Listen to this track by experimental rock noise makers from New York City Sonic Youth. It’s “Teen Age Riot”, a breakthrough song from an equally breakthrough record in 1988’s Daydream Nation. This was the release that put the band on the map after having formed a full seven years before.
The band that included singer and guitarist Thurston Moore, bassist and singer Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Renaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley built their sound on their experiments with distortion, re-thinking the traditional structures of rock music and distilling them into their component parts. Then, they added their own elements to those structures true to the American underground DIY approach that was growing steadily by the early eighties. They added in spoken word elements, and tying it all together with a ferocious guitar sound that opened up the possibilities for rock guitar into the 1990s.
But, in the meantime, they had their own reputations to build with alternative radio, pulling from influences that ranged from The Beatles, to Neil Young, to The Minutemen. As experimental as they continued to be by 1988, they also understood that traditional rock structures in a song were traditional for a reason; they resonate with listeners. But, this song goes beyond an embrace of standard structure still.
What Sonic Youth also recognized when it came to songwriting was something that even the earliest architects of rock ‘n’ roll understood; that the best rock songwriting is aspirational and idealistic, because that’s what rock fans value the most. We are a hopeful lot, ultimately. This song is a prime example of how even the most experimental rock song can reflect the same basic idea of taking an unfair world and re-imagining it for ourselves. That’s what a teen age riot is; an imagined age for teens to recreate the world in their own image, free of the complications and agendas of the world of adulthood. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll music has always tried to do, from Chuck Berry’s “School Days”, to The Beach Boys’ “Surf City”, to KISS’ “Rock ‘N Roll All Night”.
This tune offers an additional layer to all of this besides, which is no less than a messianic figure:
Everybody’s coming from the winter vacation
Taking in the sun in a exaltation to you
You come running in on platform shoes
With Marshall stacks
To at least just give us a clue
Ah, here it comes
I know it’s someone I knew
The “someone I knew” is widely known as being Dinosaur, Jr. head boy J Mascis, with this song having once been labeled with the working title “J Mascis For President”. But, really, this shadowy figure in the song could be any that isn’t aligned to the world of the political mainstream, and is rather one that the kids can recognize as one of their own. I think this communicates an important social idea when it comes to youth culture and rock music all around; that youth aren’t interested in self-indulgence and rebellion for their own sake. What they want as much as anyone is leadership that meaningfully represents their experience. By 1988, Marshall stacks were easier to get behind (or in front of!) than Star Wars satellite systems, Cold wars, and Iran-Contra affairs.
In this sense, the idea of rock ‘n’ roll as the music of rebellion takes on new meaning, even if the reality of that in any real political sense didn’t and doesn’t really amount to much. But, what does amount to a lot is the ideals expressed in art that best activate the imaginations of listeners. Songwriting has always been about telling meaningful stories, sometimes about how the world should be as much as about how it actually is. Even if the revolution to which this song alludes never really happened in the political sense, it certainly was indicative of that sense of community that this generation of musicians and their audiences valued so highly. It’s of little wonder why this song is heralded as a forerunner to grunge in the 1990s, which emphasized many of the same things; a yearning for a sense of place, and a dissatisfaction with the lack of it in mainstream culture.
After thirty years of music-making together, Sonic Youth disintegrated in 2011. To get a sense of where their heads were at as a band by 1988, here’s an interview with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley who talk about how they approached songwriting, band dynamics and identity, and their famous talent for texture.