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A low-budget MTV contest submission proves to be a fitting visual for Sonic Youth's "Swimsuit Issue".
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Watching The Music
By Russell Bartholomee

Video:  “Swimsuit Issue”
Artist:  Sonic Youth
Album: Dirty
Director:  MTV contest winner Phil Morrison
Released: 1992

Available on Corporate Ghost: Videos, 1990-2002 from Universal

I first discovered Sonic Youth later than is cool to admit: when their Butch Vig-produced album Dirty came out in 1992.  I know I risk losing some indie cred by not claiming to have been a fan since Sister or Daydream Nation, but I’m just going to have to risk it.  I saw the video for “100%” on MTV’s “120 Minutes” soon after its release and bought the CD, but while that song and other singles from the record (especially “Sugar Kane”) were very strong, it was one of the album’s lesser-known tracks that really caught my attention and made me appreciate what a great band Sonic Youth could be.

“Swimsuit Issue” is a commentary on sexual harassment in two parts.  In the first section, Kim Gordon sings from the point of view of an executive assistant who is being harassed (and has possibly been raped) by her boss.  She rebukes him bitterly (“I’m just here for dictation.  I’m not your summer vacation”) and reveals that she has shamed him on national television for his offense (“Being on Sixty Minutes—was it worth your fifteen minutes?”).  Appropriately, the music is frantic and angry in the song’s first act.  Reaching a furious climax, the song shifts tempos abruptly into a slow-burning, sinister groove.  At this point, Gordon recites a list of the first names of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue models--one name for each of the eight beats, each name punctuated by stop/start guitars and angry drums.  “Roshumba… Judith… Paulina… Cathy…” the names continue to rattle off, the music mesmerizing, until Kim Gordon coolly releases us from her spell with the nearly whispered chant “Ice Women.” 

The message of the song is clear and powerful: victimization of women can take different forms.  The socially unacceptable first scenario is obvious—no one would defend it.  But the objectification of women on the covers of magazines at the grocery store checkout line is just as offensive (perhaps more, since it is so pervasive).  I heard this song, and was instantly aware that Sonic Youth had something important to say underneath all that noise.

So when the band recently released a collection of videos, Corporate Ghost, I was pleased to find a video for “Swimsuit Issue” included with the bonus features.  Shot in grainy black and white, it is clearly a low-budget production (“no budget” might be more accurate), but it is a fine example of how a video can add layers of meaning to an already exceptional piece of music.

As the music begins, a group of young men in a living room start lighting cigarettes and removing their T-shirts.  The men are all in their twenties, but none of them are especially fit or attractive.  In fact, most are downright flabby.  By the time the song’s lyrics have kicked in, the dozen or so men are mingling at a party.  They are talking, smoking, dancing, joking around with one another, and playing pool.  Between wide shots of the group, we are shown close-ups of parts of each man’s flabby torso.  And when we’re not looking at pudgy men with hairy backs, we’re treated to repeated images of burning cigarettes. As the first part of the song crescendos to its climax, one of the men goes so far as to place his cigarette in his bellybutton, giving the appearance that his gut is doing the smoking.  There is nothing visually appealing about any of this, of course. 

At first, it’s hard not to wonder why anyone would want to look at such an unattractive mass of flesh.  Remember that these are not typical video actors or models.  They’re a bunch of pasty regular guys with pack-a-day habits and stringy hair.  But everything becomes brilliantly clear as the song switches to the litany of Swimsuit Issue models’ names.  As each model’s name is uttered, one of the men saunters towards the camera, as if in a living room fashion show.  They wink and flirt.  They smile and part their lips “seductively.”  They are topless.  The moves are vintage House of Style, and the point is poignantly (and comically) made. 

The treatment of stout, smoking men as pieces of meat is no more acceptable than the same treatment of female coworkers svelte or models.  We should, as a society, be just as repulsed by the victimization of women as we are by the images in the video.  As the music stops and Gordon sings “ice women” for the last time, all that remains on the screen is the image of a dissipating wisp of smoke, the only remaining visual evidence of burned cigarettes.  It’s a reminder that even when the damage done to women is not obvious, the stink still lingers.

There’s one more remarkable thing about the “Swimsuit Issue” video: fans made it.  When Dirty was released, MTV held a Make-Your-Own-Sonic-Youth-Video contest.  “Swimsuit Issue” was the second-place winner.  It may have aired once on MTV (probably in the middle of the night), but it has not been available until now.  In spite of its cinematic shortcomings, it’s become my favorite Sonic Youth video.  It’s provocative and funny, with its skewering of video clichés, and it so deftly gets to the heart of what the song is all about.  Best of all, it was produced by people who were affected by that message in the first place.  The fans got it, and they were able to join in the artistic dialogue with the band they admire.  An album earlier, on “Kool Thing,” Kim Gordon had asked if the title character was “going to liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression.”  It seems the makers of “Swimsuit Issue” were at least willing to try.

 

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