Sonic Youth, "Sonic Nurse" (2004)
Sonic Youth's new album uses nursing imagery to explore troubling aspects of women's lives, perhaps seeing the profession as a busy intersection on the boulevard of broken female dreams. "Sonic Nurse" features Richard Prince's controversial nurse paintings as cover art, and even builds a key song around one, "Dude Ranch Nurse." Nurses who have problems with Prince's ironic pop art paintings may have similar concerns with this influential alternative band's record. But its mix of elusive lyrics, pop elements and standard guitar noise may actually be a somewhat more thoughtful treatment of nursing.
The Prince influence isn't exactly hard to spot. The "Sonic Nurse" CD package art consists of five full size images of the artist's nurse paintings, including "Dude Ranch Nurse" and "New England Nurse," as well as a Prince photo of the band standing in front of two more paintings. Prince's works show pulp novel images of nurses in white paint-blob masks and surround them with bold, often threatening color. Some nurses found these paintings to be an interesting commentary on popular misconceptions and nursing's disempowerment. Others saw them as a flippant propagation of bad stereotypes. See more about Richard Prince paintings in our review.
Obviously the album's title is a play on the titles of the paintings and the band's name, but it may also suggest that the band and other artists are not unlike nurses. Both may be said to assess a given environment and, in some sense, intervene. This idea does not seem to be addressed overtly, but it's clear that the band is concerned with what's going on in society. It's not just that they want to shed light on current issues, as in "Peace Attack," which seems to offer a critical take on the recent invasion of Iraq. When it comes to weary women making bad decisions, especially about men, the band can be a lot more specific. In "Pattern Recognition," the pioneering female rock icon Kim Gordon asks in a deadpan singsong: "Can you sell me yesterday's girl? / Because every day I feel more like her / Oh baby baby, please don't go / Pattern recognition is kind of slow."
Other songs respond to female problems with blunt, protective advice. The touching "Unmade Bed" (listen to a sample) sung by Gordon's husband Thurston Moore, quietly urges someone to think twice before letting a vaguely menacing "loser" back into her life: "Will you take your time before you mix up love and pain?" And the harsh-rocking "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream," (listen to a sample) which is addressed to a post-breakdown Mariah Carey, reflects the band's enduring interest in messed up female pop stars. Here they manage to be funny and nasty, yet sympathetic, as Gordon zeroes in on the star's sexually-oriented self-promotion and offers some safety tips: "Hey hey little baby get down / Before you fall and hurt someone." Specifically, Gordon also suggests, in her downtown croak: "Maybe you need an emo boy." (For the uninitiated, "emo" is basically an "emotional" and often depressive alt-rock genre with roots in punk.)
Not content to merely act as "sonic nurses," the band takes a stab at putting one of Prince's paintings to words and music. The title of this song, "Dude Ranch Nurse," (listen to a sample) seems to have originated with a 1953 Cherry Ames novel, one in a series of nursing adventures aimed at school girls during World War II and the ensuing decades. The band's lyrics, delivered by a deadpan Gordon over catchy guitar figures, form a series of eerie images that seem to encapsulate some of the Prince paintings' themes. Even though the "dude ranch dream has fallen apart," the singer admits that "I could love him." Nursing is everywhere: "Stolen kisses, let's pretend my friend / You play sick and I will mend / Let the action begin again, my friend / You be patient and I'll attend." And: "Let nurse give you a shot / It's something to do." Well, it certainly is. Seeming to compare her relationship to a "newborn colt we found" ("I wrap it around with gauze"), the singer suggests: "You be cowboy and I'll allow / Let me ride you till you fall."
This "nurse" responds to a man's world (the dude ranch) with a show of caring, seduction, domination, and alienation, though not, it seems, submission or fear--a key difference from the vulnerable, gagged figures in some of the Prince paintings. Do some women react to male power with an unholy blend of angel, sadist and naughty nurse stereotypes? Does this suggest that nursing itself breeds psychotic or even sociopathic behavior, as in Stephen King's "Misery?" Or is it all just a kinky love game, as the singer and her "friend" play nurse? Here the band is probably more interested in male/female relations, as reflected in pop imagery, than in making any statement about how nursing really is. And the rest of the record seems to actually identify with nursing in some way. However, while this song may offer listeners a new way to look at the situation of women, the same probably cannot be said for nurses, most of whom have had enough of seeing their profession mixed up with "stolen kisses" in the public imagination.
Whatever its problems, "Dude Ranch Nurse" concludes with a line that--like Prince's white masks--could easily serve as a summary of the nursing image: "Nobody knows the shape I'm in." That being the case, nurses could do worse than to take the album's title to heart, and make some noise.
Listen to samples of the entire album here. (Sonic Youth has their own media player).
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