Late one Sunday night in 1992, a senior representative from America's musical underground snatched the keys to MTV. (Gather around, children, and imagine a time when the channel spent more time playing videos than it did prodding college dropouts to flirt with reality-show MILFs.) Even though Thurston Moore was guest-hosting the channel's dedicated "alternative" block of programming, he wasted no time taking the show in a stranger direction than ever before—improvising a live piece with an up-and-coming, self-proclaimed "loser" named Beck and playing a ratty VHS recording of the Japanese noise freak Masonna (as opposed to the channel's more Material freak). The only reason such a left-field happening was allowed, per the bylaws of corporate entertainment, was because someone, somewhere, believed that Moore's longtime band, Sonic Youth, might be the next big thing. After all, it was Sonic Youth who had encouraged Nirvana to sign a major-label contract with David Geffen. Once Kurt Cobain had repaid the favor by constantly name-checking his elders, it was as if the gaggle of industry bigwigs who hadn't understood Nirvana's rise anyway threw up their hands and said, might as well try making these guys go gold: shoot some videos, do MTV—you know, the works.
The business plan failed. Not a single album featuring Sonic Youth's odd guitar tunings, sinuous rhythms and neo-Beat lyrics has ever sold 500,000 copies. Dirty, from 1993, came closest, moving more than 300,000 units—and that was in the best of record-buying times. Shed no tears for the Youth, though. At this point, even the Library of Congress is hip to the band, acquiring its 1988 classic, Daydream Nation, for its archives of the country's most historically significant music. Looking back, it's possible to see the lack of a chart-busting breakthrough as longevity's enabler: no ubiquitous pop hit to follow up (or to live down, in the indie world). Sonic Youth's latest slab of distortion-laced beauty, The Eternal, is unusually notable because it is the band's first record for an independent label in two decades. This doesn't wind up meaning much esthetically. Sonic Youth was not in need of a creative rebirth, since its previous three records for Geffen firmly established the band's third decade of relevance in the rock game. What the move to Matador Records does signify is a renunciation of the corporate-music model, of going after the gold sales ring. As a result, the retrenchment behind indie lines is more the mainstream's loss than it is Sonic Youth's. So while industry watchers prefer to fret over the declining sales power of Britney Spears's comeback records, the rest of us should be more concerned about what happens when art music sends fewer and fewer ambassadors to the straight world.
It's not difficult to identify a consequence of this phenomenon; contemporary composers and performers become increasingly easy punch lines. Experimental music has long inspired sniping, often from reactionaries. But anti-avant chuckling is no longer limited to the establishment. The upcoming indie comedy Untitled, is, per its press materials, "a wicked sendup of the contemporary art world and avant-garde music scene." (Way to stomp on your own, indie-film guys.) As is so often the case, we can look to Stephen Colbert's on-air alter ego for a distillation of anti-intellectual thundering. In recent years, Colbert has made sport of both composer Steve Reich (a Pulitzer Prize winner whose music Sonic Youth has recorded) and John Zorn (a MacArthur-winning, sometime improviser with Moore) by cherry-picking the most cacophonous selections from their honored works. "That is what I call head-banger music," Colbert said of a Reich piece, "in that it was clearly written by someone banging their head against a piano." But when Colbert's très-hip audience laughs, it doesn't do so with the same delighted knowingness with which it responds to parodies of Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly. They laugh simply because weird music sounds funny, reinforcing the canard of contemporary "serious" music as unlistenable dreck.
And there's the rub. While Sonic Youth never lusted hard after fame for fame's sake, its entire history has been an attempt to remake the culture. There's a line about how the Velvet Underground didn't attract many fans early on, but everyone who "got it" started their own band. You could say the same thing about Sonic Youth's catalyzing effect on listeners. Anyone who appreciates the group has had his or her sonic palette broadened considerably, to a point that admits enjoyment of free-jazz improvisation, the "extended techniques" of instrumental performance in modern classical music and other subterranean musical byways. As much as Sonic Youth ever has a megaphone, the band uses it to promote the works of others—a trend that continues. Two songs on The Eternal are dedicated to artists: poet Gregory Corso and Germs singer Darby Crash. Visit the band members in their studio or at their homes, and you'll soon be opening books chronicling museum shows, having obscure LPs and CDs pressed upon you or meeting a dog named after another Japanese noise artist. (That would be Merzbow, an Australian shepherd who belongs to Moore and his bandmate-wife, Kim Gordon.) Though they may have readied themselves to make a smaller commercial impact, there is a slightly resigned quality to the back end—a lingering echo of their desire to recontextualize the popular, by virtue of their very existence along its margins. Drinking tea, the otherwise serene guitarist and singer Lee Ranaldo recounts with slight annoyance the story of a lunch he, his wife and a couple of dozen others had with the Dalai Lama recently. After asking what he did for a living, the guest sitting next to Ranaldo said, "I've heard of you, but I haven't heard your music." This blade of a phrase—the double-edged kind that carries both the compliment of recognition and the sting of no opinion—has cut each member of Sonic Youth more than a few times. Asked if she thinks the band, now in its 28th year, will live to see an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, singer-guitarist Gordon says, "Maybe, when hell freezes over."
If, circa 2009, Sonic Youth is being invited less and less frequently to participate in the mainstream world, it's more than making up for it on the other side of the equation. The band recently collaborated with choreographer Merce Cunningham on a piece for his 90th birthday, which premiered to a packed house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Two weeks later, three members headlined the decidedly non-song-based No Fun Fest, which attracts disciples of noise music from all over the country. Earlier this spring, Sonic Youth played for a crowd of 8,000 in Chile. It's clear that the group has very little to prove, even if it never goes gold. On new songs like "Anti-Orgasm," the band moves with ease from rock-hero vibrato lead lines to abstract guitar interludes that ring out with the discordance and authority of perverted church bells. Best, perhaps, is how fun and alive (and yes, Youth-ful) this crew of 50-somethings manages to sound, and how free of pretension. Too bad America can't find half a million people willing to throw down a few bucks to make the record an honest-to-goodness hit.