I was a teenager in 1995, when Nice Ass came out, Free Kitten's second album and the first I'd heard about. (I lived in Wyoming and it was the '90s so the information superhighway to my skull was still under construction, sorry 'bout it.) I'd listened to Sonic Youth a lot by then, both their early stuff like Bad Moon Rising procured on used cassette via the one cool tape shop, and their more recent stuff—Washing Machine dropped in '94, I copped on vinyl. At that point, though, I didn't have the background (or the sophistication) to really get most of what they were doing, even though I appreciated their metallic whorls of distortion, so I leaned towards the more melodic stuff and, of course, everything Kim Gordon had a voice on. (Their best songs remain the ones where Gordon is asserting herself the strongest—being the most herself—like the punk sensualism of "Eliminator Jr.," still my favorite Sonic Youth song, or "Tunic (Song for Karen)," which viscerally articulated Karen Carpenter's deep despair.)


Free Kitten made more sense to me than Sonic Youth, what I felt was a very boy-y band despite her presence—or at least, if they weren't boy-y, they were certainly used as a marker of territory by boys who thought they were cooler than I was, but weren't. (This continues today.) I loved aggressive music—definitely needed an outlet for rural-suburban ennui, at the least—but I didn't want to feel more alienated. Despite their downtown free-jazz spoof, to me Free Kitten could be poppier than Bikini Kill or Sonic Youth, which appealed a little better to my sensibilities. But the main reason I liked them was because hearing women's voices in together in this way, was revelatory and liberationist in the way that Salt 'n' Pepa's Black's Magic had been for me four years prior. And like Black's Magic, Nice Ass was explicitly feminist with a sense of knowing, a sense of irony, but also a sense of letting us in on the joke. "Revlon Liberation Orchestra" felt like a secret handshake.

Red Rover, Red Rover let Kim and Julie get over

Makes a statement without saying a word

Like Sylvester without Tweety Bird

Fresh and fruity, soft and sexy

From jump, Kim and Julie were "getting over"—they were pulling a fast one, juking the system, deconstructing perfection via namedrops of cartoon characters and supermodels alike, on the most lo-fi, scratchy, chaotic recording. They threw the mud back, on "Scratch tha DJ" or on "Proper Band" or on "Alan Licked Has Ruined Music For Me," a noisy loop of a song spoofing the style of then-musician and journalist Alan Licht. In retrospect, some of Free Kitten's music is more aligned with her current work in the improv duo Body/Head than Sonic Youth was—it was Gordon, playing music with her friends, unloosed from the pressures that a career band with your husband might impose. To me, it sounded a lot more fun, too.

Free Kitten dropped two more records after Nice Ass—1997's Sentimental Education, and 2008's Inherit, but neither hit me like that first smash of dissonance and bricks. Or maybe it was just my youth, how those first Free Kitten sounds took up spots in my soul like filigree. In her book, Gordon connects those sounds to youth, too. She writes:

In high school, [my daughter] Coco started her own band, Big Nils. On the rare occasion I hear a Free Kitten song somewhere, usually I don't recognize it. I think, "Hey, who is this—Coco?" and then I realize... Oh yeah, right. It's the strangest feeling, rediscovering your own self and, if enough time has gone by, listening to it without hating it. It is sort of like looking at old photos of yourself and realizing you looked pretty good after all.


Her music formed me, and as an adult, her book is equally impactful, in a different, adult way. What's so inspiring about all this, from Free Kitten to now, is that there was never anything about Kim Gordon that is a construct, persona-wise. She was always who she was, and that is what made her the coolest. She talks in Girl in a Band and on a recent Marc Maron podcast about spending her whole life with the self-perception that she was a suburban, square person who was "never gonna be punk rock" like Lydia Lunch, for instance. But it's that suburban, square person coming through that made her even more punk rock than ever—she had something to rebel against. She was never interested in being a rock jesus, trying to pose or put forth a certain persona: it's always been about the integrity of the ideas, the realization of them. Free Kitten's ramshackle unity was a testament to that. That's what makes her a true artist, and a true punk icon. Fuck everybody else.

Contact the author at julianne@jezebel.com.