[4 October 2004]
Sonic Youth is a band that comfortably wears the role of being exception to every rule. Throughout their remarkable 20-odd-year career as a band, they have consistently thrived in a musical milieu governed by the unconventional, yet they continue to defy convention because of their uncanny ability subvert the boundaries and confines that would trap bands with similar aesthetics and abilities. Where the majority of their post-punk, grunge-era contemporaries have succumbed to industry commodification, internal conflicts, drug abuse, suicide, or simply faded into oblivion, Sonic Youth has managed to not only survive, but also find new ways to flourish as the music scene recycles itself once more. Whether it is with the sparse, almost meditational beauty of 2002’s Murray Street, or the perfectly-tempered intensity of the recently released Sonic Nurse, Sonic Youth continues to make records are impressive not only for their consistency, but for their commitment to pushing down new walls through whatever project they are giving their attention to to at the time.
Corporate Ghosts: The Videos 1990-2002, is the first DVD released by Sonic Youth. It is a necessity for any serious Sonic Youth fan to add to his or her collection because in addition to the great videos, Thurston, Kim and the gang make appearances everywhere on the DVD. Each of the 23 videos comes accompanied by a band commentary, and sometimes even a director’s commentary, or recollections by someone who starred in the video. This, plus the generous collection of bonus interviews, documentaries, and music videos should gratify anyone who has followed the band for years. But I would argue additionally that the DVD is also important for virtually anyone who is interested in underground music, independent film, contemporary art, subversive fashion, or youth subculture in general, because it provides a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of an unparalleled group of visionaries who managed to make a career out of doing exactly what they wanted with the people they wanted in the way that they wanted, and almost always with positive results.
What makes the Corporate Ghosts DVD so special and worth watching over and over gets right to the heart of what makes Sonic Youth as a band so incredible. Somewhere between the videos, the music and the commentary, the DVD manages to capture the group’s innovative and collaborative spirit. Their seemingly never-ending stream of new ideas and their enthusiasm for working with other musicians, artists, and filmmakers to help them achieve their vision is a force all its own. One gets the feeling of the members of Sonic Youth are at the center of a large and very talented family, where individuals from all over the creative map trade ideas and skills to create a product that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. It is an important method to take note of because it is not limited to the way the band makes their videos. Rather this alchemistic approach informs everything that the band or its members touch, perpetuating their relevance long after lesser talents would have run out of ideas.
The list of directors that worked on the videos for Corporate Ghosts is like a who’s who for independent or experimental film in the late 1990’s. Tamra Davis, Spike Jonze, Richard Kern, Harmony Korine, David Markey, Lance Bangs and Todd Haynes all have at least one video in the collection, and the list of guest musicians, actors, and artists that make appearances in the videos is even longer, including such disparate characters as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, skater-turned-actor Jason Lee, and a young Sofia Coppola miming a hilariously exaggerated Joan Crawford.
The DVD’s title Corporate Ghosts is a cheeky nod to the fact the seven records the band released during this time were put out after the band had made the jump out of the indie pond to “major label” DGC/Geffen. There is even a little blurb on the back of the DVD where the band points out that the videos are all major-label produced and makes a tongue-in-cheek promise to release a “pre-sellout, independent” compilation of videos sometime in the future. It soon becomes clear however, after actually watching some of the videos made for 1990’s album Goo that though major-label dollars may have been available, that the deciding factor in each video’s success is decidedly not the amount of money behind it. While the stylized finish of the Todd Haynes-directed “Diappearer” video is certainly more visually impressive than the highly conceptual low-budget accompaniment to “Dirty Boots”, it is no less inspired. In fact, the grungy teenage love story that provides the emotional center for the “Dirty Boots” video seems sweetly poignant now, a nostalgic look at what was then a still burgeoning grunge scene about to explode. Other standouts include an attempt to cross the genres of white punk and hip-hop in “Kool Thing”, an impish Kathleen Hanna dancing between clips from a soft-focus dream sequence in “Bull in the Heather”, and a tuxedo-clad Thurston Moore crooning coyly into a gold microphone for “Superstar”, a cover of a Carpenter’s song.
The video also comes loaded with special features that include some hilarious fan-made videos and an astonishing home video of a teenage fan painting her wall to look like the cover art from Goo. There’s also a documentary-style video directed by Lance Bangs entitled “Sonic Spiel’ which features monologues from a smattering of the filmmakers and fellow musicians involved with the videos tied together with a collection of nostalgic musings courtesy of a rambling Mike Watt. And for the more obsessive-compulsive among the Sonic Youth fan base, there is even a tool called a “Personal Playlists” where you can arrange the videos to play in exactly the order you program it to.