devoted fans of indie and punk rock, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore breaking up was really sad news. Like I noted in my post last night, Sonic Youth was more than just great music for the rock fans of my generation; they were role models. They were people who had strong progressive values, and they seem to live up to them. I look up to them. Pretty much all of my friends do. Looking up to them is a given; they really do seem like great people. So it's really not surprising that people were genuinely unsettled by the news.
In Gordon and Moore, you could imagine empirical proof that a lot of things you feared were true about life—things your parents always warned you about—did not necessarily have to be that way. For instance: that a career in an avant-garde rock band might lead not into penury, instability, and isolation but instead to a place in a perma-cool family living in a nice house in the Berkshires. That committing to being a feminist, punk, or artist would not cut you off from normal people and force you into huge compromises in your domestic affairs but might actually lead you to someone who’d share all of those commitments. That a heterosexual married couple could not only work together but collaborate as equals and throw equally large shadows. What better fairy tale to reassure young people that they don’t ever have to settle? It’s like getting a notarized letter containing three important promises: that your bohemian dreams won’t conflict with middle-class contentment; that maybe the reason your parents’ generation all divorced was that they never found partners cool enough to be in a band with; and that you, as an adult, could do better.
We're of course being big babies about this. Three decades of marriage, a healthy child, and a great working relationship that resulted in a paradigm-shifting rock band that did things like help rescue West Texas teenagers from a fate of conservative housewifery: it's sick the way our culture characterizes this as a "failure" if the entire enterprise ends because you choose to end it and not because someoone dies first. Abebe agrees with this assessment, figuring that on the whole, they were a wild success at what they set out to do. But then he ends with a statement I have to take issue with, "But if you were counting on them, or anyone else, as proof that interesting tastes and shared passions could create some version of adulthood and marriage any easier than the one you grew up looking at, then sorry: Your parents were probably right about that part." Okay, well he's not wrong. It's not easier. But I think it's more fulfilling, and I think maybe we can still take comfort in couples like Moore and Gordon, even as they split up. Just because you break up doesn't mean that it wasn't good on the whole.
I think the reason that fans are so sad even in the face of these facts goes back to our optimism about family life, even as we're generally cynical about everything else. We bought the fantasy of "forever", and even though we grew up as the children of divorce, we didn't really question very deeply why we value "forever" so much, instead of asking hard questions about why a relationship's success is measured by longeivity instead of what the individuals get out of it while in it. I know I was mildly shocked by how unsettled I was and how much I had invested in this idea of "forever", and I'm not the marrying kind! But stepping back from that and looking at the bigger picture, I think that my reaction of being sad was misplaced. I mean, I'm sad for them that they have to go through this and it's probably hard, but beyond that, there's no reason to be sad. They're still the awesome role models of how to do it right that they always were, even if they aren't perfect people. They did make it work for 27 years, and showed that it's totally doable. They remain a good example of why you don't have to settle