Rage rap's half-life, Pittsburgh's racism, Gen-X fogies: Kim Gordon's show spurred these 10 thoughts

The Sonic Youth co-founder brought her rage rap-influenced music to Pittsburgh, a city where young rap fans are rarely allowed to rage.

Rage rap's half-life, Pittsburgh's racism, Gen-X fogies: Kim Gordon's show spurred these 10 thoughts

I saw Kim Gordon play Pittsburgh the other night (June 15th). It was my first time seeing her, and I was too young to see Sonic Youth during the twilight of their career, so it was my first time seeing a member of that band perform, too. My attendance at the gig was extra-special because it was an anniversary outing with my girlfriend (d'awh), who hadn't heard a single note of Gordon's solo music prior to stepping foot in the venue. She wanted to go in blind. For what it's worth, I don't think I've ever listened to Gordon's 2019 solo LP, No Home Record, but I enjoyed her album from earlier this year, The Collective, and that's most of what she played from the other night, anyways.

Gordon has a pretty substantial relationship with Pittsburgh. Back in 2019, she had an audio-visual exhibition displayed at the Andy Warhol Museum here (Warhol is from Pittsburgh, to the non-PGH'ers reading this), and the only other time she performed solo in the city was for that exhibit's opening night, several months before No Home Record was released. This time, her and her band played Mr. Smalls Theatre, and the 800-cap venue was comfortably not sold out (that venue sucks when it's full), but still stuffed with enough Gordon fans of all ages to make it feel like a successful event.

About halfway through the opening set by experimental musicians Bill Nace (one-half of Gordon's other band, Body/Head) and Aaron Dilloway, I decided that I was going to write a "review" of the gig. Below, are 10 thoughts on what I saw and heard while standing just a few rows back from the stage Gordon occupied.

1) "This is bad-ass." That's what I whisper-yelled in my girlfriend's ear about two-thirds of the way into Nace and Dilloway's set. The duo played, or rather summoned, a patchwork of experimental compositions that encompassed serene drones and chest-punching gales of noise. Dilloway sat a table full of gizmos that sometimes sounded like pedal-controlled feedback, and other times like a receipt printer pushed through reverb. During one of many sustained climaxes, Dilloway shook like a wrongfully accused suspect who was three hours deep into a back-room interrogation; his leg thumped violently and he ran his hand through his thin hair, not out of sweat-wiping practicality, but because he was palpably overstimulated by the piercing sounds billowing out of the surrounding amplifiers.

Dilloway's table obstructed my view of Nace, but he seemed to be playing an electrified plank of some kind. My god, the sounds were utterly tremendous. The kind of music I don't find myself seeking out for home listening very often, but have certainly enjoyed live in warehouses and art spaces around Pittsburgh. Experimental music of this variety is rarely afforded the opportunity to be performed in professional venues of that size, so it was a real treat to hear Nace and Dilloway's sounds blown up to such a staggering scale. My girlfriend liked it, too!

2) Gordon could've gotten anyone she wanted to open this tour, but I sense she selected those guys for two reasons 1. She's friends and collaborators with them, and 2. She thought it would be hilariously entertaining to watch her fans squirm through 45 minutes of abstract racket before she took the stage. I entered the venue behind a somewhat awkward Gen-X guy in a Sonic Youth Goo shirt, which simply strikes me as the wrong thing to wear to a Gordon solo show. During Nace and Dilloway's performance, I had to turn around and shoot some other old fogies a death stare for bellowing about their car dealership troubles before the song had even crescendo'd beyond a murmur. In between Gordon's songs, I heard men "ow!" and "yeaaaah!" like zoo animals, blurting out song requests as I winced in preparation for an over-the-line jeer (luckily, I never heard one).

Those kinds of guys (Gen-X Sonic Youth fans) unsurprisingly made up a large portion of the crowd, and I took great pleasure in spinning around and watching their confused stares during Nace and Dilloway's set. People who never would've lasted the night in any of the no-wave lofts Sonic Youth cut their teeth in, which Gordon was subtly calling back to in her choice to have Nace and Dilloway up there weaving commotion.

3) After a series of technical difficulties with the projector screen that delayed her intro by 10 minutes, Gordon eventually strolled out onstage with her backing band. She was wearing a maroon button-down shirt, mesh running shorts, and big boots. It was an awesome fit. Her bandmates were three, somewhat androgynous musicians — a drummer, a bassist-programmer, and a guitarist — whose collective ages might've added up to be less than Gordon's. They were all extremely tight and talented, especially the drummer, who made sure that we felt the full force of The Collective's window-rattling percussion throughout the whole set.

4) The Collective, particularly its ominously throbbing opener "BYE BYE," which Gordon introed and outroed the show with (power move), is notable for its unexpected incorporation of rage rap. The 2020s-era sub-genre — made almost exclusively by Gen-Z rappers and producers —is typified by wind-knocking bass, speaker-wrecking drum distortion, neon quasar synths, and hyper-aggressive vocal deliveries that blur Chief Keef's percussive ad-libs with Future's slurred auto-croons. The style was codified by Atlanta trailblazer Playboi Carti on his bracing 2020 masterpiece, Whole Lotta Red, an album that I'd wager 95 percent of Gordon's Pittsburgh audience had never even heard. In the years since that landmark album dropped, rage has been further popularized by artists like Yeat — a Portland white dude who's studiously absorbed the Atlanta cadences of Future, Young Thug, and Playboi Carti, and released some great (and not great) variations on WLR — and other Carti apprentices like Ken Carson and Destroy Lonely.

Save for Carti (who's now a wisened 28), all of these artists are in their early 20s, and none of them are in any way associated with the musical worlds that Gordon has moved in throughout her decades-long career. It was extremely peculiar, bold, and honestly quite humorous that Gordon, the 71-year-old maestro of Gen-X indie cool that she is, decided to put her outré spin on a style of music that's almost exclusively loved by Gen-Z teens. It's even funnier – and cooler — that she then played the entire album front to back on this tour, unflinchingly treating her audience of (mostly) 35-and-up indie-rock fans to 40 straight minutes of rage-rap/noise-pop crossover music. No one's ever done that before.

5) From what I could tell, the people around me were genuinely enjoying the show the whole time. I didn't actually see anyone who was visibly turned off by the sounds coming off of the stage, but I did see a 50-something couple dash out of the crowd as soon as Gordon started retreating, their frantic faces projecting their disinterest in sticking around for the encore. If I had to guess, I'm sure a good portion of that crowd was, at the very least, mildly perplexed by Gordon's new direction. Maybe even more puzzled than they were by Nace and Dilloway's set. In a way, Gordon's embrace of contemporary, ultra-digital rap sounds is more "experimental," more challenging to her listeners, than dropping a tape of harsh noise would be. Even if I don't think The Collective hits the mark on every track, I have so much respect for Gordon for skirting her audience's expectations with a record like that.

6) All that said, as I was watching her play "BYE BYE," I couldn't help but recognize that I was witnessing a form of music —rage, albeit a rock-ified version of it — being brought to Pittsburgh via Kim Gordon, not the actual pioneers of the style. Yeat has never come here. Playboi Carti and his Opium label collective (Ken Carson, Destroy Lonely, and Homixide Gang, who altogether make up the nucleus of rage) were supposed to play Pittsburgh in 2023, but Carti has twice postponed the tour. Since then, Carti's new singles have drifted away from rage, and the style has been cringily gentrified by ian, a white boy from suburban Texas who's become wildly popular for dressing rage tropes up in Vineyard Vines attire.

As Pitchfork's Alphonse Pierre wrote of ian's vacant-sounding and smugly-titled new mixtape, Valedictorian, "it's making a joke out of the music and culture it’s trying to swagger-jack." Now that someone like ian's captured the limelight, rage might be cooked. It probably peaked sometime in 2023 and is now being usurped by other emerging rap styles, and outside of one Carti show in late 2021, young rap fans in Pittsburgh, a city that historically left out of the national rap zeitgeist, never got the chance to properly rage to it.

Once this thought crossed my mind during Gordon's show, that I was witnessing a distinctly youth-driven form of modern Black music (with a significant white audience, including myself of course) being reinterpreted by a 71-year-old white woman in a room of 45-year-olds who couldn't name one Playboi Carti song, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I might've even thought about it a little too much. At one point, I was watching Gordon belt out an auto-tuned warble over booming bass while a swirl of purple electrical currents projected on the screen behind her. The exact shade of purple that Future used to emblazon his codeine-inspired epic, DS2, which contains a song called "I Serve the Bass" that writer Kieran Press-Reynolds recently located as an origin point of rage.

Was this fleeting audio-visual sync-up intentional? Hard to say, but probably not. Did anyone else in the venue notice it? Probably not. What does it mean for rage — a style of rap that was pioneered by Black artists and then quickly regurgitated by white ones, who've since turned it into a cheap TikTok bit — that it's now being tacitly referenced by artists like Gordon? And then performed in a city like Pittsburgh, which has been characterized as "one of the worst cities in America" for Black women to live. A city where Beyonce's 2023 show was canceled (likely due to poor ticket sales), while Morgan Wallen filled PNC Park on back-to-back nights that same month.

I'm not accusing Gordon of appropriation or arguing that she's doing anything wrong by incorporating a popular, innovative form of music into her own. It was the setting of her performance that struck me. Pittsburgh, despite a longstanding ecosystem of local talent, has had a fraught relationship with rap music over the last near-decade. Young, popular rappers who tour the U.S. usually skip over Pittsburgh, whereas country, boomer-rock, and indie-rock artists see it as a first-rate market. I moved here just a year before Pittsburgh's last burgeoning rap star, Jimmy Wopo, was tragically killed (he was 21), and two months later Mac Miller passed. From my vantage point, it's not been easy to feel in-touch with the rap zeitgeist while living in Pittsburgh.

I couldn't help but think about that while I watched Gordon deadpan over rage beats at a venue in a former sundown town that's almost never booked rap shows in the seven years that I've lived here. It almost felt like I was benefitting from a strange form of privilege to be able to hear these sounds in Pittsburgh, just a couple miles away from where teen rappers were arrested in the middle of their music video shoot back in 2021. Nothing new here; jazz, blues, dub, house, and every other iteration of rap have all been subsumed by white artists, lauded by white audiences, and rewarded by white industry institutions, while the Black originators are left outside the cultural gates to face the elements and continue fighting for their survival in a world that wants them erased. I guess the booming bass of "BYE BYE" reminded me, a white music fan who's afforded the convenience of not having to live with this stuff hanging over me at all times, of that unjust reality.

7) To be clear, Gordon's flavor of rage is not like the others. On "BYE BYE," especially, her classic talk-sing delivery makes her sound coolly detached from the bassy blitzkrieg going on around her. Unlike the demonically possessed screams of Playboi Carti or the boastful wails of Ken Carson, Gordon calmly recites her to-do list in preparation for a flight out of town; "Ear plugs, travel shampoo, conditioner/Eyeliner, dental floss, money for the cleaners," she intones, forming the faint outline of a melody with her curled inflections. Gordon's been toying with the contrast between impassive vocals and instrumental maelstroms since the early days of Sonic Youth, and The Collective is just her latest experiment with that dynamic.

8) Her movements onstage only accentuated the friction between what her band played and how her voice sounded. For most of the show, she stood rigidly in front of a music stand that held a small booklet of The Collective's lyrics. At first, I thought it might've been there as a mere prop, but Gordon was visibly reading off the sheet throughout the whole set, singing while glancing down like a student who threw together their Power Point presentation five minutes before class started.

Was it that Gordon couldn't have been bothered to learn the words before this tour? Or that by intentionally not knowing them, it forced her to remain statically fixed behind the stand while her bandmates rocked out sweatily, a stylistic choice that furthered the dichotomy between her presence and the music. My guess is the latter. Especially since the video montage frequently returned to footage of Gordon and her bandmates practicing in a sunlit rehearsal room, exposing the seams of their production and cryptically cracking the fourth wall of the whole quixotic affair.

9) The specter of Sonic Youth was unavoidable throughout the night, but not in the ways I would've expected. For all their whoops and hollers, I didn't hear any of Gordon's loudest fans specifically reference that band, and the show itself was its own thing entirely. Gordon appeared most "natural" when she grabbed her guitar and knelt beside the mic stand, using her whammy bar to plunge her guitar for noise. When she did that, my mind naturally wandered in the direction of her former band. Meanwhile, the first time she moved from behind the lyrics booklet was during a brief passage of untreated rock that reminded me of the way SY's "I Wanna Be Yr. Dog" cover comes ripping through the mix on Confusion Is Sex. It seemed to wake something up in Gordon, as if the mere sound of a distortion pedal clicking on gave her an extra spring in her step.

Gordon appeared most comfortable onstage during moments like that, particularly the SY-esque No Home Record cut "Air BnB." She strode to the far corner of stage right for that song, planting her feet and striking a rawkish pose with her free arm while confidently holding the mic to her face with the other. Her performance style was authentically nonchalant. It didn't feel like she was trying to "put on a show" or exude extraneous effort to prove that she's still "got it" at 71, or whatever. She didn't have to be up there if she didn't want to be. Without question, she wanted to be, and without question, she was doing it on her own terms.

10) I thought it was a great time. My girlfriend had a great time. Did everyone else in that room have a great time? How many people in there were trying to tell themselves they enjoyed the show instead of admitting that they maybe didn't fully get what she was going for? The sound of The Collective is probably pretty isolating to old-school Sonic Youth fans, or even the average "experimental rock" fan. Just based on the appearances of the people in that venue, I doubt even 10% of them know who Yeat is, let alone have even a surface-level understanding of rage-rap's context.

I don't think that context is a necessary prerequisite to enjoying The Collective, but I do think a big portion of the album's sound is going over your head if you don't clock how peculiar it is for someone like Gordon to be re-interpreting that style within her own framework. You could argue that all art is a conversation between its influences, and therefore we're all constantly consuming art without seeing the layers unraveled before us. But Gordon, specifically, is a musician who people have certain expectations for. Her post-Sonic Youth work will always be held up in comparison to what she did with that band, and so I think a stark pivot like The Collective has the potential to incite a more extreme reaction from her fanbase than it would if she was a less established artist who suddenly began fucking with rage.

At her show the other night, it was the audience's sedated reaction that felt extreme. There were no mosh pits, as is custom at rage shows. People were lightly bopping from side to side, but I didn't see any actual dancing or movement with any inertia. When the haunting piano plunks and ravaging bass of "BYE BYE" kicked in for its second go-around, I don't even think the people around me noticed that she was replaying the song she came out with. Their faces were dazed. Their eyes squinty. Their lower backs aching. Their knees buckled. The room was rage-less.

"Sleeping pills, sneakers, boots, black dress," Gordon muttered while the drums pounded. I thought about how Lil Uzi Vert has never played Pittsburgh.