By Gabrielle Marceau
In 1989 Kim Gordon walks into a studio where LL Cool J is rehearsing for an upcoming tour in support of his album, Bigger and Deffer. She watches him dance for awhile.
“Are you familiar with the early Hardcore scene?” she asks him later.
“Uh -Uh. Is that like, Heavy Metal?”
In her interview for SPIN magazine, Kim, the self described Lower East Side scum rocker, fails repeatedly to find any common ground with the pop star. They don’t get each other’s references, they don’t care for each other’s politics. Disappointed that LL wasn’t into deconstructing The Stooges with her, Kim writes Kool Thing and it remains one of Sonic Youth’s biggest hit.
Kool Thing references LL pretty liberally, particularly the video for Going Back to Cali from which they steal motifs (go go dancers, close up of lips, black and white film) and preoccupations (coolness as distance, the erotics between black men and white women). LL liked to think of himself as panther-like and in Kool Thing, Kim hilariously reduces him to a scared black cat. She asks to play with his radio and unties a pair of sneakers with her teeth. Kim's lyrics are exaggerations of girlish longing and obsession and here she casts herself as both the go go dancer that got to speak and the horny fangirl lusting after a too cool black boy.
Kim may have bristled when LL says "the guy has to have control over his woman." during their interview. She may have bristled at his omnipresent and bored looking go go dancers who aren't in cages but nonetheless "constrained by her tight-fitting dress". But to be fair, she's not exactly a whole lot better to the dancers in her video. For Kool Thing, Kim had initially suggested she wear a beret and carry and Uzi as a "poseur-leftist girl lusting after the Black Panthers concept." Thankfully, her record label wouldn't allow it. Sonic Youth's eccentric references were mostly just that: signifiers, conversation starters, a little shallow. But she does seem to be trying to get at the dynamics in her attraction to LL, as a talented and charismatic artist but more importantly as a black man.
In his book White Girls, Hilton Als talks about the erotics between black men and white women, an attraction located in their shared oppression by white men: “There is a bond in oppression certainly but also a rift because of it - a contempt for the other who marks you as different.” Kim is trying to engage with the white girl’s “horror about what they shared with their white male oppressors: their skin.” but LL won’t reciprocate. In the video she challenges Kool Thing: “What are you gonna do for me? Are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression?”
Sonic Youth was the kind of band that thought of themselves as artists, it's why they could record a pretty straightforward Karen Carpenter cover, or name their side project after Madonna (and corresponding record, the Whitey Album). Kim knows that cool often just means rich and it's those twin currencies that so turned girls on. Sonic Youth is turned on by cool commerce as well but since they're artists you'd say fascinated by it instead. They style themselves as a kind of Velvet Underground performing at Andy Warhol's Factory, they host a Marc Jacobs runway show for the Sugar Kane video, they make dozens of music videos with big shot directors and celebrities, and they cameo on an episode of the unironically, just straight up terrible, Gossip Girl.
Going back to Cali looks way better than Kool Thing. Sonic Youth were never very slick, they're look is more a jumble, a little off, on a budget (if you’ve seen the video Kim directed for Cannonball by The Breeders you’ll know why I can never forgive her). But Kool Thing has a narcotic, laissez-faire kind of doom and it is undeniably bad ass that she got Chuck D to cameo on her diss track. Kool Thing saves itself by being equal parts funny and aggressive, polemical and horny, awkward and just a bit cool.