Confusion Is Sex

excerpts from

Gulliver Speaks

by Greil Marcus

Artforum, Nov. 1983

Negation is not nihilism. Nihilism is the belief in nothing and the wish to become nothing...Negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems.


The burden of Modern art at least since Impressionism has been the production of proofs that the world is not as it seems... Even if restricted to culture, negation can still produce reversals of perspective that can release enormous energies: the will to change life, expressed through cultural acts. Such a negation — performed undisguised as affirmation in a pop context for the first time by the Sex Pistols — has been the source of the continuing re-creation of rock 'n' roll over the last seven years.


The question remains whether pop music still has a burden of negation to communicate. This year I have heard only one record that does: Sonic Youth's Confusion Is Sex (Neutral Records).

In some times, as today, the possibilities of negation can only be revealed through apparent nihilism. This is where Sonic Youth takes up its position. Sonic Youth is a Manhattan guitars-bass-and-drums band that has grown out of the ambitions of post-punk guitarist Glenn Branca...But while Branca, who presents himself as a composer, insists on grandeur, Sonic Youth — the band's name is as corny as its album title — presents itself as ordinary.

A good third of the songs on Confusion Is Sex are orchestrations of isolation. Within the dreamlike texture of the album as a whole, this makes sense. "(She's in a) Bad Mood" (sung by guitarist Thurston Moore), "Protect Me You" (Gordon), and "Confusion Is Next" (Moore) sound like the songs kids make up when they're banished to their rooms. "I am ten years oh-oh-old." chants Gordon. "I main/tain/that chaos/is/the/future and beyond/it/is/freedom," barks Moore. The songs are virtually as primitive as they can be without abandoning music altogether.

This says little more than me me me, albeit with unsettling power. But as a sort of establishing dream-shot, "Bad Mood" and "Protect Me You" set the listener up for the violent move — comming off a high, sustained white-noise tone — to Gordon's "I Wanna Be Your Dog." This song, originally by the Stooges, is a punk reference point — countless bands have played it — and no previous performance comes close to what Gordon does with it. We're heaved into the middle — the recording is live — and we helplessly back away. The desperation Gordon dredges out of this paean to submission (the band, usually wonderfully evocative, is hopelessly trying to keep up with her) is terrifying: in an instant she reverses every socially mediated idea one might have about sex, love, or social intercourse per se. This is a bomb — and its explosion turns the performance toward panic, which may be the rarest emotion one hears on a phonograph record. It is the sort of nightmare the psyche protects the dreamer from remembering the morning after, save for the flashes that distort the whole of the day. It is a found rock 'n' roll object that seizes the finder. The shift info "Shaking Hell" at first seems like a relief: the melody is harsh, but by comparison to "I Wanna Be Your Dog" it's Muzak . Then, once more, Gordon pulls the string. She steps slowly, deliberately, into the sort of nightmare one remembers in every detail. "I'll take off your dress," someone tells her, twice. "I'll shake off your flesh." 'I'll shake off your flesh." 'I'll shake off your flesh—"

Within this unexpected negation (which side two of Confusion is Sex does not match) everything seems new: the most ordinary, everyday act seems like a risk. "I Wanna Be Your Dog" does not come off as a reference point, much less an homage: this music sounds like the very beginning of what it indeed refers to, the Sex Pistols' founding negation, without which it would not exist. It's as if Sonic Youth has gone back to the very beginnings of the process by which the world reveals itself as something other than its advertisement, as if the band has discovered the most marginal no. The negationist, Raoul Vaneigem wrote, is "like Gulliver lying stranded on the Lilliputian shore with every part of his body tied down; determined to free himself, he looks keenly around; the smallest detail of the landscape, the smallest contour of the ground, the slightest movement, everything becomes a sign on which his escape may depend."

The power of Sonic Youth's no will be negligible; few will hear this music. That the spirit of the act is still at work may not be.

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