Billie Eilish v. Kim Gordon - Who Wore It Better?
Written by Maya Kotomori
This title is clickbait. I have no authorly will to pit two women against each other – a sin in this century’s former years’ unofficial feminist scripture. My general desire, instead, is to consider how these two women show a bond of sisterhood – a virtue from a different page of the same feminist scripture. In thinking about feminism and women, time and place, I think about Billie Eilish and Kim Gordon (yes, respectively).
I remember reading this quote from Billie earlier this year, and decided to ignore it at risk of deep frying my brain. Don’t get me wrong – Billie is great. I consider “bad guy” an objectively amazing feat in minimalist music production and frequently scream “when the party’s over” when the party is over. I really want to like Billie. That being said:
“‘Just because the story isn't real doesn't mean it can't be important,’ she said. ‘There's a difference between lying in a song and writing a story. There are tons of songs where people are just lying.’” Vogue March 2020
“‘There's a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap,’ she continued. ‘It's like, 'I got my AK-47, and I'm f---ing,' and I'm like, what? You don't have a gun. 'And all my b----es,' I'm like, which b----es? That's posturing, and that's not what I'm doing.’”
It’s unproductive to parse out the specific rights and wrongs in what celebrities do and say, purely on the basis that as the audience, we are not privy to the multitude of factors at play behind the scenes that contextualize what we see. This is the power dynamic of performer-spectator that resides with celebrity-audience – we are given a canned version of the person themselves. That’s the point, though: this power dynamic is how Billie is able to perform whatever she wants and remain famous, and unproblematized by the media circus.
Billie is 18, so the reaction surrounding this quote either defended what came off as ignorance as a consequence of her youth, or villainized her on the same basis as an irresponsible teen with too much power. Can we think about a third answer for a moment? My umbrage with Billie’s quote has nothing to do with obsessing over a teenage celebrity’s opinions, and everything to do with the subtext. Effectively, Billie’s words attempt to distinguish herself from rappers by comparison – so as to say there’s nothing wrong with fantasy, except for when that fantasy involves “guns, drugs, and bitches.” To Billie, that’s “posturing.” Ironically, there are many ways we, as the audience, can interpret Billie’s own aesthetic as posturing, as she borrows from the same rappers she vaguely accuses.
In fact, when people began voicing qualms about Billie’s looks, she very conveniently clapped back with an official statement about how she dresses the way she dresses to avoid criticism for her body, followed by previews of a conveniently-timed Calvin Klein Ad. Before continuing I would like to give a huge shout out to Ms. Eyelash’s PR team. Using feminism to overshadow racism, groundbreaking.
Billie knows how she looks, and what codified meanings those looks have in the rap/hip-hop communities she borrows from. This adds another layer onto the subtext – one that, to me, clearly says “I dress like a rapper, but ironically. I use fantasy, but I don’t lie. I choose to look like them, but I couldn’t be them.
Instead of pointing out the “them,” I’ll move to Kim Gordon – one of my favorite cultural female figures of all time. Her band, Sonic Youth, lives in mainstream iconography for a multitude of reasons, such as their Goo (1990) album cover, which to this day is one of the most eponymous band tee shirts next to the likes of Nirvana and Dead Kennedys. The breakout single on Goo was the famous tune ‘Kool Thing,’ which Kim Gordon herself described as a sort of fan letter to celebrity obsession and aspiration.
Many moons ago in early quarantine, I picked up a limited-edition copy of Is It My Body? Selected Texts by Kim Gordon. Edited by Branden W. Joseph, Is It My Body? is a collection of Kim’s critical works and art separate from Sonic Youth, containing several interviews of her personal experiences on tour that aren’t detailed in her memoir Girl in A Band. I was introduced to Sonic Youth by way of ‘Kool Thing’ – it was the only song I’d heard at 13 that directly asked for freedom “from male, white corporate oppression.”
Before reading Girl in A Band (which I definitely pre-ordered from Barnes and Noble), I found and downloaded an issue from 1989 of Spin Magazine from Tumblr – the very edition fabled to have spurred ‘Kool Thing.’ Kim’s contribution to the issue was a painful-to-read interview with L.L Cool J – the two seemed to have no chemistry. I was worried that readers of the interview who aligned on the left would herald Kim as a white-knight-slayer-of-misogynists while taking Cool J’s casual statements about women’s subservience seriously, rather than in jest, because he is a black man.
The music video introduced a new context, with Kim holding a Black cat, juxtaposing Sonic Youth performing in a silver room with Black people walking down the street. What did Chuck D’s feature on the song mean, was he L.L Cool J? What was ‘Kool Thing’ really saying? I didn’t know and that killed me, especially as someone Black like L.L and weird like Kim.
In true post-modern fashion, Kim had a point that took age, Kafka, and an interview in Is It My Body? between her and contemporary artist and long-time friend, Mike Kelly, for me to understand. Originally published in November, 1991 for FAMA AND FORTUNE FANZINE, the two candidly hold a conversation about Kool Thing, and the music video.
MK: How would you respond to people who have trouble with the “Kool Thing” videotape, in the way blacks were used in it? Have you gotten any trouble from that?
KG: In what way? The interracial thing, or that it’s exploitive?
MK: Where the blacks are depicted as cultural others, as sexy dangerous things. I could see some people in the black community having trouble with that.
KG: I suppose black people could see that tape and say: “That is the way white people see us – as objects.” We were very careful to make sure that everyone looked good – the way they were photographed. It was deliberate that there were a lot of angles, like when the camera was down low, looking up at the black dude making him look regal. It has disturbed me that, in reviews of the song, people don’t get that I am not talking to Chuck D (Chuck D is a member of the rap group Public Enemy; he makes a minor vocal appearance in the song “Kool Thing”), but that I’m talking to a third person. Chuck D is just there as himself – reinforcing what I’m saying.
MK: Did Chuck D see the tape?
KG: I don’t know if he’s actually seen the tape. Probably not. Busy man. But if the song makes people feel uncomfortable or question anything, I think that’s good – even if they do misconstrue it. I wanted it to be ambiguous as to who was saying “I don’t want to” in the song. Was it the girl, or was it the guy saying “I don’t want anything to do with you, white bitch.” One of the problems with the video is how do you keep things ambiguous.
MK: It tends to break things down into particular roles. ~To be proactively annoying, I’m going to call ‘Kool Thing’ a metacritique clumsily strung up by Kim Gordon within the range of acceptable human error. The song is what it always was intended to be – a ballad of obsession between the imagined ‘kool’ and the unattainable thing. “‘I tried to make the article [from Spin] show how elite and small the downtown scene that I come out of is. I was trying to make fun of myself. I don’t know if that came across.’” Kim Gordon 1991It didn’t, Kimberly. Juxtaposing your white alternative band singing wantonly in a wall-to-wall silver Warhol-esque room and clips of Black people looking “regal” doesn’t capture the breadth of the idea behind Kool Thing. Visually, Sonic Youth is made to look cool, and the Black people are made to look Black. Is the audience supposed to have your same level of introspection, Kim? Are they supposed to be let in on this self-deprecating inside joke, or is this a members only type of deal, where you only get it if you’ve read the L.L interview? So what does ‘Kool Thing’ have to do with Billie Eilish? There are racialized subtexts to everything, and those things become more blatant and personal if you find yourself Black in these situations. Billie could know exactly what she’s saying. It could be as thought out of a metacritique as ‘Kool Thing’ that just fell flat in execution. We may never know in the same ways we will never know every intimate detail of every celebrity’s life that we lay spectator to. No need in trying to justify that which needs no justification – we feed this monster of an idea, along with trying to slay it with a large blade.When white women get heat for doing something within the general scope of their privileged positions, their white guilt becomes an excuse. No, Billie didn’t mean it, she’s avoiding criticism of her body because, you know, she’s a woman. No, Kim Gordon didn’t mean it, you just don’t get it. It’s not a matter of active, conscious violence against Black people in this way, it’s about the passive violence that leaves room for do-overs and apologies and PR stunts that don’t seek to address the root of the problem.This isn’t a call to cancel Billie Eilish or Kim Gordon, because it simultaneously is and isn’t that deep. Cultural figures unfairly become vessels for assholes like me, who feel some sort of analytical ownership over their pasts so I can write things like this for my own betterment. That doesn’t make any point that has been made less true. There’s a fine line that separates critical thinking and pettiness. There isn’t a problem with either, but this is a scenario where foods shouldn’t touch. Let’s avoid the whole “you’ve got petty in my bowl of critical thinking!” debacle, shall we?