It is possible in a world of blogs, MySpace pages, and instant music or video delivery to be wildly popular in a very small circle. You can have a YouTube clip that’s been viewed over a million times and still be unknown to most Americans. In a sense, the band Sonic Youth, who are justifiably called pioneers of the “alternative rock” of the 90s, were also pioneers of this keep-the-pond-small approach. The band made its reputation independent of a major record company, though their classic “Daydream Nation” then allowed them to sign to a major label under their own terms. They had minimal “pop chart” success, but sold a healthy amount of records and their concerts were both sell-outs and events.
But in fact, Sonic Youth were important outside rock too – they were visible figures in an even smaller musical pond: the “downtown” arts and music scene in NY in the late 70s and 80s. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, the band’s guitarists, played important roles in the development of a kind of contemporary composed music that involved the language and the instruments of rock.
Since there aren’t many bands today who actually sound like Sonic Youth, the question of their legacy is a slippery one. How do you measure something like a band’s influence? And let’s not forget – this band is still here – still compos mentis, still together, still rockin’ as they hit their 50s. What kind of legacy is that for a rock band???